2.6 The Age of Reason and Enlightenment
The age of ’Reason’ and ’Enlightenment’ was ushered with the people believing that the reasoning of men could free them of their ills and lead them to peace, security, a good government and ideal society. Reason would ensure the progress of humanity and entire society. These men of letters were various philosophers. These philosophers were rational in their thought, and strongly advocated human thinking on the basis of scientific principles. They also thought that mathematics and logic exemplified reason.
The ideas of Rene Descartes were a landmark in the history of ideas, especially those enunciated in his "Discourse of Methods." He declared that one should reason out every thing for oneself and accept nothing that was previously believed. For philosophers like Bacon, Cartesian reason worked by clear logic based on facts learned through sense experiences. They also insisted on closing the churches (1793-94). The important philosophers of that time were Voltaire and Hume.
The religious philosophers held that god installed the universe but did not interfere with its working. John Locke (1632-1704) and Voltaire established the basis of natural religion. They also believed that Church was a barrier in the path of Enlightenment.
2.6a Law of Nature
These philosophers opined that only through right reasoning could they see nature in its true form. One should not be misled in any way by one’s senses. To these philosophers nature was the physical world experienced by the human senses. They applied their tool of human reason to the beliefs and institutions of the 18th century, i.e. the Church and State. Their idea was to change the corrupt environment by the application of reason. On the one hand, poverty and ignorance had stunted the reasoning power among the poorer masses; on the other hand, riches and irresponsibility had perverted the reasoning of the higher classes (the clergy and the nobles).
The ideas of Nature and Reason had replaced older concepts of pessimistic ideas of original sin by some kind of utilitarian ethics. In France, Claude Adrien Helvetius (1715-1771) with his principle of artificial identity of interests and in England, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) were exponents of this brand of philosophy. In Italy, Beccaria Cesare, Marese di Beccaria coined the utilitarian phrase, "the greatest good of greatest number." Besides this, in his book, Crimes and Punishment, he pronounced the idea that criminals should be punished not as an act of vengeance by society and certainly not because god wanted them to be punished but solely to prevent further crimes harmful to society. He opposed capital punishment and torture and advocated education as a crime preventive.
In the 18th century, philosophic changes took place where natural and social sciences challenged the superiority of logic and theology. Philosophers were more concerned about actual problems in the areas of experience. When they criticized religion it was with the aim to break the monopolistic power of Church and to advance a new point of view. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and David Hume (1711-1776) declared that his religious convictions were orthodox, and condemned some religious practices.
According to Hume, human morals have a natural origin. The
criterion is that the conduct of man be one that increases the happiness
and well being of the human race. Ironically, this development increased
materialistic philosophy. He further held that it was not possible
to deduce evaluative conclusions from factual premises. Now this
thesis of his has come to be known as the "is/ought problem."
Contrary to the popular belief there were still some philosophers who supported faith, intuition and emotion. They found that reason was insufficient for all human purposes and that the intellect was not the only base for human action. This different understanding emerged as Romanticism or Idealism. For writers of idealism, emotions were more important than reason. Romantic philosophers and thinkers were J. F. Schiller (1759-1805), J. W. Goethe (1749-1832), Friedrich Schlegel (1772-1801), and Emmanuel Kant (1724-1804). The latter’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781) and Critique of Practical Reason (1788) were great contributions in this field. Those who had earlier worshipped the cynicism of Voltaire were now drawn to the sentimentalism of Rousseau. Middle class people began to prefer romantic poetry to classics. Romanticism re-instated personal values and emphasized the dignity of man.
In England, poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge ushered in this new movement in Literature. Later English poets like Keats, Shelley, and Byron. These poets exalted nature and stressed sincerity and passion. They romanticized the experiences of the common people. They aimed to appeal to the emotions rather than the intellect. Romantic painters sketched "the mysteries of night, the magic of dawn, and sunset or the crepescular shadows of an approaching storm" to obtain better effects. Musical tastes turned more emotional while architecture saw the revival of the Gothic tradition.
2.6c Reason and Politics
Reason played a major role in exposing the inadequacies of the existing regime. However, there was a difference in opinion as far as the question of modern institutions was concerned. Some advocated the authoritarian form of governing, while others opposed the State. The supporters of an authoritarian state and society did not realize that men are naturally reasonable and good enough to be trusted to achieve spontaneous collaboration. They also believed that men need law, authority and compulsion in order to function in a society. These laws had to be organized and executed by the right people with the correct motives.
William Godwin’s work Political Justice (1793) was a much-talked-about piece of writing. Political reformers found that it made compelling reading. Godwin’s doctrine stated that men were reasonable and impelled by reason to live justly and that they became bad only on account of the corrupting forces of institutions. The anarchist solution was doing away with all institutions. However, the libertarians believed all men have the minimum ability to reason. They had the potential to work according to the will of nature, but it was also not possible in the place where the Church and the State were unnecessarily dominant. They also advocated that the elimination of kings, nobles and also priests would help to transform the existing political scene. These philosophers attacked most of the evils in the existing political institutions and recommended reforms in some or the other forms in politics. Their political writings influenced the political developments of the time.
2.6d Reason and Economics
Adam Smith entered the realm of economics by studying the implications of human greed, and how self-interest could work for the common good. His book, The Wealth of Nations (1776) shattered the protectionist philosophy of mercantilism, which had reigned supreme in economic thought for about 200 years. Smith’s speculations led him to formulate the laws of the market. He outlined the workings of production, of competition, of demand and supply, and of the price index. He also stressed the self-regulating nature of the market, which, if unhindered, would foster social harmony. He identified two basic market laws - the Law of Accumulation and the Law of Population.
Philosophers in this period made efforts to explain the strange phenomena in their relation to human endeavor and to social life. They tried interpreting the nature of god and the duties of man in the light of development of the then modern sciences.