The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th centuries that began in rational debate and discussion, but soon had more wide-ranging implications. Europe put aside old institutions and embraced an age of science and reason.
But the challenges its proponents faced were enormous. And were it not for these three key turning points, the Age of Reason might have been suppressed by reactionary forces.
1. Pope Clement XIV bans the Jesuits (1773)
The Enlightenment’s infamous philosophes, who argued for reason, emancipation and justice, had powerful enemies. Their doctrines undermined the legitimacy of the two greatest forces in Europe: the church and the monarchy.
But by the 19th century, the radical idealism of the philosophes had both kings and popes in full retreat. This stunning reversal was demonstrated by the fate of the Jesuits.
Since their formation in 1540, the Jesuits (officially the Society of Jesus) were one of the Catholic Church’s most effective forces, fighting heresy wherever they found it. But by the 18th century, the Jesuits’ impact was waning.
For over 200 years the Jesuits had been the vanguard of the Church’s ideas. Their rhetorical and debating skills kept theological arguments relevant, helping the Church to counter each new scientific discovery.
Yet more and more Jesuits became secularised, paving the way for the Enlightenment. Their missionary activities around the globe led them to make contact with and analyse native peoples, establishing rudimentary anthropology and scientific methods.
In the 1760s, Pope Clement XIII was under pressure to restrict the Jesuit’s power. Many European countries had already begun to expel the order. The Vatican did little to stop them.
Clement XIII sympathised with the Enlightenment’s causes even while defending the Jesuits, but he chose not to fight the monarchs. His successor Pope Clement XIV took action, reluctantly abolishing the Jesuits, announcing it could
no longer produce the abundant fruits and advantages for which it was instituted.
In effect this was an admission that the Society of Jesus simply couldn’t operate in the climate that the Enlightenment had created.
2. Diderot publishes his Encyclopedie (1750-77)
Jacques Diderot devoted most of his life to the pursuit of knowledge. After training in a Jesuit college, he began making a living through writing and translating.
Tasked with translating Chamber’s Encyclopedia, in 1750 he decided instead to compose his own encyclopedia – one greater and more ambitious than any previous compendium.
Subtitled A Systematic Dictionary of the Arts, Sciences, and Crafts, it would give Diderot and his colleagues a chance to expound the new enlightened worldview on every subject under the sun.
26 years later, his Encyclopedia amounted to 35 volumes, and was considered one of the greatest achievements of the age. But right from the start, Diderot’s project looked very unlikely to succeed.
Producing such a comprehensive account of human knowledge would require dozens of collaborators, all of whom would face persecution and threats from the Church and the state.
It would also be expensive to produce, needing the backing of wealthy subscribers.
But Diderot managed to gather a talented team of contributors, from famous philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau to literary superstars like Voltaire, to mathematicians like Jean le Rond d’Alembert and political theorists like Baron de Montesquieu.
Diderot himself would end up composing over 7,000 articles.
While Diderot was assembling his writers, the authorities made their moves. Censorship was tightened.
From the Sorbonne to the Parlement, France’s most venerable institutions ridiculed and condemned the Encyclopedie, joining prominent bishops, playwrights and conservatives in their denunciation.
Gathering momentum, they jailed the Encyclopedie’s publisher and revoked his license. Yet despite the threats, the writers of the Encyclopedie were not fully persecuted. None of them lost their lives or their freedom.
Unlike in the past, where they might have been burned at the stake, or in the later centuries, where totalitarian governments would ‘purge’ dissidents, Diderot and his backers were operating at a specific moment where the prevailing public opinion was shifting against the status quo.
Even the chief censor, M. de Malesherbes, aspired to freedom of the press – an Enlightenment ideal.
Despite having to censor the Encyclopedie, Malesherbes gave Diderot advance warning that his agents were coming to seize copies of the work, and so the Encyclopedie’s team were able to produce volume after volume in defiance of the traditionalists.
After his death in 1784, his influence persisted. Prominent 19th century intellectuals from Stendhal to Arthur Schopenhauer and Emile Zola, all praised Diderot’s work and impact on their thought.
Diderot was hailed as one of the heroes of the age, and his Encyclopedie a masterpiece.
3: The American colonies win their War of Independence (1776)
Although Europe was bristling with new ideas, implementing them was far more difficult. The monarchies and clerical authorities seemed too firmly established. Old hierarchies could be reformed but not toppled.
But the New World offered hope. Lacking an entrenched ancien régime, the sheer size of these lands and their distance from Europe allowed experimentation in living and thinking that would never have been tolerated back home.
The Americas became a magnet for the radical, the restless and the disaffected, giving them a place to live their ideals and start anew. The Enlightenment thinkers were vital to this process.
John Locke, who had died in 1704, was quoted almost verbatim on the Declaration of Independence of 1776. Baron de Montesquieu, author of the celebrated Spirit of the Laws, was the most cited person among the Founding Fathers. America became the canvas on which the philosophes ideas would come to life.
Gaining independence intensified this process. America gradually became the living embodiment of Enlightenment values. Church was separated from state, rights were enshrined in a Bill, and the Constitution guaranteed the separation of government powers.
These checks and balances had long been demanded, but it took the American Revolution for them to be truly unleashed.
The victory of the colonists against the imperial might of the British was proof that you could fight the ancien régime and win. Had the colonists lost, the revolt of 1789 may not have succeeded in overthrowing the monarchy and establishing a republic.
This culmination of the Enlightenment’s theories and ideals came to define the age, revealing new possibilities for society but also the limits of rational order.