Three Myths about the Enlightenment

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There are certain intellectual tropes—so lazy, so predictable, and so overblown—that they serve the useful purpose of indicating that the author likely doesn’t really know what he’s talking about. I’m thinking of those who wax eloquent about Greek ways of thinking versus Hebrew ways of thinking. Or those who imagine there is no societal ill that can’t be helped by swapping out propositions for stories. Or those who think the bogeyman of individualism is to blame for pretty much everything.

You can add to that list those who make unbending and simplistic assertions about the capital-E Enlightenment.

On the one hand, secularists sometimes speak of the Enlightenment as that golden age where open-minded reason triumphed over religious bigotry and science came to save us all.

On the other hand, believers (of all stripes, but I’m thinking especially of evangelical Christians) sometimes use the Enlightenment as a pseudo-intellectual explanation for whatever they don’t like. Syllogistic reasoning? Logical deduction? Biblical inerrancy? That’s Enlightenment garbage. Systematic theology? Proof-texting? Doctrinal boundaries? Nothing but Enlightenment Who Hash. In the minds of many Christians, the Enlightenment transformed the church into a sorry collection of freeze-dried, left-brained, buttoned-up rationalists.

But before we offer “the Enlightenment” as an explanation for anything, we must disabuse ourselves of a few common myths.

Myth #1: The Enlightenment was one big thing.

While scholars still disagree about the extent of diversity and plurality in the Enlightenment project, there is a broad consensus that we should not allow French expressions of the Enlightenment to dominate an intellectual conversation that spanned several centuries and most of the Western world. Jonathan Israel, for example, argues for two Enlightenments: a moderate mainstream Enlightenment that often reinforced conservative traditions and institutions but which revised traditional theology—the Enlightenment of John Locke, Gottfried Leibniz, and the Scottish Moderates—and a Radical Enlightenment that found clearest expression in Baruch Spinoza and led to the emergence of liberal modernity and the rejection of religious authority. David Van Kley, to cite another important scholar, insists on seven Enlightenments, while others in the field see the Enlightenment as having national contours (e.g., a French Enlightenment, a Scottish Enlightenment, an English Enlightenment, an American Enlightenment).

The point is, when someone says “the Enlightenment” you have to ask, “Which one? And what do you mean?” This is not to suggest there are no leading characteristics of the Enlightenment. I would argue that the Enlightenment was marked fundamentally by two beliefs: (1) a belief that people were seeing things that others in darker times hadn’t seen before and (2) a corresponding conviction that improvements were being made in art, science, philosophy, and in life in general. Beyond those amorphous, but important, characteristics, the Enlightenment could be a free-for-all of competing ideas, values, and virtues

Myth #2: The Enlightenment was anti-religion.

To be sure, some Enlightenment thinkers were virulent in their opposition to traditional religious doctrines and institutions, but Peter Gay’s understanding of the Enlightenment as “The Rise of Modern Paganism” has been often (and successfully) challenged. In a recent article in the Journal of the History of Ideas, Simon Grote makes a strong case for recognizing the contributions theologians made to the Enlightenment and for understanding the ecclesiastical context in which many of the Enlightenment discussions took place.

While I often disagree with the conclusions reached by Enlightenment theologians and philosophers, we should not misread the Enlightenment as everywhere anti-clerical and anti-Christian. The leading lights in the Scottish Enlightenment, for example, were middle-class and upper-middle-class professional men. They were not bohemians, pantheists, free thinkers, revolutionaries, or otherwise alienated intellectuals. The Moderate literati were elite members of society, serving key roles in law, education, and the church. And whether we label them Enlightenment thinkers or not, there is no doubt stalwart evangelicals like John Witherspoon, John Erskine, and Jonathan Edwards were not afraid to enter the most contested philosophical controversies of the 18th century and employ Enlightenment categories when necessary.

Myth #3: The Enlightenment was about the exaltation of human reason.

Superficial accounts make it sound as if the Enlightenment uniformly prized cold, hard reason over imagination, affection, intuition, and revelation. While it’s true that most Enlightenment thinkers championed the value of empirical observation—whether in nature, morals, or metaphysics—this is not the same as championing reason over all other sources of knowledge. Sentimentalists like Lord Shaftesbury and Francis Hutcheson believed in a moral sense prior to reason. Skeptics like David Hume questioned whether our knowledge can be rationally justified and whether we can truly know things in the first place. And Common Sense philosophers like Thomas Reid and James Beattie argued for certain givens in intellectual investigation that are not the product of reason so much as they are the foundation for the reasoning we all do instinctively.

You could add to this diversity, disagreements about whether man is a tabula rasa, whether he is motivated by benevolence or by self-interest, and whether free will (of various definitions) is an illusion. All that to say, pick ten famous Enlightenment thinkers and you’ll find almost as many views on human nature, how we know what we know, why we do what we do, and the complementary (or divergent) roles of reason and revelation.

In short, we would do well to pay more attention to original sources than to simplistic schematics. As is true with all isms, epochs, and capital-letter Movements, it’s best to understand a few of the trees before we look to the forest to explain anything, let alone everything.

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