Over two centuries ago, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote an essay entitled ‘Was ist Aufklarung?’ [What is the Enlightenment?]. For Kant, the Enlightenment represented an age when human consciousness was liberated from ignorance and error, culminating in a full understanding of nature as well as the human self.
As a great turning point in the struggle for human rights, The Enlightenment turned philosophy into a vehicle for social and political reform. It was an international phenomenon with a political and ideological dynamic whose core values derived from the scientific revolution, and the liberalism of the 17th century.
The main figures of the Enlightenment were from the major European countries and from British North America. They ranged from the Isaac Newton and John Locke, whose works provided many of the key stimulants for the Enlightenment, to David Hume and Edward Gibbon in England, François Marie Arouet Voltaire, Charles-Louis de Secondat Montesquieu, Denis Diderot, Jean le Rond d’Alembert, Jacques Turgot and Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas de Caritat Condorcet in France, the Swiss-born Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Germans Paul-Henri Thiry d’Holbach, Kant and Johann Gottfried von Herder, and the American Benjamin Franklin. Slightly less influential but important figures included Julien Offray de La Mettrie, Claude Adrien Helvetius, Jeremy Bentham, the Italian Cesare Beccaria, the systematizer of political economy Adam Smith, as well as a number of other Scots, and the first makers of a constitution providing civil liberties--- Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Sam Adams, and Alexander Hamilton. They shared the broad perspective of criticizing the ancient regime, of striving to emancipate humanity through knowledge, education and science, from superstition, theological dogma, and clerical control. The Enlightenment’s chief and linked targets werefeudal absolutism and religious dogmatism. As Diderot wrote in 1771, the characteristic spirit of the century, as visualized by the philosophes, was liberty.
For sections of the Enlightenment, there was a commitment to republicanism, tolerance, and experimentation. Despite limitations it was universal in its rhetoric, and this enabled wider masses of the “third estate” a new sense of their rights and their dignity. Emphasizing separation of Church and state, Liberalism proposed secular responses to the sufferings of the people, in opposition to organized religion and its claims. It tried to replace prejudice and force by reasoned responses to grievances. While liberalism was firmly committed to bourgeois class power, it was also to initiate a concern with constraining the arbitrary exercise of power of the state. Liberalism in England was produced in response to royalist absolutism as well as democracy. For the Whigs led by the Earl of Shaftesbury, it was necessary to forge an alliance with former Cromwellians and even former Levelers, while ensuring that political power was retained by the bourgeoisie. The political theory put forward by Locke, one of Shaftesbury’s associates, identified the public domain with “political society” or the state and the private domain with the interplay of particular interests and private property in “civil society.” And the state should engage in only the most important tasks and essentially leave “civil society” to run its course. He made certain abstract assumptions about human nature, identified them with the rising bourgeoisie, and drew the consequences for politics, namely, the fact that protection of property was the reason for forming the state. He acknowledged the right of people to resistance if the executive power overstepped its limits. But by making a distinction between express consent and tacit consent, he created a separation between the bourgeoisie and the subaltern classes. But all citizens were to retain the rights to “life, liberty, and property”, which would later receive a slightly different expression in the American Declaration of Independence as the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. Locke also anticipated Montesquieu in making a case for the separation of powers. However, the universalist claims were elided by the exclusion of the propertyless, of atheists, Catholics and women. Despite the exclusion of Catholics and atheists from full citizenship, however, Locke, in his ‘letter on toleration,’ argued in favor of toleration as the prudent way to deal with differences and dogmatism. Locke was actually quite moderate and he ultimately separated the rights of the bourgeoisie and the rights of wage-workers. But his liberalism was couched in terms acceptable to the radicals whom Shaftesbury wanted to bring into alliance (e.g., former Levelers), and therefore was capable of being interpreted as arguing that grievances of the weak and exploited demand rational adjudication, failing which revolution becomes legitimate.
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