What was the Enlightenment

Monday, March 2, 2009

Unlike wars, treatises, elections or epidemics; the Enlightenment is an intellectual event. That’s a warning sign that explanations, timelines and conflicts are going to be a lot more messy and confusing than when we are dealing with the usual stock and trade of history people: battles, kings, plagues, etc. The Enlightenment is often thought of as an 18th century event. That is only partly true. We can place at least its remote beginnings as early as 1543, when Nicholas Copernicus published his “Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies”. And the endings of the Enlightenment can be placed as late as 1850, with the defeat of Napoleon and the end of the French Revolution.

What was the Enlightenment

The Enlightenment is often thought of as being an antireligious event, overturning the credibility of Christian explanations of the universe based on the Bible with scientific ones based on careful observation and experimentation. This too is only partly true. What Enlightenment science challenged was the principle of automatic authority: whether was the authority of the Bible, of Aristotle or of logic itself. A good deal of the Enlightenment was composed of clergymen and other religious thinkers who had no trouble finding that the Bible was more or less right after all, and that Christianity was a good thing.

Maybe the most fundamental misperception of the Enlightenment is that it was a movement about skepticism and criticism. It certainly liked to maintain a fashionable flippancy toward conventional ways of thinking, but the Enlightenment was also a very optimistic movement. Its fundamental aim was not to entertain skepticism, but to banish it, and to find in science and in scientific methods a better basis for certainty and for balanced living than in Aristotle or Cicero.

We could boil the Enlightenment down to two basic attitudes. The first would be the primacy of reason: the mind is not content with simply being told that something is true. It is not even content with admitting that someone else can be exactly be proved wrong. The mind has to be shown that something is true by standards of consistency and physical evidence which satisfy one’s own reason. The alternatives to this is either:

a) a submission to dogmatic authority, which never really uncovers anything useful, it just invites someone to be clever with the words and the arrangement of terms, or:

b) skepticism, nothing can ever be known for sure.

The first of these alternatives had been the chief operating notion of European thinkers since the Middle ages. It was this notion which Copernicus began to undermine in 1543, by suggesting that the conventional Aristotelian understanding of the Solar System, which puts the Earth at the center and has the Sun and the planets revolving in circles around it, lies in error; and that the Sun is at the center of the Solar System. However, the turmoil of the great religious wars of the 1500’s and the 1600’s, as well as some severe problems within Copernicus’ own theory, kept all of this in the realm of hypothesis until the invention of the telescope and its use in 1610 by Galileo Galilei, who’s direct observation of the Moon and the planets wrecked the authority of Aristotle for good.

Ten years later, Sir Francis Bacon published his Novum Organum, which called upon his contemporaries to toss aside Aristotle and the teachers of scholastic logic, and form an acquaintance with things. The best demonstration, said Bacon, by far, is experience. It is time for people to use their reason to put together the lessons of experience into a new scheme of knowledge which describes nature, rather than putting their reason to the service of the cobweb world of scholastics, said Bacon.

The second great aspect of the Enlightenment was its reverence for the testimony of nature. Because it was nature, newly measurable through scientific instruments as the telescope and the microscope, which afforded the raw materials upon which reason would operate. In nature, diligent experimenters would discover the real order of things, not the artificial one invented by Aristotle and the logic textbooks.

Isaac Newton, one of the most gifted mathematicians of his age and probably of subsequent ages, relentlessly reduced the motions of physical bodies to the laws of attraction at a distance, or gravity. John Locke, with equal relentlessness, reduced the human mind to a passive receiver of sensations from the body. And Charles de Montesquieu, turning to politics and society, found government shaped not according to a single model handed down from heaven on a platter; but by the individual histories, events, accidents, preferences and religions of each nation. Nature came first, then analysis.

This is often why people so often concludes that the enemy of the Enlightenment was religion. In Italy, the Catholic Church tried to silence Galileo; while in England Newton had to keep his own very unorthodox religious opinions very much to himself. Locke was even indicted for heresy. But the Enlightenment thought that its real enemy was skepticism, by which I mean the attitude that nothing can be known for sure about anything.

Skepticism was no small threat in the 1600’s. Beginning in 1521, protestant Europe and catholic Europe commenced a bloodbath of religious warfare, which lasted until 1648. Despite each side’s claim to be representing the truth of God, both catholics and protestants had to settle at the treaty of Westphalia, for no better result than an exhausted agreement to leave each other alone. Not surprisingly, more than a few Europeans decided that if you couldn’t be sure whether God was a catholic or a protestant, then there was no reason to be sure of anything.

Men do not recognize the natural informity of the mind, complained the French skeptic Michel de Montaigne, it does nothing but search, contriving and entangling in its own work. This skepticism, much more than any malevolent church court, threatened all hope of reaching a real understanding of why catholics and protestants behaved the way they did; and why the universe followed the pattern it did.

Scholastic logic had worked for so many centuries because it assumed the validity of its own foundations, starting with certain accepted truths and arranging them in patterns that supported its conclusions. But both science and religious wars made that foundation unstable. So, the greatest work of the Enlightenment had to be done at the very beginning by showing that something could be known at all. That was the work that fell to Rene Descartes.

A New Foundation for Knowledge

The contribution of Descartes was to show how something could be known with certainty. The method he devised for this was unlike the scholastics’: to begin with doubt. One could, said Descartes, doubt everything; or almost everything, since the one thing that you could not doubt was the fact that you were doubting. Cogito, ergo sum. I think, therefore I am. From that single certainty Descartes worked back to certainty about God, about existence and so forth. What we have to bear in mind is that the way Descartes walked from doubt to certainty still indisputably led back to God and Christianity. That was what made Descartes and the Cartesian method so appealing to Harvard, which by the 1680’s did not enjoy much stability or certainty.

In 1654, President Dunster announced that he had gone full length into separatism and adopted the views of Baptists, who were a group within English Puritanism who repudiated the baptism of children altogether. Dunster resigned the presidency of Harvard under pressure from the Massachusetts General Court.

The finances of the college were just as unstable. Even with the income of John Harvard’s legacy and the contributions from the Massachusetts’ treasury, the entire budget of Harvard amounted to no more than 250 pounds per year. From there, matters got only worse. Dunster was followed in the presidency by a clergyman, Charles Chauncy; Leonard Hoar, and another clergyman, Urian Oakes. A succession of weak presidents that were so unprepared to run the college that the “ungoverned youths” of Harvard drove one of them nearly to suicide.

Finally, 1684 Harvard got its first real star President: Increase Mather, the pastor of the old church in Boston and the most famous minister of Boston in New England’s second generation. It was Mather who successfully solved the problem of royal threat to assert direct control of Harvard. He also obtained the right of the Massachusetts General Court to set the college up as an independent corporation. It was Mather who brought to Harvard two of the most influential teachers: John Leverett and William Brattle.

Brattle is the embodiment of the cautious Enlightenment. The logic textbook Brattle wrote in 1687: “A Compendium of Logic According to the Modern Philosophy”, is the first Cartesian logic work produced in America. It adopts the Cartesian tactic of starting from doubt. Again, starting not from authority as with the traditional scholastic philosophy; rather, Bratlle began with doubt and from doubt working to attain certainty. But plainly, the purpose Brattle had in view was to undercut skepticism, not to call into question truth itself. What he wanted to do was to dig a new epistemological foundation for Calvinist orthodoxy.

To doubt of things and suppose them to be all false, only for the obtaining of more full and direct knowledge, is a laudable method. That was the view of Brattle. Because doubt, he said, was what showed the way to prove a truth and demonstrate it to others.

He was careful to limit the application of the Cartesian method to philosophical questions, not theological ones, in a manner similar to that of William Ames. And like Ames, he considered that unbelief was not a fault of theology, but grew instead out of the perverted will of the skeptic. This is very much a cautious approach and embracement of Enlightenment thinking.

The New Philosophy in Harvard

John Leverett, on the other hand, seemed not to have use for caution at all. Born to the habits of the New England’ merchant aristocracy, the grand son of an early governor, a layman and eventually representative in the Massachusetts General Court; Leverett assumed the presidency of Harvard in 1708. Leverett was not a particularly great thinker, but he was a great admirer of Descartes and the new philosophy. Even more significantly, he discouraged Calvinist dogmatism in favor of what he called “more generous principles”. Leverett would, in other words, talk more about virtue than about redemption. He put his entire support behind the organization of a new church in Boston, who’s manifesto in 1699 proclaimed the church congregational, not by reason of scripture, but by the light of nature.

Too late, old Increase Mather tried to block Leverett’s ascension to Harvard’s presidency. Even when the game was lost, Mather’s precocious son, Cotton Mather, mounted his own campaign against Leverett. He was wasting his time. Eventually, with some bitterness, the Mathers realized that Harvard had become an outpost of these “generous principles” rather than Calvinistic ones.

When the unhappy Calvinist congregation and ministers decided that Leverett had gone too far into Cartesian method and the new philosophy, organized a new college of their own in New Haven, with the generosity of another wealthy patron of learning: Elihu Yale.

Continues in: The Enlightenment in America