To what extent was Enlightenment one of human emancipation? As Hampson (1968) describes the period “an embarrassment of wealth for the historian and the danger of being buried under his own treasure”, this essay in the explanation of the question is in danger of not only being buried by treasure but embarrassed by limitation.
Initially, the essay will define the period and the concept of enlightenment, showing the challenges that enlightenment thinkers were subject to, in the limitations of a socially primitive state with innovative ideas that were contrary to the contemporary constructs of the age.
Their purpose was to free humankind from the bonds of superstition, the monarchical state, and contradictions of Christian theology and hence the good of humanity.
The main body describes key thinkers and their efforts to emancipate man by way of science, critical reason, and political thought. The latter section of the essay will describe the weaknesses and limitations of the period and attempt to capture the socio-political mood of the era and how these limitations manifested in attitudes to gender, colonialism, and race.
In summation the essay will argue that the Enlightenment period was one of human emancipation.
Immanual Kant defined Enlightenment as man’s release from his self-incurred immaturity using reason without the guidance of others. D. Alembert defined Enlightenment as Characterized by intellectual and scientific progress of the age, but also because of the expectation of the age that philosophy would dramatically improve human life.
Enlightenment can therefore be defined as becoming increasingly independent in contemplation and process through the awakening of one’s intellectual powers. Emancipation is synonymous with enlightenment in that it is defined as the enablement of people to free themselves of the structures that dominate and constrain them, to be empowered and free from power, in the same way one frees one’s mind to realize our intellectual powers.
Enlightenment was an era that brought with it concepts of secularism, universalism and cosmopolitanism and can with confidence be described as one of energetic intellectual inquiry. The philosophes and men of letters as their mission statement meant to bring (Illumina)light and advancement to the world by the implementation of reason and reflect on the nature of man.
Education was therefore a declaration of intent, and this intent was to bring their ideas, not only to the privileged class, but in addition the general reading public. This concept was new and the beginning of a tumultuous, exciting, and dangerous period in our history.
Plato’s allegory of the cave and the description of one escapee from the darkness into the light of truth and knowledge can be brought to comparison, by exception, that this was a period of mass escape by many who returned and not only convinced the cave dwellers of the new knowledge but brought them to action.
This action materialized in the form of overcoming perceptions of imagined realities, the monarchical states, the church and feudalism and the extended imagined orders that developed from these constructs, for example culture, religion, and tradition.
Enlightenment facilitated emancipation of humanity by way of challenging, dismantling, and re-orienting these imagined realities and orders that had for extended periods of our history been imagined and implemented to create cohesive, stable, and successful societies, however, they had also stunted humanities growth by means of oppression and subjugation of free thought and created inequality by class, race, and creed.
The manifestation of these actions can be recognized by at times obscene brutality in the English civil war and American and French revolutions.
Wars fought in opposition to the constructs of, the divine right of kings, the absolutist state, and Feudalism. Thomas Paine, witnessing the French revolution and the fervor surrounding the abolition of feudal privileges, the institution of a constitutional monarchy, and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the citizen, excitedly wrote to George Washington, “A share in two revolutions is living with some purpose”.
In polarity the actions manifested in remarkable discoveries, conceptualism, and human understanding by Englishmen such as Francis Bacon & Thomas Hobbes, and Rene Descartes of France.
In addition, the primary natural Philosophers of the scientific revolution Galileo Galilei-Earth revolves around the Sun, Johannes Kepler-works provided foundations for Newton’s theory of universal gravitation, and Gottfried Willhelm Leibniz-refined binary number system.
The publishing of Principia Mathematica 1686 by Isaac Newton and John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding 1689 – both works becoming central and instrumental to scientific, philosophical, and mathematical advancement to the enlightenment thinkers and emancipation of humanity by science and political thought.
The emancipation from religious tyranny and the fanaticism of Christian theology was a campaign set in motion by many enlightenment thinkers to not only free the people from the overbearing influence and meddling in the lives of humanity by the church but to free their minds from blind faith driven by fear of a vengeful God in the sky, exacerbated by naivety and lack of education as intimated by Boulanger and others.
Enlightenment thinkers and their views and ideas of God and religion and the views of the Church-God and religion can be described as parallax, and indeed by enlightenment intelligentsia as quixotic, although lacking the characteristics of chivalry and romance.
Voltaire was notable in his ferocious contempt of the church and the title of “anti-Christ of the Enlightenment” was by all accounts well deserved, evidenced by his lifelong crusade against the false religion. He made use of ridicule in the form of humor directed at the clergy and the church religious zealots in his early battles for toleration.
Additionally, his attacks were not only reserved for the lower ranks of the church but against the Pope and the military religious order of the Jesuits. One must assume his courage was fueled by a fixed moral compass directed at the evils perpetrated in the name of Christianity for example, religious wars, burning heretics, and execution of women accused of witchcraft.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Swiss-born philosopher and author of the treatises the Origins of inequality and the Social Contract, was an Enlightenment figure whose work gave inspiration to the leaders of the French revolution that put an end to the absolutist state and precipitated democracy, the social contract, civil liberties, and political rights in modern Europe.
The key feature of the social contract is that the state derives its right to govern by the consent of the governed.
On publishing the social contract, “Man Was Born Free”, “and he is everywhere in chains” Rousseau rejected the idea of man handing over his liberty to a sovereign in return for safety and security proposed by Hobbes and his dystopian model.
Rousseau intimated that no man may forgo their liberty without losing their humanity thereby eroding morality. He believed that power and authority could not be in the soul domain of a sovereign as this would transform humanities equality into political inequality. He considered this idea to be a form of hoax perpetrated on the poor. Later philosopher Karl Marx echoed similar sentiment in his writings about the false consciousness instilled in the poor by the rich and the structural institutions that served their interests.
Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau used social contract theory to present universal theories of the state and individual rights that dismissed traditional religious or national forms of identity to the interests of all humanity.
Enlightenment thinkers, and their key aims of tolerance and equality were not immune to contradiction via ideas of a fair and egalitarian society.
Concepts of rationalism and critical reasoning were at times subject to the same fate of contradiction, they were suspended in a socially primitive evolutionary state. There was little urgency for change in traditional gender roles during the early modern period. Despite the egalitarian principles of enlightenment thinkers of universal suffrage for all men, this did not include women, slaves, or indeed all men, only the propertied class.
For example, women were seen as not equal to men in intellect, and in marriage were considered possessions rather than equal partners. Division of labor in marriage was a distant speck on the horizon of gender equality.
Slaves were seen as not capable of using reason, and beasts, and men who did not own property were not eligible to vote until the late 18th century.
Although many enlightenment thinkers professed ideas of equality and tolerance, they were set within defined parameters.
For instance, the ever-equivocal writings of Rousseau in politics on democracy are ambiguous due in part to his theoretical political model and the application of a practical model and were equally ambiguous in his views of gender equality. Rousseau viewed women as equal in a state of nature, however this view was made with the Adjunct, via civilization and nature, making subjection and privatization of women his ideal form of political order.
Therefore, the nature and development of woman then becomes what is useful to man and contradicts his views on equality of the sexes.
Mary Wollstonecraft challenged his ideas on gender differences, maintaining these differences were a product of socialization and lack of education. In John Locke we find similar contradictions in his views on gender equality, although he had high regard for women as written in the treatises, with words of encouragement to women for example preacher Rebecca Collier and both Queens Mary and Elizabeth referring to them respectfully.
Ultimately, though his views affected the change and status of women’s role within family, authority in Locke’s view was with the husband, referring to where wills meet, the man being the stronger and abler holds strict authority. Locke may be looked upon as an early progressive although hardly a champion of equality between the sexes.
Wollstonecraft dismissed the subjective ideas of writers in this era, and their sole criteria of strength in the justification of the superiority of man. Instead, she insisted reason be applied and that women be judged on the merits of their intellect and virtues on the same terms as men.
The issue of slavery in a Scots Enlightenment context is perplexing in that there were no laws in Scotland that allowed ownership of a slave and yet at any one time there were between 70-80 slaves in Scotland during the 18th century.
Moreover, when any slave entered Scotland, they were baptized, meaning they were recognized as a man of the living flesh and blood with a soul, by the very definition the natural rights of man, are apparent. An indicator of the limitations of the church, the law and while historians noted the enthusiastic participation in the abolition of the slave trade in the public sphere, documented by the hundreds of thousands of petition signatories.
The limited and strange quiet from Scotland’s philosophical elite, with no literal or vocal support, was deafening in the historical sense. With confined and restrained parameters there were exceptions, notably by the national bard, Robbie Burns pointing to the authoring of his poem, A Slaves Lament.
Adam Ferguson, and Adam Smith criticized the slave trade but not the morality of it, merely the economic conditions of the enterprise or the Roman law aspect. Considering enlightenment thinkers opposition to church authority and their ideas of equality and tolerance, in Scotland the clergy were in large part responsible for the abolitionist movement in motivating the Calvinist Presbyterian Scots to action and helping Joseph Knight in his court bid for freedom.
Owning a slave, was made illegal in Scotland in 1778. A slave, Joseph Knight, became the catalyst for a court judgement which brought about the end of slave ownership in Scotland. With Lord Auchinleck declaring:
it may be custom in Jamaica to make slaves of poor blacks [but] I do not believe it agreeable to humanity or the Christian religion […] He is our brother, and he is a man.”
Where religion could foster the worst of man’s nature and place it to the fore, equally it could present and encourage the best of humanity’s nature to the fore. Hobbes and Rousseau describe both opposing paradigms as central to their political, historical and anthropological influences through the human condition influencing and directing their conceptualization of socio-political thought and their juxtaposed positions.
Enlightenment and emancipation of humanity are shown throughout the essay as characteristics of the era. The end of the absolutist state, feudalism and the hegemony of the church afforded more freedom to humanity in the genesis of fundamental human rights, civil liberties, political rights, and freedom of the mind from the limitations of these constructs.
Science was emancipated from the chains of theology allowing enlightenment figures to describe knowledge in terms of human experience and not biblical tenets and placed the prominence for change on humanity and not biblical Gods.
The Enlightenment period was transitional and the incremental evolution between two worlds, moving from the old order to the new, where reason, logic and empiricism were placed on the new altar where religion once stood. Considering the era and the implementation of the new concepts of Social contract theory, Democratic governance, civil liberties, political and fundamental human rights in the socio-political realm and the scientific application of empiricism to new discoveries, inventions, and concepts.
It can be argued in full confidence this was a unique period in our history that had profound and long-lasting effects. By Enlightenment mankind envisioned and realised emancipation of the mind, the spirit and the body of humanity.
The Enlightenment period was exceptional in humanity’s historical journey, affording us the many legacies we enjoy today, for example democratic governance, fundamental human rights, civil liberties and political rights. Currently western democracies are shifting towards an autocratic position, indicating a backward slide away from these legacies.
The contemporary period is in danger of fostering by tacit agreement a new form of feudalism, an elite that is distanced from the populace by a re-imagined absolutist monarchy as has been witnessed by the Davos clique at the G20, with a dress code that conjures up images of a Dune Royal family.
New imagined realities to replace the current order are being constructed with science transformed to scientism, the new religion is reduced by neo-liberalism to a commodity not based on reason, empiricism and ethics but marketized as a product of profit and control. Universality is steadily becoming a quaint concept, and cosmopolitanism is conscripted as a device of division and polarization.
The contemporary period is stained by the insidious embedding of corporatocracy by an unhinged, pseudo-intellectual elite that resembles the old, imagined orders with ambitions of world Empire. The Enlightenment spirit must once again be unleashed. Plato’s cave dwellers have been quieted and must be woken abruptly and stirred to action if we are to realize conditions that serve all humanity.
The tiny deviant faction of depraved individuals that have acquired wealth via neo-liberalism and a global economy that has gifted them a de facto power over sovereign nation-states undermining democracy and diluting sovereignty. The de-jure voter franchise is king in democratic governance are we to let this principle of democracy disappear by de facto power of these unelected, self-important upstarts.
Enlightenment and Emancipation demand your duty to resist.
Charles Chevalier is an author who has written essays various social science subject areas, ranging through history, economics, comparative politics, social and political thought and sociology. You can read more of his work on his Substack here, or follow him on twitter here.
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