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Deconstructing the Modern Man, Part 1: The Enlightenment

Jarram Barrs begins his lecture on the Enlightenment by quoting an unnamed TV personality who said, “The Western man was born in the Enlightenment and bred in Romanticism.” As his lecture continues, Barrs provides an analogy of his own, “The Western man has an Enlightenment mind and a Romantic heart.” Whichever metaphor is preferred, it is beyond doubt that a clear understanding of the two distinct but interlocking movements of “The Enlightenment” and “Romanticism” are critical for understanding the Modern, Western mind.

PRECURSORS TO THE ENLIGHTENMENT ( -1648)

Europe reached the half-way point of the second millennium with a growing – although still suppressed – mistrust established systems of authority. As education and literacy increased, questions about the automatic validity of church doctrine increased accordingly – resulting ultimately in one of the most decisive moments in history, when one man stood against the entire Roman Church and declared, holding Scriptures and “plain reason and arguments,” and his own conscience above the authority of Church Tradition. Luther was by no means seeking to make man the autonomous center of his own world: however, his actions contributed to the enlightenment first by setting a president of “one-man-against-the-Church,” and second by exalting his intellect and his conscience above the doctrines of the church. Luther’s third contribution to the Enlightenment was less savory.

Since the introduction of “Just-War Theology” into the Church in the fourth century, the sword had never been far from the cross. Indeed – many times the two were seen as almost interchangeable. Until the Reformation, however, European wars were mostly localized to political wars internally, with the “warrior-cross” reserved for external wars against “the Turks” (Islam). Five years after nailing his theses to the door at Wittenburg, however, Luther darkly predicted that Germany “will be drenched with blood” [1] by the ideas he had set in motion. His prediction could not have been more horribly more accurate. As the Reformation fragmented Europe into Luteran, Reformed, Anglican, and Catholic nations – with other smaller factions as well – the “warrior-cross” which once was turned perpetually towards “the Turk” now turned inwards. As each fragment sought religious dominance through military conquest, Europe was rocked by over a hundred years of near-perpetual warfare (1520-1648) – bringing with it plague and famine, which, by some estimates, cut the population of Europe by one-third.

As these wars finally ended in the Peace of Westphalia (1648), the Western mind was becoming firmly convinced of one thing: religion is not worth fighting over. For perhaps the first time in history, religious toleration began to appear attractive. Furthermore, religion did not seem to have the answers to a Utopian society: people began looking elsewhere for answers.

THE ENLIGHTENMENT (1650’s-1800’s)

Into the vaccuume created by the removal of God – as mediated either by the Church or by Scriptures – as the ultimate authority for truth, the philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650) sought to find a new foundation for reality. He found that although he could doubt virtually anything: however, to doubt his own existence would be to prove that he was doubting, and doubt required reason, and reason required existence. Therefore, the one thing which seemed sure in Descartes’ mind was his own existence. He coined the now famous phrase cognito ergo sum: “I think, therefore, I am” and presented it to the modern world as the new foundation for reason and thought. Descartes’ philosophy was popular on the continent, but the English were unimpressed by his introspective speculations. They preferred, rather, to build thought and logic on the firm foundation of sensory experience, mediated through finely-honed scientific instruments. As this philosophical battle raged on, the unspoken consensus between the fighting brothers is that they had both rejected God and any other external source of authority, and were looking for authority purely in what they could find within the human self.

As Luther was beginning his Reformation in religious matters, the discoveries of Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) were gaining traction in the scientific world. The discovery of the heliocentric cosmology (aka. the discovery that the earth revolved around the sun, not vice-versa) was a monumental discovery which paved the way for Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), and eventually for Isaac Newton 1643-1727). In Newton’s book Principia Mathematica, the secrets of the universe seemed to have been unlocked by the powers of the human mind. Sometimes enemy of progress, sometimes indifferent to it, the Church seemed to contribute little to the Scientific Revolution which was sweeping across Europe. As the scientific revolution progressed and gained momentum, an unbridled sense of optimism began to rise about the opportunities of the future, and the abilities of the mind to create an exponentially better world in which to live.

Along with this general optimism about human ability came a sense of positivism about the human soul. As the Greek Classics were rediscovered and given prominence alongside the Bible, the dark Augustinian view of man which dominated the early Middle and Medieval eras began to take on a lighter shade in the Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), and a still lighter shade in the Humanists such as Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1539). Although Luther and Calvin succeeded in turning this tide for some, the general mood of Europe came to be very much influenced by the writings of John Locke (1632-1704), who wrote that  the human soul is, at birth, a tabula rasa – a blank slate – upon which the experiences of life could write good or evil. As in Pelagianism, original evil was seen as a bad example: thus, with effective education and guidance, humans could really be improved and perhaps even perfected.

“What is the enlightenment?” Queried Kant in his 1784 paper, with the same name, “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. Sapere Aude! [dare to know] ‘Have courage to use your own understanding!’ – that is the motto of enlightenment.” [2]

Drawing on all that came before, then, the Enlightenment was, above all, an anthropocentric worldview. Although the Scientific revolution was begun and advanced by people of profound religious conviction, increasingly the modern man began to see religion as outdated, a thing of the past, a constricting force, as superstition, as bringing war and division, as inhibiting of progress.

The modern man, therefore, believes that it is his own “enlightened” mind, in an “unbiased” quest for truth – that is, without the aid of the church or the Bible – which is the highest appeal to authority. Further, the modern man holds a great optimism about humanity in general, in the human self in particular, and in the wonderful new world which mankind is creating for itself.

This is the mind of modern man in a nutshell.

[1] Milner, Joseph & Isaac, History of the Church of Christ, vol. 5, (New York, NY: John P. Haven, 1822) from Martin Luther, Epist. lib. 2, 16

[2] Kant, Immanuel, An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment? (Konigsberg in Prussia, 30 September 1784), [document on-line]; available from; http://www.english.upenn.edu/~mgamer/Etexts/kant.html

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