I’ve always felt that the so called ‘enlightment’ in European history was really a reaction to the grim perspective of life created by Christianity. As we all know, Christianity taught that we were all sinners. As such, we need to all be punished. Part of this punishment is the need for misery and suffering. As a result, misery and sufferering were greatly emphasized by Christianity to the point that it became a dominant image in life. In fact, I believe it is no mystery why the period of time viewed as a period of misery and suffering in Europe – the ‘dark ages to about 1700 – was when Christianity was at its height! This reflects the Christian perspective on life. It made life dark and grim-like by its emphasis on misery and suffering. Everywhere you went you saw Christ on the cross, representing our need to suffer.
Anyways, the Protestant movement appeared in the 1500’s which created all these split-off Christianities, all with their own point of views, interpretations, and justifications. One of the fallouts of this is that it made people basically lose faith in Christianity. Everyone and their dog was professing they had the correct interpretation of the Bible. People became disillusioned. This became quite pronounced by the 1700’s which is when the ‘enlightment’ really took hold. That, I believe, is no mistake.
Because of the failure of Christian belief, people began to become interested in other beliefs and other ways at looking at life. About the only place there were alternate viewpoints were at the Universities. Here they taught the ‘classics’ – Greek and Roman thought. From the classics the beginnings of ‘enlightment’ thought would begin. And it is here, at the Universities, that the ‘new belief’ took hold. It became, in a sense, the ‘new Christianity’, the ‘new answer’, the thing that filled the power vacuum that the failing Christian belief left.
As a result of this, at first only the University trained people knew anything about the ‘enlightment’ thought. Through time, though, this would extend into the common people. Soon, it was being taught at the schools and its effects were seen everywhere.
One of the traits that the ‘enlightment’ created is a hope, that we can change things and make things for the better. It gave an element of optimism, that things can be accomplished and achieved. This gave a sense that we could make our lives better.
But, it seems to me, that the optimism and hope of the ‘enlightment’ seems to basically be nothing but a counterreaction to the grim perspective of Christianity. In many ways, the ‘enlightment’ seems to be “undoing Christianity” by counterreacting it. In some ways, it went in the opposite direction. They seem like opposite ends of the spectrum.
Christianity the ‘Enlightment’
life is misery life can be good
accept life as is, its God’s will we can improve life by our own efforts
the hierachy of Christian society an equal society where everyone is the same
trust in god trust in yourself
For the ‘enlightment’ point of view this grim perspective was generally looked at in the context of the problems of the times – poverty, war, famine, etc. There it was ‘demonstrated’. In the Christian era this grim perspective was looked at philosophically and spiritually. The events as actually happening were not necessarily looked at as something in themselves but as a result of the philosophical and spiritual reality. With the ‘enlightment’ this philosophical and spiritual reality was replaced by the events as ‘demonstrated’. In a way, they ‘de-spritualized’ it. It’s continued attitude, though, made them look at the events going on around them and apply it there. As a result, the ‘enlightment’ tended to look at events and happenings that were going on. Because of this they saw it in everything and everywhere.
I’ve often felt that the tendency of the ‘enlightment’ point of view to emphasize improving life originates from the Christian idea that we must behave a certain way so we will reach heaven. Not only that, we must behave in a way to undo the sins we’ve committed. This created, in the Christian culture, this idea, really, that we need to ‘improve’ our lives and that we are always in the process of ‘improving’ it. This attitude would spill over into the ‘enlightment’ and would be the origin of its endless claim of ‘improving life’ that continues to this day.
Because of the failure of Christianity people put great hope and store in the ‘new thought’, almost as if going blindly into it at times, with complete and utter faith. In fact, a lot of ‘enlightment’ thinking is “pie in the sky” stuff, fantasizing about the possiblities of what might or could happen. Often, these would be decades and even centuries before they’d even materialize! And so, with this point of view, there became something like a ‘possibility awe’, imagining the possibilities of what could happen. In some sense, it was almost comparable to a religious awe. It is one of the examples, I think, of how much of the ‘enlightment’ took over the religiousity of the former Christian era. I can remember, when I was a kid, how the ‘possibility awe’ was looked at so highly in the US and that it was a trait looked at with almost a pride. Sometimes, you can still see people become proud of their kids because they displayed this quality.
A common theme found in the ‘enlightment’ point of view is the idea that it is saving us. We are being saved by technology, knowledge, democracy, etc. Notice how they are all things originating from the ‘classics’, that is, Greek and Roman thinking? Notice how they are all things developed during the ‘enlightement’? This is no mistake. The idea that this stuff is saving us is a direct carry over of Christianity, for wasn’t Christianity saving our souls? Since the fall of Christianity, the ‘enlightment’, and what it produces, has taken over the function of our saviour.
This shows that much of the ‘enlightment’ is a modified Christianity. If you look closely you can see that many attitudes of the ‘enlightment’ are variations of already existing Christian beliefs (a few I described above). This is no mistake.
It seems to me that the ‘enlightment’ became, in a sense, a replacement for Christianity. In a sense, its a new religion. It borrowed from it and added other stuff (mostly from Greece and Rome) creating a unique perspective on the world. Some of these traits include:
– The idea that we can know how nature works (that its not some mystery of God).
– The idea that knowledge is everything.
– The idea that we are in charge of our life – individualism.
– The idea that we can change our lives for the better.
– The idea that machines and technology will improve our lives.
– The idea that we are all equal.
– The idea that the people should rule.
Another aspect of this is the missionary aspect. Christianity, as we know, had this idea that we need to preach to the world the Christian truth. The ‘enlightment’ came and changed that. It took out the religious stuff but kept the missionary quality. Now we must convert the world to ‘enlightment’ ideals – science, technology, democracy, etc. Often, this has been done more aggressively and violently than with the Christian conversion.
And so, overall, it seems that the fall of Christianity created something like a vacuum, a void that had to be filled. People, then, used what was available. This was the Greek and Roman classics, as a start. But, Europe had been a Christian culture for centuries. Certainly, people can’t just wipe the slat clean and start over. As a result, they kept various Christian beliefs and attitudes which they then blended into the ‘classics’. This blending created a unique way at looking at the world and themselves, what we call the ‘enlightment’. This movement ended up gaining much momentum and power over the years and created a whole new world – the modern world.
For many people who believe in ‘enlightment’ views like a religion, the success and power of the modern world prooves that it is ‘right’ and ‘correct’ and reveals their ‘truth’. I have always questioned this. I’ve always wondered about the ‘truth’ of the ‘enlightment’ point of view. Too much of the ‘enlightment’ has been determined by historical circumstance. In other words, the movement of historical events created this ‘truth’. It did not come together on its own. To me, this shows that it is a specific form of truth, reflecting certain conditions and mentalities. It, by no means, is the ‘ultimate’ in truths. It only reflects a truth from a certain perspective.