Les Philosophes: The Philosophers of the Enlightenment and Modern Democracy

Les Philosophes: The Philosophers of the Enlightenment and Modern Democracy

Les Philosophes: The Philosophers of the Enlightenment and Modern Democracy

Les Philosophes: The Philosophers of the Enlightenment and Modern Democracy

Excerpt

In an age of wilful irrationalism and dehumanization of the arts, when interests are captivated by myths, symbols and abstractions, it is refreshing to renew our acquaintance with the writers of an age of common sense, reason and humanity. Fashions, customs, habits of thought, are ceaselessly changing, philosophical systems succeed one another in an endless chain, but human nature remains essentially the same, and reason and common sense still wage an uneven battle against the powers of darkness. The writings of the French philosophes of the eighteenth century continue to remind us of fundamental human truths.

They have, in addition, the advantage of being of great historical significance. As James Harvey Robinson once wrote, we cannot fully comprehend what we are until we know how we got that way. The ideas of liberalism and democracy that flourished in France at this time have shaped the social and philosophical thinking and the political institutions of the western world and constitute a chapter of American history that is too often neglected. The American and French revolutions, with their constitutions and declarations of civil liberties, are only the most important of many similar developments.

A number of terms have been used to characterize the spirit of the times. Among the most common has been the Age of Reason. Its only disadvantage is its connotation of pure rationalism, or deductive reasoning, more descriptive of the century following Descartes. By 1750, the rapid development of the biological sciences, the publication of the first volumes of Buffon's monumental Natural History: and the adoption of the scientific method gave priority . . .

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