© 2021, by M. Keith Booker
The historical period known as the “Enlightenment” takes its name from the same historical model that led bourgeois historians of the nineteenth century to label the Middle Ages, which were dominated by the aristocracy and the Catholic Church, as the “Dark Ages.” Via this same model, the period of radical change that brought the Middle Ages to an end was labeled the “Renaissance,” or “rebirth,” in reference to the way such historians saw this period as bringing about a return of the period of cultural and intellectual richness that had marked the classical eras of Greek and Roman civilization, breaking the power of the Church and the aristocracy. The period that followed, with the darkness of the Middle Ages lifted at last, was named by bourgeois historians as the “Enlightenment,” though it should be noted that it was not until the late nineteenth century that this specific term was applied to the period of new intellectual activity that marked the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Europe (though metaphors linking light and knowledge were widespread during the period now known as the Enlightenment).
Whatever the name of the period, it was, nevertheless, clear even at the time that something new was happening in eighteenth-century European intellectual circles, introducing an entirely new way of thinking. Some of the basic characteristics of this thinking include the following:
- A theoretical belief in individualism, or in the notion that each individual human being is equally valuable and deserves equal opportunities. In addition, Enlightenment individualism included a belief in the fundamental ability of human beings to understand the world and to use their innate abilities to bend the world to their will. This belief in the value and capability of humans has led the kind of thinking that informed the Enlightenment to be considered a form of “humanism.”
- A commitment to the capitalist economic system and to the notion that this system provided the best means to increase the overall wealth of Western societies.
- A belief that the world operates according to rational principles that can best be understood by scientific inquiry and rational analysis. In addition, the Enlightenment worldview was committed to the notion that scientific methodologies provided the best means for the capitalist economic system to operate efficiently and the best hope for individuals to fulfill their ultimate potentials.
- A fundamentally optimistic vision of history as a rational process that generally moves in the “right” direction and a confidence that the new scientific modes of thought that rose to prominence in the Enlightenment would help human beings to build better societies.
Humanism, capitalism, rationality, and optimism, then, might be considered the key elements of Enlightenment thinking. Most of these, of course, seem like common sense now, but that is because all of us have grown up in a world shaped by Enlightenment ideas. At the time, though, these ideas were very new. To see this, we need only be reminded of the medieval Catholic disgust with physical human beings, whose materials bodies were thought to be sordid receptacles for the soul, which had to prove itself worthy of heaven by surviving this life relatively free of sin. This mainstream medieval Catholic worldview is nicely expressed in this thirteenth-century poem by the Franciscan monk Giacomino di Verona, which also indicates the way in which female bodies were thought to be particularly disgusting (“made of rotting and corrupt excrement”). Here, Giacomo addresses himself to people in general, reminding them of their “true” nature:
In a very dirty and vile workroom
You were made out of slime,
So foul and wretched
That my lips cannot bring themselves to tell you about it.
But if you have a bit of sense, you will know
That the fragile body in which you lived,
Where you were tormented eight months and more,
Was made of rotting and corrupt excrement …
You came out through a foul passage
And you fell into the world, poor and naked …
… Other creatures have some use:
Meat and bone, wool and leather;
But you, stinking man, you are worse than dung:
From you, man, comes only pus …
From you comes no virtue,
You are a sly and evil traitor;
Look in front of you and look behind,
For your life is like your shadow,
Which quickly comes and quickly goes.
Clearly, we have come a long way since that time on the road to more modern—and more humanist—ideas. Of course, different historians might disagree about which aspects of Enlightenment thinking were more fundamental or important. Karl Marx, who gave the modern model of history its most coherent theoretical shape, argued that capitalism was the most fundamental of these elements and that all of the others were simply corollaries to the rise of capitalism, which required all of the others in order to operate effectively. After all, Marx’s materialist philosophy is based on the notion that human societies are designed first and foremost to meet the material needs (such as food and shelter) of the members of that society. As a result, the aspect of society that deals with meeting these needs, i.e., the economic system, is the most fundamental aspect of any society. Bourgeois philosophy, on the other hand, tends to be more dominated by idealist visions, which hold that ideas are the fundamental driving forces of history, which would tend to make the rise of scientific rationality the most fundamental aspect of bourgeois thought. Indeed, bourgeois historians have often referred to the Enlightenment as the “Age of Reason.”
One of the things that both Marxist and bourgeois historians tend to agree on, however, is that culture reflects broader trends in the society in which that culture was produced. Of course, during the entire modern era, bourgeois thinking has been dominant in the Western world, while Marxist thinking has been the primarily mode of resistance to the hegemony of bourgeois thinking—or what Marxists would refer to as bourgeois ideology. Therefore, most bourgeois thinkers would agree with Marxist thinkers that the most important and successful modern Western literature has tended to reflect bourgeois ideology. For bourgeois thinkers, though, the bourgeois slant of modern Western literature is a good thing, while Marxists (who tend to champion “dialectical” thinking and thus insist on looking at both sides of all issues) would see the bourgeois orientation of modern Western literature as helping to secure the hegemony of bourgeois ideology, thus furthering both its positive and its negative aspects.
For example, both bourgeois and Marxist historians of culture have seen the new forms of literature that arose in the eighteenth century (especially the realist novel) as playing a fundamentally positive role in furthering the rise of the new capitalist order, which both Marxist and bourgeois thinkers see as a considerable improvement over the repressive system that reigned in Europe in the Middle Ages. By the nineteenth century, however, the bourgeoisie were largely in power all over Western Europe, so that the bourgeoisie themselves transformed from a radical, revolutionary class to a conservative one, seeking not to gain power but to preserve the power they already had. Marxist cultural historians see this move as a negative one that is reflected in the negative turn taken by European literature, especially in Britain (where bourgeois power was most securely installed). Thus, much nineteenth-century literature, especially the realist novel in Britain, is in many ways stodgy and conservative. Bourgeois cultural historians, on the other hand, have often seen the nineteenth-century realist novel in Britain as one of the highest achievements of world culture, because it does so thoroughly express the bourgeois worldview.
There were, of course, numerous shortcomings in Enlightenment thinking, including the fact that it contained many internal contradictions—such as the fact that the capitalist economic system was built on fundamental economic inequalities between the ruling bourgeoisie and the working class whose labor made that rule (and capitalism itself) possible. And, of course, it was also generally the case that, in the Enlightenment, it was all men who were created equal, a proclamation that thus did not include women. In addition, the Enlightenment was a thoroughly European phenomenon, though it spread to North America, where the American Declaration of Independence (with its emphasis on the notion of equality among individuals who had certain fundamental and “inalienable” rights) became a very representative Enlightenment document. But the founders of the United States were Europeans, and so the American revolution did little to mitigate the Eurocentrism of the Enlightenment, with its confident assurance in the superiority of European civilization and the universality of its principles. This confidence, among other things, helped to fuel the worldwide spread of European colonialism and the belief that Europeans had a right (or even a responsibility) to rule the rest of the globe. This phenomenon also often led to a lack of respect for nonwestern cultures, a lack that scholars of literature and culture are still working to rectify.
On the other hand, despite the universalist emphasis of Enlightenment thought, the Enlightenment was never a homogenous phenomenon, even within Europe. In much of Eastern and Southern Europe, traditional Catholic/Orthodox religious authority remained in place and fundamentally medieval social systems held firm throughout the Enlightenment period. Indeed, the Russian Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire would not be completely shattered until World War I, though they had been shaken in the Napoleonic Wars of the early nineteenth century. Meanwhile, in Western Europe, the rise of Protestantism proceeded most powerfully in England, where King Henry VIII had literally banned the Catholic Church in England as early as 1534, only seventeen years after Martin Luther had initiated the Protestant Reformation in Germany. Because of its strong history of Protestantism (and because of certain developments in the English political system as a result of events such as the English Civil War of 1642–1651 and the Glorious Revolution of 1688), England emerged very much at the forefront of the development of capitalism as well as the development of democratic politics, which is another way of saying that the bourgeoisie were more thoroughly entrenched as the new ruling class in England than anywhere else in Europe.
Many English thinkers were at the forefront of Enlightenment thinking as well, including many who made important contributions before the main period of the Enlightenment itself. Figures such as Francis Bacon (1561–1626) and Sir Isaac Newton (1642–1726/27) can be numbered among the central founders of science as we know it and were thus important forerunners of the Enlightenment. English philosophers such as John Locke (1632–1704) were important forerunners as well. Meanwhile, the Enlightenment was influential all over Europe—even in Russia, where the German-born Catherine the Great (1729–1796), who ruled Russia from 1762 until her death, became fascinated with Enlightenment ideas. France, though, was very much at the center of intellectual life during the period, where thinkers such as Voltaire (1694–1778) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) led a movement that had a particular political charge, opposed as it was to the retrograde political system of eighteenth-century France.
The ideals of the Enlightenment still remain influential today, just as the novel (the literary form that best expressed those ideals) remains the most important form of written literature. Some, in fact, would argue that the current trend toward the globalization of capitalism (and of culture) should be considered the final phase of the Enlightenment, which then becomes virtually synonymous with capitalist modernization on a global scale. However, it is more typical to associate the Enlightenment with the rise to power of the bourgeoisie in Europe, which would place its end somewhere from the beginning to the middle of the nineteenth century. John Robertson, in his brief introduction to the Enlightenment, is even more specific, described the Enlightenment as “an intellectual movement of 18th-century Europe” (1). Either way, the global civilization of the twenty-first century has important roots in the Enlightenment, so that, in order to understand our own world, it is valuable to know as much about the Enlightenment as possible.
Robertson, John. The Enlightenment: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2015.
Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. 1904–1905. Trans. Talcott Parsons, 1930, Routledge, 1995.
 See Max Weber for the classic historical analysis of the ways in which Protestantism helped to validate the rational view of the world that was so crucial to the rise of capitalism.