Radicality of Enlightenment: Arguments For and Against

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The Enlightenment of the eighteenth century is commonly acknowledged by most modern contemporary thinkers as being a pivotal moment in the advancement of human intellect, if not the beginning of modernity. According to Immanuel Kant, the Enlightenment encouraged people to be free-thinking and to deviate from conventional ways of thinking by using their own ability to reason (Jacob, 2001). In addition, this movement should be observed , not as a singular force, but as a diffusion of moderate versus radical ideas across different sectors of European society. As argued by historian Jonathan Israel, while moderate Enlightenment thinkers seeked to use reason and religion to justify old ideas of social hierarchy and imperialism, radicals rejected these structures and veered towards a more liberal and atheist approach (Then & Now, 2017). Therefore in order to measure the radicalism of each principle of the Enlightenment, it is imperative to consider those who advocated them, who they benefitted, as well as the religious and social context which they were developed in. This essay will seek to analyse the impact which enlightened thought had on religion in relation to the state, absolutism, ideas of race and the status of women.

During the 18th century, religion stood at the apex of society and thinkers commonly sought to use rationalism to reinforce the Church’s teachings and the status quo. The conventional theist view held the notion that God is at the center of reality and human rational (Paul Helm, 2020). However, Renee Descrates’s theory of rationalism and John Locke’s empiricism encouraged a more enlightened view of the world that, as argued by Immnuel Kant, that God was conceptualised by ‘human concern’(Paul Helm, 2020). This view was reflected in the growing disillusionment, by radical thinkers, with the idea that God had a hand in worldly affair. Therefore, mass religious conversion and persecution by the state was not justifiable. In a post-Reformation Europe, the enlightened concepts of tolerance and reason had led to calls for religious freedom in order to accommodate the growing multiculturalism (Tonder 2006). Most thinkers agreed that religion was, as put by Locke, a ‘private’ aspect of people’s lives which could not be wholly controlled by the state via nationwide conversion methods (Tonder 2006). As a result, certain philosophers such as Voltaire in the Calas affair, publicly stood for the ‘right of religious freedom’ (Tonder 2006). The creation of underground belief systems such as deism encouraged religious tolerance and found that persecution of the basis of religious differences and superstition to be nonsensical (Crash Course, 2019).

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Notably, deism also proposed an alternative way to the dominant Christian view to observe the events of the natural world (Barnett, 2003). The 1755 Lisbon earthquake and its aftermath could be said to be the culmination of this shift in ideology. The physical rebuilding of the Portueguese city under the rule of Pombal stimulated a decrease in the church’s influence and encouraged the practice of scientific research. However, this transformation also had less progressive absolutists aims of increasing state control implying a more conservative motive.(Walker,2015) Alternatively, the Enlightenment also sprouted radical atheist thoughts, which argued that the capacity to which men are able to use reason should be limitless and not restricted by religion. The atheist French philosopher Baron d’Holbach argues in his 1767 publication ‘Christianisme dévoilé’ (Le Buffe, 2020) that religion poses a threat to enlightened thought and essentially the progression of society. This infers that due to the abstract nature of religion, it cannot fully co-exist with enlightened reason rooted in empiricism as it too inconclusive. Above all, this debate represents an extremely radical shift, as this meant that religion and reason, especially in the context of the state, were beginning to gain separate identities.

Absolutism could be argued to be another defining feature of the Ancient Regime, and its transition into enlightened absolutism depicts the radical and influential nature of the enlightenment in the political sphere. This doctrine had placed monarchs like Louis XIV 'le roi solei', at the top of the social structure and used religion to reinforce their hierarchical importance. The radical influence of Enlightenment principles was most evident in the political reforms of Emperor Joseph II of Austria, who boldly severed the relations between the state and the church to enact liberal education and social policies (Decker, 2017 pp.32-71). Revoking political influence from the church in favour of state control was argued by some radical Josephisites to be setting the foundations for a more bureaucratic and radically secular government. However, was this truly the case? Despite the fact that Josephism had liberal humanitarian aims for Austria, this ideology was ‘nationally conscious’ and could be said to have less radical, conservative motives. This raises the question; Were the intentions behind these reforms radically progressive or were these ‘masked attempts’ to achieve enlightened ends (Ingrao, 1986). This was reflected in Prussia under the rule Fredereich II, who implemented enlightened economic tax reforms and encouraged religious toleration. However, this was undermined by his push for military and territorial expansion as well as his contradictory treatment of serfs which only entrenched the power of ‘junker’ aristocrats (Crash course, 2019). Thus pointing at the thought that enlightened rulers were merely adapting to the times in order to secure their position and reinforce their absolutist agenda. As described by Francois Bluche enlightened despotism was the ideas of the old system which were slightly adjusted to look more liberal (Enlightened Despots in France, Austria & Prussia: Reforms & Goals, 2013). Despite these limitations, it is impossible to deny the radical structural changes which were made to the European political landscape as a result of the Enlightenment. The French revolution and the Napoleonic era that ensued, are the culmination of this change. The revolution forced the acknowledgment of the Third Estate as a significant political force which was less violently emulated by countries throughout Europe (Acemoglu et al., 2009).

The theory of natural rights was another key principle of the Enlightenment, however when measuring the extent of its radicalism, it is important to note that throughout the eighteenth-century, the Western world was forging its infrastructure and economy using the slave trade. When debating the issues of rights and freedom for that other than white men, it becomes difficult to then describe the Enlightenment as a completely radical movement. This is evident in the hypocrisy of the arguments made by key figures of the era such as John Locke and the Founding Fathers of the ‘New World’ would one hand advocate that men are ‘free’ and ‘equal but would actively participate in the slave trade (Tyson and Oldroyd, 2018). It is also important to acknowledge the role of white supremacy, which provides the context for this paradox. As philosophers like Locke did not believe that black people were “wholly human”, it was only natural that these rights did not apply to them. This was reflected in the popular religious justification of slavery which dictates that the Bible described black people as ‘cursed’ (Tyson and Oldroyd, 2018). On one hand, it could be argued that the Enlightenment was radical in the fact that, it triggered a widespread awareness the inhumanity of the slave trade, and eventually led to its legal abolition in 1807. The memoir of Olaudah Equiano detailing his experience as a victim to the slave trade was critically important in the advocacy of human rights for all people and encouraged calls for abolition. Nevertheless, this did not address the issues of racial hierarchy which is still present to this day in the modern western world, albeit less overtly violent and more systemic.

The Enlightenment also explored the natural rights of women (chiefly white women) and set the basis for waves of feminism that were to ensue .The traditional view that women should be bound to domestic life and sexual chastity was the popular view of what a woman’s life should be. However, through the invention of the printing press and the increased publication of literature meant women were able to increase their social status for the first time, independent from that of their husband or fathers. ( Saylor) The works of British author Mary Wollstonecraft in relation to women’s right to education crucially argues the radical view that not only should women be encouraged to become learned individuals, but that this would in turn lead to a more flourishing economy and diverse intellectual sphere. (Owusu-Gyamfi, 2016) During the French revolution, Locke’s principle of natural rights was used by French revolutionary Olympe De Gouges, as the basis for her argument for gender equality, especially women’s right to divorce, a taboo subject which was for the first time being brought into question. (Mian and Alvarez, 2013) .

Nevertheless, the Enlightenment only saw the very tip of the feminist movement as the key ideologist, including Wollstonecraft still advocated for the traditional nuclear role of men and women. Though Rousseau encouraged the education of women, this was under the misogynistic view and unfortunate view that women were intellectually, biologically and fundamentally inferior to men. (Herdman,2017)

In conclusion, it is evident that the Enlightenment had a drastically radical impact on the different structures of 18th century European society and beyond. The use of reason and scientific method to question the use of religion in non-theological context led to secularisation of political thought. In turn, this led to the dismissal of abstract concepts such as the divine rights of Kings and absolutism which had defined the Ancien Regime. Thus, this set the foundation for a more modern form of state governance such as constitutional monarchy in Britain or the French republique. Socially, the Enlightenment could be argued to have been radical but only moderately by modern liberal Western standard. Whilst the position of the average white man had gained ‘natural rights’, black people were still portrayed as ‘two-thirds of a human’. This reflects the regressiveness of the Enlightenment pertaining to the toleration and acceptance of different cultures and ethnicities. On the other side, (white) Women were becoming a more visible force in the social hierarchy , whilst they were still encouraged to pursue traditional roles, this was the first time that their right to education and freedom was being discussed. It is fair to say that when observing the constitutional political systems which followed the Enlightenment, the theories and ideas proposed by radical thinkers could be considered to be the defining features of the Enlightenment.

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Radicality of Enlightenment: Arguments For and Against. (2022, March 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 17, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/radicality-of-enlightenment-arguments-for-and-against/
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Radicality of Enlightenment: Arguments For and Against. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/radicality-of-enlightenment-arguments-for-and-against/> [Accessed 17 Jun. 2024].
Radicality of Enlightenment: Arguments For and Against [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Mar 17 [cited 2024 Jun 17]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/radicality-of-enlightenment-arguments-for-and-against/
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