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Intellectual history in broad strokes - part 2 of 3

Calton Hill in central Edinburgh, one of the major centres of the Enlightenment
Calton Hill in central Edinburgh, one of the major centres of the EnlightenmentThierry from Le Plessis Robinson, France (Wikimedia Commons)

The end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of modern times

Because the pre-modern world was predominantly religious in orientation, it took a kind of religious twist in form of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century to bring it to an end. Alongside the Protestant Reformation were the intellectual forces of the Renaissance consisting mainly of humanists (not of the same breed of secular humanists that we know today) and artists who promoted the idea of individualism and self-creativity. Much of the European society was then awakened to the fact that humankind must be a dignified species not meant to be caged within the bounds of religious traditions which for the most part proved to have only encouraged non-sense superstitions and widespread ignorance instead of progress and creativity.

But as Western history scholar Steven Kreis puts it, it was not the Renaissance movement but the Protestant Reformation that forced people to express the Renaissance idea of individualism and self-creativity through an exercise of choice in such a massive scale as wide as Northern Europe and with such a mighty force that it was able to topple in so short a time centuries old of ecclesiastical control over the European populace. Such an exercise of choice (i.e., the choice to remain Roman Catholic or embrace the Protestant faith), Kreis is quick to add, was, considering the context of the time, a matter of life and death.

“It marks the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of modern time,” says church historian Phillip Schaff. “Starting from religion, it gave, directly or indirectly, a mighty impulse to every forward movement, and made Protestantism the chief propelling force in the history of modern civilization.” As church history professor Jack Arnold adds, “The Reformation laid down once and for all the right and obligation of the individual conscience, and the right to follow the dictates of that individual conscience. Many men who talk lightly and glibly about ‘liberty’ neither know nor realize that they owe their liberty to this event.”

The Enlightenment and modernity

But the relative freedom from ecclesiastical control that the Protestant Reformation secured for much of the European continent paved the way for a rather opposite direction when the Enlightenment suddenly came into scene to define the next major stage of intellectual history. Most scholars believe that the Enlightenment was singlehandedly responsible for the birth of the philosophical ideals of modernity. Religion, which the Protestant reformers sought to purify when they summoned the people of Late Medieval Christendom back to biblical Christianity, was, all of a sudden, brought into the sidelines of modern living, if not totally abandoned.

Though the Enlightenment philosophers like Rene Descartes, David Hume, Benedict De Spinoza and Immanuel Kant did not agree in many points, they nonetheless introduced in the intellectual arena a shift away from the authority of religious traditions and institutions to the autonomy of human reason. Inspired by the Renaissance thinkers’ criticism of the scholastic system of learning imposed by the Church during the Middle Ages, many of the Enlightenment proponents pursued an educational system devoid of religious overtones. Rigorous philosophizing and scientific knowledge began to dominate the intellectual climate of the day. Theology was soon dethroned from the lofty position it used to hold as the “queen of sciences” to be replaced by other competing disciplines of learning generally considered to be more logically consistent, scientific and practical.

There then emerged a new grand narrative or “Big Story” highlighting the inevitability of progress attributed to the power of Reason (spelled here with the capital R) and made possible by major advancements in scientific knowledge. This eventually created a new culture of its own with so little a place for God, if any, the aim of which was to fulfill the Enlightenment’s utopian dream of an ideal modern world where everyone lives in harmony, in perfect peace and health, not ever lacking in every need except the need for God. With the eventual success of the Industrial Revolution, modern scientists and inventors set themselves out all the more towards a wide world of endless possibilities, exploring and harnessing the resources of the earth (and eventually even some other resources outside the earth, if at all possible) so as to unlock the laws of nature and subdue it if only to bring this utopian dream to reality.

Except for the initial persecution that its early pioneers had to bear, almost everything within the socio-political context of the time was so promising and doing fine in favor of the Enlightenment until the French Revolution came into scene to discredit its philosophical ideals. Nonetheless, these Enlightenment ideals proved to be persistent that it left a lasting intellectual legacy for the 19th and 20th centuries, marking a key stage in human history with the waning of interest in religious traditions, the rise of philosophical and political liberalism, and the eventual secularization of the Western world.

But somewhere along the line during the late 20th century, people finally realized the bankruptcy of the Enlightenment’s philosophical ideals and the emptiness of its promise of a nearly perfect world. It eventually became apparent that reason and scientific advancements alone were not competent enough to deliver to the people of the modern world the Enlightenment’s ideals of peace, health and prosperity. Far from giving a sure answer to the woes of civilizations such as wars, human sufferings and barbaric acts of atrocities, among others, the highly sophisticated philosophical system as well as the hi-tech gadgets and equipments of modernity only contributed a great deal to adding more threat to the survival of human civilization. The 20th century, arguably the most “enlightened” of all centuries, was finally pronounced to be the bloodiest of all centuries.

Dissolutionment settled in. A sense of despair eventually contaminated the intellectual atmosphere of the day. Uncertainty overclouded the modern intellect. A culture of suspicion suddenly dominated the academic centers of the modern world. All of these combined together signaled the end of the Enlightenment’s project in modernity.

References:

  • Arnold, Jack. "The Cause and Results of the Reformation: Reformation Men and Theology, Lesson 2 of 11" in IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 1, Number 2, March 8 to March 14, 1999.
  • Brown, Stewart J. and Timothy Tackett. eds. The Cambridge History of Christianity, Volume 7: Enlightenment, Reawakening and Revolution 1660–1815. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
  • Hooykaas, R. J. Religion and the Rise of Modern Science. Edinburgh, Scottish Academic Press, 1972.
  • Kreis, Steven. "Lecture 3: The Protestant Reformation" in The History Guide: Lectures on Modern European Intellectual History, revised August 3, 2009.
  • ___________. "Modern European Intellectual History: An Introduction" in The History Guide: Lectures on Early Modern European Intellectual History, revised May 13, 2004.
  • McKay, John P., Bennett D. Hill and John Bucker. A History of Western Society Volume 1. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1991.
  • Schaff, Phillip. History of the Christian Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980.

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