The Age of Enlightenment

Saturday, March 14, 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.

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.

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 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.

The Enlightenment made a lot of questions. But at the end of the day, its fundamental question was about epistemology, about how we know things.

In the midst of this Enlightenment there occurs a remarkably and utterly impressive reawakening of the most intense and “aggressive” forms of Evangelical Christianity.

In protestant Germany it appeared in the form of what became known as Pietism. In England it appeared in the Methodist revival of John Wesley. But in all of them, the most intense and passionate Christian piety was reawakened across Europe, in great number and force, which made the Enlightenment look shallow and inconsequential. Even though nothing could be more certain than the spiritual and intellectual gulf which separates these awakenings from the spirit of the Enlightenment, it is important to see that the Enlightenment and the Awakenings shared some important common ground.

There was, as it turned out, more than one way to have a revolution against Aristotle. In general, the awakenings shared with the Enlightenment the skepticism about the usefulness and virtue of the established churches in Europe, Protestant and Roman Catholic alike. They also shared the impulse to find a more authentic and natural kind of experience. The Enlightenment wanted to abandon Christianity almost entirely and uncover a more basic and authentic religion of nature. The Awakeners did not want to abandon Christianity, but they sought to recover a more basic and authentic religion as well. Not the religion of nature, but the religion of the heart. The true piety of primitive basic Christianity.

These Awakeners would read the new science, but use it to prove the impotence and limitations of the human reason before a universal system so vast and incomprehensible. It is at this point in the history of the American mind that the name of Jonathan Edwards springs almost automatically to the lips.

One of the gifts of the Great Awakening to British North America was the founding of new colleges: Princeton, Rhode Island College, which became Brown University; Queen’s College, founded by Dutch sympathizers with the Awakening in New Jersey; and Dartmouth College, which began as a missionary school for Indians, but it was moved by its founder to New Hampshire. These were only the colleges most directly nurtured by the awakening. Two others: the College of Philadelphia and King’s College in New York City, which was renamed Columbia after the American Revolution; also in varying degrees bore the footprint of the Awakening.

In this series of articles we will talk about the Age of Enlightenment and its effects in America, including the Great Awakening:

  • What was the Enlightenment: 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.
  • The Enlightenment in America: Throughout the colonies, there was a self-conscious effort to Anglicize colonial life through the deliberate imitation of metropolitan institutions, values and cultures. They wanted, in other words, to think of themselves primarily as Britons rather than the descendants of convicts and religious oddballs.
  • Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakening: Jonathan Edwards was born on October 5, 1703. People who try to stay astride of conflicting intellectual movements, with one foot in one camp and one foot on another, or one foot in one answer and one foot in another; are usually destroyed by the conflict between the two. Edwards is that rare exception, who instead, turns conflicts into a creative intellectual fusion, in this case, of Enlightenment and piety.