Since the 1970s, it has been fashionable for postmodernists to locate the failings of modernity within the eighteenth-century intellectual movement known as the ‘Enlightenment’. The postmodern narrative contends that outmoded Enlightenment ideas such as progress, liberalism and empiricism were simply worldviews that have now been eclipsed. Recognizing the benefits of such an approach for the cause of faith against reason, some Christian apologist have also taken up the postmodern habit of demonising the period. Unfortunately, such denunciations often smack of caricature, with the Enlightenment cast as the monolithic straw man. Now my purpose here is not to act as defence attorney for the Enlightenment. In all landmark developments of human evolution ‘advances’ often produce unintended consequences. When we consider developments in atomic science, for example, the notion of progress becomes mercurial. Postmodernism has rightly cautioned historians about the inherent dangers of employing meta-narratives such as progress and the march of liberty to describe the past. But rather than argue for the merits or deficiencies of the Enlightenment, the present essay will explore its complexities, probing the extent to which we can speak of the Enlightenment as, in any sense, a singular historical event.
‘There were many philosophes in the eighteenth century, but there was only one Enlightenment’. So argued Peter Gay in the opening line of his landmark 1960s study entitled The Enlightenment: An Interpretation. It remains the starting point for any scholarly debate about the scope and uniformity of the Enlightenment. Gay’s historiography was based on the metaphor of a ‘little flock’: an informal philosophic family who shared the same affinity for the paganism of the classical world and the same basic loyalties. Gay’s philosophe was an international type who prided himself (nearly all were male) on his cosmopolitanism and who turned a critical eye on nearly all received traditions in Europe. Though international in type, this elite corps of cultural critics, religious sceptics, and political reformers had Paris as their epicentre. Gay’s Enlightenment was thus a mostly French enterprise (although he was careful to acknowledge the ‘Anglomania’ of the philosophes and the debt they felt toward Bacon, Newton, and Locke).
In his 1932 classic, The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers, Carl Becker made much the same point, conceding the international reach of the Enlightenment but insisting that France was ‘the mother country and Paris the capital’. Under this model, the drama is acted out on a French stage with an epic plot: the philosophes are cast in the role of emancipators, liberating humanity from the chains of superstition and tyranny forged by unenlightened monarchs and churchmen. Emblematic of this revolutionary-era disdain for kings and priests was Voltaire’s rallying cry, ‘destroy the infamous!’ Paired with Diderot’s promise to ‘strangle the last king with the entrails of the last priest’ a radical and uniform interpretation of the Enlightenment emerges. However, this tidy historiography neglects the finer distinctions of the movement which found their expression in Great Britain, Germany and the United States. In fact the British Enlightenment was more far reaching, as will be demonstrated below.
One lasting effect of Gay’s monolithic interpretation is that historical survey textbooks continue to give primacy to the French philosophes in their treatment of the Enlightenment. This caricature largely prevails among postmodernists and Christian apologists who seek to discredit the Enlightenment project as a whole. Yet this broad sweeping generalization is based in large part on sceptics like David Hume and the philosophes, those intellectual elites who gathered in the salons of Paris to scoff at tradition and religion. But the monolithic view derived from Gay was challenged as far back as the 1970s by Henry F. May who located four distinct thematic phases of the Enlightenment. Within May’s framework the sceptical Enlightenment is but one dimension of a much larger enterprise. More recent historiography from scholars like Roy Porter and Gertrude Himmelfarb has focused on diversity by emphasising national and religious contexts, and it is now fashionable to speak of ‘Enlightenments’. The question, therefore, must be asked: is it possible any longer to find uniformity beyond describing the period’s leaders as a group of eighteenth-century intellectuals who wrote passionately about reason, liberty, equality and religion? It would seem not. Nevertheless, it may prove useful to dig down into the weeds and explore the possibilities for uniformity, and in so doing perhaps gain a deeper appreciation for ‘who’ gave expression to the Enlightenment and ‘where’ it took place.
The French Enlightenment has received preferential treatment for several compelling reasons. First, French was the intellectual lingua franca of the period, having dispatched Latin to its place in history. Enlightenment writers across Europe employed the language frequently. Second, the philosophes effectively exploited the clandestine publishing world of the period and were brilliant self-promoters and propagandists; their writing was passionate and colourful. Third, the success of the French Encyclopedie, which expanded to thirty-five volumes by 1780 also enhanced the fame, but less often the fortunes, of the philosophes. Fourth, in the past, historians neglected the more moderate Enlightenment, which included some Frenchmen like Montesquieu, but was largely a British enterprise. So deeply embedded was this bias that even the renowned American historian Henry Steel Commager once rated England ‘a bit outside the Enlightenment’. In his 1951 classic, The Philosophy of the Enlightenment, Ernst Cassirer could find ‘no thinker of real depth and of a truly original stamp’ among the English Deists. His Enlightenment pantheon, moreover, included no mention of Priestley, Price, Paine, and Adam Smith. Fifth, political realities were far more oppressive in France; therefore, the tone of the philosophes was more strident and their writings hold greater appeal for those who identify with the desire to end injustice. The weakness of the monolithic French model, however, lies not in what it includes, but in what it leaves out. Uniformity is possible with this approach but it is clearly deficient in its geographical and historical scope.
A more compelling argument for uniformity lies in a thematic approach. From among the many themes of the period ‘reason’ and ‘nature’ rise as twin peaks on the intellectual landscape. The two are paired regularly in enlightened thought. Reason provided the tool for acquiring knowledge of the natural world. Nature provided the metaphor of the age. Its orderly, discoverable laws translated well into human society, or so it was assumed. Reason’s primacy in the Enlightenment is apparent, and for the French in particular it was the supreme attribute. Hence the Encyclopedie article ‘Philosophe’ declared ‘Reason is to the philosophe what Grace is to the Christian’. Nature was the Enlightenment key that unlocked all doors. ‘Nature’, Carl Becker urged, ‘was the philosophes’ guest of honor’. Most often imagined as the ‘Age of Reason’, the Enlightenment might just as well be the called the ‘Age of Nature’.
Nature was the pivotal hermeneutic for the eighteenth-century thinker. With it, he interpreted nearly all aspects of his place in the universe. Moreover, Enlightenment-era reason was itself derived largely from the scientific study of nature, especially after Newton and Locke arrived on the scene. Alexander Pope gave poetic voice to nature’s role: ‘Take Nature’s path, and mad Opinions leave; All States can reach it, and all Heads conceive’. Francis Bacon, the great forerunner to the Enlightenment, had provided a more scientific description in his classic Novum Organum (1620): ‘That reason which is elicited from facts by a just and methodical process, I call Interpretation of Nature’. This ‘natural philosophy’ (or science as it would come to be known) was a new and controlling paradigm. Enlightened Europeans sought to bring all aspects of their society—their education, politics, economics, ethics, the arts, and even their religion—into conformity with nature. Nature was thus its own Bible: a book that if properly read could reveal truth about mankind and the created order.
The implication for more radical thinkers was that creation could now be understood apart from the Christian church or biblical revelation. The effects were nothing short of revolutionary. For not only could humanity’s understanding of creation be understood afresh, the march of human history itself could be reinterpreted apart from the confines of the church. For a sceptical historian like Edward Gibbon, the narrative of early Christian history was now open to critical reexamination. History, which had traditionally sought to discern the works of divine providence and evil in human history, was for the sceptical empiricist David Hume, a tool whose ‘chief use is only to discover the constant and universal principles of human nature’.
Reasoning from that which is observable in nature was institutionalised in Enlightenment thought by John Locke. His monumental Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) applied empirical methodology to the study of human psychology and produced the period’s prevailing epistemology. According to Locke, the human mind was like a blank sheet of paper at birth and acquired its knowledge through the experiences of the five senses in combination with mental reflection. In effect, all learning began with the ‘experience’ of nature, not from rational, speculative metaphysics (late-medieval Scholasticism) or God-given innate ideas (Cartesian rationalism) or divine revelation (the Bible). However unwittingly, Locke’s anthropology had opened the door for a natural philosophy of humanity and gave birth to the modern social sciences. This was a marked departure from the classic Christian worldview where humanity stood above and apart from the rest of God’s creation. New possibilities were realised for the study of man in his ‘state of nature’. Pope again found the words to match the moment: ‘The proper study of mankind is man’.
Locke also made a foray into the study and use of natural religion. Although not a Deist, his The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695) argued for orthodox Christian truths using the tools of natural theology. Going well beyond Locke, however, the Deist John Toland, in his Christianity Not Mysterious (1696), employed natural theology to undermine the miracles of the Bible and the divinity of Christ. The development of natural religion would give rise to the science of higher critical methodology. Thus, although nature and reason were major components of religious thought, uniformity is lost in a wide range of expressions, including orthodoxy, deism, pantheism and atheism.
Locke’s use of reason and nature may have had its greatest influence in his political philosophy. Here his Two Treatises of Government (1690) had monumental ramifications for political theory throughout Europe and America. His vision of political society based on nature takes on an idyllic tone in the Second Treatise:
To understand political power right and derive it from its original, we must consider what state all men are naturally in . . . within the bounds of nature . . . The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one; and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it that, being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions;
For Locke, the laws of nature were ultimately derived from nature’s God for in the next line he adds: ‘for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker’. Uniformity in Enlightenment political theory proved elusive, however, and although reason and nature were frequent tools of its philosophers, their results varied. Others, like Thomas Hobbes had earlier employed natural law theories to justify state absolutism, while Rousseau’s Social Contract (1762) rejected the political visions of both Hobbes and Locke. Natural law was employed to justify constitutional monarchy in England, enlightened despotism in Austria and Russia, and republicanism in America and France. Additionally, by reasoning from nature Hobbes concluded that men were inherently bad, while Rousseau accounted them inherently good. Despite the frequent references to nature and reason during the period its uniform application to political philosophy cannot be found.
The theory of human progress, a recurrent theme of the Enlightenment, was also a product of reasoning from nature. The notion of progress had its roots in Christian eschatology, but Enlightenment thinkers located its source in nature and secularised it while retaining the Christian teleological theme of an upward, purposeful path to perfection. The idea of perfectibility was central to the concept. Since the world operated according to universal laws, reason could discover them and give people more control over their social and physical environment. Thus nature could be exploited freely in the cause of progress. Here uniformity breaks down rapidly, however, for Rousseau reasoned from nature to scorn the Enlightenment view of progress as ‘unnatural’. Rousseau believed that primitive culture, symbolised by the ‘noble savage’, provided the ideal state for humanity. In his ‘Discourse on the Arts and Sciences’ (1750) he insisted that man was good by nature, but city life and civilised society had corrupted him. The progress and perfectibility motif also took on a literalist Christian millennialism in a true man of the Enlightenment like Joseph Priestley, adding still more to the concept’s diversity. Enlightenment thinkers clearly arrived at different conclusions about progress when reasoning from the laws of nature. Hence, uniformity has eluded us once again.
With the problematic nature of Enlightenment uniformity behind us, locating its diversity will prove to be a much easier task. The period produced a wide variety of men (and a few women). We find intellectuals, journalists, writers, revolutionaries and government officials who had access to equally diverse media that included professional journals, newspapers and periodicals, and book publishing. Additionally, the eighteenth century witnessed an explosion of local scientific societies, political clubs, reading clubs, salons, coffeehouses, and lending libraries that featured a recent innovation, sentimental fiction.
Henry F. May’s four phases of the Enlightenment provides us the starting point for more diverse conceptions of the Enlightenment. May’s framework is as follows: 1) the Moderate Enlightenment associated with Locke and Newton; 2) the sceptical Enlightenment represented by David Hume; 3) the Revolutionary Enlightenment of Rousseau and Paine; and 4) the Didactic Enlightenment of the Scottish Common Sense philosophers like Hutchinson and Reid. This thematic approach is a useful tool, but uniform historiography meets its greatest opponent when we examine the international scope of the Enlightenment.
Although England and France served as epicentres, varied expressions of the movement were also found in central and eastern Europe, as well as the American colonies. The eighteenth-century Dutch Republic, for example, was acclaimed as a model for religious toleration. Diderot and Voltaire hail it as a cradle of toleration and liberty, though later soured on its commercialism. Varying types of governments, economies, and relevant social issues resulted in unique experiences from nation to nation, producing a variety of ‘Enlightenments’ that in nearly all cases differed from the French experience. In the Germanic lands of Austria and Prussia, political life centred on the so-called ‘enlightened despots’ Joseph II and Frederick II (The Great). There the Aufklarung (German Enlightenment) tended to thrive within existing institutions and was particularly strong in the universities. The enlightened despots (Catherine II of Russia is usually included here) generally allowed enough reforms to stave off radicalism. The late Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant best embodies the spirit of the Aufklarung. Having synthesised the philosophies of the French and British Enlightenments, his ideas informed much of the thinking of the nineteenth century, particularly that of the Romantic Movement.
The Enlightenment proceeded along a broad front in Britain, but generally lacked the radical and utopian flavour of the French Enlightenment. In Britain there was no Kulturkampf. There was little need to strangle kings with priest entrails because the ancien regime had been overturned in the previous century. The ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 had produced a stable parliamentary system along with a measure of individual liberty and religious toleration. Seventeenth-century Britain had experienced a religious reformation and a political revolution, France had not. Gertrude Himmelfarb has astutely distilled the themes of the British, French, and American Enlightenments in their national contexts, summarising them as follows: In Britain, the sociology of virtue; in France, the ideology of reason; in America, the politics of liberty. Along these same lines, it may be said that the philosophes were guided primarily by natural philosophy (ideology of reason) while the British and Americans followed closely on a path of moral philosophy (sociological virtue). Great Britain, then, did not have philosophes, but moral philosophers. This is not to say that complete harmony existed among the British intelligentsia. Indeed Price, Priestley, Paine, and Godwin were, in varying ways, philosophes at heart. However, the tendency of the British Enlightenment was to prize virtue and benevolence above reason.
Lord Shaftesbury and Frances Hutcheson serve to illustrate the British distinctive. They believed in an innate ‘moral sense’ that was a God-given, universal attribute—a sort of sixth sense for understanding right and wrong. For these moral philosophers it became the basis for the ‘sociology of virtue’. It was, however, a decided epistemological departure both from Locke’s blank sheet and from orthodox Calvinist views of depravity. For Hutcheson, it was a sense that could be refined, like one’s taste in music and art for example. In his System of Moral Philosophy (1755) he states ‘As some others of our powers are capable of culture and improvements, so is this moral sense’; and he contends that just as a low taste for beauty is improved by presentation of finer art, ‘so we improve our moral taste by presenting larger systems to our mind’. By use of the term virtue, however, Shaftesbury and Hutcheson were thinking of social ethics, not simply individual morality. Shaftesbury made the case that social ethics were the ‘common nature’ of mankind.
Hutcheson likewise defined virtue in terms of social ethics. His moral philosophy laid the foundation for the Scottish Enlightenment, and while serving as professor of moral philosophy at GlasgowUniversity, Adam Smith was numbered among his students. Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) brought him fame as a moral philosopher well before his most remembered work, Wealth of Nations (1776). Though diverging from Hutcheson at points, Smith’s moral philosophy also stressed virtue and social ethics. Even the sceptic David Hume believed in a moral sense common to all men, as did another Scot, Thomas Reid, who would build on these ideas to construct his philosophy of ‘common sense’. Further expansion on the theme of national context demonstrates that the Scottish Enlightenment, although not in tension with England, took on a unique quality and was a paramount influence on the American Founders. However, in fairness, the American Enlightenment is best viewed as a conflation of Scottish and Lockean philosophy. American revolutionaries drew heavily on both Locke and Hutcheson to justify their break with the mother country.
Religion strikes at the source of the dissonance between the French and British Enlightenments. With virtue and benevolence as its dominant themes, the British version lacked the French hostility toward religion. On the contrary, it accommodated religion and passed those sentiments on to the American Enlightenment as well. Even a thoroughgoing sceptic like Edward Gibbon took offence at the philosophes’ hostility toward religion, protesting that they ‘preached the tenets of atheism with the bigotry of dogmatists’. Recent studies of a uniquely British Enlightenment have opened the way for an expanded definition of the movement. Some, such as David Bebbington, even speak of an ‘Evangelical Enlightenment’. Jonathan Edwards, for example, was well tuned to enlightened themes and drew upon Locke and Hutcheson to formulate a sophisticated Calvinistic epistemology. John Wesley also read Locke and Hutcheson and, like Edwards, found answers for his preoccupation with the Christian doctrine of assurance.
In sum, Enlightenment uniformity built largely around the radical enterprise of the French philosophes is deficient in its treatment of the movement. However pervasive the ideas of men like Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau were, to neglect the more influential British Enlightenment (which had the Scottish Enlightenment, and its key progeny, the American Enlightenment, in its orbit) is an unfortunate misreading of history. The Enlightenment does reveal a good measure of uniformity with the ubiquitous themes of reason and nature. With reason as their tool and nature as their guiding hermeneutical principle, philosophers were empowered to address (dare we say create in the case of Locke) the major philosophical issues of the era. Among them we may relate a less than exhaustive list that includes anthropology, epistemology, psychology, historiography, natural theology, political science, and moral philosophy. Nevertheless, we have seen how problematic the nature/reason paradigm is to uniformity in the widely divergent conclusions reached on nearly every issue of the period.
The Enlightenment tree has many conflicting branches and attempts at uniformity quickly fade in the light of historical analysis. Consideration of the major themes of the British Enlightenment expands our understanding of the period. With its emphasis on moral philosophy and its tolerance for religion, a very different picture of the Enlightenment emerges from that which occurred in France. We have also seen that it is proper to speak of ‘Enlightenments’ which occurred in diverse national contexts across Europe and America. Unique social and political environments fostered different ideas and methods for expressing them. It must be concluded, therefore, that no uniform historiography can be imposed upon the age of Enlightenment. Finally, postmodernists risk being hoist by their own petard when setting up the Enlightenment as the straw man of history.
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_____, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, vol 2: The Science of Freedom (New York and London: W.W. Horton & Company, 1969)
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_____, The Enlightenment, 2nd edn, (New York: Palgrave, 2001)
_____ and Mikulas Teich, eds, The Enlightenment in National Context (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981)
Sampson, R.V., Progress in the Age of Reason: The Seventeenth Century to the Present Day (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1956)
Smith, John E., and others eds, A Jonathan Edwards Reader (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995)
Tuveson, Ernest Lee, Millenium and Utopia: A Study in the Background of the Idea of Progress (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1964)
Williamson, Arthur, ‘Edward Gibbon, Edmund Burke, and John Pocock: The Appeal of Whigs Old and New’, Canadian Journal of History, 36:3 (2001), 517
 Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, vol 1: The Rise of Modern Paganism (New York and London: W.W. Horton & Company, 1966) p. 3. Gay employs the unitalicised ‘philosophe’ throughout his two-volume work. The italicised ‘philosophe’ is used herein unless Gay is being directly quoted.
 Gay pp. 2, 9,10.
 Carl L. Becker, The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1932), p.4.
 Henry Steele Commager, The Empire of Reason (1977), p.4. Quoted in Roy Porter The Creation of the Modern World: The Untold Story of the British Enlightenment (New York and London: W.W. Horton & Company, 2000), p 4.
 Ernst Cassirer, The Philosophy of the Enlightenment (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1951), p. 174.
‘Philosophe’, in Encycopedie XII, 509. Quoted in Gertrude Himmelfarb, The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, And American Enlightenments (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004), p.18.
 Carl Becker, Heavenly City, p.51.
 Alexander Pope, An Essay on man (1733-4), epistle IV, II. 29-30, in John Butt (ed.), The Poems of Alexander Pope (1965), p.537. Quoted in Roy Porter, p. 295.
 Francis Bacon, ‘The New Science’ in The Portable Enlightenment Reader, ed. by Isaac Kramnick (New York: Penguin Books, 1995), p. 40.
David Hume, quoted in R.V. Sampson, Progress in the Age of Reason: The Seventeenth Century to the Present Day (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1956), p. 75.
Alexander Pope, quoted in Arthur Herman, How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything in It (New York: Crown Publishers, 2001), p. 53.
 John Locke, The Second Treatise of Government, ed. by Thomas P. Peardon (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Educational Publishing, 1952), pp. 4-5.
 John Locke, p.5.
 Gertrude Himmelfarb, The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, And American Enlightenments (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004), p.19.
 Francis Hutcheson, ‘Concerning the Moral Sense’, in The Portable Enlightenment Reader, ed. by Isaac Kramnick (New York: Penguin Books, 1995), p.276.
Anthony Ashley Cooper, third Earl of Shaftesbury, Characterisitics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1711), Quoted in Gertrude Himmelfarb. P. 28.
 Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1788), quoted in Gertrude Himmelfarb, p. 49.