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The Enlightenment

When Reason Becomes Protagonist


Enlightenment, or the Age of the Enlightened, was an intellectual movement most fertile between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in central Europe (France and Germany most distinctly) as well as in Russia and North America. The movement converged around the (at times unconditional) belief in the light of reason, regarded as the best gift to guide human agency, both theoretical and practical. The list of authors affiliated to some degree with the movement is particularly extensive and includes figures such as Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Smith, Kant, Franklin, and Jefferson. The work that most embodies the spirit of enlightenment is probably the Encyclopédie that d’Alembert and Diderot assembled between 1751 and 1772.

The Age of Reason
Enlightenment emerged at a time when the force and unity of religious faith in Europe seem unavoidably compromised. At the same time, improved health conditions and economic prosperity, boosted also by emergence of colonial trade, promoted an optimistic and utilitaristic perspective on society and the individual.

The first steps of that technological progress which eventually led to the industrial revolution, then, seemed to provide a tangible justification in the potentiality of reason; meanwhile, the success of new printing techniques opened up new avenues for spreading ideas, much like internet has done in our age. In short, enlightenment emerged amidst a novel historical scenario, which saw also the rise of diplomacy and legal power to back up the operation of large States.

Theory and Practice
During enlightenment new theories of the individual and society were formulated. Kant proposed a theory of the self as autonomous: if following the proper steps, each person possesses a capacity to rationally discern what’s best, independently of factors such as the specific upbringing, race, gender, or social status. A few decades before, in Of the Social Contract (1762) and the Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men (1754) Rousseau had offered a novel theory of private property and social inequality, according to which the division of goods rested on no rational grounds. Meanwhile, Voltaire attacked Leibniz’s Christian thesis that our own is the best of all possible worlds in his Candide: or, All for the Best (1759).

The influence of enlightenment was impressive also on practical matters. For instance, in gardening enlightenment promoted a style that joined the beautiful with the useful: favorite plants were those that could also be used for culinary or other practical purposes (e.g. sage and potatoes in stead of roses.) The consequences of the movement are still visible today in the rediscovery of the value of all arts and crafts (such as cooking, gardening, wood-carving), which are paralleled to fine arts.

The Encyclopédie
The work that probably more than anyone else represents the spirit of enlightenment is The Encyclopédie that d’Alembert and Diderot

put together between 1751 and 1772. Not only was this the first encyclopedia acknowledging authorship of the entries’ authors, but – most importantly – it treated mechanical arts on equal footing with fine arts, a shocking and revolutionary intellectual attitude, whose radicalness is still vivid.

Originally, The Encyclopédie was supposed to be a translation of a British encyclopedia published in 1728 under the editorship of Ephraim Chambers. Luckily, however, the deal was abruptly broken and d’Alembert and Diderot were hired as editors of the new project. Published in twenty-eight volumes, the work featured more than seventy thousands articles and three thousands illustrations.

The most brilliant minds of France contributed to it, including Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Voltaire. A measure of the scope of the work as well as its unconditional faith in reason is the opening taxonomy of human knowledge, which the work aimed at covering entirely.

Further Online Readings
The entry on Enlightenment at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

A neat site devoted to the Encyclopedia Jean le Ronde d’Alembert (1717-1783) and Denis Diderot (1713-1784).

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