The Philosophes aimed to disenchant the World. Discuss

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“The Philosophes aimed to disenchant the World.” Discuss

        The notion that the “philosophes aimed to disenchant the world” is an idealistic generalisation of its historical context, only applicable to the cultural contemporaries of Enlightened Eighteenth Century Europe. In this light, one can see how the philosophes aspired to do away with the traditions and superstitions, commonly superimposed by religion, so as to bring about an age of reason and rationality and with it, man’s liberty and progress. However, this idealism held amongst philosophes was restricted in both its theory and practice by the culture and society that characterised it. With society and social strata tempering the philosophes’ mentality, their rationality did not so much as disenchant the world, as it did offer new alternatives to the precedent that had been laid down by religious enchantment.  This is seen with the differentiations of opinions held by philosophes and the historical criticisms that can be made of them. Likewise, society’s practice of the philosophes’ ideals of rationality and reason was not so much fuelled by the philosophes’ writings, as it was stimulated by the debate of such writings. In this sense, such debate resulted not in disenchantment per se, but a practical application of reason toward the reinterpretation of society’s makeup and administration. What becomes apparent was that the philosophes did not take on the grandiose aim of disenchanting the world, but were instigating and contributing to the wider cultural processes that were shaping the European identity. To consider the former argument would be to concede the messianic qualities that were seen in such men by their contemporaries.

        Considering disenchantment in its barest form, one must confront the question of religion and the philosophe ideals towards it. In this sense the philosophes strove to extinguish the religious status quo, that the world was conceived through supernatural forces and that the question of God, rather than being engraved in institution and sacrament, was confined to workings of nature and obeyed natural laws accessible to humans. One can see this attack on religious institutionalism in literary works, such as Ecrasez L’infâme by the philosophe Voltaire, yet the very nature of religion’s foundations were also put to doubt. In addition to Voltaire, philosophes such as David Hume and Johan Gottlieb Fichte posed a critique on the actual reliability of the New Testament and the miracles it professed. This philosophic retreat from religious tradition is mirrored by the wider cultural movement of historians, such as Giambattista Vico, from a religious context towards that of man’s own capacity for progress. 

The argument one can construct from this was that philosophes were in no doubt aiming to disenchant the world of its religious ties, yet at the same time that conventional religious institutions were being refuted, so too had new beliefs began to arise as alternative reasonable religions that were believed to work in tandem with Enlightenment’s rationality. Isaac Newton had posed the notion that God was tantamount to natural forces of the universe and existed only as a First Cause, showing no interest towards the morals of men, thus providing popularised context for the grounds of Deism. This was one of the many radical shifts of theology amongst philosophes and suggests that religion was not so much refuted as it was reinterpreted in a new light by the tools of rationality and reason and that it lay in accordance with nature. With this in mind, one cannot state that the philosophes aimed to disenchant the world, but that they offered a new enchantment of reason and natural law by which religion, in any differing form, was to bow to.

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Regarding orthodox religions, this new enchantment of natural law can be seen with how attempts were made to stabilise belief through demonstrating their acceptability to reason. This was in turn supported by certain philosophes, such as John Locke and his publishing of a book on The Reasonableness of Christianity. However, this does not explain the rise of other powerful religious movements, such as Pietism, Methodism and the ‘Great Awakening’, amongst others. These movements stressed the religious tenants that the philosophes so adamantly opposed. One could argue that this was indicative of the failure of philosophes to materialise their aspirations, yet this would be ...

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