Promise of Enlightenment Essay

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An intellectual movement which began in England in the seventeenth century, but then spread to have eventual influence over all sections of the world. The term Enlightenment, rooted in an intellectual skepticism to traditional beliefs and dogmas, denotes an illumined contrast to the supposed dark and superstitious character of the Middle Ages. From its inception, the Enlightenment focused on the power and goodness of human rationality.

Some of the more characteristic doctrines of the Enlightenment are: 1) Reason is the most significant and positive capacity of the human; 2) reason enables one to break free from primitive, dogmatic, and superstitious beliefs holding one in the bonds of irrationality and ignorance; 3) in realizing the liberating potential of reason, one not only learns to think correctly, but to act correctly as well; 4) through philosophical and scientific progress, reason can lead humanity as a whole to a state of earthly perfection; 5) reason makes all humans equal and, therefore, deserving of equal liberty and treatment before the law; 6) beliefs of any sort should be accepted only on the basis of reason, and not on traditional or priestly authority; and 7) all human endeavors should seek to impart and develop knowledge, not feelings or character. The spread of ideas of the philosophers of the early Enlightenment through Europe was very slow: their dissemination went in stops and starts, and the process was fragmented/ Moreover, not all 7 European countries adopted these ideas at the same time and to the same extent.

The slow reception of the ideas of the early Enlightenment in the countries of Europe serves to provide a number of lessons for all modern apologists for Western thought. The first is that ideas need time to be accepted. They also need the support of people who are willing to make an effort for them, that is, scientists, writers, people in power and political authorities. In addition, the social circumstances must be favorable. It took hundreds of years before ideas about democratic government became crystallized and generalized in Europe. The second lesson is that even when the majority of people accept an idea, this does not mean that everyone does. Ideas are never self- evident.

Because even good ideas can be controversial, they will always” and this is the third lesson” come under the attack from their opponents, who in turn are convinced that they have better ideas. The fourth lesson is that if we want our ideas to prevail, we must continue to fight for them” just as people in the 17th century had to fight for their ideas. In the 18th and 19th centuries, individuals like Thomas Jefferson, George Bancroft, and Frederick Douglass, and groups of individuals like the French National Assembly offered their visions of the ideal government. Even though these individuals (or group of individuals) came from different social classes, occupations, ethnic backgrounds, and nationalities, they all advocate for one specific type of government.

That is, governments built on the foundation of the principles of the Enlightenment, particularly the principles of equality, freedom, and popular sovereignty. Their strong support for the Enlightenment principles is illuminated throughout their writings and/or speeches. In the Declaration of Independence (1776), Jefferson claimed that everyone is equal and are entitled to certain rights, including the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Furthermore, if the government should ever fail to protect these rights, Jefferson believed that the people should be able to change or extinguish the government, for the power of the government rests in the people. 7

Throughout the document, Jefferson utilizes the three major Enlightenment ideals to support his arguments. For one, Jeffersons claim that everyone is equal clearly resonates upon the Enlightenment ideal of equality, which stresses that people should be treated fairly regardless of who they are. In addition, in describing that people have certain rights which the government must protect, Jefferson is reflecting and expanding upon Lockes idea of inalienable rights. With the exception of Lockes reference to property, Jeffersons allusion to the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (1776) is very similar to John Lockes mention of the right to life, liberty, and property( Bentley & Ziegler 783).

Nevertheless, Jefferson adopted Lockes idea of inalienable rights and slightly altered them, by removing the right to property and replacing it with the pursuit of happiness in order to better reflect American values. Furthermore, Jefferson also reflected on Lockes ideas of popular sovereignty and freedom in the Declaration of Independence by stating that the government derives its power from the people and if the peoples rights are not being protected by the government, the people have the right to replace or change that government. Like Thomas Jefferson, George Bancroft adopted the Enlightenment ideals of equality, freedom, and popular sovereignty in his vision of the ideal government.

In his speech The Office of the People in Art, Government, and Religion (1857) he recognized the inequality between the aristocracy, who were often the policy-makers at the time, and the rest of society, who by large, did not have a voice in government. In doing so, he advocated for equality for the general public in the decision-making processes of the government as well as the overall freedom of expression for the general public. At the same time, he also adopted the Enlightenment ideal of popular sovereignty, by arguing that the happiness of the general public is the primary purpose of government, rather than the happiness of the aristocracy or the selected few.

Instead of arguing for the equality for the general public like Jefferson and Bancroft did, Frederick Douglass concentrated on equality for one specific population the blacks, especially those 7 who were slaves. In his speech What to the Slave is the 4th of July (1852) Douglass recognized the mistreatment that blacks have endured as slaves, along with the fact that blacks are just as human as whites are, and thus, should be treated equally. He further commented on how American Independence Day may be a joyous day for whites to celebrate their freedom from Britain, but for blacks, it is a day that reminds them of the cruel treatments and lack of freedom that they have endured. In this speech, not only does Douglass call for equality for blacks, but also for their freedom from slavery.

However, compared to Jefferson and Bancroft who mentioned the Enlightenment ideal of popular sovereignty, Douglass did not specifically address the issue of popular sovereignty nor argue for political rights for blacks; instead, he only concentrated on the fundamental rights of equality and freedom from slavery. In the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (National Assembly 177-179), the French National Assembly comprehensively described the ideal relationship between the people and the government as well as the rights to which all of the people of France should be entitled. In writing this document, the French Assembly heavily adopted and relied upon the Enlightenment ideals of equality, freedom, and popular sovereignty.

First of all, the document started off by stating that everyone has certain natural rights that the government are obligated to protect, including the right to liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression (National Assembly 177). These rights clearly resemble Lockes idea of inalienable rights which included life, liberty, and property (Bentley & Ziegler 783). Furthermore, these rights are intertwined with the principles of equality, freedom, and popular sovereignty. These three principles are not only mentioned in the first few lines of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (National Assembly), but are also alluded to throughout the rest of the document.

For example, the principle of equality was utilized in bullet six, which sets forth that all citizens are equal before the law and thus, have equal opportunity in obtaining employment. Furthermore, several types of freedoms are mentioned in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen; among them are freedom of religion (see bullet ten), expression (see bullet eleven), 7 and property ownership (see bullet seventeen). The Enlightenment ideal of popular sovereignty was specifically alluded to in bullet six, in the lines, Law is the expression of the general will. Every citizen has a right to participate personally, or through his representative, in its foundation (National Assembly 178).

Even though the Enlightenment mainly occurred in Europe in the 18th century, its ideas spread throughout the world, influencing the thinking of many people. Thomas Jefferson, George Bancroft, Frederick Douglass, and the French National Assembly are several parties, among many, who took advantage of the ideas that originated during the Enlightenment and used them to promote and influence changes in the societies that they lived in, primarily the governments and inequalities that existed at the time. These parties utilized the Enlightenment principles of equality, freedom, and popular sovereignty in their writing or speeches, in order to raise awareness about the inequalities in society.

By examining the arguments of these parties, one will recognize that each of these parties have contributed to the dramatic improvements in their societies that will occur in the later future. Enlightenment and the 21st century Although all the world religions have fundamentalist movements, and all such movements can be very violent, it is above all the menace of fundamentalist Islam which is feared by the people of the West since 11 September 2001, though it has probably been feared even more by the people of the middle East, Asia and Africa. It is undeniable that within the Islam there is a fundamentalist movement which rejects the values of Spinozas Enlightenment. In fact, this is in no way new. Khomenis Iran, Osama Bin Laden, Al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan are recent examples of this.

However, Professor bernard says in his book The Crisis in Islam, most Muslims are not fundamentalists and most fundamentalists are not terrorists, although nowadays most terrorists are Muslim. The attraction of the ideas of our modern, 7 political culture is enormous ans is certainly not our exclusive property. Hundreds of millions of people all over the world” including liberal-minded Muslims” support the Enlightenment ideas. These ideas derive their attraction from the promise of freedom to live ones life according to ones own beliefs, and more specifically from what Michael Ignatieff called the right to choose, and specifically, the right to leave when choice is denied. However, in this respect there are a number of things which detract from the attraction of the values and ideas of the Enlightenment:

? the danger that the West, the values which symbolize it and the solutions it provides, represent only a paper reality; in other words, that the West does not deliver what it promises and does not provide solutions to everyday needs and political problems. ? -The fear of the loss of that feeling of security, togetherness and social ties (the nuclear family, the extended family, religion) in societies and communities in which the balance between the individual and the community is different from those in the individualized West. ? The perception of the broad contempt of Westerners for Islam in societies and communities where Islam permeates every aspect of daily life. All these matters seem so self evident to us that we tend to forget that they originally developed as completely novel ideas.

Many of them were articulated for the first time in the 17th century by men such as Descartes, Spinoza, Pierre Bayle and John Locke. Their contemporaries, however, did not consider these ideas as being self- evident at all; instead they saw them as extremely radical and dangerous. Many people regarded these men as extremely radical and dangerous. Many people regarded these men to be enemies of religion and of the very foundations of civil society. As such, they and their ideas were forcefully opposed throughout Europe. 7


Bancroft, George. Literary and Historical Miscellanies. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1857, Bentley, Jerry H. , and Herb F. Ziegler. Traditions and Encounters: A Global Perspective on the Past. Vol. 2. 3rd ed.

Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2006. 782-784. 408-435. Douglass, Frederick. What to the Slave is Fourth of July? In Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, David Blight, ed. , 1852, 141-145. Hazard, Paul. The European Mind. Pelican Books, 1964, pp 125-141. Ignatieff, Michael. Whose Universal Values? The Crisis in Human Rights, Praemium Erasminanum Essay, 1999. Jefferson, Thomas. Declaration of Independence. 1776. Lewis, Bernard. The Crisis of Islam, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2003 National Assembly. Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. In Encounters in World History: Sources and Themes from the Global Past. Vol. 2. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2006. 177-179.

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