After reading this article you will learn about Enlightenment:- 1. Definition and Nature of Enlightenment 2. Rise of Enlightenment 3. Contributions to Political Theory.
Definition and Nature of Enlightenment:
Different scholars have defined enlightenment in their own ways. Let us start with the COD’s definition. There are two definitions in this dictionary. One is the general meaning of enlightenment which is specially related with Buddhism and the other is the enlightenment. We are here concerned with the latter meaning.
The COD’s definition is that enlightenment is a European intellectual movement of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries emphasizing reasons and individualism rather than tradition. J. S. Mcclelland has elaborately discussed several aspects of this concept and its relations with political theory.
The impact of enlightenment fell on almost all the sections of society but the most spectacular effect fell on the entire thought system. Let us take different important definitions.
The great German Philosopher Kant said enlightenment means “dare to know.” It means to throw away the stigma of ignorance and the determination to move forward.
Following Kant Mcclelland defines it in the following words:
The enlightenment is characterized as being in revolt against ignorance and superstition.
“It is an umbrella opened so wide that as many thinkers as possible can shelter under it”. Elsewhere in the same book Mcclelland says that enlightenment is an attempt that tried to expand the principles of toleration and moderation into general principles of individual life and the life of both society and politics. Enlightenment means to remove ignorance and darkness from the mind of men and society. The revival of morality and ethics in all spheres of social life.
Dante Germino (Machiavelli to Marx – Modern Political Thought) has defined the idea in the following way. It is a coherent period in the history of political thought or it has become a slogan to be defended by political writers who see merit in the principles it embodies.
Peter Gray has offered us a thoroughgoing research on this subject. He says – The enlightenment-the age that extends from Locke to Condorcet- was one of the most creative ages in the history of political theory Its leading writers brought the conception of natural law to its culmination, created the foundation of modern sociology, developed utilitarianism, anticipated socialism and gave democratic theory the most profound formulation it has ever received.
Maxey’s explanation of enlightenment runs as follows – civilization has its seasons of sowing and its seasons of harvest. The seventeenth century was for the most part a time of planting and germination; the eighteenth was pre-eminently a century of fruition and reaping. This was true on well-nigh every front of human enterprise, and notably so in the spheres of science and philosophy.
The scientific rationalism which had its birth and adolescence in the seventeenth century came to maturity in the eighteenth. This growth of enlightenment, this movement to enlarge the area of human understanding and enthrone reason as the sovereign guide to human affairs was by the Germans called the Aufkarung, by the French Eclaircissement, and by the English the Enlightenment.
Rousseau revolted against reason and he had enormous faith on emotion, belief etc. Enlightenment declared the almost opposite and held that reason is the sovereign guide to every action.
Whether beliefs and emotions have any importance or not the enlightenment does not consider. Human thought shall be guided by reason. Kant in his what is Enlightenment? (1784) wanted to emphasize the revolt against ignorance and superstition. Before the advent of enlightenment superstition, ignorance, belief, emotion etc. were the guiding force of social and political life of individuals.
Hence enlightenment wants to assert that not belief and emotion should be the determiner of human activities, the reason shall be the supreme guide. Mcclelland says “Voltaire attempted to popularize and spread the teachings of Newtonian physics as the true constitution of the universe.” Voltaire, we know, was the most important personality of the enlightenment period. He, along with many others, revolted against superstition and other unscientific behaviour and acts.
Enlightenment does not want to treat society as it is; it wants to change the whole structure and functions of society. Its method is to remove ignorance from the mind of people. The chief “function” of ignorance is to stop the growth of knowledge or the urge to know.
Mcclelland, that is why, correctly says all societies left to them were necessarily bound to go through the same processes of growth, maturity and decline.
I say, “left to them” because an important part of enlightenment consisted of devising ways in which that apparently ineluctable process of development could in fact be changed into necessary and inevitable progress, and all this without a word from God.
People dared to know, they threw a challenge to what was happening. The irresistible desire of man wanted to know the unknown and to get what has yet not been achieved. In this indomitable desire there was no place of invisible power or, specifically, God.
It was believed that human force and knowledge were capable of doing or changing “anything”. Enlightenment had also another meaning to know itself and to know the surrounding.
Rise of Enlightenment:
Different scholars have analysed the emergence of enlightenment from their respective outlook. For example, Chris Harman (A People’s History of the World) says that the rise of class society was a potent factor of the emergence of enlightenment.
He says that the intellectually conscious sections of society came to believe that the prevailing structures of the society were defective, that is we’re not up to mark, and, because of this, they must be changed or restructured.
These conscious people! Harman believes, belonged to the middle or upper classes. For one reason or other these people were fully dissatisfied with the mode of functioning of the present society.
A major section of these people were highly educated or they were intellectuals. They attacked the prejudice or superstition that dominated the society. Naturally these people wanted a complete overhaul of society.
“This catch-all’ category included a range of thinkers and writers—natural scientists, philosophers, satirists, economists, historians, essayists, novelists, political theorists and even musicians like Mozart”. It is not that people of all categories of men held the same view, but all of them came to believe that the existing structure of society must be changed.
The outlook of approach of all these categories of people was quite different. But at least on one point they were unanimous.
Let us again quote Harman:
“What they shared was a belief in the power of rational understanding based on empirical knowledge. This had to be applied to the world, even if it meant challenging existing myths and established beliefs.”
Such an approach represented a challenge to many of the institutions and much of the ideology of existing European societies. The root cause of enlightenment lies in this approach and outlook.
The origin of enlightenment can also be traced to the idea of John Locke and the Glorious Revolution of 1688. It is said that the Glorious Revolution introduced a change or number of changes which made way for enlightenment. This Revolution made people politically conscious of their own political and other rights. Again, Locke is also regarded as a great precursor to enlightenment.
He asserted that “innate ideas” were not the source of knowledge. Only empirical observation could reasonably be regarded as the real source of knowledge. Towards the end of seventeenth century, capitalism was proceeding slowly but steadily and Locke observed that the leading members of this class were eager to ensure their position in society and they began to advance new arguments and place data in favour of their intention and argument.
Some believe that this was also a reason of the rise of enlightenment. There is no doubt that the members of the wealthy and powerful class played a leading role in the emergence of enlightenment in several parts of Europe.
Rise of democratic feeling and rationality can be regarded as the cause of enlightenment. Democratic feeling made men conscious of themselves and simultaneously of the society. Along with it came rationality.
People observed that superstition and ignorance unreasonably dominated the society and numbed the mind and thought of people. This produced disastrous effects. There was hardly any place of rationality; reasonability and consciousness.
A critic observes – “rationality is considered to “result in the enlightenment and the development of modern knowledge systems especially in the natural sciences, though it also took an economic form intrinsic to the development of capitalism, industrialisation, modernisation” (Civil Society, Edited by Sudipta Kaviraj & Sunil Khilnani.
Contributions of Enlightenment to Political Theory:
J S Mcclelland says:
It is no exaggeration to say that all that is best in the Western liberal tradition comes from Enlightenment”. Here “liberal tradition” generally means liberal political ideas such as civil liberties, institutionalism, the abolition of slavery, gradualism and moderation etc.
All these various concepts have built up the structure of modern liberal political theory. Mcclelland points out that. Mcclelland is not alone; another authority on Enlightenment has expressed almost the same view.
He says – The Enlightenment—the age that extends from Locke to Condorcet—was one of the most creative ages in the history of political theory. In fact, the important aspects of political theory were the products of enlightenment.
Peter Gay in his The Enlightenment – An Interpretation says that without Enlightenment the major aspects of political theory could not get any scope to rise and flourish. So far as modern age of political theory is concerned, Enlightenment has a very important role to play. Modern age starts from the Enlightenment.
The most important contribution of Enlightenment is the development of reason and reason is singularly responsible for the rise and growth of liberal political ideas such as democracy, liberty, rights etc., Prof. Amartya Sen in his recent and noted work the Argumentative Indian has observed that Enlightenment has inspired men to follow reason and act accordingly and, again, the reason encourages him to make “intellectual enquiry.” The urge to enquire everything by applying reason has given birth too many political concepts.
Reason and liberalism are inseparable concepts. An individual under the influence of reason tries to follow and act. In other words, whenever a man acts or intends to act he does it by applying his reason and from this has emerged the basic aspect of liberalism.
Liberalism implies to act anything in accordance with reason. A man cannot use another man as his slave. Both are the creatures of God. There is no reason behind the system of slavery.
This feeling finally led to the abolition of slavery. Hence an important contribution of Enlightenment to the political theory is liberalism. Dante Germino in his Machiavelli to Marx – Modern Western Political Thought writes – “Many of the Enlightenment spokesmen were liberals.” The liberal thinkers of the Enlightenment period were liberal-minded and this feature influenced them to view the political ideas and concepts form this background.
In France, Enlightenment was very active and that generated the liberal thought. It is observed that Enlightenment forced the autocratic government to adopt certain liberal measures. But the autocratic nature of the French Government survived. There was practically no change and this frustrated the liberal thinkers of the eighteenth century.
Another aspect of liberalism can be stated in the following way. This laid great faith on institutionalism and all sorts of liberty particularly civil and political liberty and right.
Being under the influence of reason and rationality people began to demand more and more rights and liberties because they thought that without these there was no possibility of developing un-blossomed qualities of man.
Enlightenment had hardly any faith on revolution or armed struggles. It believed that political, economic and social goals could be achieved through constitutional and democratic methods.
This is called gradualism. Liberalism had no confidence on abrupt and violent change. Gradualism has also a relation with moderation. The time-old behaviour social structures and manners can be changed or reformed with the help of gradualism or liberal methods. There is another aspect of liberalism.
The rule of law must prevail in every sphere of social and political life. Each person must have full freedom of thought and expression and to form association. The liberalism simultaneously extended its wings even to the domain of internationalism.
There shall exist cordial relation and good understanding among all nations—big and small Progress in all its manifestations shall be achieved through mutual understanding and cooperation.
There also developed an interesting idea in the age of Enlightenment and this can be stated in the following manner—People will enjoy both rights and liberties. But all these must not hinder the enjoyment of these by other people as well as the smooth functioning of democratic government.
Enlightenment duly recognized the importance of natural rights and natural law. The importance of natural rights and natural law did not start their journey during the period of Enlightenment.
Actually the journey started during Aristotle’s time and the journey reached a very important stage in the writings of contractualists Hobbes and Locke. Several Enlightenment thinkers thought that only proper emphasis on natural law and natural rights could ensure people’s interests and position and enhance the boundary of democratic rights.
The following comment, it is expected, will throw enough light on the subject. “In the evolution of the concept of natural law emphasis is shifted from duties to rights, from the natural basis of the community to the inviolable claims of the individual, from a theologically related natural law to norms that emanate from world—immanent autonomous reason.” Dante Germino – Machiavelli to Marx – Modern Western Political Thought.
Another contribution of Enlightenment to political theory or thought was that it helped people to be conscious of their own position in society.
Chris Harman refers to the class. He says that the rise and development of reason enabled men to be conscious of their status or position (Specially in regard to economic status) in society. Harman claims that before the advent of Enlightenment men were not quite conscious of this aspect.
It means that during and after Enlightenment people came to realize that there are different classes (judged from economic criteria) in society. Mainly there were two classes, wealthy class and poor people. In between these two were also other classes. But these two were prominent.
Harman (through statistics) says that only very few people were capable of leading luxurious life and the largest numbers were deprived of bare necessities. This implies that even before the onset of Enlightenment the division of society (into rich and poor) was almost complete. But the Enlightenment thinkers were not revolutionaries and not eager to change the structure of society. Even the great intellectuals did not think of changing the society.
The division of society into classes did not go unnoticed. Large numbers of people were vociferous of the nature and ill-effects of the division of society into classes. But it took more than half century to be widely discussed. In the hands of Marx class society received maximum treatment.
An important aspect of Enlightenment’s contribution to political thought is serious attempts were made by many to free politics from the clutches of church and religion.
Gibbon’s famous book Decline and fall of Roman Empire contains a scathing attack on the influence of religion and church on the political affairs of state and government. It is perhaps not unreasonable to say that secularism in politics started (at least in embryonic form) during the period of Enlightenment.
Though Machiavelli was pioneer in this field, his achievement was not spectacular. David Hume was also very vocal about the dominating influence of religion. Voltaire was also very vocal about the ill-effects of religion and he called it infamous.
His famous slogan in this regard was “Crush the infamy” “So Voltaire could rage against the superstition of religion and subject Biblical accounts of miracles to devastating critiques. Voltaire vehemently opposed (and also criticized) the behaviour and activities of, the Pope and the priests of the church.
This attitude of Voltaire immediately antagonized the Church fathers and they in numerous ways tried to heckle Voltaire. The growth of Enlightenment, however, put a powerful brake on the forward journey of religion and its dominating influence upon politics and other aspects of society.
The Enlightenment thinkers further argued if God created laws for the physical world, the same God also made laws for human world and this world would be administered by these laws. All must be governed by these laws and no discrimination should be allowed to work. This implies a very important aspect of modern political theory and this is the rule of law. Later on the British Constitution adopted this concept and Britain the constitution followed.
Assessment of the Contribution of Enlightenment:
Many modern critics are not quite sympathetic about the contribution of Enlightenment.
For example J. S. Mcclelland makes the following comment:
“Enlightenment’s critics seem to be unanimous that the Enlightenment was deeply subversive. Enlightenment came to be a byword for shallow and pretentious over-intellectualism, naively deductive, geometrical in spirit, indifferent to anything about men except their natural rights. It was this superficiality which led enlightenment thinkers to attack, or at least ridicule, all existing forms of authority in the name of individualism”.
The chief contribution of Enlightenment is it has always appealed to reason. It has vehemently opposed religious bigotry and superstition. Its main appeal was to reason and intellect. It is correct. But reason or intellect of very limited and educated persons.
In the days of Enlightenment the percentage of literacy was miserably low and, naturally, very few persons had the ability to be guided by reason. That is why Mcclelland rightly maintains – “Enlightenment was not populist. Its audience was the literate bourgeoisie and aristocracy, neither of which could be called naturally revolutionary classes”.
Enlightenment had immense faith on reason. Reason, no doubt, has power to guide men properly and correctly. But this power is very limited. Men must be properly educated and there shall exist enough congenial atmospheres to express opinion fearlessly.
It is quite unfortunate that Enlightenment has not brought all these into active consideration. The bright sides of Enlightenment must be equally considered with due importance.
Peter Gay (The Enlightenment:
An Interpretation) says, “Enlightenment philosophers had a set of ideals. They championed free enquiry, they upheld the right to free thought and expression, they believed in diversity, they were secular, they despised superstition and fanaticism, they believed in the possibilities of reform and they were passionately humane. Indeed, if Enlightenment thinkers could be summed up in one phrase. I would call them ‘the party of humanity.”
The most important contribution of Enlightenment was liberalism and specially the rights and liberties of men. In 18th century, people’s will, feeling and rights were mercilessly suppressed.
The writers of the Enlightenment period were quite vociferous about these rights and liberties and they tirelessly propagated that all the people must have liberty and right. They were revolutionaries but they supported the right and genuine cause of men.
The Enlightenment thinkers of France and other European states propagated that every individual must have natural rights. The political philosophy of Enlightenment is clearly reflected in the American Declaration of Independence.
The constitution of US declares all men are created equal and they have right to life, liberty and property. It is said that this is the message of Enlightenment. The French declaration of the Rights of Man of 1789 is also representative of Enlightenment.