Why were the topics of human nature and morality so important in the enlightened thought?

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Nathalie Zamanpour 0124465

Why were the topics of human nature and morality so important in the enlightened thought?

    Up to the eighteenth century Western Europe, Christianity was the stronghold and guide for issues concerning life in general. To be more specific, religion was the long rooted base for morality and had its own description of human nature. Diverse factors contributed to the destabilisation of the Church’s status quo, thus enabling the expression of individual thought. In fact, Christianity not any longer detained the monopole over human lifestyles, leading to the rise of a vast debate relating to the questions of how to lead a life and man’s position in the universe. Naturally, when looking throughout mankind history there have always been discussions and conflicts within the institutions and there have been changes. Nevertheless, what happened during the Age of Reason is incomparable with previous ages as Reason became conscious, and not any longer only accessible to aristocracy and the Church, but also to a rising bourgeoisie.

The first part of my essay demonstrates the importance of the religious institution (establishment), as well as some socio-economical factors that have participated in the weakening of Christianity.

These aspects are believed to have led to the emancipation of Reason, therefore to the debate of a new society. The question is whether morals and the perception of human nature really have changed?

   Firstly, it is important to acknowledge the significance of the relation between religion and morality. The Church was so deeply rooted in the Western civilisation. Christianity had an incredible influence on peoples’ thought and conduct thus lifestyles. Christianity formed the basis for ethics and consequently the justice system. We can thus imagine how far Christianity managed to spread its tentacles across the culture and the society. The social structure was supported and maintained though religion. The monarch was blessed and the monarchy holly supported by clerical and papal institution. Basically, the important issues related to life were thought through by religion, which spread to all the ‘substructures’. Christianity represented the ultimate Reason, truth, morality etc and answered all the questions one might ask about the universe or else.

   Consequently, mercantilism enabled economical stability and increased individual’s wealth, allowing oneself more financial independence. This economical shift threatened the Church’s position as it decentralised its wealth: “A major cause for this general change of religious attitude was the rapidly growing economies of both countries [England and France], which led to social and cultural changes, and influenced religious attitudes and, in England, a relaxation of basic church standards as well.”. With people trading, thus travelling, leading to a fusion of different nations- as Addison explains when he walks through the  Royal Exchange: “sometimes I am just led among a body of Armenians; sometimes I am lost in a crowd of Jews; and sometimes make one in a group of Dutchmen. I am a Dane, Swede, or Frenchman at different times”. Voltaire took this notion even further when praising religious tolerance in another country than the one he originated from, “Take a view of the Royal Exchange in London, a place more venerable than many courts of justice, where the representatives of all nations meet for the benefit of mankind. There the Jew, the Mahometan, and the Christian transact together as though they all professed the same religion. (…) If one religion only were allowed in England, the government would very possibly become arbitrary; if they were but two, the people would cut each other’s throat; but as there are such a multitude, they all live happy and in peace.

   Other factors contributed to the questioning of Christianity. In his Discourse on Arts and Sciences, Rousseau mentions that “it was the stupid Mussulman, the sworn enemy to letters, that caus’d their revival amongst us”. Rousseau is certainly alluding to the Renaissance where there was a revival of classical literature that started in Italy before gaining the rest of Europe due to the “fall of Constantine’s throne”. More importantly, the resurgence of Aristotle’s works amongst scholars may have led to rethinking the long held and rooted position of the Church. For centuries, blind beliefs and superstitions surrounded the lifestyles of people; and Reason had made a formidable reappearance through the Greek works.

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We can then observe a gradual socio-economical shift relocating the Church’s position to a background scene, bringing forward the individual thought.  

     As a consequence, the Church’s status quo started to fissure from inside. Although there appeared to be an overwhelming Christian majority, there was not any unity of such. There arise a general question on religious tolerance as the religious domination started to openly break apart from inside. Furthermore, the ‘laxest’ political circumstances in England saw the decline of the monarchical power thus suggested a new approach relating to the divine right of Kings. There would be a constant ...

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