A New Enlightenment

By Kurtz, Paul | Free Inquiry, April-May 2004 | Go to article overview
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A New Enlightenment

Kurtz, Paul, Free Inquiry

The term Enlightenment refers to a unique set of ideas and ideals that came to fruition in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It began with Bacon, Descartes, Locke, and other philosophers who sought a universal method for establishing knowledge. They looked to science as the model for knowledge and debated whether reason or experience was most important (actually, both are equally important). No doubt they took impetus from the remarkable discoveries of Newton and Galileo in mathematics, physics, and astronomy. The Enlightenment culminated with the French philosophes--Voltaire, Diderot, Condorcet, and d'Holbach--who popularized its ideas in Parisian salons, pamphlets, and books, enabling those ideas to spread to a wider educated public.

The philosophes criticized the ancien regime of religious superstition and dogmatism, hidebound social traditions, and repressive morality. They wished to use science and reason to understand nature and solve social problems. They were optimistic that in this way human progress could be advanced. In politics, they developed social contract theories, defended the secular state and the rights of man, and advocated economic liberty. The American Revolution was influenced by their ideals (through Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, and Paine). They influenced the French Revolution also, though many of them were opposed to its excesses. They wished to reform the penal code and end cruel punishments. They were anticlerical, castigating the corruption and hypocrisy of the churches, especially Roman Catholicism ("Ecrasez l'infame," cried Voltaire). Most were deists; some were atheists. The Enlightenment defended a humanist outlook that drew its values from the Renaissance and Greco-Roman Hellenic culture, which had also extolled the role of reason.

In his influential essay "What Is Enlightenment?" (1785) Immanuel Kant, a key figure of the Enlightenment, sought to define Enlightenment as follows:

   Enlightenment is the emancipation of man from a state of
   self-imposed tutelage. This state is due to his incapacity to use
   his own intelligence without external guidance.... Dare to use your
   own intelligence! This is the battle-cry of the Enlightenment. (1)

According to Karl Popper, "It was this idea of self-liberation through knowledge that was central to the Enlightenment. "Dare to be free," added Kant, "and respect the freedom and autonomy of others.... " For Kant, the dignity of human beings lay in their freedom, and in their respect for other people's autonomous and responsible beliefs. However, it is only through the growth of knowledge that a person can be liberated "from enslavement by prejudices, idols, and avoidable errors." (2)

The Enlightenment's quest for knowledge inspired numerous scientists, philosophers, and poets, including Goethe, Bentham, Mill, Darwin, Marx, Freud, Einstein, Crick, and Watson. It has continued to inspire research on the frontiers of scientific knowledge, such as the development of chemistry and biology in the nineteenth century and the emergence of the social and behavioral sciences in the twentieth. The application of the methods el science heralded new breakthroughs in science and technology that contributed to the betterment of humankind. These included the industrial revolution (with the subsequent capacity to expand production); impressive gains in medicine (such as surgery, anesthesia, and antibiotics, which extended life spans); a swelling bounty of consumer goods (which can be used and enjoyed by everyone); a reduction of drudgery and labor (which has shortened the work week and has afforded more leisure time to ordinary people); vastly improved transportation and communication technologies; the green revolution (increased agricultural production); the information revolution (computers, the Internet); biogenetic engineering (we are on the threshold of new powers for humankind to reduce genetic diseases); and the space age (with its vast potential for exploration of the solar system and outer space beyond).

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A New Enlightenment


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