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KRONOS Vol XI, No. 10
THE AGE OF REASON: SOME INSIGHTS
LIVIO C. STECCHINI
Copyright (c) 1985 by Dorothea Stecchini
Renaissance approaches had proved unable to cope with the problems of the seventeenth century: the irresponsible scramble for power among rulers, the increasing religious divisions, and the tension among the social classes caused by incipient capitalism. The last victories of the Renaissance view can be considered the Edict of Nantes in France (1698) and the religious and political equilibrium achieved in England by Elizabeth I (d. 1603). Shakespeare (d. 1616) is one of the last representatives of a view of life that was humane, tolerant, and skeptic. Giordano Bruno, who was burned alive in 1600, is the last of the great representatives of Renaissance science and philosophy; he was suspected both by the Protestants and by the Catholics of the Counterreformation for holding a vitalistic and pantheistic philosophy, in the frame of which he preached the infinity of the universe and the possibility of the existence of numerous inhabited worlds.
Political chaos increased in the first two thirds of the seventeenth century, as Europe saw the endless destruction of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), ostensibly fought for religious reasons among Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists, but fanned by the rivalries among princes and by economic and social conflicts. England was rent by a Civil War (1640-1660) which was both a conflict of religious groups and of social classes.
A new principle of order was found in giving supreme authority to mathematics and geometry which were identified with "reason". The first representative of this new trend was Descartes (1596- 1650). This resulted in a conception of the physical world that was essentially that of Democritus, and in a conception of man and of the world that was essentially Stoic.
In politics, the new trend found its expression in the idea of an absolute monarchy based on the power of a professional standing army. This ideal was realized in France by the rule of the Sun King. But the absolute monarchy was unable to cope with increasing economic problems, and Louis XIV died in 1715 a hated king. In Great Britain, the power of the absolute monarchy was moderated by appealing to another aspect of the ideal of reason, that of natural laws to which even rulers are subjected. A first expression of this conception had been the treatise of the Dutchman Hugo Grotius, On the Law of War and Peace, which had tried to moderate the horrors of the continuous wars by establishing international law. The idea of an international law and of a ruler subjected to reason triumphed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 which made Great Britain a limited monarchy, limited by the power of the Parliament; yet, by the time of the American Revolution, Parliament had grown to an oppressive power.
The physics of Newton's Principia (first edition 1685) were understood as giving a mathematical demonstration to the conception of the universe as a fixed rational order established by a benevolent Providence. Newton was a theist in that he believed that there was a God that kept this world running smoothly as clockwork, whereas most of the thinkers of the eighteenth century were deists who believed that once God had created his mechanical order, he was subjected to its laws himself. More radical thinkers were atheists, since they believed that beautiful and perfect order had come into existence by itself because of natural laws.
Descartes had proclaimed that philosophy would be based on the sweeping rejection of all traditional concepts and beliefs, appealing only to reason as exemplified by the exact sciences. This gave origin to a movement which aimed at replacing all existing social institutions, customs, and practices by a new system based purely on scientific reason. This movement was called the Enlightenment because it believed that man should find his way merely by relying on the inner light of reason. In France, the representatives of the new thought called themselves philosophes, but in reality they created what we call social science. They believed that just as nature was regulated by fixed laws, similar laws applied to society, and could be objectively determined by following a scientific approach. Hence, the Enlightenment believed that society could be changed if only men could be educated to take a responsible attitude, free from superstitions, traditions, and passions. By following reason they could reach a universal agreement. The Encyclopedie was written as the summa of new ideas. It was believed that progress would inevitably bring about the triumph of the new views. Social distinctions and inequalities would be spontaneously abolished once all social groups were sufficiently enlightened. A great effort at propaganda conquered most of the bourgeoisie and a part of the nobility, but there was a great confidence that the monarchs, too, could be persuaded to use their absolute power in order to enact the required social reforms.
The Enlightenment had an ethical system which it considered valid for all men, in all ages, among all nations; it was summed up by the word humanite, "a sentiment of benevolence towards all men" which would achieve the end of all sufferings due to social causes. It was a secular version of Christian ethics.
The plans for social reforms were only sketchily applied in the eighteenth century, but they were more positively realized by the American and the French Revolutions and influenced the social policy of the nineteenth and even that of the twentieth century.
The eighteenth century was characterized by a substantial agreement among those who were considered the significant thinkers. This contributed to confirming their conviction that they had found the final answers to the problems of science and society, and gave to the writers of this age a prestige and a power unusual in history. The prophets agreed with each other so much that the public that read their books was inclined to accept them as a revelation. However, there were a few discordant voices. In England, the philosopher Hume advanced a skeptic philosophy, arguing that the concept of an orderly universe regulated by cause and effect was a construction of the human mind. In France, Rousseau upheld the value of human instincts against reason and considered the heart, not the brain, the infallible source of wisdom. This appeal to emotions, at length, contributed more to actual revolution against existing social institutions and traditional concepts than the appeal to reason. The great figures of the French Revolution, from Robespierre to Napoleon, were rationalists in their words, but followers of Rousseau in their deeds.
Voltaire (1694-1778) would have been most surprised if he had known that Candide was to turn out to be the most popular of his works. His greatest effort was dedicated to making known to the French the scientific theories of Newton and to drawing philosophical and social consequences from them. He wrote Candide (1759) more or less as an occasional joke, but the brief span of time that he dedicated to it was the most inspired of his life. It is the most profound work written in the eighteenth century, an age not characterized by profundity of thought. Its form and contents are deceptively simple, as is the case with another similar and equally penetrating work of the same period, Swift's Gulliver's Travels ( 1726).
Voltaire starts with a criticism of the doctrine of Leibnitz (1646-1716) that there is no evil in this world, since it is ruled by a benevolent Providence: if something appears evil it is only because we take a short-range view. The doctrine that this is the best of all possible worlds was a product of scientific rationalism carried to its extreme consequences and was already implied in the writings of Spinoza (1632-1677).
But, in the process of satirizing the rationalism of Leibnitz, Voltaire criticizes most of the main ideologies of the Enlightenment, including his own. Like many other writers of the eighteenth century, Voltaire criticizes existing institutions and prejudices. The background is provided by the evils of the Seven Years' War (1756-1763), but the criticism is directed not only against war, militarism, religious intolerance, dogmatism, but further against all political institutions (France, England, Turkish Empire) and even international law (according to which the actions of the Bulgarians are perfectly regular). Even the Jesuits of Paraguay, who had tried to protect the Indians from Spanish colonial exploitation by organizing them in communistic communities, are thoroughly condemned.
The great belief of the Enlightenment, that a good or perfect society should be organized by reforming existing institutions, is made to appear ridiculous, although perhaps all that Voltaire wanted to do was to present the history of his century as the theater of the worst abominations. The student must ask what can be done to improve society and the human condition if men are liars, swindlers, traitors, fanatics, robbers, cowards, envious, ungrateful, ambitious, bloodthirsty, lecherous, fanatics, hypocritical, and stupid. Is this the product of human institutions as Rousseau would have said? Could one accept the belief in progress if the world and man are as described in Candide?
The conclusion of Voltaire is that one must reject both optimism (represented by Panglos) and pessimism (represented by Martin): Man cannot erase cruelty from the universe, but he can protect some corners by prudence. The conclusion that we must cultivate our garden is inspired by Epicurus, but this philosopher believed that the world is made at random, whereas the main belief of the eighteenth century was that this was an orderly universe; this view was shared even by those who called themselves atheists (in other works, Voltaire defended the belief in a Supreme Being against them). Voltaire here seems to subscribe to the skepticism of Hume (1711-1776), a dissonant voice in the age of the Enlightenment. Voltaire certainly subscribes to radical Empiricism, because the main point is that the simple observation of facts proves the contrary of most theories accepted at the time.
Candide, in spite of its artistry, reveals a characteristic of eighteenth-century writings, the total lack of psychological insight: the inner feelings of the main characters remain totally opaque to us. The simple, direct style without any rhetorical ornaments is typical of the prose of the time.