Fire and Light: How the Enlightenment Transformed Our World by James MacGregor Burns
Despite the undeniably beneficial and long-lasting effect the Enlightenment has had on…well, just about everything, I’m not entirely sure everyone appreciates how transformational this time was. This may be due, ironically, to how successful it was. Unfortunately, Burns doesn’t provide a chapter defining the Enlightenment in his book, so I’ll try to make up for that omission with a brief description.
Most references will tell you that the Enlightenment was a philosophical or intellectual movement of the 18th century (or the 17th-18th centuries). It was a new way of thinking that gave primary emphasis to reason and the individual over tradition and authority. Several Enlightenment philosophers voiced these ideas in their writings, and though they profoundly disagreed on a great many things, they established the notion that tradition and belief could and should be subjected to rational argument. This period is also sometimes called the Age of Reason or included as part of the Scientific Revolution. By whatever name, the ideas that emerged during this time have had a profound impact that defines Western (and much of global) society to this day.
To appreciate how significant these ideas were requires a brief look at the culture prior to the Enlightenment. In the 17th century, most Europeans knew that commoners were intellectually and morally inferior to nobles; that non-Europeans (i.e. dark-skinned people) were intellectually and morally inferior to European commoners; and that women were intellectually and physically inferior to males of their race and class. This was simply common sense to them. Kings held their authority by the will of God, the nobility was entitled to their privileges, religion provided absolute Truth, and everyone—nobles, merchants, peasants, and slaves—were all in their proper places due their inherent virtues. These things were unquestionable….
Until Enlightened philosophers questioned them.
Anything, they said, could be subjected to rational inquiry, and they proceeded to do just that. Descartes, famously, even questioned his own existence, finally concluding cogito ergo sum—I think, therefore I am. Since he was obviously thinking, he must exist as the one doing the thinking. (I won’t go into why this may not be entirely valid because it’s not relevant to this discussion.) This, briefly, is the core idea that changed the world. Challenge assumptions. Question beliefs. Use reason and experience to determine what is true and what is not. This grand idea is epitomized by the moto of Royal Society of London (founded in 1660) nullius in verba, which can be loosely translated as ‘don’t take anyone’s word for it’.
When these philosophers questioned the unquestionable, they debated whether the king really sat on the throne by divine right. What if different races and social classes weren’t inherently different? Maybe it wasn’t fate or the will of God that made them what they were, but simply a matter of their circumstances. If this was the case, shouldn’t the working classes have the same rights as the nobility? Would commoners be just as capable as their betters if they had access to similar education? Shouldn’t everyone have the freedom to make of themselves what they could through their own achievement? Was the authority of Church and State truly legitimate? Shouldn’t people have the liberty to choose such things for themselves? Perhaps, rather than the vast majority of the population working for the benefit of the aristocracy, the government should work for the benefit of the common people.
This aspect of the Enlightenment is primarily what Burns addresses in this book. It is about how emerging thoughts about human rights and the purpose of government transformed Britain and France, and helped create the United States, in the 18th century. He also briefly discusses how Enlightenment ideals are still challenged by ideological and moneyed interests striving to be more equal than others.
Burns shows us that Enlightenment philosophers heavily influenced the founders of the new American republic. They read their works, corresponded with them, even met them in person. Jefferson, for example, was especially well acquainted with their books and is said to have always carried a picture of Francis Bacon with him wherever he went. Benjamin Franklin, in 1756, became one of the few 18th century Americans elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society. Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Paine, and other architects of the American experiment were important Enlightenment thinkers in their own right.
The United States was the first government purposely founded on the principles of the Enlightenment. The U.S. Constitution permitted no king, no aristocracy, no fixed social classes, and no state religion. It established unprecedented rights of free speech, a free press, and freedom of religion. Unlike the monarchies of Europe, its leaders did not hold their positions by the grace of God but by the will of the people…well, some of the people. More than most. Freeing slaves and equal rights and opportunities for women remained goals for the future. We shouldn’t be overly critical of the founding fathers because they couldn’t solve all societal ills in one blow. What they did achieve was, quite literally, revolutionary for the time and an inspiration for others to follow.
Things did not go quite as well when the people of France overthrew their monarch in an effort to institute a bright new age of reason. Burns discusses why the situation there was so different, why it took longer, and why it was bloodier…and why similar changes in Britain were less disruptive.
I found the book interesting, but it may suffer from its divided focus. The subject matter could probably fill four separate books that focus on each of the three nations he talks about plus an additional volume for the Enlightenment itself, to include a few chapters on why it remains a work in progress. The 18th century was a pivotal time in history, though, and the thoughts expressed by Enlightenment thinkers have shaped human civilization ever since. They are well worthy of the attention Burns provides in this book.