Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Notes and Thoughts on Unenlightened and Enlightened

Some time ago, I argued with my nephew: he said that the past can't be changed. Being a smart arse, I answered that the study of history iss  the process of changing the past so that it explains the present. In other words, the Enlightenment...

The most frustrating thing, perhaps, about the history of the eighteenth century is the constant emphasis on religion. Maybe there is a better way to phrase that... most accounts of the 'age of reason' pay so much attention to the anti-clerical aspects of the philosophes that it starts to become tedious. Everything seems to relate back to some project to destroy religious thought, whether it's Voltaire having a crack at the Jesuits or Helvetius going hardcore atheism. This makes any attempt to disentangle strands of Enlightenment thought - say, the interest in time, theatre or civic virtue - very difficult.

Yeah, I get it, and a single sentence can sum it up: the French philosophes wanted to challenge religious authority, and replace tradition and revealed truth with reason. And yep, this allowed them some flexibility in the way that they understood the universe, compared to the most dogmatic theological speculations. But it's like a neurosis - here's a chapter on how they understood geological time, and it challenges the Old Testament. Here's one about the social contract, and the Vatican can take that

I started to wonder - who were these philosophes trying to convince? Nipping over to Germany, and there's Kant joining in... and it's religion where freedom of thought is most important and...

You know, it's funny. Kant and his 'take courage and think!' routine. It's funny how he worries not about state censorship of the arts and the sciences - apparently, his Freddy the Great isn't bothered about that. It's the danger of a state imposing religion... 

And Freddy was a notorious 'dissident' in matters of religious observance. Kant might be daring to think, but he's not daring to think against his monarch. He's supporting the freedom that Frederick II was giving him, probably.

With all this shouting about religion in France, there seemed to be little consideration of the nature of power itself, no challenges to the monarchy directly. Or are these being ignored by historians in the rush to align the Enlightenment with secular modernity? Now that most European kings are either gone or toothless, is the attack on religion the only revolution left? Or are they finding the contemporary equivalent of 'the acceptable target'?

Dunno. But I am bored by it. I fear that the past might have been rewritten in an attempt to explain the present. 

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