The Enlightenment was marked fundamentally by two beliefs: (1) a belief that people were seeing things that others in darker times hadn’t seen before and (2) a corresponding conviction that improvements were being made in art, science, philosophy, and in life in general. Beyond those amorphous, but important, characteristics, the Enlightenment could be a free-for-all of competing ideas, values, and virtues.
There are certain intellectual tropes—so lazy, so predictable, and so overblown—that they serve the useful purpose of indicating that the author likely doesn’t really know what he’s talking about. I’m thinking of those who wax eloquent about Greek ways of thinking versus Hebrew ways of thinking. Or those who imagine there is no societal ill that can’t be helped by swapping out propositions for stories. Or those who think the bogeyman of individualism is to blame for pretty much everything.
You can add to that list those who make unbending and simplistic assertions about the capital-E Enlightenment.
On the one hand, secularists sometimes speak of the Enlightenment as that golden age where open-minded reason triumphed over religious bigotry and science came to save us all.
On the other hand, believers (of all stripes, but I’m thinking especially of evangelical Christians) sometimes use the Enlightenment as a pseudo-intellectual explanation for whatever they don’t like. Syllogistic reasoning? Logical deduction? Biblical inerrancy? That’s Enlightenment garbage. Systematic theology? Proof-texting? Doctrinal boundaries? Nothing but Enlightenment Who Hash. In the minds of many Christians, the Enlightenment transformed the church into a sorry collection of freeze-dried, left-brained, buttoned-up rationalists.
But before we offer “the Enlightenment” as an explanation for anything, we must disabuse ourselves of a few common myths.
Myth #1: The Enlightenment was one big thing.
While scholars still disagree about the extent of diversity and plurality in the Enlightenment project, there is a broad consensus that we should not allow French expressions of the Enlightenment to dominate an intellectual conversation that spanned several centuries and most of the Western world. Jonathan Israel, for example, argues for two Enlightenments: a moderate mainstream Enlightenment that often reinforced conservative traditions and institutions but which revised traditional theology—the Enlightenment of John Locke, Gottfried Leibniz, and the Scottish Moderates—and a Radical Enlightenment that found clearest expression in Baruch Spinoza and led to the emergence of liberal modernity and the rejection of religious authority. David Van Kley, to cite another important scholar, insists on seven Enlightenments, while others in the field see the Enlightenment as having national contours (e.g., a French Enlightenment, a Scottish Enlightenment, an English Enlightenment, an American Enlightenment).