A couple of weeks ago an email popped up in my inbox with the subject line: The Enlightment. I didn’t recognize the sender’s name. The body of the email was empty but there was an attachment titled “EmailtoProfessor.” I’ll be honest, I was a bit anxious about opening it but after consulting with HWMBP, I did.
This was the content of the attachment (I’ve X’d out their last names and the name of the school):
Dear Professor Duck-Rabbit,
Hello, our names are Paige Xxxxxx, Destiny Xxxxx, Matti Xxxxxx, and Emma Xxxxx and we’re 7th graders at Xxxx Middle School in Xxxx, California. We have been assigned a project based on the Enlightenment and we have some unanswered questions that we’d appreciate you answering:
1) What were the key concepts and beliefs during the Enlightenment Period?
2) How did Jean Jacques Rousseau contribute to the Enlightenment?
3) How is the Enlightenment the beginning of U.S. History?
Thank you for your time and input on one of our final projects of the school year.
Finally, yesterday, I replied. This is what I wrote:
Dear Paige, Destiny, Matti, and Emma,
Thank you so much for your email and sorry to take so long to reply to you! I realize this reply may be arriving too late to be of help for your project, but I nevertheless still wanted to answer your questions.
1) The Enlightenment valued reason, meaning the ability of rational thinking to solve problems–whether philosophical, scientific, social, or moral. Thinkers in the Enlightenment were breaking away from earlier ways of thinking that valued traditional ideas as the source of all wisdom. So, instead of thinking that, for example, inherited religious ideas, or ideas derived from ancient Greek or Roman philosophy were necessarily right, Enlightenment thinkers thought that individuals should use their own problem-solving abilities to think for themselves. You can think of Benjamin Franklin as being a quintessential Enlightenment figure. He was a scientist (the embrace of the scientific method is a big part of the Enlightenment– it’s the age of Newton) and a social reformer; but he also brought the same problem-solving perspective even to questions of individual morality. “Honesty is the best policy” is a pragmatic principle: you shouldn’t be honest just because people tell you to be honest; it’s also, says Franklin [yes, yes, my pedantic reader, I know he doesn’t literally say this in any of his major works, but it’s a useful shorthand for the Protestant work ethic] the best way of getting along, and experience will show you that. The Enlightenment’s faith in human reason also leads it to be very optimistic about the possibility of progress. If we can solve problems simply by applying our reason to them, then it seems that nothing can hold us back–not ideas of innate original sin, nor longstanding customs and traditions. Consider Mary Wollstonecraft, another Enlightenment thinker who writes an essay called _A Vindication of the Rights of Woman_. At the time when she is writing (this is in the eighteenth century) women receive very little education compared to men. As a result a lot people think that women are simply naturally less intelligent than men. Mary Wollstonecraft says that we should try educating women in the same way as we educate men, and then we’ll see if women are really innately inferior or if this apparent inferiority is simply caused by them being poorly educated. This same “progressive” perspective leads to calls more generally for broader human rights. People like Thomas Paine ask: why should people collectively be shackled to decisions made on their behalf by people in the past who were acting in their own narrow interests? Olaudah Equiano asks: if we believe that every human is endowed with the same faculties and deserves the same opportunity to cultivate them, then how can we justify slavery? At the same time, though (and this speaks to your question about beginning of U.S. History), Enlightenment thinking valorized the idea that individuals had the right to maximize their own interests as much as possible. But this created a profound contradiction because cultivating one’s own interest and power to the maximum potentially impinged on the well-being of others. You can see this tension manifest itself in the beginning of the United States in terms of slavery and the right to bear arms. Both the right to bear arms and the right to own a slave elevate an individual’s power at the expense of others who will be the potential victims of the gun-owner or slave-owner.
2) Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a very influential political philosopher and social theorist. He is an interesting figure because he’s very much a product of the Enlightenment, but his ideas also develop in ways that rebel against Enlightenment values: this rebellion against the Enlightenment is sometimes called the counter-Enlightenment.” One field that Rousseau was very influential in is called “conjectural anthropology.” Basically what this means is that he was speculating (conjecturing) about what it would be like in very early human society before the development of civilization. So he’s not being an anthropologist in the sense of going to a particular geographical setting and observing the culture; instead he’s imagining himself traveling back in time and observing early humans. What he argues is that innately, humans are basically good, but that when they join together to form civilization–which people do to safeguard themselves against violence–they become corrupt. This is a lot to do, Rousseau says, with how we start comparing ourselves with other people–who is the prettiest, who has the most resources, etc. This kind of thinking, Rousseau says, makes us selfish and narcissistic–concerned only with ourselves. You can see here the seeds of the counter-Enlightenment: instead of thinking, like other Enlightenment thinkers, that civilization is inherently progressive–a way of cultivating human virtues and improving ourselves–Rousseau says the opposite: in civilization we lose touch with who we really are and become enslaved to superficial values and a sense of competition.
3) Many of the early leaders of the United States were influenced by key Enlightenment ideas and thinkers like John Locke, an English philosopher whose ideas are reflected in some of the United States’ founding documents. For example, the idea that all individuals have a natural right to defend their life and property is an idea of Locke’s. Locke was also influential on the idea of the separation of church and state: he argues that even once humans have entered the “social contract,” i.e. come together to form a civilization in order to collectively protect their individual interests, individuals still should have the freedom to follow their own conscience when it comes to their religious beliefs. Founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson and others were profoundly influenced by Locke.
If you have any follow-up questions, I’d be more than happy to answer them! Also, if you are going to use any of this information in your school work, be sure to explain that you got this information from me, so that you are not plagiarizing (i.e. presenting what I’ve written here as your own work).
Good luck with the end of the school year and wishing you all a lovely summer!
All best wishes,