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The Enlightenment

By Kor

The Enlightenment is a well known term, typically denoting the propagation of the use of reason and the fight against superstitions in the 18th century. In modern day Europe, the term is often used in the popular press to signify a religious and academic difference between the continent and many other parts of the world. But neither 18th century Europeans, nor modern day historians, have developed a definitive meaning to the word. Origins, intents and participants are not always clear-cut. In this article I will provide a far from complete glimpse into the many-faceted world of the Enlightenment.

Location and participants

The Enlightenment has traditionally been situated in France, where philosophes like Voltaire, Montesquieu and Diderot originated and wrote works which often criticised a part of the traditional order. They tried to reach out to a larger audience, writing in a much more accessible style than previous philosophers had done, for example by putting their viewpoints in novels or, popularly, letters. For example, Montesquieu wrote a book published as The Persian Letters, a set of fictional letters in which a Persian travels through Europe, all the while writing and receiving letters to and from the home front. As he travels, he criticises a number of traditional institutions, like the Papacy and the French absolutist monarchy, while he becomes increasingly enlightened in the process. Texts like these were printed abroad (usually in the Dutch Republic) and read by an unidentifiable part of the population, if probably limited to the bourgeoisie. They were discussed for their literary and philosophical merits by the upper middle class and the nobility in salons, often patronised by women and focal points for society's elite.

But to some historians, these movements were the result of a process that was initiated much earlier: they seek the roots for the intellectual movement elsewhere. Popular in this respect is the English and Scottish post-Civil War philosophy, although the latter formed largely parallel to the traditional Enlightenment, with Newton, Locke and Toland frequently being mentioned as pioneers who influenced the French Enlightenment. Sometimes this British Enlightenment is itself seen as a by-product of French Huguenot (protestant) immigrants and Dutch economic and legal philosophy. Some thinkers, like Margaret Jacob and Jonathan Israel, identify a major rift between a moderate and a radical Enlightenment, the former of which supposedly triumphed over the radicals. Nevertheless, Jonathan Israel claims these radicals (who he links to the Dutch republican philosopher Spinoza) had a major influence on our current civilisation and can be seen as responsible for creating our ideas of tolerance and liberty. Jacob connects the radical ideas not to major philosophers, but to side-lined secret societies, in particular the Freemasons. Whatever the case, the Enlightenment is generally considered to have occurred most strongly in France, the Dutch Republic, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom.

Religion and Enlightenment

Many people today see the Enlightenment as an anti-religious movement. Apart from the popular press, this image is also supported by some historians, such as the aforementioned Jonathan Israel, who closely linked his Spinozist radical Enlightenment to atheist ideas and a morality based on pure reason. While it is certainly true that more than a few Enlightenment philosophers were atheistic, even among the more radical Enlightenment thinkers it was not considered the norm. Many of the first academics writing about themes we now connect to the Enlightenment were in fact ministers or priests, who strongly believed in a God but who had no trouble disconnecting the ideas of science and religion. Authors such as Balthasar Bekker, who wrote the controversial The World Bewitched were writing against superstitions, not against religion (Bekker himself was a minister). These superstitions may in many cases have been drawn from the Bible, but Bekker claimed that scripture did not truly define nature, something only science could do. This attitude is linked by some historians to the 18th century spiritualist movements, such as the Great Awakening or the Methodists.

Other Enlightenment thinkers, like Kant, emphasised that the Enlightenment (according to him, 'man's emergence from his self-incurred immaturity') was something that need not apply to all people in a country. In fact, many people had no real need for being enlightened, and freedom of speech need only apply to those people who could make their case with educated authority. Even then, they had to do their duty. While a minister could disagree with some of the doctrines of his faith, he could not say so openly while performing his religious duties, because that would confuse his parishioners and harm the church which paid him. As a theologian, however, the minister had full right to write an article in which he critically examined the doctrines, within reasonable norms and with full argumentation.


Definitions of Enlightenment such as the one proposed by Kant did not pass without receiving some criticism. One sharp rebuttal of Kant's understanding of the term came from the satirist Johann Georg Hamann, who raised multiple arguments against it. To start with, man was naturally weak, and to rise above its 'self-incurred immaturity' would be unnatural. Apart from that, Hamann linked Kant's vision to Platonic philosophy in which philosophers were dictating definitions and providing guidance. This was dangerous, as an Enlightened person did not need guidance anyway. The modest freedom of speech proposed by Kant was even worse: it may be nice to talk about freedom, but it is worthless when one experiences slavery. He finally blamed Kant for trusting too much in the protective army of Frederick the Great - what might happen when a tyrant came to power? Kant saw, after all, no reason to educate the soldiers, who would therefore blindly obey orders. In modern times this final argument has even, by some philosophers, been linked to the Second World War.


Philosophical movements are hard to typify, because they are experienced in a unique manner by everyone involved. The emphasis or even the meaning of a philosophy can be completely different for different individuals. This also holds true for the Enlightenment, which is best seen as one in a string of accelerations of learning, beginning with the 12th Century Renaissance, and also including the common Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution: each movement created a solid base later scientists and philosophers could use to develop new ideas. The Enlightenment speaks strongly to many Europeans of today, who like to see our modern values reflected in its ideology. While it is more complicated than that, the Enlightenment certainly provides us with points of recognition, even if they may seem somewhat distorted when viewed up close.


A variety of sources was used, primarily consisting of the following:
Jonathan Israel, Enlightenment Contested. Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man 1670-1752
Margaret Jacob, The Radical Enlightenment: Pantheists, Freemasons and Republicans
Henri Krop, 'Eenheid in verscheidenheid. Nieuwe visies op de (Nederlandse) Verlichting', De Achttiende Eeuw 37 (2005)
Dorina Outram, The Enlightenment
Ernestine van der Wal & Leo Wessels, Een veelzijdige verstandhouding. Religie en Verlichting in Nederland 1650-1850
Michiel Wielema, The March of the Libertines. Spinozists and the Dutch Reformed Church (1660-1750)

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