Enlightenment Now! Which Enlightenment?

The Enlightenment is hot. It is everywhere. You cannot escape it. Books are written about it. The Enlightenment is proposed as the solution for current problems: immigration, political correctness on university campus and world poverty. I'm getting uncomfortable of all this. Everybody swallows uncritically this story. It is sadly based on myth formation and a sentiment antithetical to the Enlightenment: romanticism.


Have you read the new book of Steven Pinker, "Enlightenment Now"? No? Bill Gates read it and called it its favourite... Still not? Then you're a cultural barbarian!

Or maybe you're just a person, like me, who isn't interested in reading another book that presents Enlightenment values as the cure of all society's ills. Let's face it: read one of them and you read all of them.

The sentiment of each and every book about Enlightenment is roughly the same: there are a lot of social problems. These problems arose because we lost something. What did we lose? Enlightenment values! What are those values? Science, reason, humanism and progress.

As some sort of deus ex machina, these values emerged in this age or era. Most of the authors are atheistic, and they contrast the Enlightenment with the Dark Middle Ages that preceded it, where superstition, religious persecution and ignorance ruled.

The more quality books explain what these values are, when they arose and who propagated them. Names like Descartes, Bacon, Hobbes, Voltaire, Newton, Pascal, Bentham, Kant, Mill, Hume and a whole other bunch will be listed. Maybe you will find somewhere a time frame when those people lived: the 17th and 18th century.

I do wonder: does nobody find it odd the way the Enlightenment is presented, is rather simplistic? The majority of writers are vague when this Enlightenment happened, are superficial about the ideas (and most importantly, disagreements) between the Enlightenment thinkers and above all, are biased about what drives them to present the Enlightenment this way.

I dedicate this blog to debunk all the misconceptions about the Enlightenment in pop culture and explain what mode of thinking is driving us to look back to this Enlightenment period.

Rather than vaguely pointing to some century, let's ask us the simple question: when in history did the Enlightenment occur, exactly? The most simple answer is: nobody knows and nobody agrees with it.

I'll give one way to think about it: let's try to delineate the Enlightenment from the period before and after. The period before the Enlightenment was the Renaissance, the period that saw a rebirth of classical antiquity and consolidation of it in European culture. The period after the Enlightenment is a bit tricky but it is commonly referred to as Modernity or Modernism, the period after the Ancien Régime and is characterised by democracy but also the world wars.

The Renaissance

So the Renaissance, when dit it begin and end? Well...

Like all periods, there is no fixed date. When you put the beginning with the Italian Renaissance, then the Renaissance started in the Late Middle Ages, in the 15th century. One author proposes the start at 1401, with the feud between two artists for construction of the dome of Florence.

Another historian traces it back to the much bigger feud between Italian city-states of Milan and Florence, of which propaganda of Roman heritage had a central role. This feud ended in 1402, but the Roman propaganda unleashed an interest in classical antiquity. It would be Florence, under the rule of Di Medici, that would become the center of the Renaissance.

There are other starting dates. For instant, some historians stress the importance of the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, which caused an influx of Byzantine scholars with classical works into Italy. Others pick as landmark the start of the press in 1450 by Gutenberg, which was of utmost importance of the spread of the classical texts and Renaissance ideas. A minority let the Renaissance coincide with the Age of Discovery, started by Columbus in 1492.

Some historians propose the start much earlier, in the 14th century, with the discovery and translation of the works of Cicero by Petrarch (called the Father of Humanism) in 1345. Another important man in that period, and friend of Petrarch, was Giovanni Boccaccio. He's responsible for the popularisation of Dante Alighieri's poetic Comedy trilogy (Hell, Paradise and Purgatory) of which he added the adjective Divine to it. That happened in 1373-1374. Those three - Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio - are considered to be the starters of the Renaissance.

The turbulent period between 1345 and let's say 1450, with the Hundred Years War between England and France, the feud between the Italian city-states and the Black Death, is referred to as the Early Renaissance. The later Italian Renaissance was characterised by artists like Michelangelo, Botticelli and Machiavelli. In 1486, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola made the "Oration on the Dignity of Man", which would become the basic work of all Renaissance humanists.

Around 1520, a change happened. In 1517, a German monk called Maarten Luther turned the Catholic-dominated world upside down by introducing Protestantism. In 1527, emperor Charles V sacked Rome. In 1542, the Inquisition puts a lot of Renaissance books on the list of forbidden works. This would announce the end of the Italian Renaissance. However, from 1497, the ideas of the Renaissance spread out of Italy into the rest of Europe. This coupled with the emigration of Italian Renaissance humanists such as Da Vinci, kept the Renaissance alive.

The period between 1450 and 1550 was the peak of the Renaissance, the High Renaissance. Specifically for Italy it was between 1490 and 1527, but you also had the English Renaissance (although C.S. Lewis disputed its existence) with Shakespeare, Thomas More and Francis Bacon. You had the Low Countries Renaissance with Erasmus, Bosch, Bruegel, Vesalius, Mercator and many more. You had the French Renaissance with Da Vinci (when he was at the French court), Fouquet and the Ecole de Fontainebleau.

The Late Renaissance, from roughly 1550 till 1650, was still very important, especially for the scientific enterprise. Then the Scientific Renaissance, the first part of the Scientific Revolution, begun. In 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus wrote De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, which would assault the geocentric view of the Catholic Church. Also in 1543, Vesalius produced the first medicine book, De humani corporis fabrica libri septem. In 1569, Mercator produced the Mercator projection. In 1570, Ortellius would print his world map in Antwerp. In 1620, Francis Bacon wrote the Novum Organum, detailing the scientific method. In 1621, Johannes Kepler described the planetary movements in Epitome Astronomiae Copernicanae. The Scientific Renaissance ended in 1632 with Galileo's Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, reinforcing the heliocentric claims of Copernicus in the beginning.

The end of the Renaissance is even more of a debate than its beginning. Between 1545 and 1563, the Council of Trent started the Counter-Reformation and the Renaissance humanists would get caught in the crossfire. Northern Europe would resist for a long time, but religious wars teared Europe apart. In 1585, the Fall of Antwerp would mark the end of the Golden Age of the Low Countries (and the beginning of the Golden Age of the Dutch Republic). Baroque arts would slowly replace Renaissance arts. By the time of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the Renaissance age has ended.

To recap, the three Renaissance periods are:
  1. The Early Renaissance began roughly 1350 and lasted till 1450.
  2. The High Renaissance began roughly 1450 and lasted till 1550.
  3. The Late Renaissance began roughly 1550 and lasted till 1650.
The Enlightenment

According to the History channel, the Age of Enlightenment did not begin earlier than 1685. The French puts the beginning of the Enlightenment even further in time, from 1715 (the death of Louis XiV) till 1789 (the French Revolution). The History Channel however puts the end date at 1815 with the defeat of Napoleon.

However, some place its inception already in 1620 with Francis Bacon. It is immediately obvious why this is. Major Enlightenment thinkers would be excluded from the time period if the History channel definition is followed.

In 1637, Réne Descartes would publish Discourse on the Method (known for his "I think therefore I am" quote). In 1651, Thomas Hobbes published Leviathan. In 1662, Huyghens invented his eyepiece, pivotal for the observation of the universe. In 1673, Antonie Van Leeuwenhoek would discover the first micro-organisms. In 1677, Spinoza published Ethics, the application of Euclid's mathematical method to ethics. In 1686, Leibniz published his Discourse on Metaphysics, an essay answering the question of the existence and nature of God. The end of the Scientific Revolution is placed in 1687 with Newton's Principia. In 1690, John Locke would publish his influential An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

From 1620 till 1690, there was a transition period between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. The borders are not clear here, and depending on which source you follow, Descartes and Galileo are either Late Renaissance or Early Enlightenment thinkers.

The article of the History channel divides the Enlightenment into three periods:
  1. The Early Enlightenment from 1685 till 1730.
  2. The High Enlightenment from 1730 till 1780.
  3. The Late Enlightenment from 1780 till 1815.
In this light, the "Age" of Enlightenment is not exactly 100 years. British historians speak about the "long 18th century" to denote the period between the Glorious Revolution (1688) and the Battle of Waterloo (1815).

You could also state there were two Ages of Enlightenment: from roughly 1620 till 1730 which would be centred around major scientific discoveries ("the Age of Science" or Early Enlightenment) while 1780 till roughly 1850 would be centred around major socio-economical and political changes ("the Age of Reason" or Late Enlightenment). In between is the High Enlightenment.

Why 1730 as the start date of the Age of Reason? 1750 is the start date of many things.. The Industrial Revolution started in Britain in 1750. In 1748, Montesquieu published his The Spirit of Laws. The first Encyclopedie is published by Diderot in 1751, which first summarised the thoughts of the Enlightenment. In 1756, Voltaire published "Essay on the Manners and Spirit of Nations", an assault on superstition, followed by Candide in 1759. However, Voltaire and Hume published works earlier, already from 1730, thus marking this the start date of the High Enlightenment rather than 1750.

As indicated in the categorisation of the History channel, 1780 is another inflection point. In 1774, the Americans would begin with the first revolution, based on Enlightenment values. In 1789, the French followed. However, Kant's Critique of Pure Reason in 1780 and Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Emile in 1762 would mark the beginning of a philosophical movement which would contest Enlightenment thinking: Romanticism. Although important Enlightenment works were published (Thomas Paine's Rights of Man in 1791 and Jeremy Bentham's An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation in 1789, and much later, Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy In America between 1835-40), later revolutions of 1830 and 1848 would be motivated by romantic nationalism, not Enlightenment thinking.

Jacques Barzun however rejects the characterisation of Romanticism as Counter-Enlightenment and the rejection of reason, rather he sees Romanticism as a continuation of Enlightenment and sees a bigger contrast between the former two and Modernity. That's why I consider Romanticism to be part of Enlightenment, in a similar fashion as the connection between Baroque and Renaissance.

To recap, the three Enlightenment periods are:
  1. The Early Enlightenment began roughly 1620 and lasted till 1730.
  2. The High Enlightenment began roughly 1730 and lasted till 1780.
  3. The Late Enlightenment began roughly 1780 and lasted till 1850.

Modernity is traditionally conceived as the period between the French Revolution in 1789 and the end of Second World War in 1945. Eric Hobsbawn speaks of the "long 19th century" and divides it in a trilogy of books into three parts:
  1. The Age of Revolution, 1789 till 1848, coinciding with my Late Enlightenment period.
  2. The Age of Capital, 1848 till 1875.
  3. The Age of Empire, 1875 till 1914, coinciding with what is referred to as the Belle Epoque.
He also wrote a fourth book, called the Age of Extremes, about the "short 20th century" between 1914, the start of WWI, and 1991, the implosion of the Soviet Union.

For some bizarre reason, Hobsbawn places the American Revolution of 1765-1783 outside of the Age of Revolution (I disagree with this). But what makes us modern can indeed be traced back to these events. These revolutions announced the end of the Ancien Régime, with its feudalism and aristocracy, making way for democracy.

However, 1850 is not simply the end of the Enlightenment ethos. John Stuart Mill's On Liberty of 1859 is to me the last work that was inspired by the Enlightenment, building upon and staying in the same tradition as Locke and Bentham.

Das Kapital of Karl Marx of 1867 is on the contrary a clearly modern work, focusing a lot less on abstract principles but rather focusing on the concrete reality of capitalism. A shift happened in Modernity from the dominance of philosophy and theology to sciences. Da Vinci was artist, philosopher and scientist, in Modernity those are all separate professions, thanks to the specialisation capitalism induced.

The Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1 would end the civil unrest of the previous eighty years and thus permanently ending the Enlightenment, paving the way for the Belle Epoque. In this respect, 1780 till 1870 is a transition period between the Enlightenment and Modernity. I do think the rather small time period between the 1848 Revolution and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 is too small to really distinguish it as a separate "Age". Rather it is one big age, the Early Modernity.

So the Early Modernity (1780-1870) overlaps with the Late Enlightenment (1780-1850) and there is only a gradual difference between them, depending on the angle you look at it. If you look from the present and going backwards, you will be more inclined to call it Modernity while a forward look it is more part of the Enlightenment.

Anyway, the Belle Epoque (1870-1914) can rightfully be referred to as the High Modernity. Europe expanded across the whole world, acquiring wealth and uplifting people from poverty as never before. The First World Fire would end that period. The same grandeur would not return again. A short interbellum ended with the Great Depression and the Second World War. We live now in a Post-Holocaust period, and we are still struggling how to reconcile that horror with the notion of Progress.

The Cold War is riddled with mass hysteria and apocalyptic thinking, from silly alien invasion, nuclear destruction till environmental degradation. Some historians refer to the present as Post-Modernity. Post-Modernity is characterised by questioning the Modernity (truth and progress), secularisation and the total triumph of liberal democracy, or as Fukuyama puts it, the End of History.

Hobsbawn puts its beginning at 1991, the implosion of the Soviet Union. Others might pick the student protests of 1968 as the beginning, or the end of WWII in 1945. Regardless, we're not living in Modernity anymore.

To recap, the three Modernity periods are:
  1. Early Modernity began roughly 1780 and lasted till 1870.
  2. High Modernity began roughly 1870 and lasted till 1914.
  3. Late Modernity began roughly 1914 and lasted till 1991.

We've walked through an important part of history: 
  1. The Early Renaissance began roughly 1350 and lasted till 1450.
  2. The High Renaissance began roughly 1450 and lasted till 1550.
  3. The Late Renaissance began roughly 1550 and lasted till 1650.
  4. The Early Enlightenment began roughly 1620 and lasted till 1730.
  5. The High Enlightenment began roughly 1730 and lasted till 1780.
  6. The Late Enlightenment began roughly 1780 and lasted till 1850.
  7. Early Modernity began roughly 1780 and lasted till 1870.
  8. High Modernity began roughly 1870 and lasted till 1914.
  9. Late Modernity began roughly 1914 and lasted till 1991.
It is a necessary repetition: although this looks like a nice categorisation, the exact borders are not immune to contest. But it does put the current reverence of the Enlightenment into perspective. Do we really owe our culture to the Enlightenment? If you ask Jacob Burckhardt, the change happened already during the Renaissance:
"In the Middle Ages both sides of human consciousness – that which was turned within as that which was turned without – lay dreaming or half awake beneath a common veil. The veil was woven of faith, illusion, and childish prepossession, through which the world and history were seen clad in strange hues."
However, proponents of the continuity thesis, do not see a sharp distinction between the Middle Ages and the modern period. They point out there has been Renaissances in the past: the Renaissance of the 12th century (with Thomas Aquinas as reconciler between Christianity and Greek philosophy), the Ottonian Renaissance of the 10th and 11th century and the Carolingian Renaissance of the 8th and 9th century.

These proponents have one good argument: the past gets often idealised. While the Renaissance brought major breakthroughs, it is also known for its Inquisition. Idem dito with the Enlightenment, with its feudalism and slavery. Or what about imperialism, colonialism and genocide of Modernity?

There are no sudden jumps. The development of ideas happens gradually. Referring to one period and putting it as the pivot of intellectual advance, is nonsensical. Everyone is standing on the shoulders of giants.

But why do intellectuals make such grave errors? I think they are realising one simple fact: we're living in Post-Modernity. There are no certainties anymore. They are afraid of cultural decline. They cling onto anything to hold on, in this case the Enlightenment. But what they are constructing, is a romantic myth. So let's put these myths of the Enlightenment past to rest and look with a more nuanced and educated look at history.