Tag Archives: universalism

The Enlightenment and Universalism

I am sure many of us have heard or read about the European Enlightenment.

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The Age of Enlightenment was a profound cultural movement of the 17th and 18th centuries. The first inklings of this revolution in thought were shown by early French philosophers around 1670. It was the well mannered Salons which were at  ‘the very heart of the philosophic community’ of France at the time. In these places of dialectical discourse a new school of thought emerged, namely, it was from these academic salons formed by the aristocratic ‘schools of civilité’ that the European Enlightenment was born.

The Church fought these first revolutionary movements until they ultimately suffered a fatal blow during the French Revolution of July 1789. It was during this uprising of the French working class and left leaning intellectuals that the French Republic was formed, thanks largely in part to the aristocracies own centuries of excess and indulgence.

It was only befitting that the Enlightenment should take shape during this time, as the individual became aware of their own power and ability to shape the world. The Enlightenment was considered to be the “spiritual enrichment of Mankind by means of his own inner values and resources”. Apart from the French academic salons, the groundwork for the European Enlightenment was also laid by renowned British intellectuals and philosophers such as David Hume and Francis Bacon, who popularised inductive methodologies for scientific inquiry.  The Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza is also argued to be an important figure in the Age of Enlightenment. These along with many other proponents of empiricism and rationalism helped lay the seeds of the modern scientific method and democracy as we have come to know it.

Whilst the Enlightenment first began in Europe, it later spread to the American colonies through the writings of Thomas Jefferson and other Founding Fathers, although sadly its principles did not initially extend to slaves. Yet this period of history is still so very important for it has shaped much of the political and moral foundations of the modern world.  Rather befittingly the political and moral issues over which eighteenth century thinkers debated remain so often the issues over which we continue to differ today.

As the Enlightenment spread to Britain and throughout Europe, the Scholasticism of the medieval universities that were so prevalent from the 11th century to up until then, was questioned by this new breed of thinker. Philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes and Hume refuted the divine dogma of these established schools that so closely guarded knowledge. For centuries the majority of European society had been resigned to impotent ignorance. Whilst these two thinkers took different and radical approaches to human nature and the individuals place in society, it was ultimately Hume and other ‘moral sense’ philosophers who restored this notion of humans as social beings, freeing the concept from its theological moorings. These sentimentalists began a radical conception of Enlightenment principles compared to Hobbes,  arguing that it is ‘sentiment’ that invokes an innate understanding of our common humanity, and of our instinctive desire to feel empathy with fellow human beings.

No quality of human nature is more remarkable…than that propensity we have to sympathise with others, and to receive by communication their inclinations and sentiments however different from, or even contrary to, our own.

From the Enlightenment then was this sense of Universalism born. All sentient life has universality in experience – this very idea could only flourish with this notion of sympathy, which allowed philosophers to give humankind an identity independent of God. These new Universalist’s would be attracted to the logic of universally applicable principles, rather than any belief or dogma ordained by supposed divine mandate. Human unity, solidarity, and the perceived need for a sustainable and socially conscious global order, were among the tendencies of this new non-religious Universalist thought. It provided a means of

…Recognising all peoples as of equal worth, and of embracing some kind of common good, without endowing them with immortal souls.

This period in history is very important for it has lead to a huge upheaval in the manner in which we treat another and how we come to learn about and understand the world. No longer are we shackled by blind dogma, no longer a slave to the power of religious and political institutions as we once were. The Age of Reason gave birth to human rights, modern democracy and the scientific method. Many argue that the roots of this enlightenment lay in Eastern thought, and hence the importance of this period is thereby diminished. I do not disagree with this fact, for Far Eastern philosophers dealt with the questions of ethics, morality and justice far before their western counterparts. Even the rise of classic Greek philosophy is in part due to the inspiring influences of its neighbours across the Mediterranean Sea. Still I maintain this is rather besides the point however, for all new thoughts are formed by a synthesis of old. Hence, we must not concern ourselves with the originality of such ideas.

Once we realise that we are the presiding force behind all laws of society, that we give all of societies conventions their governing power, and not a divine entity, then it is important for us to be concerned by how fair and just these regulating rules are. This notion which came from the European Enlightenment, means we must now also consider how we might continue to shape these laws for the betterment of all persons.