Enlightenment Roots – Introduction

The Enlightenment was a profound intellectual and cultural movement that played a central role in the creation of a mental outlook commonly described as Western.  This is the first of a number of articles that will chart its birth, evolution and significance.  They will focus on the mindset of pre-Enlightenment Europe and its intellectual underpinnings, in particular Aristotelian scholasticism.  They will highlight those thinkers in the late-sixteenth century and the seventeenth century whose ideas began to challenge established authority.  And they will outline the eighteenth-century consolidation and development of those ideas.  The end point of the Enlightenment as a movement is generally taken to be 1789, the start of the French Revolution.

Imagine that you are talking to a neighbour and discover that they regularly punished their child after being informed by a teacher that they were left-handed.  Up until that moment you only knew them to be a well-respected member of the community.  They were sociable, honest, educated, devout, had a good occupation and ­­had appeared to be a loving parent.  They explain to you that they are training their child to be right-handed because they are concerned that otherwise they will go to hell.  You might conclude that this person was suffering from some sort of delusion and you would very likely report them to social services. Yet this calculation, sacrificing earthly happiness and well-being in the expectation of attaining paradise in the afterlife, was a commonplace for members of the Abrahamic traditions (Jews, Christians and Muslims) and rooted in their most fundamental conceptions of reality, as for millions it still is.  For many generations such societies were in thrall to a supernatural cosmos that supervised and judged each moment of their lives.  Yet to a citizen of the modern Western world, even to those who are members of one the Abrahamic traditions, many of those attitudes and behaviours now appear perverse.  Consider: in Europe from the end of the fifteenth century until the middle of the eighteenth, it is estimated that some 200,000 people were tortured, burnt or hanged as witches.  Pain was lauded as a purgative.  Punishments of the most gruesome kinds were meted out in rituals of purification and redemption. Fire was particularly valued.  It was in the nature of fire to move up towards the heavens and thus it occupied a position in the order of the cosmos that was closer to God.   Running alongside those Abrahamic traditions, and frequently merging with them, were numerous other supernatural beliefs.  We have faeries stealing babies and replacing them with changelings.  We have the royal touch whereby as a consequence of their divinity monarchs had the power to heal disease (as did the right hand of an executed prisoner).  We have horseshoes to ward off evil and the breaking of mirrors that brought bad luck (because the image reflected was a person’s soul and breaking the mirror disconnected the soul from the body).  We have mermaids and mermen, spectral hounds and phantom huntsmen and warriors inhabiting woods and forests, and a pest maiden who spread contagion.  For thousands of years the existence of the supernatural was an almost tangible reality of daily life that had to be navigated and assuaged.  Contrast that pre-Enlightenment European mind with the landscape of the European mind of today: an understanding that reality is grounded in what is material, observable and measurable as opposed to what can be deduced from authority, custom and tradition; a belief in the necessity of universal individual rights; an acceptance that all have an equal claim to happiness and that a person’s happiness should not be compromised by appeals to supernatural deities; an assumption that democracy is a superior system of governance; a recognition of the importance of freedom of expression; a belief in the justness of equality before the law regardless of identity or status; the view that toleration is a virtue; trust in the value of universal education; concern for man as a physical being prioritised over the spiritual.

From the fourteenth century to the end of the seventeenth century the system of thought that dominated European schools and universities was known as ‘Aristotelian scholasticism’, or just ‘scholasticism’. In the thirteenth century, St Thomas Aquinas (1225 to 1274) and his followers demonstrated that it was possible to combine Christian theology and Greek philosophy, primarily Aristotelian, to create a coherent intellectual framework with which to make sense of the universe, including the mysteries and truths of Christianity.  One of the key features of this framework was the Aristotelian system of causality, an essential tool in the investigation of the nature of the world.  Aristotle was one of a number of thinkers to tackle the issue of causes with their ultimate aim being to understand why things came to be.  This system was also known as the doctrine of the four causes:

  • The material cause: “that out of which”, e.g., the bronze of a statue.
  • The formal cause: “the form”, “the account of what-it-is-to-be”, e.g., the shape of a statue.
  • The efficient cause: “the primary source of the change or rest”, e.g., the artisan, the art of bronze-casting the statue, the man who gives advice, the father of the child.
  • The final cause: “the end, that for the sake of which a thing is done”, e.g., health is the end of walking, losing weight, purging, drugs, and surgical tools.

(Stanford Enyclopedia of Philosophy)

Part of the value of this four-part system of causality was that it allowed Christian theologians to demarcate different existences and forms and thereby produce a scale of perfections otherwise known as a Great Chain of Being.   At the top, in the heavens, is God, who is perfect, along with all other unchangeable beings.  Below is the Earth and that which is changeable.  The more qualities any substance possesses that are also possessed by God, such as love, spirit, wisdom or immutability, the higher up it will be on the Great Chain of Being.

A distinction was also made between ‘essence’ and ‘existence’ which was the basis for all things.  ‘Essence’ was a thing’s potentiality, its nature, a fixed and timeless possibility of existence.  Without an essence, an object could not have any identity or form (hence the formal cause).  ‘Existence’ was the material substantiation of that essence.  This did not mean all objects of a particular essence were identical in every detail but rather that they were of a characteristic type, e.g., a horse, a man, a table.  The only being whose existence was its essence, its pure actuality, was God.  It was also God that determined the final cause, or the purpose, of all things, the study of which was known as the science of teleology.  Without a final cause, without a divinely ordained purpose, nothing would exist.  Without purpose, there could not be an efficient cause.  The efficient cause necessary to actualise a form, i.e., to bring an object into existence, would have no goal, no reason to be. As the understanding of the purpose of things gave an insight into understanding God’s intentions, the science of teleology became one of the great projects of pre-Enlightenment scholars.

Central to scholasticism was the disputatio, a method of assessing knowledge and resolving contradictions.  Typically, a master would choose the Bible (the supernatural authority) or some other ancient text, for example a text authored by Aristotle, Saint Augustine or Cicero (natural authorities that had stood the test of time), which would serve as the starting point for a subject of investigation.  Contradictions within or between texts would be used to generate two opposing arguments.  The ultimate aim was to reconcile these arguments using deductive reasoning and demonstrate how, in fact, the texts were in agreement.  The correctness of these ancient authorities was deemed to be settled and unquestionable.  Direct experience of nature was not used as the basis for systematic investigation (i.e., science as we know it today) but simply as a source of illustration to demonstrate the knowledge and truths revealed by authority or logical deduction from that authority.

It was at the end of the sixteenth century and the beginning of the seventeenth that we see the emergence of scholars such as Bacon, Galileo, Kepler, Copernicus and Descartes, whose ideas begin to undermine this conception of reality.   In the two centuries that followed humanity began to replace God at the centre of human concerns as the sun replaced the earth at the centre of the cosmos.  The material world gained pre-eminence over the immaterial.  Nature was seen to obey mechanical laws not the will of God, casting doubt on the role of human free will.  Codes of morality came to be seen in terms that were relative and grounded in human psychology not as absolutes that were divinely ordained.  Intellectual scepticism treated with suspicion any truth claims not grounded in empirical evidence.  Moreover, as the authority of government could no longer be so easily underwritten by divine prescription so questions revolving around the consent of the governed acquired greater potency.

The ideas explored by Enlightenment thinkers went to the heart of European (and North American) identity.   Government, the law, religion, ethics, rights, the arts, freedom, happiness, the boundaries of knowledge, nothing was sacred, everything was open to question.  And these were not simply theoretical pursuits that took place in the rarefied atmosphere of academia.  The clash of ideas ignited intense human and social dramas that were played out throughout France and beyond, with those who disputed the legitimacy of established authority staking their reputations, livelihoods and indeed their lives. Voltaire on different occasions was imprisoned in the Bastille, exiled to England and banished from Paris.  Writers would resort to subterfuges to try and protect themselves.  They would use pseudonyms, often in the name of a real person but who was now dead.  Some, such as Hume, would have friends publish their works posthumously.  Others would spread false information about the authorship of a text. To avoid the attentions of the censor, copies of texts would be hand-written rather than printed.  Texts would also be printed abroad and smuggled back into France. A particularly cunning way of releasing dangerous arguments in print, and one used by Casanova himself, was to publish a text which on the surface attacked those arguments (usually quite ineffectively), endorsing a more traditional and respected position.   The author would therefore be able to clarify at length the ideas he wanted to raise while at the same time protect himself from censure.  The tragic case of the Barre affair in Abbeville, near Amiens, illustrates what was being risked.  François-Jean Lefebvre de la Barre was a poor aristocrat who was only nineteen years old and with no family who in 1766 was tortured, beheaded and burned on a pyre with Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary nailed to his torso.  His crime: blasphemy.  He had failed to remove his hat when a religious procession passed by.  He had vandalised a crucifix.  He had sung impious songs.  And he had possessed ‘foul and abominable’ books, most damningly Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary.

Casanova’s Europe, dominated for almost one and half millennia by Christianity, was at the nexus of the old supernatural traditions and the emerging Western traditions that are dominant today.  The bridge from the one to the other was the Enlightenment, which reached its apogee with the philosophes of eighteenth-century France, including writers and thinkers such as Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau, Montesquieu, d’Holbach, d’Alembert and Helvétius.   Understanding the explosive nature of the challenge laid down to the established order helps us also to understand some of the preoccupations of Casanova himself in his struggle to make sense of the world, the universe and his own nature.  It was an inner, psychological struggle that was being replicated in the lives of large numbers of Europeans, particularly amongst its more literate and educated citizens.

Dave Thompson (2018)


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