The Enlightenment, the Foundation of Modern Europe

Article excerpt

Although I am a philosopher and a theologian, and not an historian, I agreed to give this opening presentation for the simple reason that theology is not done in the heavens. Theology is done within the social and historical context of religious traditions. In like manner, philosophy is not, as many people imagine, reflection on things written in books but consists rather in contemplation of things as they are in reality. This is why it is important that things be examined in their historical context. Otherwise, they could be explained but not understood. I will, of course, be presenting a particular hermeneutic. Fortunately, the various interpretations that are being given will immediately be followed by alternative viewpoints and a debate. True science takes place in dialogue.

I begin my talk with an invitation to respect the complexity of this subject. This is because three centuries after the Enlightenment (understood in an ideologically simplified way since les lumieres in France do not correspond exactly to the Aufklarung in Germany) this movement has served as a rallying point for some people and been a repulsive obstacle to others. It has been a rallying point for knowledge against naivete and ignorance, for democracy against tyranny, and for humanism against religion. However, in each of these cases adjustments and corrections have had to be made. The scientism and positivism of the end of the 19th century are far removed from the enthusiasm of the Encyclopedie. Democracy has yet to progress beyond the simple demand of the upwardly mobile social classes to participate in the exercise of power. Finally, the men of the Enlightenment were not primarily atheistic. They fought the domination of the church and the cleric over the public sphere, the res publica. The State did not wish to be "godless"; it objected to the omnipresence of the church. The Enlightenment was an obstacle in that the reactions of the 19th century, from Burke to de Maistre, criticized, not without contradiction, the principles of tolerance and the Rights of Man as the source of the excesses and violence of the Revolution. This paradox continues into the 20th century with the objections of the conservatives or nationalists, and of those individuals who wonder why a civilization like that of the Enlightenment was unable to protect the Jewish people from the genocide of the Shoah. (2) All of this should be a warning to us, if warning is needed, that things are not as simple as they might seem to be.

We must start by coming to an agreement on dates. I am adopting those used by Pierre Chaunu, viz. 1680-1780, which he considers to be "round dates" for the Enlightenment. (3) As Chaunu points out, one must not forget that the Enlightenment follows the changes that took place during the years 1620-1650. These were in his opinion, "Thirty organizing years, 1620-1650, during which time several hundred middle class people, gentlemen, and officers who were directly affected by the mercantile system, were set free from the worries of earning their livelihood by the State and through the labors of others. It was precisely the European miracle of mechanization that took place during the second quarter of the 17th century that is the key to understanding this period of time. It was this physical reality that allowed European civilization to organize its thoughts. This is the concrete temporal foundation upon which Enlightenment thinking and the scientific civilization of the 20th century indirectly, yet assuredly, rest." (4) Paul Hazard also points to a "crisis of the European conscience" during the years 1680-1715, that he considers to be a sort of terror provoked by the changes mentioned by Chaunu, and which would allow a doubling of the population between the years 1730-1770. An even more brutal series of revolutionary transformations would take place following 1780.

In any case, it is not inappropriate to speak of the Enlightenment as one of the roots of Europe. …