The Growth of American Thought

By Merle Curti | Go to book overview

CHAPTER V The Rise of the Enlightenment

The Prime Immunity in Mans State, is that he is most properly the Subject of the Law of Nature. . . . The Second Great Immunity of Man is an Original Liberty Instampt upon his Rational Nature. He that intrudes upon this Liberty, Violates the Law of Nature. . . . The Third Capital Immunity belonging to Mans Nature, is an equality amongst Men. . . .

-- JOHN WISE, 1717

Among the legacies transmitted to the new nation the pattern of thought known as the Enlightenment was one of the most important. In Kant's celebrated words, the Enlightenment was "the liberation of man from his self-caused state of minority." It was a protest against traditional reliance on authority in religious and secular life. It asserted man's ability to understand the universe without supernatural revelation and without the authoritative guidance of earthly superiors. It assumed the original worth and dignity of all men, and challenged the comfortable to alleviate the harsh lot of the poverty-stricken and ignorant masses and the victims of irrational and inhumane social conditions.

The apostles of the Enlightenment were under the spell of the Newtonian conception of a harmonious, law-governed universe, a rational system ruled by the mathematical law of cause and effect. The assumption was that man, as a part of this rational universe, could understand it through his own reason; it was no longer necessary to view the universe as a mystery only partially explained by divine revelation. Religious doctrines must consequently be tested by reason and accepted only if found to be in accord with the great rational design of the universe as comprehended by man's mind. To the true son of the Enlightenment the only religion validated by mathematics, logic, and scientific observation and experiment was deism--a philosophy con-

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