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The Enlightenment
The Enlightenment

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8.3 Enlightenment, humanity and revolution

8.3.1 Humanity

We have seen from Diderot's article ‘Encyclopedia’ that the philosophes were convinced that their mission was for the benefit of their fellow human beings. For all of them, concern for humanity was the mainspring of their ideas and activities. The article on ‘Fanaticism’ (by Alexandre Deleyre) in the Encydopédie sums up what they most bitterly opposed:

Fanaticismis blind and passionate zeal born of superstitious opinions, causing people to commit ridiculous, unjust, and cruel actions, not only without any shame or remorse, but even with a kind of joy and comfort. Fanaticism, therefore, is only superstition put into practice.

(Gendzier, 1967, p. 104)

At the heart of the fight against fanaticism was Voltaire. His plea for religious toleration – Écrasez I'infâme! (crush the infamous thing) – was the slogan with which he branded fanaticism and its attendant ills. But his protests combined prolific and eloquent criticism in print with the personal championing of individual cases. The most famous instance of I'infâme was the case of Jean Calas in 1762. Calas, a Protestant from Toulouse, was wrongfully convicted of having murdered his son for converting to Catholicism. (The young man had committed suicide.) Calas was condemned to death by the high court at Toulouse. The horrible sentence of breaking on the wheel was carried out. After a long and energetic campaign by Voltaire, the verdict was quashed. The triumph for Voltaire and Enlightenment – the Europe-wide publicity for the cause of reason, justice, penal reform and religious toleration – was spectacular.

The Enlightenment's concern for humanitarian reform fuelled the ambitions of the generation that came to maturity on the eve of the Revolution. The Encydopédie popularised notions of equality and natural rights which had become commonplace by 1789. This concept of the rights that should come to us at birth was not, however, normally related to more modern notions of equality of wealth and power. The Enlightenment was always conscious of what Boswell called ‘the superiority of cultivated minds over the gross and illiterate’ (Boswell, 1951, vol.2, p. 133) and of the fragility of civilisation in the face of riot and disorder. It was not until after the period covered by our course, in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, that there was any real extension of political rights to the masses. But there was a common conviction, propagated by the philosophes, that everyone had the right to equal justice before the law and the right not to be exploited by those enjoying power and privilege. Once again the cries for political reform were particularly strident in France, where injustice and inequality, long subject to Enlightenment criticism, were no longer felt to be tolerable.

In a broader sense, a concern for humanity manifested itself in a conviction of universal rights: everyone was entitled to be treated in a way fitting their dignity as a human being. In his poem The Task (1785) Cowper expressed his sorrow at man's inhumanity to man:

There is no flesh in man's obdúrate heart,

It does not feel for man; the natural bond

Of brotherhood is severed as the flax

That falls asunder at the touch of fire.

He finds his fellow guilty of a skin

Not coloured like his own, and having power

To enforce the wrong, for such a worthy cause

Dooms and devotes him as his lawful prey.

(Benham, 1902, pp. 198–9)

The philosophes spoke out with a united voice against the slave trade. Voltaire and Diderot were among many who protested against it in the name of man's common humanity. Cugoano, in his Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evils of Slavery, used the term ‘enlightened’ to denote a humane code of conduct opposed to slavery, although not all Enlightenment thinkers expressed such opposition, so deeply entrenched was the practice in contemporary economic and political thought and activity. Boswell defended slavery, while Johnson opposed it. The ex-slave Robert Wedderburn (1762–1835), author of The Horrors of Slavery (1824) cited the Enlightenment authorities of truth, justice and the ancients in his vehement critique of the practice.

Summary point: humanitarianism and a concern with common human rights were central to the Enlightenment mission. In some, if not all, thinkers this led to an impulse to attack common inhumane practices such as religious oppression and slavery.

Exercise 7

Turn now to your AV Notes (click on 'View document' below), which will direct you to watch section 4 ‘Humanity and the noble savage’. When you have worked through this section of the video and attempted the exercise in the notes, return to this course.

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As a young man, Voltaire had had two spells in the Bastille for impertinence towards members of the nobility, and the injustice and indignity rankled. Yet Voltaire, who later became immensely rich, was no social radical. The philosophes in general contributed little to political thought as such; they hardly troubled about which might be the best form of government for implementing their cherished reforms. Montesquieu, in his erudite and influential De l'esprit des lois (On the Spirit of the Laws, 1748), advocated a system of institutional checks and balances, and the separation or balancing of executive (governing) power, legislative (lawmaking) power and judicial power (the power of the judges) in order to counter the unlimited exercise of state power by the executive (the king). Montesquieu and Voltaire were much impressed by Britain's constitutional or ‘limited’ monarchy, in which the monarch's powers were curbed by a partly representative assembly (Parliament) and an independent judiciary. Britain was often compared favourably with absolute monarchy in France. But Voltaire, who had long since popularised British values in his Philosophical Letters or Letters on the English (1734), was also attracted by enlightened models of absolute monarchy, such as those practised in the second half of the eighteenth century by Frederick the Great of Prussia, Catherine the Great of Russia, Joseph II of Austria (Mozart's patron), Gustav III of Sweden and Charles III of Spain. Voltaire, who was for a time historiographer royal to Louis XV until his independence and propensity for mischief-making made the court too hot to hold him, was moderate, pragmatic, undogmatic, flexible, and politically and socially conservative. Europe's traditional social structure being, so it was thought, fixed and immutable, it mattered little how enlightenment was implemented as long as it was implemented.

Exercise 8

Turn now to your AV Notes (click on 'View document' below), which will direct you to watch section 5, ‘Frederick the Great and enlightened absolutism’. When you have worked through this section of the video and attempted the exercise in the notes, return to this course.

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The philosophes and enlightened opinion generally believed that the Encyclopédie was proving its worth and that Enlightenment ideas were slowly but surely gaining ground among the educated across Europe. Voltaire himself, no starry-eyed optimist, thought so. His Candide (1759) is a mercilessly witty attack on facile optimism in the face of every kind of disaster: war, earthquakes and man's inhumanity to man. Nevertheless he wrote to a friend in 1764:

Everything I observe is sowing the seeds of a revolution that will inevitably come to pass, which I shall not have the pleasure of witnessing … By degrees enlightenment has spread so widely that it will burst forth at the first opportunity, and then there will be a grand commotion. The younger generation are lucky: they will see some great things.

(Bruun, 1967, p. 102)