Few moments in the history of thought have been subject to so much dispute as the Enlightenment.
As a historical event, the Enlightenment is an intellectual movement in 18th Century Europe. A movement full of distinctive ideas. Standing out for the willingness of its thinkers to engage with the general public.
Even at the time, the Enlightenment believed in its importance. Not just for its own time, but for future generations too.
It held out the prospect of a new, modern understanding of humanity’s place in the world, and of radical improvements in the human condition.
Throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries and on into the 21st Historians and Philosophers continued to discuss what the Enlightenment represents.
Why the Enlightenment matters is, if anything, more debated now than at any time in the past.
The years that gave birth to modernity also inspired the ways we think about it. Out of such events emerged many of the major ideas of our era. Never in the history of the world did so many significant visions of organizing and understanding the world come into being.
Today we continue to debate whether reason and revelation are in conflict, much like Voltaire and Denis Diderot did. We disagree over the importance of human rights, like Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke during the French Revolution did.
In the spirit of Napoleon Bonaparte’s defenders and critics, we ponder whether leaders should or should not claim for themselves the power to go to war. Our concern with protecting nature comes right from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, as does our preoccupation with leading lives of authenticity.
Moreover, like the Romantic poets, Wordsworth and Coleridge, we worry about losing touch with the spiritual and emotional side of life. And our concerns with gender equality leap out of the pages of Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
For all the talk about how the Enlightenment project failed, we live with the consequences all around us.
The sense of failure is because so much human catastrophe lies between it and our world in the 21st Century. The Enlightenment commitment to progress, to human betterment, challenges our comprehension.
Yet it is difficult to exaggerate just how closed the societies were back then. The isolated natures of the old regime cut off more than economic positions. The walls built around Europe’s major cities were designed to keep out ideas as much as people.
Education was none existent for the masses and censorship a fact of life. The business of government was secret. Voting, where rarely allowed, was by a small number of privileged few. It was onto this world that the Enlightenment shined.
As such, it stands out as a beacon in dark, cloistered times. We remember it for this.
Like a lantern held up into the darkness it casts its shadows onto today.
The strength of the Enlightenment shows itself in the fact that so many contemporary thinkers continue to believe it still matters.
Between the 21st and 18th Centuries lie the French Revolution; the rise of nationalism and the nation state in the 19th Century; and in the 20th, two world wars, the Holocaust, and the fateful mid-century polarization over the meaning of ‘socialism’.
In the mean time, the study of economics, the social sciences, and politics have transformed. Universities have established themselves in the role of science and often policy advice.
Modern democracies and modern autocracies face economic, social, political, and now environmental challenges inconceivable back then.
Despite this the Enlightenment can enrich our own thinking. Increase our awareness of the variety of ways of understanding human’s affairs.
Recognizing the problems they encountered, and appreciating the originality of their responses to them.
It is not the relevance of the past which is important but the challenge of understanding how problems were formulated, addressed and imagined in terms different from those we use now.
What is particularly interesting about Enlightenment thought was its willingness to engage with change. To think about what might constitute progress.
If the Enlightenment can now only cast shadows over us, it continues to be rewarding to study and understand it. To engage with its intellectual achievements and to learn what we can from the best of it.