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War for Men's Minds

Philosophical Foundations of the Enlightenment
by Michael F Dickey

The “Age of Enlightenment” embodied tremendous intellectual and social advancement. Centered on the eighteenth century, The Enlightenment was a movement in philosophy, and fundamentally within western philosophy. Historically, philosophical treatises of both east and west focused on religious or emotional foundations of received authority from ancient texts – either divinely inspired or authored by philosophers. The Enlightenment was a dramatic shift in philosophy toward a worldview based on reason and manifested as the right to question received authority and to re-define the moral and political realms of philosophy historically relegated only to religion.

The result was much of the cherished progress of the modern word - from human rights to modern liberal democracies, markets, and civil liberties. Though inspired by the intellectual discourse of the Renaissance, and it by that of the ancient classical world, The Enlightenment was not confined to the western world and included a vibrant exchange of ideas between eastern and western philosophy.

Every individual has a philosophy, even when they have never explicitly studied philosophy they develop one which tends to be a mix of ideas from surrounding culture. Philosophy, which is one’s interpretation of the world, effects every aspect of life governing all the choices we make - from career and family to what values we adopt - and the powerful role of philosophy in life is demonstrated unequivocally in The Enlightenment.

Philosophy can be divided into five realms, Epistemology, which is the study of truth and how knowledge is acquired in the world, Metaphysics, which is the study of the nature of existence, Ethics, the study of man’s role in existence, Politics, the nature of man’s relationships with other men, and finally Aesthetics, which is the physical expression of people’s philosophical views.

The Renaissance was a rediscovery of classical philosophical ideas re-applied and sparked explosive progress in natural philosophy (what would today be science) and consequently the material well being of all people. Driven by the application of reason to three of the five branches of philosophy, The Renaissance was a true ‘rebirth’ of reason. In epistemology, Renaissance thinkers knew that science could determine things about the truth that religions or ancient authority figures like Aristotle and Galen could not. Galileo famously implored his detractors to “close the books they had, and read instead the books of nature” (Galileo - Letters) In metaphysics, Renaissance thinkers applied reason to questions of existence, learning that existence was objective and understandable through logic and rationality. In aesthetics, Renaissance artists realized the practical value of beauty and celebrating a good existence objectively in high art, from courageous soldiers to idealized human forms.

The Enlightenment then, called the “Age of Reason” can be most appropriately understood as the extension of the same principles of reason Renaissance thinkers applied to three major branches of philosophy but now extended into the remaining - previously divinely governed – areas, ethics and politics. Where the Renaissance was the rebirth of reason, The Enlightenment was its maturity.


Many societal and cultural changes occurred during The Enlightenment, some as a result of the philosophical changes, others precipitating them. Private societies of inquiries into natural philosophy, such as the Royal Society of London, formed. Coffee houses became fashionable meeting places of intellectuals to debate and discuss popular or revolutionary ideas. Salons and social event’s such as dinner parties became cultural cusps of intellectual discourse. The historian Paul Johnson celebrates one unsung group heroes of The Enlightenment, eminent ladies and wives of eminent men who arranged the complex social gatherings; navigating the maze of social customs and personal rivalries to bring the best and the brightest – who were often the most temperamental – together, fermenting some of the greatest ideas in history. (Johnson – Heroes) Debating societies and scientific organizations formed by the dozens, all of these cultivating the open intellectual discourse that fueled The Enlightenment.


Most historians consider The Enlightenment to have started with Rene Descartes’ Philosophical work Discourse on the Method published in 1637. Descartes proposed rejecting any ideas that can be doubted, and then identifying them again experimentally or deductively. In the Passions of the Soul he asserts that he will write “as if no one had written on these matters before” Much of his philosophy had similarities to those of Ancient Greece, but his founding enlightenment thought was the explicit rejection of received authority as a critical component of progress.

The German Philosopher Gottfried Leibniz continued on the trend initiated by Descartes to always question received authority. Leibniz wrote extensively on politics and ethics, arguing that if God was a perfect being, then naturally a perfect being would create the most perfect of all available worlds. He would not make the second most perfect world any more than the 200th most perfect. If he could have created any possible world, he would only create the best world, thus the created world is the best world possible. Leibniz’s “perfect” world inspired an optimism among deists that rejected the routine involvement of God in life on Earth.

The English philosopher John Locke’s writings had tremendous influence in the development of epistemology and politics in The Enlightenment. He argued that human nature was characterized not by violence and hatred, but by reason and tolerance, and that human nature did in fact allow men to be selfish and yet act in common self interested harmony. Locke rationally defined rights as the moral authority to defend one’s own life, health, liberty, or property, a sentiment that would obviously inspire Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. Locke was the first philosopher to develop a cohesive theory of identify and self, resting on continuity over time, it reconciled the continuation of identify with the dynamic nature of all things that philosophers had debated since Ancient times. While individual components in a person or in a river may change every moment, the vast majority are identical from one moment to the next, thus the essence of the identity is retained. Within individuals, the continuity of consciousness represented the consistent self through time, to Locke, and subsequent enlightenment thinkers, the self was a real, definable, defensible entity.

Throughout the Medieval age the focus in Christianity, the dominant European religion, was on the virtue of poverty and suffering. St. Francis of Assisi had been lauded for centuries for returning Christianity to celebrating the simple life of poverty and the virtue of humility. With the groundwork laid for the doubting of received authority by early enlightenment thinkers like Descartes, and the precedent set to challenging theological doctrines by the Protestant Reformation, Bishop Joseph Butler rose to strike a fatal blow to the Christian moral ethic which rejected the concerns of this life for the sake of only the afterlife; and he would have resounding consequences on The Enlightenment.

In Sermons on Human Nature, Butler argued that we seek the good because we seek our well being, and under God the good and our well being are synonymous. The cynical Hobbesians and Calvinists, he argued, failed to see the beauty and moral worth of self love. To not seek happiness in this world is to criticize God’s very design itself. He wrote –

It’s not that men have so great a regard for their interest in the present world, for they have not enough!...there is no moral contradiction between self love and moral duty…self love, though confined to the interest of the present world, does in general perfectly coincide with virtue and leads us to one and the same course of life as virtue under the conduct and administration of a perfect mind (Sermons on Human Nature, Butler)

Butler was the Spiritual advisor to the Queen of England, essentially the leading protestant theologian, and he would regularly address universities on Christian moral theology. A voice of tremendous influence rejecting Christian doctrine that had dominated for over a millennia. Butler celebrated rational self interest as moral and as God’s design. The influence he had over later deistic writers, such as Thomas Jefferson, can been seen clearly when comparing his views on self love in the pursuit of happiness to Jefferson’s opening to the Declaration of Independence. Butler wrote “…if in fact we are creatures of self love in pursuit of happiness then literally by God happiness was our birthright and coincident with virtue” and Jefferson - “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that [all men] are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” - Both asserting that it was the nature of human existence according to God’s design to pursue happiness.


Disagreeing with prominent enlightenment philosophers, the eminent French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued that progress in the arts and sciences have not necessarily made life better, contrasting the dominant thought that they were in fact a requirement of moral and cultural progress. Rousseau wrote further that reason can sometimes be the enemy of virtue when not constrained by the heart, enforcing a dichotomous animosity between emotions and reasons which while not embraced by other enlightenment philosophers would linger within western philosophy for centuries to follow. Rousseau attacked civilized life itself and glorified primitive human being, subsequently it’s hard to place him as a pedestal of enlightenment thought. However, he argued passionately and cogently that racism was unnatural - since pre-industrial men would have no fear, ownership, no divisions, they would have been friendly toward all, that no one could keep or hold another human being. Racism had only social and pseudo intellectual roots in men, and no natural roots.

Rousseau chided the artificial social hierarchy of bourgeoisie of France for obsessing over tailors and the size of their houses, in his great treatise on political philosophy, he writes - "Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. One man thinks himself the master of others, but remains more of a slave than they." Rousseau suggested that a proper state should align individual self interest forcibly with the self interest of the whole, and, in a confusing sentiment, only by willingly giving up one’s freedoms to the whole of the group is one truly free.

Rousseau’s greatest contribution was the emphasis on equality under the law, a re-examination of child rearing and education, rational attacks on racism, and in his writings on religion - unlike other enlightenment thinkers found the necessity of religion – a strong refutation of the Christian doctrine of original sin, building on and contributing to the general reconsideration of received authoritarian law that characterizes The Enlightenment.

The most vocal critic of both Rousseau and Leibniz was Voltaire, undoubtedly Europe’s most celebrated deist. Leibniz’s argument for the perfect world served as the fulcrum that Voltaire used to attack much of the received and newly developed religious. Far from being the most perfect world possible, dynamic and interactive change was readily apparent, and both man and animal readily made the world a more perfect place for them through their actions. The most famous of Voltaire’s written works was his satirical novella Candide which ridiculed the perfect world philosophy of Optimism promulgated by Liebniez.

During the writing of Candide, Voltaire witnesses the great earthquake in Lisbon, Portugal. Voltaire asked how can one explain such evil being produced by such general laws? Nature, he realized, is indifferent to suffering. Choosing between deistic optimism which denied true evil, where this was the “best of all possible worlds” and a world that was closely attended by a perfect benevolent deity - he was filled with despair and doubt, and his published work asserted that all philosophical musings on the quake and it’s purpose was insulting and only added to the suffering. Soon after he witnessed the Lisbon quake he lived through the brutal Seven Years War and subsequently no part of Voltaire could believe that this was the best of all possible worlds or that a benevolent deity was in control of it.

In the 1770’s, Scottish philosopher David Hume, an advocate of empiricism and scientific skepticism, wrote his Dialogs Concerning Natural Religion, and added further fuel to the fire raging against the perfect world optimism of Leibniz. Nature always changes, he said, and men change nature, and parts work together for some time and then do not, clearly this can not be the best of all possible worlds.

Voltaire posed an introspective hypothetical in The Story of the Good Brahman -
You see a good learned man anguishing over so many things he studies and is so unhappy about the world but this stupid person down by the river, who never cares nor thinks, lives with happiness. He asks everyone, if you can sacrifice your intellect and thought and be as happy as the idiot at the River, would you? - and none say yes, even though they all claim happiness is the ultimate motivation

Voltaire was probing into a much deeper question, what is the purpose or goal of happiness? Is it mere hedonistic pleasure, or cultivating a particular kind of life according to a standard of decent human potential and morality? Voltaire’s conclusions would shape The Enlightenment - the “only antidote to suffering and despair is to work to cultivate the human garden” To work in the Earthly garden to stave off what suffering and vice we are able to. Because of this, Voltaire despised Rousseau’s criticism of the arts and sciences, declaring he “wanted us to walk on all fours, like animals, and behave like savages, believing them to be creatures of perfection”. To Voltaire, the only answer to this kind of suffering was the further develop the arts and sciences, to raise the general well being of humanity.

Voltaire would fight religious intolerance, inequality, persecution, and tyranny throughout his life. In one startling case, a man was executed for allegedly staging an apparent suicide of his son, who was distraught over converting to Catholicism. His family was condemned, and he was executed, tortured to death on the rack. Voltaire responded with a powerful frenzy of essays and letters, demanding proper judicial proceedings, evidence, instilling guilt in every one who was indifferent to the horrendous crime. Voltaire’s greatest contributions to enlightenment thought were in defense of human rights, in toleration as the freedom of religion and speech, and in advocating fair trials and free trade. Voltaire’s contribution was an additional stone in the temple to secular human well being laid by Bishop Butler and others, as virtue in Christianity was replaced by a deistic focus on earthly pleasure and avoiding earthly pain in The Enlightenment, Voltaire contributed by explicitly making and philosophically defending the connection between human well being and civilization and technology.

The Enlightenment was not entirely a European movement however, the expanding knowledge of other, often very unique and very different cultures and belief systems that were being encountered in the world, led to a great deal of self reflection introspection by Europeans. The differences inspired curiosity of other systems just as much as members of those other systems were captivated by European culture. Voltaire and fellow writer Montesquieu were overwhelmed with the sheer diversity of beliefs found with the expanding knowledge of the cultures of the world. European missionaries were simultaneously horrified with the brutality that many eastern cultures treated women, even when Europe was far from recognizing moral equality among the sexes, and awestruck at the gentility and compassion at which many eastern cultures treated their elderly when contrasted to Europeans. Many Europeans believed that Christianity was the only way to produce a long term stable society and the undeniable accounts of durable and complex societies by travelers to the new eastern lands forced Europeans to challenge the validity of this assumption. Voltaire often cited China and Japan as good examples of successful non-European civilizations. This realization forced Europeans to ultimately ask themselves why they believed what they believed in the first place.

Late 17th century and early 18th century bestsellers were often accounts of travels in India and China, people loved vicariously exploring these rich new cultures. One of the most popular books, translated into dozens of languages, was The Turkish Spy a sometimes whimsical reflexive examination told form the perspective of a Turkish spy learning everything possible about European cultures, professed to be written by a spy it was actually written by many different English authors but it’s popularity clearly demonstrated the inclination toward self examination the identification of other belief systems encouraged.

The influence on The Enlightenment by non-Europeans did not only come from the introspection inspired by differences, but also from explicit contributions by eastern scholars both as historical inspirations to enlightenment European thinkers, and as explicit modern contributors to the adoption of reason as a guide in forming ethical and political ideals.

Voltaire’s universe was one based on reason, and reading translated works on Confucianism, brought into Europe by the Jesuits of the late 1600’s, Voltaire no doubt at least found parallels, if not inspiration, in the writings of the scholarly elite of China, who for centuries traveled from province to province serving as spiritual, moral, and political advisors to the ruling class. Their founding philosophy, Confucianism, like many eastern philosophies, had no divinely authored texts and was more a practical philosophy than a revealed religion, and as such had many components based on rationality. Confucianism’s focus on human morality and proper behavior in life was very similar to the revered philosopher of the ancients Aristotle and his guide for living a fulfilling life in Nichomachean Ethics. With its complex moral social and political treatises rooted in secular justifications and yet lived successfully by millions of people for centuries, coupled with the recent rejection of received authority and focus on the application of reason to questions of morality, politics, and rights, Confucianism certainly provided profound intellectual food for thought to the deists of The Enlightenment era.


Bishop Joseph Butler’s critiques of Christian views on human earthly well being were brought to their full logical conclusion in the monumental opus of Edward Gibbon – The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire first published in 1776. According to Butler and the deists, “if agencies of nature were of divine intention, then the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain was the divinely ordained end of human life under the administration of a deistic God, and the true causes of human happiness we were compelled to seek were the good, the pain we sought to flee was congruent with what the deistic divine saw as evil” (Butler - Sermons on Human Nature)

As farmers plowed up Roman Columns in Spain, England, North Africa, and Asia Minor, the vast extent of the Empire was becoming clear, and intellectuals pondered what could bring such a mighty empire to ruin. Gibbon was the first to attempt a detailed and comprehensive analysis of the fall of the Roman Empire and he placed the majority of the blame on the philosophical change in attitude among the Roman people that came from the adoption of Christianity as it’s primary religion.

In line with the realizations of enlightenment philosophy, and in contrast to the revived egoism of Butler and the deists, the focus that Christianity imposed on late Roman civilization was on the reward for a virtuous life after life, fostering less concern for the trials of this earthly life. What did suffering matter here if you were to enjoy an eternity of heavenly bliss? To The Enlightenment thinkers, Christianity celebrated poverty, humility, and suffering as virtuous, and was founded by an executed common Roman criminal. It preached unearned forgiveness as the highest good, to them a corruption of justice, and was brought to mainstream dominance as a ploy in power struggle by Emperor Constantine. Christianity to Enlightenment thinkers promulgated a moral decay of the foundations of the Roman Empire and ushered in millennia of superstitious dark ages.

Nicolai Machiavelli wrote a similar sentiment centuries before in his Discourses on Livy, asking himself why people do not seem to value liberty as much as the ancients did, he answered that those values of the Christian 15th century are not those that teach a love for freedom or the kinds of deeds that win and preserve liberty, he wrote

In considering therefore why all the peoples of ancient times were greater lovers of liberty than those of our own day I believe this arises from the same cause that today makes men less strong. Which I believe lies in the difference of our education and that of antiquity, based upon our religion and that of antiquity. For while our religion has shown us truth and the one true path, it also makes us place a lower value on worldly honor. Where as the pagan, who greatly values honor and considers it the highest good, were more ferocious in there action. Ancient religions beatified only men fully possessed of worldly glory, such as the leaders of armies or rulers of republics. Christianity more often glorifies humble and contemplative men instead of active ones. Supreme goods are in humility, abjection, contempt of worldly things. Ancient religions in greatness of minds, strengths of bodies, and all other things apt to make men the strongest.” (Machiavelli - Discourses on Livy)

Machiavelli’s sentiment seems to clearly influence Bishop Joseph Butlers Sermons on Human Nature which inspired further steps among deists, whom not content to merely remove particular isolated parts of traditional orthodox arbitrarily, begin to re-examine the whole of Christian moral theology and apply reason fully to the philosophical realms of ethics and politics. When the good of God was what brought pleasure here on Earth, and the bad what brought pain and death, the basis of human rights moved startlingly close to an entirely naturalistic standard. When the moral edicts of Christian philosophers - as received authority from history - contradicted those which The Enlightenment thinkers thought were born of reason and objectivity, which suggested that the good of God brought pain, poverty, and suffering, and Earthly good of man brought eternal damnation - then the rational response for the intellectual of The Enlightenment era was to re-examine all of the moral edicts of religion. A re-examination which ushered in the secular examination of morality and then, subsequently, attempts to remove God from ethics all together, usurping the standard for morality with a secular, natural one based on entirely on reason and reality.

The most ground breaking attempts rational secular morality were seen in Jeremey Bentham’s Utilitarianism and Immanual Kant’s Kantianism and Catagorial Imperative. Utilitarianism grew so popular it took on an almost religious zeal. At it’s core, Utilitarianism was an attempt to be as coldly rational as possible, regarding only the cumulative values of groups, it sought to add up the amount of good in the world, and to strive to make the amount of good as high as possible. The idea of the greatest good for the greatest number is the motto of Utilitarianism. The appeal to the moral right of Utilitarianism was not to a revealed religious God, but more so to a naturalistic view of common sense that any rational person believed any other rational person ought to hold, how could anyone not want the greatest good for the greatest number? Religion was not needed, Utilitarianism just made cold hard sense.

The problem with Utilitarianism however, at least according to Immanuel Kant, was that it completely ignored the individual, and focused only on the results of an action, or, in other words, the ends always justified the means. It could create situations of grave injustice. Kant was a reclusive 17th century German farmer who spent most of his adult life studying the works of world philosophy, he re-introduced a partially virtue based ethic into this rational ethical standard. For Kant, the Categorical Imperative demanded a duty bound life of just actions, and his Kantianistic ethics demanded that no individual ever be treated as merely a means to an end - something in ideological contrast to Utilitarianism.

The problem with Kantianism, Utilitarian’s would emphasize, would be that one’s will could be good, but they could still be doing something wrong or harmful. The problem with Utilitarianism, Kantians would point out, would be that in pursuing the greatest good, the minority or even the individual could be harmed. While neither of these proposed systems in The Enlightenment era made a cohesive standard for secular naturalistic ethics and politics, the direction enlightenment thinkers were heading was clear – away from religious ethics.

One final and monumental change The Enlightenment brought about was the application of reason in concordance with human rights when applied to the final as of yet untouched philosophical realm of politics; trade. Prior to The Enlightenment wealth was viewed as a static quantity, to be begged, borrowed, or looted from the aristocratic elite who hoarded it for centuries. In polite society, one did not mention one’s work; it was nothing more than a necessity in order to exist and incurred shame. In Ancient Rome, it was a greater insult to be branded a trader than it was a pirate. Throughout the middle ages, interest bearing loans were considered a sin punishable by eternal damnation by many of the major religions of Eurasia. The Christian virtue of poverty and humility inspired guilt in even the wealthiest, most of who acquired through feudal tyranny.

John Locke was the first great proponent of property as a right – if man had a right to life, he argued, than he must have the right to the material necessities of life, property. A right, to Locke and enlightenment thinkers, was not something you were moral in forcing someone to provide for you, it was something you were morally just in defending. A right to anything that was the product of someone else’s labor, be it bread or education, meant you had the right to enslave them, and no society of liberty could be founded in any part on the right to enslave.

Adam Smith brought reason into the political realm of trade to it’s fullest extent in The Wealth of Nations showing through obvious and simple steps, and as manifested in the industrial revolution, how wealth was not a fixed quantity, and through, for example, changing the way things were manufactured, at no extra cost a hundred times more products could be made – making the material well being of every human on earth easier to achieve, fertilizer for Voltaire’s human garden. Wealth was not from exploitation of resources or the exploitation of labor, neither resources nor labor manipulating them were of any value without the goal directed purpose of the labor, without an idea driving them. It was the inventors and innovators who identified the goals and developed the processes of labor to materially achieve them. A blacksmiths labor is of no value if random, and of no more value than a forged iron rod without the process to make steel known. But under the innovations of Bessemer and his steel process, the steel makers physical labor made products worth ten or a hundred times more, and both laborer and innovator benefited. The divisions of labor advocated by Smith made minuscule amounts of labor exponentially more valuable, traders or craftsmen became honorable professions, and inventors and industrialists were lauded as heroes. The greatest singular manifestation of this application of reason to rights and property was in the phrase borne in enlightenment England – “to make money”

In The Enlightenment, thinkers and writers were free to pursue the truth in whatever form. Reason was elevated to the status of a new authority - where the past had taken the truth for granted, Enlightenment thinkers saw this as not just intellectual laziness, but immoral. The questioning of all received authority and the refocus on reason as the standard ushered in new secular definitions of morality and politics and naturalistic defenses of human rights and liberties. To the deists of The Enlightenment, the pursuit of pleasure and pain was the very mechanism which the good of God was attained, and just as the Renaissance was a reclamation of ancient teachings, so this too was an ideological return to ancient times, where the focus on the virtuous life here on Earth was rewarded materially here on Earth, and obstacles by rulers to human well being were affronts to God’s design and to be opposed with righteous justice. The Enlightenment sought freedom for all people and justified it with rationally defined ideas of self-governance, natural rights, common law - all departing from a history of theocracy, tyranny, and the divine right of kings.

The impact in social, moral, and political reforms would be tremendous, leading to modern concepts of human rights, democracies, market economies, and according to Immanuel Kant, a democratic peace that would permeate all people and nations. All that was left was to put the pieces together and bring the ideals into reality in a living political system. While the manifestations of these systems available to The Enlightenment thinkers fell short of their ideals, where the French revolution spawned anarchic tyranny followed by a military dictatorship, and the American Revolution had to bore a nation founded with slavery or not at all, both represented Enlightenment ideology driven revolutions and precipitated fundamental changes in attitudes on the legitimate role that authorities could play and the life individuals had the right to fight for.

With the demonstrated reality of rational basis for ethical and political systems run for centuries as Confucianism in China, the explicit rejection of received authority and virtue in intellectual examination of any question, the poignant condemnation of Christian ethical standards as contradictory to a virtuous rewarding life on Earth and newly rediscovered celebration of the good in this world as virtuous - the fundamentals of a rational objective secular basis for morality were identified.

With the pious life to the deists that dominated The Enlightenment a life of Earthly pursuits and well being, the oppression and persecution of people at the hands of religious or political authorities that countered the divine right to the pursuit of happiness were seen in the light of the tyranny they truly were, and the only reasonable exchange for any sacrifice to the state for the deist was to make the individual’s life as a whole better, all law and power then must demonstrate itself as a positive force for every individual, not just an elite few.

With the recognition that property and capital were necessary to the pursuit of happiness and to the deists defensible as ordained by God - early enlightenment thinkers had paved the way for the rest of the path to a literal enlightened Age of Reason.

With then the application of reason to every philosophical realm; truth, existence, art, morality, and politics - all the great progress of the modern world; freedom, democracy, science, and capitalism – would be forged and would cultivate the very same lush vibrant human garden Voltaire desired, because in cultures that adopted the ideals of The Enlightenment a flourishing to an extent never before seen in the history of humanity would take root, ushering a period of unequaled material affluence, unprecedented scientific growth, unparalleled religious and ethnic tolerance and unequivocal individual freedom.
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