The Enlightenment
The Enlightenment

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The Enlightenment

2.3 The pervasive influence of Enlightenment

You will find in this course in one form or another the pervasive influence of the Enlightenment. Sometimes this influence is buried in deeply ambiguous texts such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's (1756–91) opera Don Giovanni (1787), which includes a famous toast to ‘liberty’. The opera is seen by some as an attempt to subject to critical scrutiny the behaviour of at least one member of a corrupt eighteenth-century aristocracy and the social or class structure that facilitated his egoism. The French Revolution also unleashed a tremendous blast of energy which inspired its leaders with a sense of missionary zeal. Those involved in the Revolution believed, initially at least, that the Enlightenment had pointed the way towards political reform and the kind of system in which its principles could be put into practice. Many across Europe shared this enthusiastic belief. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) hailed the opening stages of the Revolution as ‘the enthronement of reason in public affairs’ (quoted in Barzun, 2000, p. 430).

Many aspects of Napoleon's (1769–1821) regime – and certainly the image he sought to project of it – exemplify the intellectual and moral appeal of the Enlightenment. During the Revolution and on an even greater scale under Napoleon, the French not only prided themselves on being what they called la grande nation (the great nation) but also spilled across their frontiers and expanded France by force of arms. In the process they introduced across most of Europe systems of rational administration and modern laws and institutions owing much to the Enlightenment. The French saw themselves as bringing freedom, light, reason and modernity to Europe, and it is significant that their belief was long shared by many who came under French rule. This was perhaps an intense magnification of the general self-perception of enlightened Europe as a whole as the cultural centre of the world. Not that Europe was inward-looking: when Napoleon was sent to conquer Egypt from the Turks in 1798, he took with him 167 scholars, scientists, archaeologists and artists to map, survey, explore and describe the country; to investigate the antiquities of the land of the Pharaohs; and to publish their findings in 20 massive volumes. They were as fascinated by the civilisation of ancient Egypt as they were contemptuous of the backwardness of modern Egypt, and Napoleon briefly ruled the country with a rod of iron. The whole enterprise was an example of ‘the Enlightenment in action’ (Barzun, 2000, p. 445). Of course, this willingness to look beyond Europe was often motivated by commercial colonial interest. The East India Company, founded in London in 1600 and extremely active in the eighteenth century, was a classic example of a commercial enterprise established by the British to maximise profits.

The Enlightenment mission is evident in Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa (1799) by the Scot Mungo Park (1771–c.1805); the author, sponsored by the African Association on a voyage of exploration, built on the tradition of the knowledge-extending expeditions to the Pacific of Captain Cook. He wrote about his travels in order to increase his readers’ knowledge of African geography and societies. To stereotypical European perceptions of Africans as ‘barbaric’, Park brought corrective insights based on his own first-hand observation and experience. This was one of many examples of reason correcting prejudice. Even as Romanticism was gaining pace in literature and art, the Enlightenment's concern for accurate facts and sound reasoning persisted in many areas of intellectual enquiry. The Evangelical Christian and anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce (1759–1833), in his thoughts on religion and slavery, adopted the archetypal Enlightenment procedure of structured, rational ‘enquiry’, seeking out the relationship of cause and effect in society's responses to these burning issues. Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery (1787) by Quobna Ottobah Cugoano (1757–c.1800) followed the Encyclopédie in applying rational, critical understanding to the practice of slavery in order to support the abolitionist cause, while other Enlightenment thinkers were using reasoned argument to support its retention.

Robert Owen (1771–1858) applied the critical reformist spirit of the Enlightenment in A New View of Society (1813–16), in which he set out his views on the management of industry and its workers based on his experience at the mill in New Lanark. He shared the Enlightenment's faith in the improvement, through the application of reasoned principle, of the individual and of society at large, and he used these beliefs to shape the work and the domestic environment of the mill-workers. Among the progressive Enlightenment thinkers of Manchester who debated topics as diverse as population growth, poverty, health, education, commerce and philosophy, Owen had gained knowledge which he saw as ‘useful’ in educating and reforming the character of these workers, thus ensuring their productivity and, he believed, their happiness. For Owen, as for most Enlightenment thinkers, the creation of happiness was a rational business, with identifiable causes and effects that could be formulated as universally applicable principles. The world did not have to be a vale of tears or a preparation for other states of existence. The very object of government, indeed, was held to be the maximisation of pleasure, the greatest happiness of the greatest number, or – in the words of the Declaration of Independence with which the American revolutionaries set Europe the example of deliberate, purposeful, rational political change – ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’. Owen identified himself explicitly with the Enlightenment cause by taking a stance against the ‘ignorance and consequent prejudices that have accumulated through all preceding ages’ (Owen, 1991, p. 70), and was representative of that branch of the Enlightenment concerned with practical reform.

The application of reason and knowledge to practical reform was also the concern of the British Royal Institution, founded in 1799, which promoted the study and popularisation of science in the interests of practical improvements in, for example, agriculture, industries such as leather tanning, and, more broadly, the condition of the poor and the prosperity of society in general. The scientist Humphry Davy (1778–1829) expressed his commitment to the discovery of universal principles or laws in chemistry. Napoleon drew up his Civil Code and introduced it across much of Europe, inspired by the Enlightenment idea of laws and principles of universal application. Beneath all of these spheres of enquiry covered in the course, there lay a terrific confidence in all-embracing explanations.

This desire to extend and increase knowledge was evident in concerns of a less overtly practical nature. Edmund Burke (1729–97), in his A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757), set out to define, categorise and explain the nature and causes of the responses to art experienced and discussed by his contemporaries. Burke sought, in relation to aesthetics, to identify the properties of ‘the beautiful’, to distinguish the merely beautiful from ‘the sublime’, and to pinpoint their effects on the beholder. Sir John Soane's (1753–1837) museum, given to the nation in 1833, can also be seen as an example of this classificatory and educational impulse, this time in relation to physical artefacts. This desire to classify, demystify and explain aesthetic experience had a profound effect on theorists, writers and painters, who felt that art itself was susceptible of rational explanation and control. In every art, craft and field of learning, knowledge was power and the key to progress. The Enlightenment mission penetrated all aspects of human thought and activity.


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