“The Enlightenment” and Its Relevance Today

I am skeptical about “The Enlightenment.” It is an ideologically loaded term that implies that much of the western intellectual tradition before The Enlightenment was “dark.” Much of that tradition was, of course, Christian. “The Enlightenment” presupposes an arc of history toward secular democratic scientific liberalism.

There is something to this presupposition, of course. Even the most devout believers today, at least in Europe and America, live in mental worlds that are much more secular than people in, say, the year 1700. When a cow died unexpectedly, the thoughts of early modern farmers in Europe and the American colonies often turned to the possibility of witchcraft as an explanation. People took it for granted that one might have direct encounters with spiritual forces, including demons and angels. By 1800, that “world of wonders” was not gone, but  it was constricted by something we might as well call “Enlightenment” thinking, or a preference for naturalistic explanations of what happens around us.

Portrait of John Locke, public domain, Wikimedia Commons

Still, I encourage students writing research papers to see if they can talk about intellectual trends in the eighteenth century without using the term “Enlightenment.” If your work is directly engaging the status of “The Enlightenment” as a historical category, fine. But if what you’re really talking about is the rise of humanism, egalitarianism, naturalism, or skepticism, then why not just employ those terms and avoid trotting out “The Enlightenment”?

“The Enlightenment” has taken a beating from many sources in recent decades. Some, like me, point to the term’s ideological and anti-religious baggage. Others, like the eminent historian J.G.A. Pocock, have criticized the term for its unwieldiness and suggested that while there may have been many national “enlightenments” (French, Scottish, etc.) there was not a unitary “Enlightenment.” Some critics have accepted the “Enlightenment” as a unitary category but lament that its adherents defended imperialism, slavery, anti-feminism, and traditional faith too often for the “Enlightenment” to have actually been enlightened.

One of the most provocative recent writers on the Enlightenment, Jonathan Israel, argues that the traditional study of the Enlightenment has put too much emphasis on a handful of thinkers who were admittedly hierarchy- and tradition-minded. Among these thinkers were Newton, Locke, Voltaire, and David Hume. Israel suggests that to appreciate the real value of the Enlightenment, we need to re-focus on “Radical Enlightenment” thinkers such as the Dutch philosopher Spinoza. In this lesser-known set of radical philosophers, Israel contends that we will find sources of the contemporary notion that improving human life requires emancipating men and women from “autocracy, intolerance, and prejudiced thinking, and establishing a predominantly secular morality” as well as promoting “equality (sexual and racial), democracy, [and] individual liberty.”

Christian historians and historians of Christianity alike have not shied away from “The Enlightenment.” My colleague and friend David Bebbington, in particular, has argued that early evangelicalism was indelibly marked by the Enlightenment’s commitment to rationalism.

I’m not sold on the utility of the term. Here’s how I handled the issue in one passage of my Whitefield biography:

Because of his familiarity with polemics for and against Calvinism, Whitefield knew that it was under assault in the eighteenth century as part of intellectual changes historians often call the “Enlightenment.” (I prefer terms like “liberal” or “humanitarian” thought to describe these new developments, rather than the catch-all term “Enlightenment.” The concept of the Enlightenment, as many have noted, over-simplifies Europe’s intellectual trends of the time. Some Enlightenment figures were friendly toward traditional faith, some not.) Pressure against Calvinist doctrine came from Arminians such as Wesley, who considered predestination irrational and unreasonable. Other critiques came from humanitarian voices who emphasized God’s benevolence over his sovereignty. Historians have also noted a growing sentiment against “cruelty” in eighteenth-century thought, a development that would ultimately help birth the antislavery movement. To humanitarian critics such as Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Third Earl of Shaftesbury, notions such as eternal torment in hell, original sin, and predestination cast God as a merciless tyrant. To Shaftesbury, the Calvinist belief in a wrathful God spoke only to Calvinists’ own disturbed, fearful psychology. He proposed that God was better understood as compassionate, loving, and “truly and perfectly good.”

Henry May’s classic book The Enlightenment in America remains the best place to start on the movement’s influence among the Founders. May notes that the pragmatic, common-sense Scottish Enlightenment, with its relative friendliness to Christianity, was the most influential strand of Enlightenment thinking in American history.

For better or worse, the term “The Enlightenment” will likely remain a staple of the history of western civilization for the time being. I imagine that most professors who teach western civ or world history will keep including a day or week to discussing it. But hopefully the criticisms of the term and of its adherents have brought much-needed clarity and circumspection to its use.

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  • James Matthew

    Unlikely that anyone will remotely pause at using the word Enlightenment when describing this era, consider how long Roman Catholics have called for the “Reformation” to be renamed the “Protestant Revolt” or perhaps more neutrally the “Protestant Revolution”.

    The only use of the term “reformation” during this era that is not an insult to Catholics is the Reformation at Trent. But that gets called the “Counter-Reformation” by historians who have been dominated by Protestant strains of thinking.

    If you can’t get your fellow Christians to stop insulting each other with their historical terms I don’t think anyone else is going to worry about the use of the word Enlightenment.