My article here is not meant to disrespect the Enlightenment, merely to reconceptualize it. Reason is a great servant (Hume) or ‘press secretary’ (Jonathan Haidt) but makes a terrible idol. The philosopher Francis Bacon once wrote (speaking of studies and logical rules): “to spend too much time in studies is sloth; to use them too much for ornament, is affectation; to make judgment wholly by their rules, is the humor of a scholar.”[1] Th emphasis here is on utility — useful knowledge applied to improve the human condition.

I briefly mention two ‘Enlightenments in the eighteenth century — French and Scottish/British. The former was intellectual, abstract, and top-down whereas the latter was practical, useful, and often bottom-up. I prefer to speak of the Industrial Enlightenment when looking at the developments in Great Britain during the course of the eighteenth century. English common law was already well established but rudimentary property rights and patent law allowed for an environment of great entrepreneurship. Moreover, the eighteenth century was a time in which the categorization of knowledge became increasingly relevant. The one major useful contribution from the French Enlightenment here was Diderot’s Encyclopedie (1751–1772). The eighteenth century was a time in which the access costs to information were reduced to a significant degree. The Scottish/British Industrial Enlightenment gave us a stream of macro- and micro-inventions which built on those previously created. Tinkering became a way for innovators to improve upon what had been previously created by drawing on increasingly available information (no longer the preserve of guilds).[2] In short, the Scottish/British Industrial Enlightenment was of incredible value to the history of our species whereas the French Enlightenment was, for the most part, little more than intellectuals sparring with each other without much concern with practical developments (Diderot’s Encyclopedie being the notable exception).

As for Voltaire, I he had many faults and held to high of an opinion of himself (much like many tenured professors nowadays). With that being said, he was still a talented writer and Candide is great literature.

As for the context you mention -the bloody wars of religion and power of the Catholic Church. I would argue that the monotheistic Abrahamic religions contain a core element of authoritarianism. One can see this from the promotion of Christianity by Occidental despot Constantine through the Christian fascists Hitler and Mussolini. The metaphysical substructure of the West is fundamentally Pagan. Greco-Roman pagan civilizations gave us philosophy and art. The Germanic/Norse pagans gave us the antecedents of parliamentary government (including the Icelandic Althing, established by the Pagan Norse in the tenth century). English common law is derived, in part, from ancient Pagan communal and legal customs. The Norse were also the first Europeans to reach the Americas. The Rinascimento (Renaissance) represents a major turning point in the West because Pagan antiquity slowly began to be appreciated for its own merits. The ponderous, authoritarian Christian façade began to be revealed for the ideological and corrupt superstructure that it was.

There are so many developments in the history of European civilizations. I would argue that the Ancient world, Norse explorations, Renaissance, Industrial Enlightenment, and Digital Revolution are the most important topics in the history of the West.

The Dark Ages were dark. I am actually defending Petrarch’s characterization to a great extent. There were important developments during the time. With that being said, I had to differentiate myself from many ‘professional’ historians who seek to reclaim/reconceptualize the period in ahistorical and problematic ways. I also argue against many of the positions taken by condescending French philosophers over the past two and a half centuries.

I feel we are almost talking past each other to some degree based on your response. I am not critiquing European contributions to civilization nor the value of the Enlightenment. Rather, I am arguing for a reconceptualization of the Enlightenment with a greater emphasis on the human condition rather than merely elevating reason as if it were some sort of idol. The psychologist Steven Pinker has done much good with his research, though he misuses (or, rather helps bastardize) the term ‘humanism.’[3]

If you want a more succinct response, here it is: the Enlightenment was great but the Renaissance was greater!


[1] Bacon, Francis. Of Studies, from his Essays (1625).

[2] for more on this phenomenon, read the work of Joel Mokyr.

[3] Additionally, I think there is some merit to Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s critiques of Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature in terms of the reliability and replicability of some of the research and interpretations of the data presented.

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