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 to the disregard of how certain philosophes viewed the utility of religion in regards to the station of their social inferiors. Philosophes, such as Voltaire and G.W.F. Hegel, expressed the benefits of religion in promoting social stability and not because it was considered true. Therefore, one can see that despite the materialisation of Enlightenment theology, there was still a philosophic school of thought that tolerated the existence and resurgence of religious sects across Europe. With this in mind it is all the more evident that the philosophes did not aim to actively disenchant the world, as much as they were reinterpreting it through reason and rationality exclusive and subjective to the literary elite.
The impetus for this school of thought amongst philosophes lay in their social strata. Their self-proclaimed intellectual autonomy was, in itself, subject to the society they professed to rise above. Learned men such as Diderot and Voltaire were paid or pensioned by reigning monarchs and commonly consorted with the aristocratic ruling classes. This no doubt contributed to philosophes’ view of religion as a tool to keep the uneducated masses in check, whilst they worked towards a realisation of man’s liberty and freedom. This precedent is further seen in the context of the slave trade, which, although difficult to console with Enlightenment ideals, was endorsed in the Encyclopédie article ‘Inégalité parmi les hommes’, whereby an attack on the slave trade could ‘endanger the very foundations of liberty.’ Thus, like the utility of religion, slavery was yet another factor in the abstractions provided for the ‘science of man’. From this, one can also see how, no matter what their social background, the philosophes were subject to their own bias whilst navigating the enchantment of rationality and reason. In addition to the wider differences of opinion amongst philosophes, one can observe such bias held by Jean Rousseau’s educational novel Emile, which expressed that it was in women’s nature to temper and excite man’s passion and reason, whilst being devoid of reason themselves. What this indicates of philosophe ideals is a far more engrained bias than the philosophes would concede and a bias which was held by individuals considered almost messianic to the public sphere. Not only did they construe questionable arguments from their reason and rationality, but they realised the utility of factors otherwise opposed to the enlightenment ideals.
What truly puts this bias in the context of one’s wider critique of the philosophes’ ideals was Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women. In it Wollstonecraft criticises patriarchal precedents and that ‘the power of generalising ideas… from individual observations, is the only acquirement, for an immortal being’ and that ‘this exercise is the true cultivation of understanding.’ Not only does she encapsulate the misplaced messianic qualities which were seen in individuals, such as Rousseau, but she highlights a fatal flaw in the philosophe mentality; that their objective and questionable observations had to be subject to understanding and which were consistently not. Thus it was in women’s nature to be subservient to men, just as it was in the nature of African folk to be slaves. Just like the dogma of religion was subject to the authority of the Church, so too was this natural law subject to the literary elite and it was utilised to the effect of undercutting any movement that could be rationalised as irrational or offered different alternatives. This is displayed with how the growing scientific endeavour during the Eighteenth Century was harassed by philosophes such as David Hume and Giambattista Vico, under the pretence that man could never fully understand the natural world as he could his own philosophy. As such, science was viewed by society as a nominal curiosity, with little bearing on the world of man. This, of course, is a retrospective criticism, what with the significance science holds nowadays, yet it serves to highlight how the philosophes did not so much as disenchant the world as they offered a reinterpretation of their society through the natural law they had laid down and which was affective of their own inherent biases. Such bias is further demonstrated with the advent of exploration in South East Asia and the idealism held by philosophes in regards to its indigenous populations. Markedly, it was Diderot that encapsulated this idealism towards the ‘noble savage’ and compared Tahiti to a utopian Earthly paradise, whose inhabitants’ simple natural culture replicated those of Greece and Republican Rome. It took the death of Captain James Cook on Hawaii in 1779 to tarnish this idealistic image, yet the fact that such an intrigue was held by philosophes, such as Diderot, indicates how the learned men of Europe were subject to their own bias and that they failed to understand subject matters on their own terms. Thus one can see how the ideals of the philosophes were subject to the bias and practicalities of Enlightenment Europe and that rather than disenchanting the world to its bare fundamentals, they supplanted religious enchantment with that of enlightened enchantment.
This enchantment, however, was not set to a single paradigm and was fluid in its capacity toward debate and change. All throughout the Eighteenth Century this is apparent. Just as Wollstonecraft criticised the patriarchal precedents characterised in Rousseau’s Emile, so too does Rousseau criticise the slave trade in his Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité parmi les hommes. Considering the question of God, those who believed in the utility of organised religion, were met by opposition, such as Baron d’Holbach, and, in the case of Voltaire, themselves. What this shows was that differing opinions were rife throughout the Enlightenment and exemplified the philosophe culture. Moreover, these debates were but an aspect of the wider culture of the Enlightenment. The Republic of Letters, the correspondence of intellectuals, and salons, amongst other institutions, stimulated debate amongst the literate classes of Eighteenth Century Europe and promoted fluidity in ideas and opinions. This society of debate is seen in institutions, such as the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society and the ‘Lunar Society’, which included industrialist Josiah Wedgewood, poet and doctor, Erasmus Darwin and inventor, Richard Arkwright. What can be observed was that the differing opinions amongst philosophes were a microcosm, albeit a significant one, of the wider cultural debate and exchange of opinions throughout Europe. Therefore, although the Enlightenment had supplanted religion as the social enchantment of literate Europe and was subject to the philosophe mentality, it was also subject to the mentalities of the literate classes which contributed to the Enlightenment. This ‘public realm’, as described by philosophe Jürgen Habermas, shows that the aims of the philosophes were not necessarily of the aim to disenchant the world, but to contribute opinions, however flawed, to the wider Enlightenment movement and a movement which broke down indigenous cultural barriers across Europe.
What resulted from this contribution of ideas was the reinterpretation of European society which had once been interpreted through the eyes of religious sanctity, but which now defined by the individual’s use of reason. This was not only restricted to the opinions of ‘Republic of Letters,’ but the very interpretation and makeup of state. Throughout Europe, rulers retreated from initial religious interpretations of monarchy and its sanctity toward that of enlightened interpretations. This can be seen with Frederick II of Prussia, who regarded himself as the ‘first servant of the state’. In a similar manner, Joseph II of Austria considered himself a bureaucrat, as opposed to God’s appointed regent. With this change in ideological interpretations came the disintegration of royal ceremony and symbolism and also gave rise to new political attitudes and governmental policies. This is observed with the fact that although the philosophes’ anti-institutional religious ideals were restricted to their own respective mentalities, the culture of the Enlightenment saw the dawn of religious toleration throughout Europe. Frederick himself stated that ‘all must be tolerated… here everyone must be allowed to choose his own road to salvation’. Whilst this did not disenchant the world to one of differing utopian ideals of the philosophes, it serves to indicate how under the enchantment of the Enlightenment, European states were free in their capacity to exercise their rationality and reason towards the existing constructs of man, with practical outcomes. Just as with secular religious reformations, so too can one see modifications of interest groups, such as trade guilds, sovereign legal bodies and aristocratic representative institutions and legal jurisdiction over their tenants. Therefore, one can see how a more tangible aim of the philosophes was realised through European society’s reinterpretation of itself, as it was no longer guided by the rigidity of religious enchantment, but was interlocked with enchantment of the Enlightenment.
In conclusion, it is evident that the philosophes aimed to supplant the ideals of religious sanctity and tradition with that of Enlightenment rationality and reason. This rationality and reason, however, was subject to the respective backgrounds, social strata and mentalities of the philosophes. As such, the enchantment of the Enlightenment was somewhat more intangible than that of religious enchantment preceding it, whilst designating the boundaries to which subsidiary cultural and social idioms were to bend to. This is seen with the difference of opinions between philosophes and the dismissal of certain motions which did not meld with the composure of philosophe ideals. However, in supplanting religious doctrine with that of the Enlightenment school of thought, one can see that although it was more intangible an enchantment, it was far more malleable for those who were enchanted, because, unlike religion, the Enlightenment was subject to rationality and reason and was, thus, compliant to differing attitudes. This is all the more evident with the numerous political reforms enacted by European governments and also with how the European monarch’s conducted themselves. Therefore, the philosophes did not aim to disenchant the world, but to instigate and contribute to the changing makeup and identity of 18th Century Europe.
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Pearson, R. Voltaire Almighty: A Life in Pursuit of Freedom (London, 2010)
Thomas, K. Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Belief in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century England (London, 1983)
Outram, D. The Enlightenment (Cambridge University Press, 2005)
Koch, H.W. A History of Prussia (London, 1978)
Darnton, R. Forbidden Bestsellers of Pre-Revolutionary France (London, 1996)
Roger Pearson, Voltaire Almighty, A Life in Pursuit of Freedom (London, 2010) p.379
Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Belief in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century England (London, 1983), p. 659
D. Outram, The Enlightenment (Cambridge, 2005) p. 125
P. Gay, Deism: An Anthology (Princeton, NJ, 1968).
Michael Vovelle, Piété baroque et déchristianisation en Provence au XVIII siècle: Les attitudes devant la mort d’après les clauses des testaments (Paris, 1973).
D. Outram, The Enlightenment (Cambridge, 2005) p. 117
Ibid, p. 118
Ibid, p. 126
Ibid, p. 117
Ibid, p. 80
Ibid, p. 81
Ibid, pp. 76-77
Ibid, pp. 103-4
Ibid, p. 61
Ibid, p. 62
Ibid, p. 117
R.E. Schofield, The Lunar Society of Birmingham (Oxford, 1963)
D. Outram, The Enlightenment (Cambridge, 2005) p. 6
Ibid, p. 13
Ibid, p. 27
Ibid, p. 41
H.W. Koch, A History of Prussia (London, 1978), p. 41
Robert Darnton, Forbidden Bestsellers of Pre-Revolutionary France (London, 1996) p.63
D. Outram, The Enlightenment (Cambridge, 2005) p. 41