Part 3 — The Great Divide — The Enlightenment




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The Enlightenment

 If you had to describe the world that emerged – gradually, over a period of centuries – from the pre-Reformation world as it had existed from the time of St. Augustine and the final dissolution of the Roman Empire to the time of the last great religious wars (the Thirty Years War, 1618-1648) and the rise of science and exploration, you could do no better than to choose words like “horizontal” … or even “flat”. Ultimately, the right word would turn out to be “secular”, though that would not be evident until fairly late in the process. This is not to deny that religion continued to play a prominent role in human affairs. Many of the greatest scientists and philosophers of this period -- Isaac Newton, Galileo Galilei, Blaise Pascal, to name just three -- were devout Christians. But the nature of religion’s role had changed dramatically. For example, regicide had occurred before in human history, but as a crime, as an aberration. But when the English beheaded King Charles I in 1649 as an official act of Parliament, that act itself – which would have been either unthinkable or outright treasonous a century before – was iconic of how the conception of the origin and sacredness of political power had changed, a development further reinforced by the Glorious Revolution a generation or so later and the irreversible assertion of parliamentary, not royal, sovereignty. Not only politically, but also philosophically, psychologically, epistemologically, and culturally, the world had gone from being “vertical” to “horizontal”. People of great and undisputed brilliance – Halley, Faraday, et al. – did often still carry a belief in “verticality” with them privately, but in terms of public life, public ideology, and public policies, the public ideology was increasingly “horizontal”. Beginning in the middle 1600s, and private belief notwithstanding, the “public square” was just that: a square, two-dimensional, horizontal, and flat. This “flatness” of the Enlightenment world-view would have several important implications – called “Principles” below -- for the eventual development of the principles undergirding the US Constitution.

As was explained at some length in the last section on St. Augustine, the controlling philosophical context for pre-Reformation and pre-scientific European civilization was overwhelmingly Platonic and neo-Platonic. The entire universe, physically, politically, and religiously, was a vast hierarchy – in fact, a vast hierarchy of hierarchies – extending from ordinary human beings at the very bottom upward to feudal lords to great nobles to the monarch at the very top. The Church comprised a similar hierarchy extending from ordinary layfolk to the parish priest to the bishop to the cardinal archbishop to the Pope to an sub-hierarchy comprising the angels to Almighty God at the very top. The physical universe encompassed “prime matter” (the unformed “stuff” from which all other matter was made) to plants to animals to human beings to the planets to the “fixed” stars, all in ascending order of sublimity and perfection. This universe, the Augustinian, pre-Reformation, pre-scientific universe, was Platonic with a vengeance.

But beginning with the Crusades and even somewhat earlier with Muslim, primarily Arab, commerce with the Byzantine Empire – remember:  the eastern Roman Empire, centered in Byzantium / Constantinople, was still standing – and western Christian Europe, an alternative and competing scheme began to be infused into the thinking of the West: Aristotelianism. Much of that commerce with the Muslim world consisted of a very brisk traffic in ancient manuscripts, including manuscripts of philosophers’ works from the Hellenic world of Plato and Aristotle. It was in this way that works by Aristotle like the Metaphysics, the Nicomachean Ethics, the Physics, and the Politics were preserved in the Muslim world and rediscovered by the West. Just as the various Protestant sects emerging from the Reformation provided formidable competition to what had been the more or less monolithic Catholic monopoly on ecclesiology, so also the nascent Aristotelianism of the early 13th century began to provide analogous competition to the previously monolithic Platonic consensus on theology. (Aristotle's hard-headedly empirical, this-worldly approach, in the Politics, to evaluating the virtues and hazards of various political systems nurtured the nascent contractarian movement in political theory.) After Luther, Catholicism was no longer “the only game in town”. After Aristotle, neither was Platonism / neo-Platonism.


Compared to Platonism, Aristotelianism was very “horizontal”, very “this-worldly”. Aristotle, too, believed in ideals, but only with a lower-case “I”, because, for Aristotle, ideals were mental generalizations arrived at, not by sheer philosophic contemplation, but by empirical observation of actual existing objects. Aristotelian ideals exist only between the ears of the person doing the generalizing. So I observe trees, and after many observations, I arrive at a general idea (ideal) of what the essence of “tree-ness” is: a vertical trunk, branches, leaves, bark, etc. But the real trees are the tall, branchy things I attach my hammock to on a summer afternoon, not the Platonically ideal Tree-with-a-capital-“T”. How many branches the tree has, the shape of its leaves, etc., are all incidental – accidentia, in the Latin translations of Aristotle – and the essential attributes – bark, branches, roots, etc. – are the essence (essentia, in Latin) of trees. But even accidentia and essentia are still just mental constructs. This is why, in Raphael’s great painting The School of Athens, Plato and Aristotle are seen entering the school with Plato pointing upward to the sky, toward the rarefied heights of his Ideal World, and Aristotle is pointing downward, toward the immanent, concretely particularized world that comprises reality as Aristotle conceived it. Epistemologically, Plato and Aristotle also differed. For Plato, the workings of the world could be discovered by introspection, abstract contemplation through Reason, and recollection of what one had learned in previous incarnations. Aristotle’s world similarly emphasized Reason, but with Aristotle, knowledge was acquired by Reason working on the this-worldly, immanent, empirically perceptible raw materials of actual experience. Aristotle’s epistemology contained the seeds from which the scientific method would germinate. Reason was fallible. But Reason was effective.

One of the areas in which Reason was judged effective -- an area that was one of the more explosively revolutionary areas of the Enlightenment -- was the attitude that came to be adopted toward the Bible, both Testaments.  Beginning in the first half of the 1700s, scholars like Hermann Reimarus, Gotthold Lessing, and Baron D'Holbach -- I mention only the ones who were active and writing during the time of the Founding and the Framing -- applied techniques of what later came to be known as redaction and source criticism, and in the process discovered that, e.g., the Gospels were compilations from earlier sources that resulted from collaborations on the part of editors whose names are lost to history, and that the compilation process did not even begin until at least a couple of generations after Jesus. A century later, Julius Wellhausen would similarly apply source-critical methods to demonstrate and to account for the multiple authorship of the Pentateuch -- the so-called "documentary" or "source" or "JEDP" or "Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis".  There is not nearly enough space in a brief blog post to even synopsize these methodologies and theories, much less do justice to them.  So suffice to say that the application of various techniques of secularistic analysis of the biblical text was considered audacious for the time:  the "Holy Bible" came to be viewed as less ... well ... holy.  In particular, the "quest for the historical Jesus" of Reimarus, Gotthold, and D'Holbach was behind Thomas Jefferson's personal redaction of the Gospels in the form of the "Jefferson Bible", as well as Thomas Paine's skepticism about religion in general and Christianity in particular. So (what came to be) the general and prevailing skepticism as to the origin and provenance of the biblical text was one of the elements of the European world-view that ended up being "flattened out", as well.

This "flattening out" can be expressed as several salient principles of the entire Enlightenment project:

"School of Athens" by Raphael (detail)

Principle 1: Aristotelianism was concerned predominantly with this world and encouraged a very “horizontal” outlook on that world, in terms of politics, knowledge, and ethics.

So it is difficult to see how science and exploration could ever have developed if Western culture had remained Platonic / neo-Platonic. But with the Aristotelian world-view in place, the development of science and the age of exploration, at least in retrospect, seem almost inevitable. The very “flatness”, the very “matter-of-fact-ness” of Aristotelianism constitutes its great virtue as the guiding ideology of science in the 1500s and 1600s. To its credit, Aristotelianism, like the culture in which it was developing, was radically “horizontal”, not “vertical”. For with the Aristotelian outlook, one could “proactively”, as it were, go out, interrogate the world, observe, record, gather data, catalog one’s experience, observe regularities. Using one’s reason, one could then formulate hypotheses, go out again, gather more data, compile further experiences, undertake additional observations, and assess if and to what degree one’s hypotheses conformed to this additional experience. This did not happen all at once, of course. It took practice … years, decades, generations, even centuries of practice. But the point is that, however long it took, the fact that the Aristotelian perspective was bound to the actual experience of human beings so that it could be reasoned about had two long-term effects: (1) it underwrote the efforts of the early explorers and circumnavigators to explore the planet and (2) ultimately resulted in a renewed, rejuvenated, and exuberant confidence in the effectiveness of Reason as a means of comprehending the world – and, eventually, of controlling it. Aristotelianism made the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries possible.

Principle 2: The renewal of confidence in Reason, which had lain dormant since the time of St. Augustine in the mid-4th century CE, also renewed confidence in humans’ ability to employ Reason in investigating and reflecting on the physical world, on the origin of political systems, and even on theological matters. Reason was not infallible, but Reason was universally effective.

Treaty of Westphalia
Treaty of Westphalia, 1648

Nowhere was this renewed confidence in the powers of Reason more desperately needed than in the area of resolving the religious wars that had laid waste to entire countries in Europe for at least 200 years – the 1500s and 1600s – and that, if left unchecked, could have resulted in Europe reverting to a Bronze Age culture. As noted in the last session, the pre-Reformation Augustinian consensus works only as long as there is no competition. In that context, with only one source of theological and ethical truth available – the Bible as interpreted by the leadership of the Church – it arguably makes apparent sense to rely on that authoritative source for truth about God and morals. But then the Reformation came and, with relative suddenness, there seemed to be dozens, eventually hundreds, of interpretations of the Bible, and therefore moral and theological principles. Truth was no longer One. Disagreements eventually led to war and bloodshed on a scale that would not be equaled until the First World War. The rediscovery of Reason provided an authoritative standard for judging truth, and for settling disputes about what was true. Because of Reason, Europeans began to learn the critical art of agreeing to disagree, because – so said Reason – a continuation of the religious wars would only mean the annihilation of everyone, thereby rendering the question of who was "right" and who was "wrong", who was "saved" and who was "damned" tragically moot. This insight is embodied in two documents that, taken together, settled the religious wars of Europe: the Peace of Augsburg of 1555, and the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648. The strategy of agreeing to disagree was arrestingly simple: the principle of cuius regio, eius religio (literally, “his rule, his religion”), by which the religion of a kingdom’s sovereign was the official religion of her or his realm.

Peace of Augsburg, 1555

Principle 3: Thanks to the rediscovery of Reason, Europeans began to learn how to agree to disagree and thereby how to tolerate a plurality of religious and moral principles within the same geographical space.

 The revival of confidence in Reason had far more consequences than we can even summarize in a brief blog post. But two are important enough to mention explicitly:

One of the subjects human beings can reason about is what might loosely be described as “political and social morality”, i.e., the kinds of things that are good for human beings, and the characteristics of political systems and social structures that further these goods. Previously, before the Reformation and the rejuvenation of Reason and science, the question “What is good for human beings” could be answered very tersely from Ecclesiastes 12:13: “Fear God and keep [God’s] commandments” – understood as obeying, in this order, God, the Church, the King, and one’s liege lord. This order of obedience resulted from the Divinely ordained hierarchy of society – which was not open to interrogation by Reason. But after the Reformation and the rejuvenation of Reason and science, “contractarian” philosophers like Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, Condorcet, and Rousseau rejected the authority of the Church and began to reflect autonomously on the nature of political power, the nature of human beings, the optimal way to organize society, and the best way to structure and to distribute political power within a given state so as to maximize the good of citizens. Hence works like Hobbes’ Leviathan, Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, Rousseau’s The Social Contract, Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws, Condorcet’s Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind (note the exuberance of the title of Condorcet’s great work – typical Enlightenment optimism), etc., etc. Human beings were reasoning about the kinds of political systems and power arrangements that further the welfare of human beings – an activity that no one had undertaken since Aristotle wrote his Politics in the fourth century BCE. The implications of this activity are far too extensive to even summarize. But perhaps the most significant implication is just that: human beings are reasoning autonomously about the optimal arrangement of social structures and political power in society. That they are reasoning autonomously about such subjects, without first asking the leave of Pope, Council, or Church, means that they can reason about them – and have confidence in their ability to do so. That this seems less than revolutionary to us is only because we have been doing it routinely for roughly 400 years, i.e., at least since the time of Hobbes.

"Leviathan" by Thomas Hobbes

Principle 4: Human beings are capable of rationally considering the issue of the optimal social structures and arrangement / distribution of political power in a given society so as to further human well-being.

 The rediscovery of Reason and experience as instruments for learning about the world also meant that philosophers could take a step or two back and look at human beings, human potentialities, and human abilities with a more or less impartial and objective eye. At least they could be “impartial and objective” in the sense that they could view human beings and assess human potentialities without any preconceptions being “baked into” their conclusions by religious dogma. In Europe as it existed prior to the Enlightenment, the belief was virtually uncontested that God had ordained society in such a way that certain people were of more intrinsic worth than others, not by virtue of their achievements or potentialities, but because of the Divine sanction of their position in the social hierarchy. But when the philosophers of the Enlightenment looked at human beings and stripped away Aristotelian accidentia like considerations of wealth, social position, and political eminence, they made a revolutionary discovery: people differed greatly in terms of innate gifts and talents, but (a) these had no necessary connection to wealth, power or social position, and (b) whatever rights human beings have vis a vis their government are – or, anyway, should be – equal before the law. There was no rational, empirically justifiable basis for the belief that some people are intrinsically worth more than others merely because of accidents of birth, position, and wealth. In the contractarians’ “state of nature” before governments are formed and the accretion of encrustations of social privilege and station, all persons are equal. Rousseau meditated on this at length in The Social Contract, and came to the conclusion that, on the whole, civilization is a net liability to human beings because civilization suppresses whatever innate talents one may possess while exalting one purely on the basis of wealth and social prestige. In 1826, Thomas Jefferson, by then old and in failing health, replied to his friend Roger Weightman’s invitation to come to Washington, DC, to decline participation in celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of American independence. (Mr. Jefferson was prescient in declining the invitation:  he died at his estate of Monticello precisely on 4 July 1826.) Mr. Jefferson’s letter could almost serve as a kind of Enlightenment “owner’s manual” (italics and boldface added):

[M]ay [the American Revolution] be to the world, what I believe it will be,(to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the Signal of arousing men to burst the chains, under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings & security of self-government. that form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. all eyes are opened,or opening, to the rights of man. the general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view. the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of god.

"Thomas Jefferson" by Rembrandt Peale, 1800

Principle 5: Human beings are intrinsically equal before the law, possessing equal rights and equal dignity, and no government conducive to the welfare of human beings recognizes inequality based, not on intrinsic talent and potentiality, but on mere wealth and social prestige.

By the middle 1700s, certainly by the time of the Revolution, the Founding, and the Framing of the US Constitution, the original Augustinian consensus of pre-Reformation and late-Roman times had been superseded – “repudiated” would not be too strong a word – by the more fluid, more this-worldly, more Aristotelian, more confident, more optimistic, less rigid, less hierarchical, less religiously oriented worldview of the European Enlightenment. This should not be taken as a blanket value judgment, however. The world of St. Augustine and of the consensus of his time was useful, even healthy, much as a cast is useful and healthy for a broken limb. A broken leg needs to be encased in a rigid, constricting cast while the bone heals. But once the bone heals, the cast can be removed and the newly healed leg can be moved and exercised in ways that would have been harmful, even fatal, for the leg in its broken state. Of course, Western civilization was still far from perfect. This civilization still practiced slave-trading, for example. But it had healed to the point that it was mature enough to accommodate a plurality of religions in the nations it comprised, and would eventually mature to the point that those nations could accommodate a plurality of religions among their individual citizens. Nor would it be mere flag-waving jingoism to argue that the most profound, most august expression of this newfound confidence in human beings and their capacity for rationality, tolerance, and self-governance found expression in the American Constitution.

James R. Cowles


  1. Thurneysen said on March 20, 2015
    Great stuff. I've sometimes wondered whether the Platonic or Aristotelian approaches absolutely required those two particular philosophers, or whether those two approaches simply occur in the human mind -- waiting to be found out in every era. Most challenging read of my life was probably the Aquinas/Aristotelian Bernard Lonergan's "Insight" and I never did get too far with it. But his "Method in Theology" was more accessible and was truly transforming for me. I would recommend that book to anyone.
    1. jrcowles said on March 20, 2015
      I dunno about the Aristotle / Plato question. But i do think it's deliciously ironic that, while science is done in an Aristotelian spirit, most mathematicians -- I have MAs in math & physics -- are actually "closet Platonists" & some, like the late Kurt Goedel, freely admit to being OUT of the "closet". I.e., they think of mathematical objects, not as just purely subjective entities with no existence other than between their ears, but as things that exist just as much as, but in a different sense than, say, the Grand Canyon. I can understand that very well: spend enough time doing math, and mathematical entities assume that kind of reality.

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