Not an age of reason, but a revolt against rationalism. (Peter Gay) Discuss this characterisation of the Enlightenment.

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Not an age of reason, but a revolt against rationalism. (Peter Gay) Discuss this characterisation of the Enlightenment.

There is a carving by Giovanni Lapi that depicts Justice rejecting the death penalty, this is a simple characterisation of the Enlightenment, taking one of its many aspects and displaying it in a plain form. The Enlightenment, which can, for argument’s sake, be given the epoch of 1750-1800, is the movement that helped to change the outlook humans have on the world. Peter Gay asserts that the movement was spurned from the dissatisfaction contemporaries had with the previous period of intellectual thought: rationalism. The quest here is to discover what the Enlightenment was, and whether or not it was a movement bent on the rejection of rationalism.

 Benedictus Spinoza is a prime example of a rationalist, writing most of his works in the 1660s and  1670s. His book Ethics, Demonstrated in the Fashion of Geometry was so titled because he lay out his argument in the form of a mathematical proof, typical of the Rationalists. Rationalism was essentially an attempt to clarify the confusion that was brewing over the question of Christianity, and this was attempted via pure thought. The elimination of anything irrational and the use of knowledge as a source instead of sensationalism was paramount to the philosophising. Spinoza’s predecessor, just like Spinoza himself was not trying to undermine the Church, but simply make it believable. Descartes made the famous assertion: I think, therefore I am, by this he meant that he could certainly say his mind existed, but as for the existence of his body he could not say for sure. His basis for this was that his mind was there because he was thinking, whereas his senses told him that he felt pain or smelt flowers yet he could never prove they actually existed.

The reason that Peter Gay characterises the Enlightenment as a revolt against rationalism is perhaps two fold: some intellectuals from the enlightenment, such as Voltaire, poured scorn on the Rationalists and they did so because they could not accept that there was no free will in the world. The absence of free will was the Achilles heel of Rationalism, just like it was for Jean Calvin and Calvinism. Descartes said that the universe works around two parallel mechanisms; the mind and the real world, these occur in synchronisation. This forced him into a situation whereby the world, and therefore, humans are based on clockwork, we simply exist and can play no part in changing the course of out life or existence. Descartes believed everything must be proved through thought and thus set about proving God’s existence through thought. He managed this by asserting that he had a concept of a supremely perfect being, and for him to be able to have this concept, the supremely perfect being must exist, otherwise how could an imperfect him conceive this perfect being. The rationalists came under much scrutiny and even today for their beliefs are seen as flawed. John Locke emphasised this when he asserted that Descartes quest to discover if the real world exists was irrelevant, because he would never be able to treat it as if it did not.

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The source of the enlightenment, like rationalism, was made up of Christian sceptics, they put forward individualism, belief in science, experimentation, reason along with education as a catalyst for social change as the basis of their movement. John Locke is sometimes called the ‘father of the enlightenment’, his belief systems and writings display classic characteristics of an Enlightened individual. Locke dispelled contemporary beliefs that the ideas of good, evil and god are innate, he said they could not possible be innate. Instead, he argued that some beliefs might appear innate because they are learned and reinforced so early in ...

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