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The Age of Enlightenment (or simply the Enlightenment) is the era in Western philosophy and intellectual, scientific and cultural life, centered upon the eighteenth century, in which reason was advocated as the primary source and legitimacy for authority.
Developing simultaneously in Germany, England, Scotland, France, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, and Portugal, the movement was buoyed by Atlantic Revolutions, especially the success of the American Revolution in breaking free of the British Empire. Most of Europe was caught up, including the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Russia, and Scandinavia, along with Latin America and instigating the Haitian Revolution. The authors of the American Declaration of Independence, the United States Bill of Rights, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, and the Polish-Lithuanian Constitution of May 3, 1791, were motivated by Enlightenment principles.
The terminology "Enlightenment" or "Age of Enlightenment" does not represent a single movement or school of thought, for these philosophies were often mutually contradictory or divergent. The Enlightenment was less a set of ideas than it was a set of values. At its core was a critical questioning of traditional institutions, customs, and morals. Thus, there was still a considerable degree of similarity between competing philosophies. Also, some philosophical schools of the period could not be considered part of the Enlightenment at all. Some classifications of this period also include the late seventeenth century, which is typically known as the Age of Reason or Age of Rationalism.
The term "Enlightenment" came into use in English during the mid-nineteenth century, with particular reference to French philosophy, as the equivalent of a term then in use by German writers, Zeitalter der Aufklärung, signifying generally the philosophical outlook of the eighteenth century. However, the German term Aufklärung was not merely applied retrospectively; it was already the common term by 1784, when Immanuel Kant published the influential essay "Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment?"
There is little consensus on when to date the start of the age of Enlightenment and some scholars simply use the beginning of the eighteenth century or the middle of the seventeenth century as a default date. If taken back to the mid-1600s, the Enlightenment would trace its origins to Descartes' Discourse on the Method, published in 1637. Others define the Enlightenment as beginning in Britain's Glorious Revolution of 1688 or with the publication of Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica which first appeared in 1687. As to its end, some scholars use the French Revolution of 1789 or the beginning of the Napoleonic Wars (1804–15) as a convenient point in time with which to date the end of the Enlightenment.
Historian Peter Gay asserts the Enlightenment broke through "the sacred circle," whose dogma had circumscribed thinking. The Enlightenment is held to be the source of critical ideas, such as the centrality of freedom, democracy, and reason as primary values of society. This view argues that the establishment of a contractual basis of rights would lead to the market mechanism and capitalism, the scientific method, religious tolerance, and the organization of states into self-governing republics through democratic means. In this view, the tendency of the philosophes in particular to apply rationality to every problem is considered the essential change.
No brief summary can do justice to the diversity of enlightened thought in 18th-century Europe. Because it was a value system rather than a set of shared beliefs, there are many contradictory trains to follow. In his famous essay "What is Enlightenment?" (1784), Immanuel Kant described it simply as freedom to use one's own intelligence. More broadly, the Enlightenment period is marked by increasing empiricism, scientific rigor, and reductionism, along with increasing questioning of religious orthodoxy.
In opposition to the intellectual historiographical approach of the Enlightenment, which examines the various currents, or discourses of intellectual thought within the European context during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the cultural (or social) approach examines the changes that occurred in European society and culture. Under this approach, the Enlightenment is less a collection of thought than a process of changing sociabilities and cultural practices – both the “content” and the processes by which this content was spread are now important. Roger Chartier describes it as follows:
This movement [from the intellectual to the cultural/social] implies casting doubt on two ideas: first, that practices can be deduced from the discourses that authorize or justify them; second, that it is possible to translate the terms of an explicit ideology the latent meaning of social mechanisms.
One of the primary elements of the cultural interpretation of the Enlightenment is the rise of the public sphere in Europe. Jürgen Habermas has influenced thinking on the public sphere more than any other, though his model is increasingly called into question. The essential problem that Habermas attempted to answer concerned the conditions necessary for “rational, critical, and genuinely open discussion of public issues”. Or, more simply, the social conditions required for Enlightenment ideas to be spread and discussed. His response was the formation in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries of the “bourgeois public sphere”, a “realm of communication marked by new arenas of debate, more open and accessible forms of urban public space and sociability, and an explosion of print culture". More specifically, Habermas highlights three essential elements of the public sphere: it was egalitarian; it discussed the domain of "common concern"; argument was founded on reason.
James Van Horn Melton provides a good summary of the values of this bourgeois public sphere: its members held reason to be supreme; everything was open to criticism (the public sphere is critical); and its participants opposed secrecy of all sorts. This helps explain what Habermas meant by the domain of "common concern". Habermas uses the term to describe those areas of political/social knowledge and discussion that were previously the exclusive territory of the state and religious authorities, now open to critical examination by the public sphere.
Habermas credits the creation of the bourgeois public sphere to two long-term historical trends: the rise of the modern nation state and the rise of capitalism. The modern nation state in its consolidation of public power created by counterpoint a private realm of society independent of the state – allowing for the public sphere. Capitalism likewise increased society’s autonomy and self-awareness, along with creating an increasing need for the exchange of information. As the nascent public sphere expanded, it embraced a large variety of institutions, the most commonly cited being coffee houses and cafés, salons and the literary public sphere, figuratively localized in the Republic of Letters.
Dorinda Outram provides a more nuanced description of the rise of the public sphere. The context of the rise of the public sphere was the economic and social change commonly grouped under the effects of the Industrial Revolution: "economic expansion, increasing urbanisation, rising population and improving communications in comparison to the stagnation of the previous century". Rising efficiency in production techniques and communication lowered the prices of consumer goods at the same time as it increased the amount and variety of goods available to consumers (including the literature essential to the public sphere). Meanwhile, the colonial experience (most European states had colonial Empires in the eighteenth century) began to expose European society to extremely heterogeneous cultures. Outram writes that the end result was the breaking down of "barriers between cultural systems, religious divides, gender differences and geographical areas". In short, the social context was set for the public sphere to come into existence.
The Habermasian model has been criticized on all fronts by historians. That it was bourgeois is contradicted by the many examples of noble and lower class participation in areas such as the coffeehouses and the freemasonic lodges. That it was independent and critical of the state is contradicted by the diverse cases of government-sponsored public institutions and government participation in debate, along with the cases of private individuals using public venues to promote the status quo.
The word “public” implies the highest level of inclusivity – the public sphere by definition should be open to all. However, as the analysis of many “public” institutions of the Enlightenment will show, this sphere was only public to relative degrees. Indeed, as Roger Chartier emphasizes, Enlightenment thinkers frequently contrasted their conception of the “public” with that of the people: Chartier cites Condorcet, who contrasted “opinion” with populace; Marmontel with “the opinion of men of letters” versus “the opinion of the multitude”; and d’Alembert, who contrasted the “truly enlightened public with “the blind and noisy multitude”. As Mona Ozouf underlines, public opinion was defined in opposition to the opinion of the greater population. While the nature of public opinion during the Enlightenment is as difficult to define as it is today, it is nonetheless clear that the body that held it (i.e. the public sphere) was exclusive rather than inclusive. This observation will become more apparent during the descriptions of the institutions of the public sphere, most of which excluded both women and the lower classes.
Note: This list is by no means exhaustive. The general requirements for a public institution were the following:
For example, using these standards, the London debating societies were part of the public sphere, because they were inclusive and egalitarian, they spread information, and they promoted critical thought.
The history of Academies in France during the Enlightenment begins with the Academy of Science, founded in 1666 in Paris. From the beginning, the Academy was closely tied to the French state, acting as an extension of a government seriously lacking in scientists. Beyond serving the monarchy, the Academy had two primary purposes: it helped promote and organize new disciplines, and it trained new scientists. It also contributed to the enhancement of scientists’ social status, considered them to be the “most useful of all citizens". Academies demonstrate the rising interest in science along with its increasing secularization, as evidenced by the small amount of clerics who were members (13 percent).
The presence of the French academies in the public sphere cannot be attributed to their membership; although the majority of their members were bourgeois, the exclusive institution was only open to elite Parisian scholars. That being said, they did perceive themselves to be “interpreters of the sciences for the people”. Indeed, it was with this in mind that academians took it upon themselves to disprove the popular pseudo-science of mesmerism.
However, the strongest case for the French Academies being part of the public sphere comes the concours académiques (roughly translated as academic contests) they sponsored throughout France. As Jeremy L. Caradonna argues in a recent article in the Annales, “Prendre part au siècle des Lumières: Le concours académique et la culture intellectuelle au XVIIIe siècle”, these academic contests were perhaps the most public of any institution during the Enlightenment.
L’Académie française revived a practice dating back to the Middle Ages when it revived public contests in the mid-seventeenth century. The subject manner was generally religious and/or monarchical, and featured essays, poetry, and painting. By roughly 1725, however, this subject matter had radically expanded and diversified, including “royal propaganda, philosophical battles, and critical ruminations on the social and political institutions of the Old Regime.” Controversial topics were not always avoided: Caradonna cites as examples the theories of Newton and Descartes, the slave trade, women's education, and justice in France.
More importantly, the contests were open to all, and the enforced anonymity of each submission guaranteed that neither gender nor social rank would determine the judging. Indeed, although the “vast majority” of participants belonged to the wealthier strata of society (“the liberal arts, the clergy, the judiciary, and the medical profession”), there were some cases of the popular classes submitting essays, and even winning.
Similarly, a significant number of women participated –and won – the competitions. Of a total of 2 300 prize competitions offered in France, women won 49 – perhaps a small number by modern standards, but very significant in an age in which most women did not have any academic training. Indeed, the majority of the winning entries were for poetry competitions, a genre commonly stressed in women’s education.
In England, the Royal Society of London also played a significant role in the public sphere and the spread of Enlightenment ideas. In particular, it played a large role in spreading Robert Boyle's experimental philosophy around Europe, and acted as a clearinghouse for intellectual correspondence and exchange. As Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer have argued, Robert Boyle was "a founder of the experimental world in which scientists now live and operate". Boyle's method based knowledge on experimentation, which had to be witnessed to provide proper empirical legitimacy. This is where the Royal Society came into play: witnessing had to be a "collective act", and the Royal Society's assembly rooms were ideal locations for relatively public demonstrations. However, not just any witness was considered to be credible; "Oxford professors were accounted more reliable witnesses than Oxfordshire peasants." Two factors were taken into account: a witness's knowledge in the area; and a witness's "moral constitution". In other words, only civil society were considered for Boyle's public.
The increased consumption of reading materials of all sorts was one of the key features of the “social” Enlightenment. Developments in the Industrial Revolution allowed consumer goods to be produced in greater quantities at lower prices, encouraging the spread of books, pamphlets, newspapers and journals – “media of the transmission of ideas and attitudes”. Commercial development likewise increased the demand for information, along with rising populations and increased urbanisation. However, demand for reading material extended outside of the realm of the commercial, and outside the realm of the upper and middle classes, as evidenced by the Bibliothèque Bleue. Literacy rates are difficult to gauge, but Robert Darnton writes that, in France at least, the rates doubled over the course of the eighteenth century.
Reading underwent serious changes in the eighteenth century. In particular, Rolf Engelsing has argued for the existence of a “reading revolution”. Until 1750, reading with done “intensively: people tended to own a small number of books and read them repeatedly, often to small audience. After 1750, people began to read “extensively”, finding as many books as they could, increasingly reading them alone. On the other hand, as Jonathan Israel writes, Gabriel Naudé was already campaigning for the “univerisal” library in the mid-seventeenth century. And if this was an ideal only realistic for state institutions and the very wealthy (and indeed, an ideal that was seldom achieved), there are records for extremely large private and state-run libraries throughout Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth-centuries.
Of course, the vast majority of the reading public could not afford to own a private library. And while most of the state-run “universal libraries” set up in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-centuries were open to the public, they were not the only sources of reading material.
On one end of the spectrum was the Bibliothèque Bleue, a collection of cheaply produced books published in Troyes, France. Intended for a largely rural and semi-literate audience these books included almanacs, retellings of medieval romances and condensed versions of popular novels, among other things. While historians, such as Roger Chartier and Robert Darnton, have argued against the Enlightenment’s penetration into the lower classes, the Bibliothèque Bleue, at the very least, represents a desire to participate in Enlightenment sociability, whether or not this was actually achieved.
Moving up the classes, a variety of institutions of readers access to material without needing to buy anything. Libraries that lent out their material for a small price started to appear, and occasionally bookstores would offer a small lending library to their patrons. Coffee houses commonly offered books, journals and sometimes even popular novels to their customers. The Tatler and The Spectator, two influential periodicals sold from 1709 to 1714, were closely associated with coffee house culture in London, being both read and produced in various establishments in the city. Indeed, this is an example of the triple or even quadruple function of the coffee house: reading material was often obtained, read, discussed and even produced on the premises.
As Darnton describes in The Literary Underground of the Old Regime, it is extremely difficult to determine what people actually read during the Enlightenment. For example, examining the catalogues of private libraries not only gives an image skewed in favour of the classes wealthy enough to afford libraries, it also ignores censured works unlikely to be publicly acknowledged. For this reason, Darnton argues that a study of publishing would be much more fruitful as to hypothesizing reading habits.
All across continental Europe, but in France especially, book sellers and publishers had to negotiate censorship laws of varying strictness. The Encyclopédie, for example, narrowly escaped seizure and had to be saved by Malesherbes, the man in charge of the French censure. Indeed, many publishing companies were conveniently located outside of France as to avoid overzealous French censors. They would smuggle their clandestine merchandise – both pirated copies and censured works – across the border, where it would then be transported to clandestine book sellers or small-time peddlers.
Darnton provides a detailed record of one clandestine bookseller’s (one de Mauvelain) business in the town of Troyes. At the time, the town’s population was 22 000. It had one masonic lodge and an “important” library, though the literacy rate seems to have been less than 50 percent. Mauvelain’s records give us a good representation of what literate Frenchmen might have truly read, since the clandestine nature of his business provided a less restrictive product choice. The most popular category of books was political (319 copies ordered). This included five copies of D’Holbach’s Système social, but around 300 libels and pamphlets. Readers were far more interested in sensationalist stories about criminals and political corruption than they were in political theory itself. The second most popular category, “general works” (those books “that did not have a dominant motif and that contained something to offend almost everyone in authority”) likewise betrayed the high demand for generally low-brow subversive literature. These works, however, like the vast majority of work produced by Darnton’s “grub street hacks”, never became part of literary canon, and are largely forgotten today as a result.
Nevertheless, the Enlightenment was not the exclusive domain of illegal literature, as evidenced by the healthy, and mostly legal, publishing industry that existed throughout Europe. “Mostly legal” because even established publishers and book sellers occasionally ran afoul of the law. The Encyclopédie, for example, condemned not only by the King but also by Clement XII, nevertheless found its way into print with the help of the aforementioned Malesherbes and creative use of French censorship law.
But many works were sold without running into any legal trouble at all. Borrowing records from libraries in England, Germany and North America indicate that more than 70 percent of books borrowed were novels; that less than 1 percent of the books were of a religious nature supports a general trend of declining religiosity.
A genre that greatly rose in importance was that of scientific literature. Natural history in particular became increasingly popular among the upper classes. Works of natural history include René-Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur’s Histoire naturelle des insectes and Jacques Gautier d’Agoty’s La Myologie complète, ou description de tous les muscles du corps humain (1746). However, as François-Alexandre Aubert de La Chesnaye des Bois’s Dictionnaire de la Noblesse (1770) indicates, natural history was very often a political affair. As E. C. Spary writes, the classifications used by naturalists “slipped between the natural world and the social ... to establish not only the expertise of the naturalists over the natural, but also the dominance of the natural over the social”. From this basis, naturalists could then develop their own social ideals based on their scientific works.
The target audience of natural history was French polite society, evidenced more by the specific discourse of the genre than by the generally high prices of its works. Naturalists catered to polite society’s desire for erudition – many texts had an explicit instructive purpose. But the idea of taste (le goût) was the real social indicator: to truly be able to categorize nature, one had to have the proper taste, an ability of discretion shared by all members of polite society. In this way natural history spread many of the scientific development of the time, but also provided a new source of legitimacy for the dominant class.
The many scientific and literary journals (predominantly composed of book reviews) that were published during this time are also evidence of the intellectual side of the Enlightenment. In fact, Jonathan Israel argues that the learned journals, from the 1680s onwards, influenced European intellectual culture to a greater degree than any other “cultural innovation”.
The first journal appeared in 1665– the Parisian Journal des Scavants – but it was not until 1682 that periodicals began to be more widely produced. French and Latin were the dominant languages of publication, but there was also a steady demand for material in German and Dutch. There was generally low demand for English publications on the Continent, which was echoed by England’s similar lack of desire for French works. Languages commanding less of an international market – such as Danish, Spanish and Portuguese – found journal success more difficult, and more often than not, a more international language was used instead. Although German did have an international quality to it, it was French that slowly took over Latin’s status as the lingua franca of learned circles. This in turn gave precedence to the publishing industry in Holland, where the vast majority of these French language periodicals were produced.
Israel divides the journals’ intellectual importance into four elements. First was their role in shifting the attention of the “cultivate public” away from “established authorities” to “what was new, innovative, or challenging”. Secondly, they did much to promote the “‘enlightened’ ideals of toleration and intellectual objectivity”. Thirdly, the journals were an implicit critique of existing notions of universal truth monopolized by monarchies, parliaments, and religious authorities. The journals suggested a new source of knowledge – through science and reason – that undermined these sources of authority. And finally, they advanced the “Christian Enlightenment”, a notion of Enlightenment that, despite its advocacy for new knowledge sources, upheld “the legitimacy of God-ordained authority.”
The term "Republic of Letters" was coined by Pierre Bayle in 1664, in his journal Nouvelles de la Republique des Lettres. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, the editor of Histoire de la République des Lettres en France, a literary survey, described the Republic of Letters as being:
In the midst of all the governments that decide the fate of men; in the bosom of so many states, the majority of them despotic ... there exists a certain realm which holds sway only over the mind ... that we honour with the name Republic, because it preserves a measure of independence, and because it is almost its essence to be free. It is the realm of talent and of thought.
The ideal of the Republic of Letters was the sum of a number of Enlightenment ideals: an egalitarian realm governed by knowledge that could act across political boundaries and rival state power. It was a forum that supported "free public examination of questions regarding religion or legislation". Immanuel Kant considered written communication essential to his conception of the public sphere; once everyone was a part of the "reading public", then society could be said to be enlightened. The people who participated in the Republic of Letters, such as Diderot and Voltaire, are frequently known today as important Enlightenment figures. Indeed, the men who wrote Diderot's Encyclopédie arguably formed a microcosm of the larger "republic".
Dena Goodman has argued that women played a major role in French salons—salonnières to complement the male philosophes. Discursively, she bases the Republic of Letters in polite conversation and letter writing; its principal social institution was the salon.
Robert Darnton's The Literary Underground of the Old Regime was the first major historical work to critique this ideal model. He argues that, by the mid-eighteenth century, the established men of letters (gens de lettres) had fused with the elites (les grands) of French society. Consider the definition of "Goût" (taste) as written by Voltaire in the Dictionnaire philosophique (taken from Darnton): "Taste is like philosophy. It belongs to a very small number of privileged souls ... It is unknown in bourgeois families, where one is constantly occupied with the care of one's fortune". In the words of Darnton, Voltaire "thought that the Enlightenment should begin with the grands". The historian cites similar opinions from d'Alembert and Louis Sébastien Mercier.
Darnton argues that the result of this "fusion of gens de lettres and grands" was the creation of an oppositional literary sphere, Grub Street, the domain of a "multitude of versifiers and would-be authors". These men, lured by the glory of the Republic of Letters, came to Paris to become authors, only to discover that their dreams of literary success were little more than chimeras. The literary market simply could not support large numbers of writers, who, in any case, were very poorly remunerated by publishing-bookselling guilds. The writers of Grub Street, the Grub Street Hacks, were left feeling extremely bitter about the relative success of their literary cousins, the men of letters.
This bitterness and hatred found an outlet in the literature the Grub Street Hacks produced, typified by the libelle. Written mostly in the form of pamphlets, the libelles "slandered the court, the church, the aristocracy, the academies, the salons, everything elevated and respectable, including the monarchy itself". Darnton designates Le Gazetier cuirassé by Charles Théveneau de Morande as the prototype of the genre. Consider
The devout wife of a certain Maréchal de France (who suffers from an imaginary lung disease), finding a husband of that species too delicate, considers it her religious duty to spare him and so condemns herself to the crude caresses of her butler, who would still be a lackey if he hadn't proven himself so robust.
The public is warned that an epidemic disease is raging among the girls of the Opera, that is has begun to reach the ladies of the court, and that it has even been communicated to their lackeys. This disease elongates the face, destroys the complexion, reduces the weight, and causes horrible ravages where it becomes situated. There are lades without teeth, others without eyebrows, and some are completely paralyzed.
It was Grub Street literature that was most read by the reading public during the Enlightenment. More importantly, Darnton argues, the Grub Street hacks inherited the "revolutionary spirit" once displayed by the philosophes, and paved the way for the Revolution by desacralizing figures of political, moral and religious authority in France.
The first English coffeehouse, named Angel, was established in Oxford, by a certain Jewish entrepreneur named Jacob, in 1650. Brian Cowan argues that Oxford coffeehouses developed into "penny universities", offering a locus of learning that was less formal than structured institutions. These penny universities occupied a significant position in Oxford academic life, as they were frequented by virtuosi, who conducted their research on the premises. According to Cowan, "the coffeehouse was a place for like-minded scholars to congregate, to read, as well as learn from and to debate with each other, but was emphatically not a university institution, and the discourse there was of a far different order than any university tutorial.”
Although coffee had been known in France since the 1640s, it was Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli – François Procope – who established the first café in Paris, the Café Procope, in 1686. Although it took coffee a while to become popular, by the 1720s there were around 400 cafés in the city. The Café Procope in particular became a centre of Enlightenment, welcoming such names as Voltaire and Rousseau, and later on, Marat, Hébert and Camille Desmoulins during the Revolution. The Café Procope was also where Diderot and D’Alembert decided to create the Encyclopédie.
Like the coffeehouse in England, the café in France was a varied affaire. If the Café Procope represented a high class institution, on the end of the spectrum, Louis Sebastien Mercier described an affiliation between cafés and prostitution: using prostitutes, army recruiters would lure young unsuspecting men into cafés, where they would then be forced or otherwise tricked into joining up. The general trend in Parisian cafés across the eighteenth century was popularization, helped by lower coffee prices. Indeed, Mercier wrote towards the end of the eighteenth century that “it is no longer decent to stay in a café, because it announces a dearth of acquaintances and an absolute void of good society”, although he was probably referring to the majority of cafés rather than every café.
The cafés earned their place in the public sphere due to the conversation that took place within them. Robert Darnton in particular has studied Parisian café conversation in great detail. He describes how the cafés were one of the various “nerve centers” for bruits publics, public noise or rumour. These bruits were allegedly a much better source of information than were the actual newspapers available at the time.
The Debating Societies that rapidly came into existence in 1780 London present an almost perfect example of the public sphere during the Enlightenment. Donna T. Andrew provides four separate origins:
In any event, popular debating societies began, in the late 1770s, to move into more “genteel”, or respectable rooms, a change which helped establish a new standard of sociability: “order, decency, and liberality”, in the words of the Religious Society of Old Portugal Street. Respectability was also encouraged by the higher admissions prices (ranging from 6d. to 3s.), which also contributed to the upkeep of the newer establishments. The backdrop to these developments was what Andrew calls “an explosion of interest in the theory and practice of public elocution”. The debating societies were commercial enterprises that responded to this demand, sometimes very successfully. Indeed, some societies welcomed from 800 to 1200 spectators a night.
These societies discussed an extremely wide range of topics. One broad area was women: societies debated over “male and female qualities”, courtship, marriage, and the role of women in the public sphere. Societies also discussed political issues, varying from recent events to “the nature and limits of political authority”, and the nature of suffrage. Debates on religion rounded out the subject matter. It is important to note, however, that the critical subject matter of these debates did not necessarily translate into opposition to the government. In other words, the results of the debate quite frequently upheld the status quo.
From a historical standpoint, one of the most important features of the debating society was their openness to the public; women attended and even participated in almost every debating society, which were likewise open to all classes providing they could pay the entrance fee. Once inside, spectators were able to participate in a largely egalitarian form of sociability that helped spread “Enlightening ideas”.
The "cult of Enlightenment" for its devotees, freemasonic lodges originated from English and Scottish stonemasonic guilds in the seventeenth century. In the eighteenth century, they expanded into an extremely widespread collection of interconnected (to varying degrees) men’s, and occasionally women’s, associations with their own mythologies and special codes of conduct. These included a communal understanding of liberty and equality inherited from guild sociability – "liberty, fraternity, and equality" The remarkable similarity between these values, which were generally common in Britain as on the Continent, and the French Revolutionary slogan of "liberté, égalité et fraternité" spawned many conspiracy theories. Notably, Abbé Barruel traced the origins of the Jacobins – and hence the Revolution – to the French freemasons.
Freemasonry was officially established in Europe in 1734, when a lodge was set up in The Hague, although the first "fully formed lodge" appears to have met in 1721 in Rotterdam. Similarly, there are records of a Parisian lodge meeting in 1725 or 1726. As Daniel Roche writes, freemasonry was particularly prevalent in France – by 1789, there were perhaps as many as 100 000 French Masons, making Freemasonry the most popular of all Enlightenment associations. Freemasonry does not appear to have been confined to Western Europe, however, as Margaret Jacob writes of lodges in Saxony in 1729 and in Russia in 1731.
Conspiracy theories aside, it is likely that masonic lodges had an effect on society as a whole. Jacob argues that they “reconstituted the polity and established a constitutional form of self-government, complete with constitutions and laws, elections and representatives”. In other words, the micro-society set up within the lodges constituted a normative model for society as a whole. This was especially true on the Continent: when the first lodges began to appear in the 1730s, their embodiment of British values was often seen as threatening by state authorities. For example, the Parisian lodge that met in the mid 1720s was composed of English Jacobite exiles.
Furthermore, freemasons all across Europe made reference to the Enlightenment in general in the eighteenth century. In French lodges, for example, the line “As the means to be enlightened I search for the enlightened” was a part of their initiation rites. British lodges assigned themselves the duty to “initiate the unenlightened”. This did not necessarily link lodges to the irreligious, but neither did this exclude them from the occasional heresy. In fact, many lodges praised the Grand Architect, the masonic terminology for the divine being who created a scientifically ordered universe.
On the other hand, Daniel Roche contests freemasonry’s claims for egalitarianism, writing that “the real equality of the lodges was elitist”, only attracting men of similar social backgrounds. This lack of real equality was made explicit by the constitution of the Lausanne Switzerland lodge (1741):
The order of freemasons is a society of confraternity and equality, and to this end is represented under the emblem of a level ... a brother renders to another brother the honour and deference that is justly due him in proportion to his rank in the civil society.
Elitism was beneficial for some members of society. The presence, for example, of noble women in the French “lodges of adoption” that formed in the 1780s was largely due to the close ties shared between these lodges and aristocratic society.
Enlightenment historiography began in the period itself, from what "Enlightenment figures" said about their work. A dominant element was the intellectual angle they took. D'Alembert's Preliminary Discourse of l'Encyclopédie provides a history of the Enlightenment which comprises a chronological list of developments in the realm of knowledge – of which the Encyclopédie forms the pinnacle. A more philosophical example of this was the 1783 essay contest (in itself an activity typical of the Enlightenment) announced by the Berlin newspaper Berlinische Monatsschrift, which asked that very question: “What is Enlightenment?” Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn was among those who responded, referring to Enlightenment as a process by which man was educated in the use of reason. Immanuel Kant also wrote a response, referring to Enlightenment as “man's release from his self-incurred tutelage”, tutelage being “man's inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another”. This intellectual model of interpretation has been adopted by many historians since the eighteenth century, and is perhaps the most commonly used interpretation today.
Dorinda Outram provides a good example of a standard, intellectual definition of the Enlightenment:
Enlightenment was a desire for human affairs to be guided by rationality rather than by faith, superstition, or revelation; a belief in the power of human reason to change society and liberate the individual from the restraints of custom or arbitrary authority; all backed up by a world view increasingly validated by science rather than by religion or tradition.
Like the French Revolution, the Enlightenment has long been hailed as the foundation of modern Western political and intellectual culture. It has been frequently linked to the French Revolution of 1789. However, as Roger Chartier points out, it was perhaps the Revolution that “invented the Enlightenment by attempting to root its legitimacy in a corpus of texts and founding authors reconciled and united ... by their preparation of a rupture with the old world”. In other words, the revolutionaries elevated to heroic status those philosophers, such as Voltaire and Rousseau, who could be used to justify their radical break with the Old Regime. In any case, two nineteenth-century historians of the Enlightenment, Hippolyte Taine and Alexis de Tocqueville, did much to solidify this link of Enlightenment causing revolution and the intellectual perception of the Enlightenment itself.
In his l Régime (1876), Hippolyte Taine traced the roots of the French Revolution back to French Classicism. However, this was not without the help of the scientific view of the world [of the Enlightenment], which wore down the “monarchical and religious dogma of the old regime”. In other words then, Taine was only interested in the Enlightenment insofar as it advanced scientific discourse and transmitted what he perceived to be the intellectual legacy of French classicism.
Alexis de Tocqueville painted a more elaborate picture of the Enlightenment in L'Ancien Régime et la Révolution (1850). For de Tocqueville, the Revolution was the inevitable result of the radical opposition created in the eighteenth century between the monarchy and the men of letters of the Enlightenment. These men of letters constituted a sort of “substitute aristocracy that was both all-powerful and without real power”. This illusory power came from the rise of “public opinion”, born when absolutist centralization removed the nobility and the bourgeosie from the political sphere. The “literary politics” that resulted promoted a discourse of equality and was hence in fundamental opposition to the monarchical regime.
From a historiographical point of view, de Tocqueville presents an interesting case. He was primarily concerned with the workings of political power under the Old Regime and the philosophical principles of the men of letters. However, there is a distinctly social quality to his analysis. In the words of Chartier, de Tocqueville “clearly designates ... the cultural effects of transformation in the forms of the exercise of power”. Nevertheless, for a serious cultural approach, one has to wait another century for the work of historians such as Robert Darnton, The Business of Enlightenment: A Publishing History of the Encyclopédie, 1775-1800 (1979).
In the meantime, though, intellectual history remained the dominant historiographical trend. The German scholar Ernst Cassirer is typical, writing in his The Philosophy of the Enlightenment (19321951) that the Enlightenment was “ a part and a special phase of that whole intellectual development through which modern philosophic thought gained its characteristic self-confidence and self-consciousness”. Borrowing from Kant, Cassirer states that Enlightenment is the process by which the spirit “achieves clarity and depth in its understanding of its own nature and destiny, and of its own fundamental character and mission”. In short, the Enlightenment was a series of philosophical, scientific and otherwise intellectual developments that took place mostly in the eighteenth century – the birthplace of intellectual modernity.
Only in the 1970s did interpretation of the Enlightenment allow for a more heterogeneous and even extra-European vision. A. Owen Aldridge demonstrated how Enlightenment ideas spread to Spanish colonies and how they interacted with indigenous cultures, while Franco Venturi explored how the Enlightenment took place in normally unstudied areas – Italy, Greece, the Balkans, Poland, Hungary, and Russia.
Robert Darnton's cultural approach launched a new dimension of studies. He said, :
“Perhaps the Enlightenment was a more down-to-earth affair than the rarefied climate of opinion described by textbook writers, and we should question the overly highbrow, overly metaphysical view of intellectual life in the eighteenth century.”
Darnton examines the underbelly of the French book industry in the eighteenth century, examining the world of book smuggling and the lives of those writers (the “Grub Street Hacks”) who never met the success of their philosophe cousins. In short, rather than concerning himself with Enlightenment canon, Darnton studies “what Frenchmen wanted to read”, and who wrote, published and distributed it. Similarly, in The Business of Enlightenment. A Publishing History of the Encyclopédie 1775-1800, Darnton states that there is no need to further study the encyclopedia itself, as “the book has been analyzed and anthologized dozen of times: to recapitulate all the studies of its intellectual content would be redundant”. He instead, as the title of the book suggests, examines the social conditions that brought about the production of the Encyclopédie. This is representative of the social interpretation as a whole – an examination of the social conditions that brought about Enlightenment ideas rather than a study of the ideas themselves.
The work of German philosopher Jürgen Habermas was central to this emerging social interpretation; his seminal work The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (published under the title Strukturwandel der Öffentlicheit in 1962) was translated into English in 1989. The book outlines the creation of the “bourgeois public sphere” in eighteenth century Europe. Essentially, this public sphere describes the new venues and modes of communication allowing for rational exchange that appeared in the eighteenth century. Habermas argued that the public sphere was bourgeois, egalitarian, rational, and independent from the state, making it the ideal venue for intellectuals to critically examine contemporary politics and society, away from the interference of established authority.
Habermas's work, though influential, has come under criticism on all fronts. While the public sphere is generally an integral component of social interpretations of the Enlightenment, numerous historians have brought into question whether the public sphere was bourgeois, oppositional to the state, independent from the state, or egalitarian.
These historiographical developments have done much to open up the study of Enlightenment to a multiplicity of interpretations. In A Social History of Truth (1994), for example, Steven Shapin makes the largely sociological argument that, in seventeenth-century England, the mode of sociability known as civility became the primary discourse of truth; for a statement to have the potential to be considered true, it had to be expressed according to the rules of civil society.
Feminist interpretations have also appeared, with Dena Goodman being one notable example. In The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment (1994), Goodman argues that many women in fact played an essential part in the French Enlightenment, due to the role they played as salonnières in Parisians salons. These salons “became the civil working spaces of the project of Enlightenment” and women, as salonnières, were “the legitimate governors of [the] potentially unruly discourse” that took place within. On the other hand, Carla Hesse, in The Other Enlightenment: How French Women Became Modern (2001), argues that “female participation in the public cultural life of the Old Regime was ... relatively marginal”. It was instead the French Revolution, by destroying the old cultural and economic restraints of patronage and corporatism (guilds), that opened French society to female participation, particularly in the literary sphere.
All this is not to say that intellectual interpretations no longer exist. Jonathan Israel, for example, in Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man, 1670-1752 (2006), constructs an argument that is primarily intellectual in scope. Like many historians before him, he sets the Enlightenment within the context of the French Revolution to follow. Israel argues that only an intellectual interpretation can adequately explain the radical break with Old Regime society.
The Age of Enlightenment was an 18th century cultural movement in Europe. It had its center in France and there it was led by philosophers like Descartes and Denis Diderot. Diderot spread the enlightenment's ideas with the Encyclopédie, the first big public book of reference.
The most important idea of the Enlightenment was the belief in people's reason. All people are capable of thinking for themselves. Therefore, a person should not automatically believe in things those in power and other authorities claim. People do not even have to believe what the church teaches or what the priests preach. Another important thought was that a society is best developed when all its members, regardless of status, collaborated equally in its design. It was thought therefore, that the special rights and privileges of the nobility should be abolished. These were dangerous thoughts for those in power, and many enlightenment philosophers were at times imprisoned or were forced into exile.
The ideas of the Age of Enlightenment contributed to the French revolution of 1789. Some people in power from different countries took some of the ideas of the Age of Enlightenment and made changes to their countries although they kept power for themselves. Examples of these so called "enlightened absolutists" include Catherine the Great of Russia, Frederick the Great of Prussia and Gustav III of Sweden.
During this period of time the Enlightenment, as more and more people began to use reason, some came to disagree with the idea that God created the world. This brought on conflicts and later war. The Enlightenment is held to be the source of important ideas, such as the centrality of freedom, democracy and reason as primary values in society. The enlightened argued that the establishment of a contractual basis of rights would lead to the capitalism, the use of scientific method, to religious tolerance, and to the organization of states into self-governing republics held together through democratic means. The application of rationality to every problem is considered the essential change. From this point on, thinkers and writers were held to be free to pursue the truth in whatever form, even if the pursuit of truth or the new truth violated established ideas.
The Enlightenment also had an effect on many of the founding fathers of America. They were influenced by the Enlightenment's idea of duty and of the role of government for the people.
The Enlightenment was different from its earlier movement, the Renaissance. Renaissance figures helped the rise of arts by using religion (such as the Reformation). During the Enlightenment, its figures started thinking with reason and natural science. Lots of them also gave the Catholic Church severe attacks. The movement gave rise to Capitalism and Socialism.
It was followed by the 19th-century Romanticism movement (figures: Victor Hugo, Charles Darwin) and the 20th-century Existenialist movement (figures: Jean-Paul Sartre).
(The above are important influences to the American and French Revolutions and are leaders of the French Enlightenment.)