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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Ethical Concerns of the Enlightenment


Alice C. Linsley

Timeline

Francis Bacon              1561-1626
Thomas Hobbes           1588-1679
Rene Descartes            1595-1650
Blaise Pascal                1623-1662
John Locke                   1632-1704
Nicolas Malebranche    1638-1715
Isaac Newton                1642-1727
Voltaire                        1694-1778
David Hume                 1711-1776
Rousseau                     1712-1778


“Truth is so obscure in these times, and falsehood so established, that unless we love the truth, we cannot know it.”--Blaise Pascal (1623-1662)

“All things must be examined, debated, investigated without exception and without regard for anyone’s feelings.”--Denis Diderot (1713-1784)


The Enlightenment is a period in Europe characterized by sweeping discoveries in science, new ways of thinking about ethics and philosophy, and new political and economic theories. The Enlightenment lasted from about 1650 to 1799 and greatly influenced modern ethics and American political thought.

During the Enlightenment, the values of the Middle Ages, which had been eroded by Renaissance Humanism and Protestant individualism, gave way to ideals of social reform, revolution, and the principles of human reason.

The political and social reforms of the Enlightenment culminated in two revolutions: one in France, and the other in the English colonies. The French Revolution of 1789 began in anarchy, descended into terror, and culminated in military dictatorship under Napoleon Bonaparte. It was a violent overthrow of the French monarchy and the privileges of the French nobility. This revolution brought an end to the ancien régime (old regime) in France. In August 1789, the Assembly voted to abolish the special privileges granted to the Catholic Church in France and the feudal rights of French nobles, and declared the equality of all Frenchmen.

Among the American colonists there was great interest in the events of the French Revolution. Those who wanted a more egalitarian society saw the French Revolution as a positive development. Other American leaders were shaken by the atrocities committed during the Revolution and the rapid descent into chaos. Reactions to the violence and social upheaval split along emerging party lines. The Federalists were horrified by the destruction of property and lives, while Democratic Republicans were more sympathetic to the revolutionaries. The American journalist Benjamin Franklin Bache, grandson of Benjamin Franklin, defended the French Revolution on the ground that the people were justified in attacking and destroying kings, nobles, and other “traitors.”  This argument was used to justify the American Revolution and the overthrow of the “tyrant” king of England.

The British philosopher John Locke rejected the claim that monarch ruled by “divine right.” He argued instead that governments were created among free people as social contracts. Civil rulers derived their authority from the consent of the governed, and held their power as a public trust. Locke believed that rebellion against a government is justified when such a government fails to protect the “self-evident” natural rights of life, liberty, and property. This “right of rebellion” theory influenced the American Patriots.

The Enlightenment saw the convergence of three developments: Renaissance Humanism, Protestant ethics, and Rationalism. These form the basis for modern western society and modern ethics. Immanuel Kant, reflecting on the Enlightenment, wrote, “Dare to know! Have the courage to use your own understanding; this is the motto of the Enlightenment.” D'Alembert, a leading figure of the French Enlightenment, characterized his time as “the century of philosophy par excellence.”

Enlightenment thinkers left a lasting legacy in math, science, law, as well as philosophy.  Francis Bacon represents the transition from the Renaissance to the early Enlightenment. He conducted numerous experiments using inductive reasoning. He is considered the "father of British empiricism" or the founder of the scientific method. His contribution to philosophy was his application of induction. He insisted that human inquiry must be based on empirical observation of natural phenomena. However, Bacon also believed that humans possess some innate knowledge, which makes him a rationalist as well as an empiricist.

Francis Bacon also made significant contributions in the field of Law. The historian Samuel Rawson Gardiner recognized Bacon’s influence on the developing judicial system. Speaking in Bacon’s defense, Gardiner said, “Although Bacon’s wish to bring the judges into subjection to the Crown has not found favour in later times, it must be remembered that his doctrine of the necessity of referring elsewhere than to them for the final decision on all constitutional questions has stood the test of modern experience.” (Catherine Drinker Bowen, Francis Bacon: The Temper of a Man, 1963, p. 136)

Rene Descartes, a great mathematician, developed his system of Cartesian coordinates and wrote on the nature of knowledge (epistemology). He agreed with Aristotle that the goal of philosophy is the attainment of wisdom sufficient for happiness. He presents his image of the tree of philosophy, whose uppermost branch is “the highest and most perfect moral system, which presupposes a complete knowledge of the other sciences and is the ultimate level of wisdom.”

Blaise Pascal’s work on probability theory and the arithmetic triangle broke new ground. At age 16, he formulated a basic theorem of projective geometry, known as “Pascal's theorem.”

One of the best known scientists of the Enlightenment was Sir Isaac Newton. He formulated the fundamental laws of motion and gravity, preparing the way for modern Physics.

The ideal of human conduct based on the exercise of reason stirred intellectual tolerance of religious differences in Europe. For Enlightenment thinkers reason trumped tradition, divine revelation, the Bible, and the Church’s authority. Thomas Hobbes articulates this Enlightenment ideal in these words: “…reason is the pace; increase of science, the way; and the benefit of mankind, the end.”

Pierre Bayle (1647-1706) attacked religious intolerance, demanding recognition of freedom of religion and conscience. Much blood was shed in the 16th century religious wars between Catholics, Protestants, and Muslims. All used sacred writings to justify ruthless killing of their enemies. Bayle wrote, “Any literal sense [of the Bible] which contains an obligation to commit crimes is false.” (Philosophic Commentary, 1727)

Enlightenment interpretation of the Bible was subjected to reason and moral conscience. This meant that any interpretations that seemed contrary to reason were regarded as false interpretations. Thomas Jefferson, known for his Deism, extracted all the miracles from the New Testament. The resulting volume is known as the “Jefferson Bible.”

Enlightenment thinkers believed that rational approaches could be applied to all areas of human endeavor and inquiry. Thomas Hobbes proposed a universal method of knowledge based on reason and observation. He conceived of the reasoning process as mathematical computation, involving subtraction and addition. False ideas were to be subtracted and verified ideas were to be added, and by this process a true picture of reality could be achieved.

Toward the second half of the 18th century the rationalist view was met with an opposing view called “Romanticism.” Many artists and poets preferred to express their ideas about Nature using emotion, imagination and artistic expression, rather than cold reason. Romanticism stressed the natural goodness of humans as compared to Hobbes’ view that human existence is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Romantics tended to celebrate Nature rather than the accomplishments of nations and governments.  They viewed Nature as mystical and unpredictable while rationalists viewed Nature as knowable, calculable, and reducible to universal principles.

Ethical considerations of the Enlightenment:

Man’s Natural Condition (Human Nature)
Justified Functions of Government
Natural Law and Natural Rights
The Nature of Human Freedom
Bourgeois Morality
The Problem of Evil
Philosophical Skepticism
Man’s Natural Condition (Human Nature)

In his book Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes presents his pessimistic view of humanity, explaining that: “in the nature of man, we find three principal causes of quarrel. First, competition; secondly, diffidence; thirdly, glory. The first maketh men invade for gain; the second, for safety; and the third, for reputation. The first use violence, to make themselves masters of other men's persons, wives, children, and cattle; the second, to defend them; the third, for trifles, as a word, a smile, a different opinion, and any other sign of undervalue, either direct in their persons or by reflection in their kindred, their friends, their nation, their profession, or their name.” (Leviathan 13)

Hobbes asserted that the individual has a right to defend himself and to seek his own prosperity. This is the natural condition of humanity and it sets one person against another. To avoid mutual destruction, Hobbes proposed establishing security through cooperation. His solution to selfishness, greed and war is a social contract whereby individuals agree to subjugate their individual aims in order to gain a broader peace and security.

Hobbes’ view of human nature departed from Aristotle’s understanding of the human as a political creature whose highest good is to seek his own fulfillment. Hobbes’ view was contrary to the Catholic teaching that humans still retain “in the image and likeness” of God. His pessimism about human nature is more aligned with that of Luther who emphasized total human depravity since the Fall. However, Hobbes was not much interested in the religious aspect of human nature. He focused on the natural competition of humans for resources and regarded this as the “animal nature” of humans. Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and John Locke assumed that man is by nature a social animal. Hobbes assumed otherwise, and the result was a very different conclusion as to the justified functions of government.

In Hobbes’ view, everything humans do is intended to relieve the physical pressures that we experience in daily life. Our desires, appetites and needs are experienced as physical discomforts which we must overcome by acting out of our own self-interest. According to Hobbes, it is our nature as humans to live independently, without regard for others and this produces what he calls a "state of war.” (Leviathan I 13) The state of war can be avoided when individuals enter into mutually beneficial agreements wherein individual interests are surrendered in order to achieve a stable and secure social organization. (Leviathan I 14)

Hobbes argued that true human freedom is the ability to carry out one's will without interference from others. He held that this is possible only when we are subject to a common authority that helps each to secure liberty with respect to others (Leviathan II 21). Such an orderly government, according to Hobbes, does not restrict individual liberty, but ensures it.

Hobbes proposed that through the formation of a commonwealth, a network of associated contracts governed by Law, humanity can achieve the highest form of social organization. Hobbes viewed the commonwealth as a new, artificial person – “the Leviathan” – which is fully responsible for social order and public welfare (Leviathan II 17). In Hobbes’ view, the State is a “body” that functions according to certain physical laws, just as the human body has natural functions. The Head of the network is the king who makes decisions on behalf of his subjects. Hobbes’ commonwealth-creating covenant is not a relationship between subjects and their monarch however. The key to the success of the covenant is the relationship among subjects. All must agree to divest themselves of their natural instinct of self-preservation and self-interest to secure an orderly government through obedience to the sovereign. (Leviathan II 18)


Justified Functions of Government

In Hobbes’ view it matters less who formulates and passes the laws, than that citizens understand and obey them. Hobbes entertains the possibility that the sovereign authority may be an assembly (legislature), or a single royal person (king). However, Hobbes clearly preferred a monarchical government in which the right to rule is inherited (Leviathan II 19). He argued that the ideal commonwealth cannot be achieved if the monarch has too little power, therefore the monarch must not be subject to laws that limit his power (Leviathan II 29). Do you hear echoes of Machiavelli’s political philosophy?

Building on Hobbes’ social contract theory, John Locke (1632-1704) established a doctrine described as “natural rights.” The desire for self-preservation, which Hobbes described as “the war of all against all,” was viewed differently by Locke. He believed that self-preservation was a natural right and should be the basis of a social contract that defines the functions of government. In his Two Treatises of Government (1690), Locke argued that the primary role of government is to protect the rights to life, liberty, and property. These writings represent Locke’s attempt to defend the 1698 Whig rebellion against King James. Locke’s view of individual liberty holds life, liberty and property as the foundational rights that must be upheld by the government. Any government that fails to uphold these natural rights may rightly be overthrown by the people.

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) insisted that real rights were established by laws enacted by the state.  Bentham believed that humans are motivated by a desire to avoid pain and by the desire to acquire property. He therefore proposed reforms, not on the basis of natural rights, but on the basis of his utilitarian principle of extension.  This principle measures the rightness of a law based on how widely the pains and pleasures of the law will be felt across the social spectrum.


Natural Law and Natural Rights

Natural Law refers to laws or principles of law observed in the order of Nature. These are believed to be binding upon human actions apart from or in conjunction with laws established by government. During the Enlightenment, natural law was seen as the basis for “natural rights” such as the right to defend oneself and the right to own property.

Thomas Aquinas' “Treatise on Law” (Summa Theologiae) developed the concept of natural law as Mankind’s “participation” in God’s eternal law as evidenced in the orderliness of Nature. Through the exercise of reason and observation, people grasp self evident principles and use them as a standard for human laws. Such natural laws are binding on the human conscience, but unjust laws in principle are not binding.

Locke used the terms “natural law” or “law of nature” differently than Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas applied this concept to the final destiny of all Humanity in God. For Locke, natural law is not derived from a set of divinely ordered laws to bring ultimate human fulfillment, but from an innate desire for self-preservation. Locke

Natural rights theory had a significant influence on the founders of American government, as evidenced by the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. It is also seen in aspects of American common law.

John Locke and Hobbes are “contractarians” who believe that individuals are responsible for keeping contracts to which they consent. Those who wish to preserve individual freedom have a moral obligation to keep contracts. As with Hobbes, Locke begins his political philosophy with a theory of human nature. Locke rejects Hobbes’ idea that the state is an artificial creation, and that the natural state of humans is isolation and war for survival. Instead, Locke sees human beings as naturally social creatures, and believes that humans have always organized themselves so as to have government and laws. Human existence includes civic duties owed to others, and has never been characterized by unrestrained individual freedom. Natural rights are not the product of social contracts or institutions, but the product of a natural human instinct to organize.

Although Locke maintains that humans naturally recognize that they have duties to others, people still fail to act in accordance with this recognition. Therefore, a neutral third party is needed to enforce social obligations and to negotiate disputes among individuals. This third party is the state, which establishes a government to ensure that individual rights are protected. Locke’s theory is that citizens grant “tacit consent” to the government. It is possible that, lacking an option, this is not a true form of consent.

For Hobbes, the social contract is a compromise. The individual gives up personal liberty for the limited freedom of a secure society. For Locke, on the other hand, the formation of the state does not require sacrifice of personal freedom because the only justification for the state is the protection of the individual’s natural rights.

Locke’s optimistic view of the state is based on an understanding of freedom as the human individual’s right to self-ownership. To recognize and respect another’s freedoms, does not mean giving up my own freedom.

Locke regards property ownership as a basic, natural right. He maintains that anything an individual creates is a part of that individual’s person or self. If an object exists through my own work, it belongs to me as naturally as my own body. Consequently, my personal liberty, my right of control over myself, is also the basis of my right to property, my right to control over the things that I produce with my own labor. Locke then extends this right to the products of my own labor to anything obtained through the products of my own labor. Things that I trade in exchange for my own productions and things that I purchase with wealth I have created are indirectly products of my own labor, and thus my property as well.

Locke formulates freedom in economic terms: to be free is to have ownership of oneself. This is the basic natural right that the state is established to protect. Protection of natural rights involves a guideline for deciding whether we obey the government or are justified in overthrowing it. A government that fails to protect citizens’ natural rights fails to be a legitimate government.

In Locke’s scheme, the members of government are to be chosen by popular election. He believes that property holders will elect only those who will protect their property rights, and the elected officials will be less likely to abuse their power if their office depends upon the citizens’ approval.

Locke’s political views were instrumental in the establishment of our American constitutional government. Our elected officials pledge themselves to uphold the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, which insure every citizen’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness/wealth/property.

Hobbes and Locke are recognized for their philosophical contributions in political theory based on reason and observation. Both lived as contemporaries to the French philosopher Rene Descartes, who would make a remarkable contribution in the field of epistemology, the theory of knowledge. Descartes’ ideas would have an important influence on the development of modern ethics by shifting focus from external measurements of moral actions, to internal and rational measurements. He attempted to set aside what he had learned in the church and university in order to begin from a rational basis of “I think therefore I am” (cogito ergo sum).


Rene Descartes (1595-1650)

Descartes is known among mathematicians as the father of the Cartesian coordinates. The term “Cartesian” refers the name Descartes. He is also credited with being the father of modern theories of knowledge (epistemology). Descartes remained a Roman Catholic throughout his life and expressed thanks for his Jesuit education, but reported that he was glad “as soon as my age permitted me to pass from under the control of my instructors” at which time he “abandoned the study of letters, and resolved no longer to seek any other science than the knowledge of myself, or of the great book of the world [the Bible]”. (Discourse on Method, chapter1)

Descartes’ ideas had a wide influence on philosophy in the second half of the 17th century, especially in France and Holland. His central concern was to set aside all unverifiable assumptions and to build a philosophical structure on the certainty of his cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am). His method was an attempt to address his doubt about assumptions he had accepted as true in his youth and early adulthood.

In his earliest writings, Descartes expresses agreement with the classical Greek philosophers that the goal of philosophy is the attainment of wisdom sufficient for happiness. His notion of virtue involves the will to choose in accordance with reason's judgments about the good. His notion of happiness is a mental state of well-being achieved through the practice of choosing the good in accordance with reason. In this, Descartes epitomizes the ethos of the Enlightenment.

Descartes emphasized the extent to which genuine happiness is attainable within this life. In a letter to his fellow mathematician, Marin Mersenne, Descartes wrote, "One of the main points of my own ethical code is to love life without fearing death.”

Descartes develops his ethical view in his correspondence with Princess Elisabeth, and in his writings The Passions of the Soul and Principles of Philosophy. He presents his famous image of the tree of philosophy and explains the image in these words: “The roots are metaphysics, the trunk is physics, and the branches emerging from the trunk are all the other sciences, which may be reduced to three principal ones, namely medicine, mechanics and morals.”

Descartes' "provisional moral code" appears in Part Three of Discourse on the Method. That he might act decisively and live as happily as possible while avoiding "precipitate conclusions and assumptions," Descartes proposes a moral code consisting of four maxims:

The first was to obey the laws and customs of my country, holding constantly to the religion in which by God's grace I had been instructed from my childhood.... The second maxim was to be as firm and decisive in my actions as I could, and to follow even the most doubtful opinions, once I had adopted them, with no less constancy than if they had been quite certain.... My third maxim was to try always to master myself rather than fortune, and to change my desires rather than the order of the world.... Finally, to conclude this moral code... I thought I could do no better than to continue with the [occupation] I was engaged in, and to devote my whole life to cultivating my reason and advancing as far as I could in the knowledge of the truth, following the method I had prescribed for myself.”

Descartes’ “methodic doubt” seems to be in conflict with his esteem for his Jesuits teachers, but in Descartes’ mind his search for certainty and his Jesuit education were not in absolute conflict. Descartes praised the Jesuits who instructed him at LaFleche, saying: "This is where was planted the first seeds of all my later accomplishments and for which I am eternally grateful to the Society of Jesus."

Descartes’ belief in a reasonable Creator of an orderly universe is due to the orderliness which he observed in Nature and in Mathematics. In this, Descartes resembles the 17th century mathematician, Blaise Pascal.


Blaise Pascal (1623-1662)

Blaise Pascal blended religious piety, scientific curiosity, and mathematical genius in his writings. He maintained that formal reasoning about God can never provide an adequate substitute for genuine personal faith: “The heart has its reasons that reason cannot know.”  Pascal wrote, “We know the truth not only through our reason but also through our heart… That is why those to whom God has given religious faith by moving in their hearts are very fortunate, and feel quite legitimately convinced, but to those who do not have it we can only give such faith through reasoning, until God gives it by moving their heart, without which faith is only human and useless for salvation (Pensées 110).

Pascal characterized immoral actions as contrary to the ‘natural light’, to ‘common sense’ or the ‘natural law. He did not believe that natural law can be discovered by reason or that it is somehow embodied in a social contract. For Pascal, natural law is what remains of God's law in our fallen state. He believed that elements of natural law survive in the moral judgments of humans worldwide. That is how humans are able to judge actions to be evil or good. For Pascal, moral duty wasn’t simply obedience to law (refraining from adultery, murder and suicide); it also involved caring for the needy in our communities. He wrote: ‘we are obliged by justice to give alms from our surplus, to alleviate even the common necessities of the poor…” (Letters: I, 714).

Pascal attacked the Jesuit teachers who claimed that the moral character of many actions depends on one's intention at the time of performing the action (Letters: I, 649). He saw this as an escape from moral responsibility, rejecting the idea that ‘it is the intention which determines the moral quality of an action” (Letters: I, 679). In this sense, Pascal was closer to the moral absolutism of Plato.


Rousseau’s Noble Savage

Hobbes’ pessimistic view of human nature and Pascal’s moral absolutism was countered by the Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one of the most influential thinkers of the Enlightenment.  Rousseau believed that human nature is essential good and that humans in their natural state will do what is good.  In his second major work, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1755), Rousseau maintained that the natural goodness of humanity is corrupted by the influence of civilization as it develops over time. Some inequalities among individuals are inevitable, such as physical strength and intelligence, but Rousseau believed that moral and political inequalities are matters of social convention. These are the products of civilization, not of human nature. He wrote, “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in shackles.”

This view of human nature led Rousseau to a different approach to government. He disliked authority and structure and wanted to restore respect for the individual’s worth. His view of the ideal government was based his romanticized view of Nature. He believed the human is a "noble savage” in the natural state. He wrote, "Nature never deceives us; it is we who deceive ourselves."

Rousseau believed that concern for private property gives rise to civil society and its corrupting influences. Agriculture, industry, and banking are expressions of how far Man has fallen from his innocent and simple original nature. Land ownership and acquisition of wealth lead to corruption in society and government.

Rousseau agrees with Hobbes that a political structure must be established by means of a contract that unites many wills into one. However he disagrees with Hobbes on the question of individual liberty. For Rousseau, the legitimacy of the social contract depends upon the consent of all governed. This means that every government is temporary and subject to continual review by its citizens. Since the sovereign general will is expressed only in an assembly of the entire population, a representative legislature, in Rousseau’s view, is always deficient and corrupt.

As Rousseau envisioned it, the social contract is possible only when the general will of the people favors unity of purpose. This means that the influence of special interest parties must be resisted as the citizens join in sworn commitment to seek only the welfare of the community. The general will must be concerned with the interest of the unified citizenry, determined through reasoned deliberation, and expressed through legislation.
For Rousseau, democracy is threatened by the pressure of private interest groups.

Likewise, an aristocracy is acceptable only as long as it adheres to the general will rather than serving the ruling elite. Contrary to Hobbes, Rousseau regarded monarchy as the least beneficial form of government because it too often succumbs to the temptation to serve itself at the expense of the common good. Rousseau measures the success of a government by how well the citizens thrive.

Rousseau’s notion of individual liberty and political unity fueled the romantic spirit of the French Revolution. His most significant ethical works, the Emile, and On the Social Contract, both published in 1762, were immediately banned by the Paris authorities and Rousseau left France, fearing for his life.

Rousseau maintained that human beings are well-adapted to their natural surroundings. They have no need for morality because they are guided by feelings of pity and love for each other. In his first major philosophical work, A Discourse on the Sciences and Arts, Rousseau argues that the progression of the sciences and arts has corrupted humanity's natural virtue and morality and he warns about the dangers involved in a blind commitment to science as a means of progress.

Rousseau's state of human nature is radically different from that described by Hobbes. His “noble savage” lived solitary and trouble-free life, supplying simple needs from what nature provided and willingly helping others in need. According to Rousseau, corruption began when someone claimed possession of land and resources. This led to the establishment of laws, which once introduced, brought the corrupting influences of civilization. Rousseau insisted, “The first man who, having enclosed a piece of land, bethought himself of saying, ‘This is mine,’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society.”

Voltaire (1694-1778), a liberal Roman Catholic, criticized Rousseau with these words: “I have received your new book against the human race, and thank you for it. Never was such a cleverness used in the design of making us all stupid. One longs, in reading your book, to walk on all fours. But as I have lost that habit for more than sixty years, I feel unhappily the impossibility of resuming it. Nor can I embark in search of the savages in Canada, because the maladies to which I am condemned render a European surgeon necessary to me; because war is going on in those regions; and because the example of our actions has made the savages nearly as bad as ourselves.”

Very often the so-called savages of the New World proved to be less hypocritical in matters of morality than the newly-rich Europeans (bourgeoisie) who claimed to be good civilized Christians. This was an observation that Rousseau appreciated.


Bourgeois Morality

The terms “bourgeois” and “bourgeoisie” are derived from the word “bourg” which refers to a walled city or market town.  In the fields of political philosophy, sociology, and history the term denotes the wealthy middle class that emerged during the latter part of the Middle Ages. Since the late 18th century, “bourgeoisie” describes a social class characterized by industry, mercantilism and capitalism, and is synonymous with the upper class of a free enterprise society. Bourgeois morality involves values that maintain wealth within the nuclear family, and the preservation of undisputed inheritance by maintaining legitimate marriages and offspring.

It was common for wealthy men of the Renaissance and Enlightenment to maintain mistresses as a show of wealth. Commonly, these women lived in a different town or in a country house provided by their lovers. The offspring of mistresses were regarded as illegitimate and never inherited the wealth of their fathers. Wives were aware of the mistresses, but did not feel threatened by them since the wife’s position was legally secure.

The social fabric of the bourgeoisie served to maintain the nuclear family and the structure necessary for the first born son to inherit his father’s property (right of primogeniture). Other sons entered the professions. Some became lawyers, soldiers and clergymen. Others became merchants or tradesmen.

Women were educated in the home and expected to attend to traditional duties such a managing the home, nurturing children, and providing hospitality. Today bourgeois morality carries the connotation of exploitation and subjugation of women, but there is historical evidence that wealthy women of the Enlightenment were powerful both inside and outside the home.

Mary Wollstonecraft, considered by some to be the first feminist writer, influenced many European women through her book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.  She urged women to become strong in every area of their lives. She wrote, “I wish to persuade women to endeavour to acquire strength, both of mind and body, and to convince them, that the soft phrases, susceptibility of heart, delicacy of sentiment, and refinement of taste, are almost synonymous with epithets of weakness, and that those beings who are only the objects of pity and that kind of love, which has been termed its sister, will soon become objects of contempt.”


Nicolas Malebranche (1638-1715)

The most original and influential philosopher of the Cartesian tradition was Nicolas Malebranche. According to Malebranche, our ideas of physical bodies do not result from any influence that those objects have on our senses. Instead they are produced in our minds directly by God. In other words, our sense perception is because we "see all things in God." Similarly, our wills have no influence on the material world. Instead, God alone is the cause of a perpetual occasion of aligned states and operations of minds and bodies.

Malebranche’s view is often referred to as occasionalism. His analysis of the regularities seen in nature by causally independent beings and events influenced the philosophers George Berkeley and David Hume.  However, his ideas did not provide a satisfying answer to the question of how a good God could will evil in the world, an issue which was hotly debated among European intellectuals during the Enlightenment, especially after the 1755 earthquake and tsunami that destroyed Lisbon.


The Problem of Suffering

Human suffering due to war, disease, and natural disasters prompted discussion of the nature and cause of evil in the world.  None could avoid that conclusion that much human suffering is self-inflected or brought on by poor decisions, greed, and selfishness. However, natural disasters, such as what happened in Lisbon, Portugal, raised questions about the goodness of God, who any believed controls the forces of Nature. Why would a “good” God permit such evil?  The Enlightenment philosopher who addressed this in a personal and direct way was the Frenchman Voltaire (1694-1778).

Voltaire enjoyed nuanced debate about the nature of the world, humanity, and God. In his youth he advocated a hedonistic philosophy, stating that “True wisdom lies in knowing how to flee sadness in the arms of pleasure.” His the early thought followed Epicurus (342-270 BC), a Greek philosopher who taught that the goal of life is to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, a philosophy that is called “hedonism.”

Voltaire became a less outspoken advocate of hedonism after the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. The earthquake was followed by a tsunami and fire which destroyed most of the city and devastated outlaying areas. The death toll is estimated to be between 60,000 and 100,000 people. It was the greatest natural disaster of the 18th century. Voltaire wrote a poem about the destruction of Lisbon, titled Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne.

The disaster struck on the morning of All Saints, a feast day that the devout Catholics of Portugal observed. When word of the devastation reached other European countries, it became a topic of heated discussion among the intelligentsia who pondered how to reconcile the existence of such an evil with God’s goodness. This is called the “paradox of theodicy.”

Voltaire used the Lisbon earthquake in his novel Candide. His character Candide attacks the notion that all is for the best in this "best of all possible worlds", a world closely supervised by a benevolent deity. The Lisbon disaster suggests either God is not good, or God is not in control, or there is no God. The modern German philosopher, Theodor Adorno, another Enlightenment scholar, wrote that "the earthquake of Lisbon sufficed to cure Voltaire of the theodicy of Leibniz" (Negative Dialectics 361).  Liebniz believed, as did the ancient Stoics, that everything that happens constitutes “the best plan of the universe, which God could not fail to choose… Far from being true that this conduct is contrary to goodness, it is supreme goodness which led Him to it.”

Leibniz wrote, “It is generally agreed that whatever God wills is good and just. But there remains the question whether it is good and just because God wills it or whether God wills it because it is good and just; in other words, whether justice and goodness are arbitrary or whether they belong to the necessary and eternal truths about the nature of things, as do numbers and proportions.” (Reflections of The Common Concept of Justice)

Some Enlightenment thinkers rejected this solution to the paradox of theodicy. They rejected the Judeo-Christian idea of God as good and instead took a deistic view. Deists believe that an impersonal and amoral God created the universe, set it in motion, and then withdrew from earthly affairs. They regard God as having chosen to allow what He set in motion to run its natural course without divine intervention. Many of the writers of the U.S. founding documents were Deists. Thomas Jefferson even went so far as to prepare his own version of the Bible. The Jefferson Bible removed all references to miracles and presented Jesus as a great ethical teacher. 

David Hume wrote a book titled An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding in which he defines a miracle as "a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent”. Hume argues that it is impossible to deduce the existence of a supreme Creator from the existence of the world.  If miracles occur, which Hume doubted, they are the only possible evidence that he could grant intellectually for theistic religion.


Public Coffee Houses and Pubs

The problem of evil, the functions of government, and human freedom were hotly debated topics among intellectuals during the Enlightenment. Such conversations took place in private homes, in public houses (pubs), and in coffee houses. The local pub had served from many centuries as a place to visit with friends and to chat about world events. The establishment of coffee houses in Britain in the 16th century stimulated public conversation outside the church and university. The academic communities of Cambridge, Oxford, and London gathered to discuss science experiments, philosophy and literature. Coffee house patrons were required to purchase a single coffee and the cost was low enough to permit even poor students to join the conversations. Some patrons saw an opportunity to earn money and began offering lessons and lectures. In the early 1660s, Peter Staehl provided chemistry lessons at Arthur Tilliard’s coffee house in Oxford.

During the Enlightenment, the equivalent of public coffee houses and pubs for women were the salons and parlors of private homes. In these rooms where the homeowner met with friends, small groups of women met to converse, sew, read, play musical instruments, and practice speaking other languages. Wealthy women hosted a salon either in their own home or in a hotel dining room reserved for the group. Through these salons, women were able to become better informed about the world, to grow intellectually and to advance the ideals of the Enlightenment.


Philosophical Skepticism

Naturalism, Empiricism, Skepticism; these terms come to mind when one considers David Hume (1711-1776), a remarkable Scottish philosopher and historian of the 18th century. A fellow Scotsman, Adam Smith, was one of his close friends. Smith is considered the father of modern economics. Both Smith and Hume produced important writings on monetary theory.

David Hume has been called "the Skeptic's Skeptic" because of his empirical approach and insistence that there is a natural explanation for almost all observable phenomena. Although Hume leaves open the possibility of miracles as singular events, he offers arguments against their historicity. He notes that miracles seem to occur among the ignorant and superstitious, not in civilized societies which, informed by empiricism, know that most phenomena have a natural explanation.

Hume believed that truth claims must be based up by material evidence and that much of what we accept in our ordinary lives has no basis in empirical observation and verification. He insisted that unless a truth claim can be demonstrated to be universally the case, it cannot be said to be "true" empirically. Hume's thinking encouraged the early development of the social sciences anthropology, sociology and psychology.

Hume is often labeled an agnostic yet he leans toward Deism.  He wrote, “the whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author; and no rational enquirer can, after serious reflection, suspend his belief a moment with regard to the principles of genuine Theism and Religion” (Natural History of Religion 134).

Hume was skeptical about the possibility of miracles, calling them “a violation of the laws of nature.” Here is a significant section from Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:

“Why is it more than probable, that all men must die; that lead cannot, of itself, remain suspended in the air; that fire consumes wood, and is extinguished by water; unless it be, that these events are found agreeable to the laws of nature, and there is required a violation of these laws, or in other words, a miracle to prevent them? Nothing is esteemed a miracle, if it ever happen in the common course of nature. It is no miracle that a man, seemingly in good health, should die on a sudden: because such a kind of death, though more unusual than any other, has yet been frequently observed to happen. But it is a miracle, that a dead man should come to life; because that has never been observed in any age or country. There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation....

The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention), 'That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish.... When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.

In the foregoing reasoning we have supposed, that the testimony, upon which a miracle is founded, may possibly amount to an entire proof, and that the falsehood of that testimony would be a real prodigy: But it is easy to shew, that we have been a great deal too liberal in our concession, and that there never was a miraculous event established on so full an evidence.”

Hume’s writings had the effect of stirring Immanuel Kant from his “dogmatic slumbers” around 1770. Kant produced his greatest work in reaction to Hume’s philosophical skepticism. Kant’s motto was Sapere aude ("Dare to Know") and he wrote, “Have the courage to use your own understanding; this is the motto of the Enlightenment.” He argued that there are grounds for certainty in ethics. His approach, called “deontological ethics,” will be considered in Lesson Six.


Related reading: Theodicy: Can Suffering Be Redemptive?; Why You Have to Love David Hume

2 comments:

  1. The trouble with surfing the net is that you always find something new and provocative to distract you from one's original objective of simply checking email. Regardless of age one could easily spend his or her whole like exploring knowledge on one topic, without ever coming to a full understanding and certainly not to the end. There comes a point when enough is enough, until you return once more to check emails and find what little you thought you understood before...was wrong. Your blog creates such a dilemma...and I sincerely thank you.

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  2. Email is my biggest distraction. I have too many accounts. I'd rather read, research, write and teach.

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