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The Enlightenment Period

Shanet Clark

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The German astronomer Johannes Kepler, working with the observational records of Tycho Brahe, established the law of elliptical planetary orbits, the theory of equal radius vectors being swept in equal time. The importance of this fundamental breakthrough in physics, astronomy and cosmology is important because it allows us to periodize the era known as the Enlightenment. Kepler overturned Ptolmaic and medieval astrophysics with this theory in 1609, and this laid the groundwork for Isaac Newton’s physical laws eighty years later. Galileo, the sixteenth century observational scientist and Copernicus, the fifteenth century Pole were then vindicated beyond dispute. Science, the revolutionary method of measured differences in real observations—the method of documented experiment—came to dominate European intellectual discourse. Aristotelian nominalism, which differentiated all individual exceptions, successfully challenged Platonic ‘realism,’ i.e. idealism. Observational science, which had crept up out of the Aristotelian scholasticism of the High Middle Ages, revolutionized astronomy and physics during the course of the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth century. By the eighteenth century this method of scientific inquiry was accepted and respected throughout Europe. This rational scientific method, exemplified by the seventeenth century practitioners Kepler and Newton, empowered and propelled to prominence an unusual group of eighteenth century individuals, the Enlightenment’s philosophes.

Traditional interest in the Enlightenment valorized European scientists and social theorists of the eighteenth century, focusing on the French writers Lavoisier, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Diderot, Comte de Buffon, but including the German philosopher Kant, the Swedish botanist Linnaeus, the Americans Franklin and Jefferson, with various Scottish, Italian, English and Prussian scientists and writers.

Two problems come to the surface when the Enlightenment is closely studied.

I will call these problems the modern problem and the contemporary problem.

The modern problem with the Enlightenment is the long recognized difficulty of linking the Enlightenment of France with the principal event of eighteenth century France, the French Revolution. The hagiographic valorization of many French Enlightenment figures is complicated by their presence at Versailles, Paris and in the Reign of Terror. Enlightenment figures can be found in the salons and courts of the decadent French nobility intriguing with powerful madams and courtesans, and then later as mob leaders, revolutionary censors and Directory factotums. This lingering chronic problem, known throughout the modern period of study, may be explained in part by looking into the second problem, the contemporary problem.

The contemporary problem with the Enlightenment is the distinct lack of enlightened opinion among these figures upon the value of universal humanism; equality among the various nationalities, classes, races and genders is not a developed value in the Enlightenment period. If these values are occasionally proclaimed, they are then inconsistently applied. They are plainly denied in many cases (Eze).

As stated above, understanding this acute contemporary problem helps us to understand the chronic modern problem. To shed light on the two related problems of the Enlightenment, where the shadows of enlightenment lie, we can look to three sources, Chukwudi Eze, Ottobah Cugoano and Robert Darnton.

Constrained by format requirements, I will set aside issues of gender bias, as this was synthesized earlier through the comparison of Rousseau’s thoughts on the education of women in ‘Emile,’ Linda Scheibinger’s graphic study of skewedness in eighteenth century human anatomy studies and Joan Landes’s work. A similar triangulation of Cuguano, Eze and Darnton should illuminate the acute contemporary issue of anomalous racial bias in the otherwise equalitarian pronouncements of the Enlightenment figures -- and this bias’s relationship to the chronic problem of Enlightenment authors’ participation in court, salon and the Reign of Terror.

Essentially, self-interest outstripped ideology and rhetoric outpaced action in the face of this self-interest. Inconsistent social values influenced inconsistent political behavior. Deep social, cultural and economic currents steered eighteenth century France and paradoxical positions were often claimed. A combination of loyalties to colonial ‘duty,’ masculine patriarchy and ignorance (in the form of a very imperfect observational method) guided Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, in his natural history (Eze, pp. 15-28). Linnaeus seems to derive his primitive divisions and ideas on the limitations of non-whites from a medievalist theory of hepatic and venous humors, which can only be seen as a weak platform for repeating xenophobic, Caucasian centered assumptions (Eze pp.10-15).

The construction of the category of ‘wholly other’ alien people harkens back to a medieval insecurity about the ‘unsaved,’ the heathen denizens of the Antipodes. The older Church teachings concerning the Hamitic Africans, the sons of Ham, influenced this worldview. Ham, the son of Noah who saw Noah naked was then exiled south in shame, marked like Cain. These primitive theories were adapted by Kant and Linnaeus and then bolstered by fanciful theories of excess black bile and phlegm in the African, excess Yellow bile in the Asian and the abundance of healthy red blood in the sanguine Euro-Caucasian (Eze p. 15, Cugoano, p. 32).

Because of the undeniable breakthroughs of Kepler and Newton, scientists and critical thinkers were valorized and rewarded in this period and many entered an upper class (or associated with upper class patrons), which showed many signs of anxiety and insecurity. Salon and court life was a necessary adjunct to the established writers and academy members. While they could now afford to be objective and unbiased in optics, chemistry or astronomical physics, the human sciences often lagged in critical objectivity, precisely because of this co-opting by an elite economic system.

At the salon and the table of the nobility, optics and astronomy could be discussed with great objectivity, but the discourse was skewed in other areas, repeating grotesque myths in the fields of human sociology and anthropology because of the co-opting and distorting effect of bourgeois and noble insecurities. The terms sociology and anthropology are twentieth century coinages, of course.

Montesquieu, Diderot and Jefferson could make sweeping pronouncements about general humanistic universal equality, while maintaining specific biases. Jefferson (in constant contact with the French Enlightenment figures) could write the Declaration of Independence, and still calmly travel overseas with chattel slave people in tow.

Diderot could glamorize Tahitian natives while allowing extremely racist passages into his Encyclopedia. The native noble savage of nature was celebrated in theory while the actual non-white was marginalized in practice.

The co-opting by elite patrons, the chronic inability to see beyond socially constructed xenophobic tradition, the force of lingering medieval and ecclesiastic worldviews, anxiety about Chinese wealth, Persian noble status and Turkish military power all combined to inform eighteenth century French thought. Hatred of ‘heathen, savage Indians’ in the Americas and ‘infidel Moors’ in the Mediterranean informed the thinking of all educated elites in this period.

Ottoba Cugoano was in a unique position to analyze and respond to this inconsistence. Cugoano offers up a complete and satisfying critique of the slave-holding hypocritical culture of colonial Europe. Cuguano writes:

“Who will regard the voice (of wisdom) and hearken to the cry? Not the sneaking advocates of slavery, though a little ashamed of their craft; like the monstrous crocodile weeping over their pray with fine concessions (while gorging their own rapacious appetite) to hope for universal freedom taking over the globe. Not those inebriated with avarice and infidelity who hold in defiance every regard due to the divine law, and who endeavor all they can to destroy and take away the natural and common rights and privileges of man. (Thoughts and Sentiments, p. 62)”

Here is the true enlightened voice, a black man in the white eighteenth century France, a valid critic, an observer speaking out from the margins of society.

Robert Darnton and Arlette Farge show us a class dynamic in eighteenth century France that helps separate the causation of the Revolution from the activities of the well-known Enlightenment figures. The writings of the social critics, the egalitarian and leveling pose taken by Montesquieu, Diderot (see ‘Farmer,’ Encyclopedie), were not the “cause” of the French Revolution. The salon, court and academy writers sometimes espoused a universal equality, in alternation with their biased pronouncements, but were more effective and convincing in the physical rather than the social sciences because of their participation in the dominant xenophobic milieux.

The Revolution itself stemmed rather from a deep--and difficult to recapture-- divide between the classes of France. Enlightenment authors straddled and passed back and forth over this divide, but they were not the most prominent players in the Revolutionary fervor; they were in fact relatively impotent observers of the Revolution. Darnton and Farge make the persuasive case that only a deeper cultural study of the more marginalized critics can expose the dynamics of momentum that led up to the French Revolution of 1789.

The modern problem, the overlap of Enlightenment and Revolutionary timeframes, is due to a tendency to oversimplification and to misguided assumptions concerning cause and effect. The two great events of eighteenth century France, the Enlightenment and the French Revolution are not, in fact, causally related.

The case can even be made for the mediating effect of egalitarian philosophers in the court and salon, and that having Enlightened individuals in both the streets and in the Tuilleries played a moderating role, delaying the Revolution and softening its impact. In this scenario, the ambiguous figure of the philosophe helped control and mediate the Revolution from even more severe eventualities, aiding in the protection of citizen’s rights under Napoleon, etc.

Darnton and Farge bring us face to face with a class conflict. The divide between the mob in Paris and the primary Estates was broad and polarizing, and it existed independently of the Enlightenment figures. Revolutionary momentum existed without Enlightenment political theories.

Deep hatred and effective challenges to the monarchy welled up from a peasant and urban poor mentalitie. Paris was swept by regicide rumors of ‘a dog eating the Prince’s heart,’ for example, and the Bastille was full of frustrated illiterates toying with the concept of killing the King (Farge, sec. II and III).

Robert Darnton opened the way for this deeper analysis of the causation of the French Revolution by exposing the rampant frustration of Grub Street, exemplified by broadsheet libelles, unsophisticated scurrilous and ‘unenlightened’ attacks on the ancien regime, salon life and the Academy.

“Grotesque, inaccurate and simplistic as it was, this version (Morande’s) of political news should not be dismissed as merely mythical, because myth making and unmaking proved to be powerful forces in the last years of the regime, which though absolutist in theory, had become increasingly vulnerable to public opinion. To be sure, the eighteenth century French “public” did not exist in any coherent form: and insofar as it did exist, it was excluded from direct participation in politics. (Darnton, Literary Underground p. 33)”

An uprising of true lower class rage, frustrated aspirations and new public discourses like the libelles led to the French Revolution.

The problem of certain Enlightenment authors’ playing a role in the Revolution is to be understood as one of callous self-interest, as indicated by the activities of Marat, Gilbert and Sabatier. To the extent that well known pre-Revolutionary Enlightenment figures had become elites, this in fact shows their lack of participation in the current of Revolution, if one accepts Darnton’s theory.

The twin problems of the Enlightenment must be approached from a point of view that recognizes the deeper class frustrations and elite assumptions of the period. Cause and effect between revolutionary intellectual achievements and political revolution should be warily re-analyzed. The problem of the Enlightenment figures’ lack of consistent universal humanism must be approached through an immersion in the assumptions of the period, as no theorist, no matter how progressive, writes outside of the context of the times. Sadly, inconsistence and mutability existed even in these valorized individuals, and teleological assumptions have forced anachronistic expectations onto the character of these eighteenth century Enlightenment figures.

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