“If we believe absurdities, we shall commit
atrocities” — Voltaire (1694-1778)
The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement
which attempted to replace a religious worldview, based on faith or
knowledge, with a scientific world view which attempted to understand the world through
reason based on evidence and proof. It roots were based on the ideas of
Reformation, the Renaissance, and
the scientific revolutions of the 1600’s.
One of the great themes of the Enlightenment was “No more myths!”
Voltaire’s impassioned cry rang out across the continent: “Remember the cruelties!”. Remember the
cruelties inflicted on people in the name of the mythic god (the hundreds of thousands burned at the stake in
order to save their souls; the Inquisition grotesquely inscribing its dogma on the flesh of the torture
The center of the Enlightenment was France, where it was based in
the salons and culminated in the great Encyclopédie (1751–72). The appeal of the Enlightenment was that
it proposed great simplicities to make men free, equal, and happy. The period of the ‘Age of Reason’
was still largely a society where the ability to read was still considered an enormous accomplishment, where
prosperity bred complacency among the middle classes and that most persons were content to remain in their
place. The early 18th-century was the time of the ancien
regime, a time of bungling politicians, of nobles feeding off the
labors of masses of peasants, of immorality and corruption among Europe's ruling elites.
The proponents of the Enlightenment natively claimed that all the
knowledge that was worth knowing was to simply map the empirical exteriors. The result was, as Ken Wilber astuetly observes,
that “interior depths got collapsed to observable surfaces”...In essence, the Enlightenment rejected art and morals in favor of
mechanistic science (Newton's
Laws of gravity, Kepler's celestial
People began to realize that the formal organization of society no
longer corresponded to its actual functions, ambitions, and needs. Society became “enlightened” in that their
system was becoming decadent. Writers questioned and criticized the discrepancy between form and
function – This does
not match That.
The French Revolution (1789) ended the ancien regime and a century of stupidity,
avarice, and corruption.
The Enlightenment failed because it found
reason is so often accompanied by willpower, emotions, passions, appetites, and desires that reason can neither
explain nor control. In the end, the adequacy of reason itself was attacked (ie, Kant’s 'Cirtique of Pure
Reason'). Most thinkers came to realize that cool and calculating reason is insufficient to
explain the variety of human nature and the puzzling flow of history.
Immanuel Kant’s last publication was titled
Enlightenment? His conclusion: Enlightenment is synonymous with
The harsh discord which we find in our
newspapers, the essence of liberal
democracy, began with intellectual politics of the
Many of the positive effects of the ‘Age of
Reason’ persist today:
• Rise of democracy.
• Banishing of slavery.
• Emergence of liberal feminism.
• Widespread emergence of empirical sciences, including the systems
sciences and ecological sciences.
• Increase in the average life span of almost three decades.
• Introduction of relativity and perspectivism in art and morals and
• Move from ethnocentric to worldcentric morality.