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Essays for amateurs and professionals interested in  Science


    the foundation for community access to science Henry Mulder
[1939-2009]
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The Enlightenment The Age of Reason
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Image courtesy of NASA


Image courtesy of NASA


Image courtesy of NASA


Image courtesy of NASA


Feature Article
The Enlightenment - The Age of Reason (ESS18)

Ending the bond between Science and Religion


Written by...

"All men are born free, but everywhere they are in chains."

-Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Much of what we've been discussing in articles dealing with John Locke, René Descartes, and Isaac Newton takes us right into the 18th Century phenomenon called The Enlightenment. Since the movement was especially prominent in France it is also referred to as the French Enlightenment. What had been begun by the likes of Copernicus, Galileo, and other heroes of the Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17th Centuries, was given a major push in the 18th Century.

The Enlightenment is conveniently tucked into the 18th Century but like most phenomena in history it's probably wise to look at a somewhat broader time scale. Many of the concepts that crystallized during the Enlightenment had already been hinted at by others in earlier times. All the same, the concepts of religious freedom for all, equality before the law and the supremacy of human reason were proclaimed loudly and clearly by the heroes of the movement. In France they were called the philosophes.

They eagerly embraced scientific progress and geographical discoveries, and were dismayed at the corruption, superstition, hypocrisy and injustice condoned if not fostered, by the church and the state. To them ignorance was evil and they blamed this evil on the religious and political leaders, leaders who claimed to be the special agents of God's revelation in order keep the common people shackled in ignorance. The philosophes felt that human progress would only come through intellectual and spiritual enlightenment—not blind obedience to authority. Enlightened humanity could bring an end to poverty, injustice, racism, and all the other ills of society.

In France some of the most prominent philosophes were, in no particular order, François Marie Arouet—better known as Voltaire, Baron de Montesquieu, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788), Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot (1727-1781), Denis Diderot, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In spite of the name, the philosophes were above all, practical men, seeking nothing less than a whole new and improved society. A society in which man was no longer constrained by outdated human institutions and belief systems. The impact on science was obvious and dramatic.

Voltaire(1694–1778)
One of the first of those institutions to warrant attention was the Roman Catholic Church which in France had become the only official state-sanctioned religion thanks to King Louis XIV. Voltaire in a tireless campaign argued that people should be permitted to worship as they pleased or not at all. The spark that set off this powder keg was the case of Jean Calas.

Like so many of his peers, including a number of the founding fathers of the United States, Voltaire was a deist who believed that God had created everything but then let it evolve on its own. Although educated by the Jesuits, Voltaire hated the Catholic Church. He is famously quoted to have said "Ecrasez l'infame" (Crush the horrible thing!) referring to the Church. He had written most of his life on religious tolerance but the Jean Calas affair gave him the focus he needed and in 1763 he published A Treatise on Tolerance that focused entirely on the case.

Making a powerful case for religious and intellectual freedom gave the fledgling Scientific Revolution in France a much needed boost. Also, his tireless efforts to promote the empirical methods of Francis Bacon and John Locke of England as the only legitimate way to practice science were a direct challenge to the French rationalist tradition of, for example, René Descartes. Both traditions—religious and rationalist—proved difficult to dislodge, but change was in the air and intellectual freedom especially, became a rallying point.

de Montesquieu (1689-1755)
The second culprit on our list, Charles Louis de Secondant, Baron de Montesquieu, wasn't interested so much in promoting open scientific inquiry as he was in the science of politics. In 1748 he published Spirit of the Laws. Inspired by the British political system, he advocated a separation of powers amongst the various branches of government. The English constitution had divided state powers into three independent branches of government: the executive, the legislative, and the judicial. This he felt would create a system of Checks and Balances. As a member of the aristocracy de Montesquieu's views were a bit ambivalent. He didn't favor a republic but he was against slavery.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, was born in John Calvin's Geneva on June 28th, 1712. His mother died in childbirth. Unlike the other philosophes who were in favor of monarchy, at least a constitutional monarchy, Rousseau advocated direct democracy. In fact, the central concept in Rousseau's thought is liberty and most of his works deal with the ways in which people are forced to give up that liberty. His famous statement, "All men are born free, but everywhere they are in chains." begins his work The Social Contract published in 1762. Not only did this essay have an impact on the French Revolution, it also had a profound influence on the Declaration of Independence adopted in 1776 by the new United States of America.

Many of the ideas that Rousseau developed were spelled out in earlier works. The first of these, A Discourse on the Sciences and Arts, was the winning entry in an essay contest conducted by the Academy of Dijon in 1750. In this work, Rousseau argues that the progression of the sciences and arts has caused the corruption of virtue and morality. This discourse also won Rousseau fame and recognition, and it laid much of the philosophical groundwork for a second, longer work, The Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, a 1754 essay also written for the Academy of Dijon.

On the Origin of Inequality
This work sets out many of his key ideas that were to greatly influence modern culture. Here we read about his thoughts on the "Noble Savage" and how he uses this concept to visualize how man developed over the eons and how in his view this development "went off the rails". He refers to times before the current state of civil society, when man was closer to his natural state, as happier times for man. To Rousseau, modern "civil" society is a trick perpetrated by the powerful on the weak in order to maintain their power or wealth. Therefore he begins his discussion with an analysis of natural man who has not yet acquired language or abstract thought.

In spite of the fact that he was born and raised in Calvinistic Geneva, Rousseau ignored the biblical account of human history and instead set out to develop his own understanding of man's origins. As he contemplated his society he noted two types of inequality, natural or physical and moral or political. Natural inequality involves differences between one man's strength or intelligence and that of another—it is a product of nature. Rousseau is not concerned with this type of inequality but rather with moral inequality. This second type of inequality, he argued is endemic to a civil society and related to and caused by differences in power and wealth. It is not natural but is established by convention.

As noted above, his solution was a "social contract" in which government is based on a mutual contract between it and the governed; this contract implies that the governed agree to be ruled only so that their rights, property and happiness are protected by their rulers. Once rulers cease to protect the ruled, the social contract is broken and the governed are free to choose another set of rulers. You can easily see how most modern democratic states are based on this ideal. It's also a sad commentary on our times that by manipulating the masses, many of today's governments seem to be more inclined to follow Machiavelli instead of Rousseau.

Denis Diderot and The Encyclopedia
The "Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers" first published in 1751, was in fact a collaboration between Diderot and Jean le Rond d'Alembert. The encyclopedia was not just a massive compilation of what was known at the time about all things scientific and philosophical. It was also an expression of the radical and controversial ideas espoused by the philosophes. Many of its articles reflected the impious attitudes of its contributors like Voltaire, Montesquieu and Rousseau, for example. As such it served as a manifesto for a new way of looking at the world.

Since the Industrial Revolution was just getting nicely underway, many of the various mechanical devices and processes which were transforming the world were described in detail and depicted in hundreds of engravings. D'Alembert especially, insisted on showing the dignity and genius of the men behind the inventions, men often scorned as commoners by the aristocracy. This whole thrust became a prelude to the egalitarian attitudes which were to eventually undermine the old aristocratic order.

To quote Jean d'Alembert: "The contempt shown to the mechanical arts seems to have been influenced in part by their inventors. The names of these great benefactors of the human race are almost entirely unknown, whereas the history of its destroyers, that is to say, its conquerors, is known by everyone. Even so, it is perhaps among the artisans that one should go to find the most admirable proofs of the sagacity, the patience, and the resources of the intellect."1

The Enlightenment Spreads
The effects of the French Enlightenment soon spread beyond her borders. As noted the American independence movement was certainly influenced but also in Europe itself, revolutionary thinkers in several countries took up the torch. In Scotland we find David Hume (1711-1776), regarded by many as the most important philosopher ever to write in English. Born in a presbyterian home, he was a relentless critic of metaphysics and religion. He was a contemporary and close friend of Adam Smith (1723-1790) who is famous for his seminal work on Capitalism, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations and for coining the term the invisible hand. Early on, Smith expounded the economic philosophy of "the obvious and simple system of natural liberty".

In England, Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) constructed his monumental work, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon is widely regarded as a typical man of the Enlightenment, dedicated to asserting the claims of reason over superstition, to understanding history as a rational process, and to replacing divine revelation with sociological explanations for the rise of religion. You get some sense of Gibbon's view of Christianity on this little site.

In Germany we find Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) who was ironically, of Scottish descent. Kant was born on April 22, 1724, in Königsberg, Prussia (Now Kaliningrad, Russia). He was brought up and educated in a strict orthodox kind of Christianity called German Pietism, which he never could shake entirely. Kant is often a tough read partly because he does not translate well out of his native German and also because of the very abstruse philosophic concepts like the nature and source of knowledge. Throw in terms like a posteriori and a priori and you can start rolling your eyes.

If you do care to know, a posteriori knowledge is what we're most familliar with. It's the 'I saw it, tasted it, felt it so I'm pretty confident I can describe it', kind of knowledge. The other one, a priori knowledge basically means the 'I know what I know' kind of knowledge. This is a gross over-simplification but it'll serve us very nicely. Other than that, what was Kant all about that he's included here. Well in his own way he was a rebel too.

In much of his writings he laments the tendency of those in authority to impose not only obedience to reasonable laws but (religious) control over men's minds. He was also disturbed by the willingness of many people of his day to submit themselves willingly to this control. "If man makes himself a worm he must not complain when he is trodden on.", he wrote.

On the quest for knowledge, a central theme in his work, Kant proposed that we should not assume that our knowledge conforms to the nature of objects, but rather that objects conform to our ways of knowing them. This was his way of dealing with the conundrum that although experience is the best way to learn about the world, without a frame of reference (a theory, an insight) learning about the world is a difficult task.

To Sum Up...
I have not even begun to scratch the surface as to what the Enlightenment was all about. We've only mentioned some of the players. Also, there were some very influential women during this time who rarely get a mention. Nevertheless we can draw some conclusions. The enlightenment was a very big stepping stone between the medieval world and the world we live in. Many institutions while not abolished were dramatically altered. More importantly, men's minds were radically changed.

In the 17th Century and earlier, before the enlightenment, the number of people who were brave, or foolhardy, enough to think or, heaven forbid, to openly speak or write about any number of issues considered risque, were few and far between. True, Copernicus had written that the earth wasn't the center of God's Universe. Newton had stated that for all intents and purposes God's providential hand was no longer needed to keep the whole shebang running. Things like that. But this had always been cloaked in religious mumbo-jumbo so that the powers-that-be wouldn't get too upset and do something nasty to you like Galileo's fate for instance.

The enlightenment opened up the floodgates of new ideas, new thoughts on everything from the way man saw government and his own role in society to the way scientific ideas were conceived, demonstrated and above all published and shared with the world. Young minds were becoming free to pursue science in ernest and although they could be roundly condemned by all and sundry for their "heresies" the threat of official reprisal was becoming increasingly rare.

In the time that followed, the 19th Century for example, we see the rich harvest that a climate of freeer and less censored thought could produce. We see for example the first tentative steps in coming up with a non-miraculous explanation for the origin of the staggering diversity of life forms on this earth of ours. There was Gregor Mendel (1822-1884) who discovered the basic rules of inheritance. We see the son of a Shrewsbury physician, Charles Darwin overcome his fear of censure and using meticulous research to present to the world his ideas about the evolutionary nature of life and how using natural selection, that might actually work.

Even in Darwin's day evolution was hardly a new concept. In 1800, Jean Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, Chevalier de Lamarck had expounded his own theory of evolution. Even before that in 1749, Georges, Comte de Buffon had published his Historie Naturelle (Natural History) in which he speculated on the evolutionary tendencies in nature. And of course there was a contemporary, Alfred Russel Wallace who had independently come to many of the same conclusions Darwin had. Finally his own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin had expressed similar ideas.

There was John Dalton, who resurrected the old Greek notion that all matter was made up of atoms and not individually created by some Divine command. There was Dmitri Mendeleev who neatly organized all this into the first periodic table of the elements. Of course the Newtonian view of a mechanical universe was becoming the accepted view from a scientific perspective. Little by little the world of science was wrested from the straight-jacket of theology and began to take on a life of its own.

For better or worse, we can thank the iconoclastic approach and temperament of the philosophes and other champions of the Enlightenment for the world we have today where science is ruled by its own internal controls of a rigid and transparent scientific method and rigorous peer review instead of some arbitrary outside agency.

Many people today are offended by the idea that the Christian Church is blamed for many of the roadblocks to free scientific inquiry. Using all sorts of questionable history and logic, attempts are often made to pretend it isn't so. Yet as we examine the enlightenment through its main protaganists we are struck by a common thread. Many of them, raised in orthodox circumstances, felt called upon at considerable personal risk, to cast off the shackles imposed by their various religious roots.



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