Enlightenment refers to the intellectual and social phenomenon accured in Western Europe during the eighteenth century. According to Osborne (1998), the enlightenment is just a family of intellectual ideas that emphasized the primary reasons in the organization of social and political life. He further says that the thinkers of the enlightenment shared a passion for the application of reasoning common things:  love to science, belief in and commitment to progress, distrust of superstitions and the religious organization of life. Osborne (1998), also noted that enlightenment revolves around a veritable faith in the powers of freedom to improve the human condition and bring the humanity ever closer to the realization of its essential nature.

All enlighteners thought the perceived enlightenment as something revolutionary in the sense of being a process wholly transforming people’s understanding of the human condition, affecting large changes in institutions and political life (Israel, 2011).  The enlightenment is the only historical period to be defined by a philosophical movement, and so the philosophers can, perhaps, be excused for being a bit misty eyed about it (Louden, 2007).

The fundamental tendency and the main endeavor of the philosophy of the enlightenment are not to observe life and portray it in terms of reflective thought. Louden (2007), says that this philosophy believes rather in an original spontaneity of thought; thus, attributing to it not merely an imitative function, but the power and the task of shaping the life itself. According to Louden (2007), “Enlightenment is justly accused as the cause of revolutions most enlightenment intellectuals are correctly read as advocating peaceful change through free inquiry, public discussion and institutional reform”. From one side, the scholars say that the professed universalism of enlightenment was merely a cloak for western hegemony and cultural imperialism, while other people are comforted with the news that economic globalization and contemporary democratization represent the fulfillment of enlightenment and hopes (Louden, 2007).     

Capaldi (1998), says that the enlightenment was the attempt to engage in social reconstruction on the basis of a purely scientific reason. The philosophies also believed that their theoretical position was, in fact, compatible with and led to widely held enlightenment values. The critics of the enlightenment have always rejected the progress as it suggested imaginable standards constituting the lie outside the realm of science. Capaldi (1998), on the other hand, says that the advocates of the enlightenment not only believe such standards are available, but also that the knowledge of them is progressive itself.

The supporters of the enlightenment adopted two complementary discourses. Capaldi (1998), says that they speak from within their common heritage by invoking intellectual and political norms as needed and, on the other hand, they reserve the right seemingly to step outside the common heritage into the atmosphere of a contextless reason in order to amend or reject the common heritage when they deem it necessary.

When the enlightenment is equated with sociological or any other kind of rationalism, it becomes easy to lose the grip of it. Capaldi (1998), says that crucial to the enlightenment project is the denial of the idea of a free and personally responsible individual soul that emerged out of the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian world view. He also notes that the denial of “self” serves a number of important and interrelated purposes. Metaphysically, it reinforces the claim that the world as it is understood in physical science terms is primary. On the contrary, the entire western intellectual tradition prior to the enlightenment had made self understanding primary.

The Enlightenment and Religion

In his research, Louden (2007), noted that the myth of the antireligious enlightenment is still present in many quarters. He further says that the enlightenment proclaimed the death of religion and the alleged reappearance of religion in the contemporary society has demonstrated the falsity of this proclamation. Louden (2007), further says that “most enlightenment intellectuals were convinced that religion, if properly reformed, could and should serve as a progressive force for the transformation of moral and social life”.  However, it is important to note that enlightenment ideals about what shape and direction religion should take have been firmly rejected by subsequent generations. According to Louden (2007), the two core features of the enlightenment religiosity: the unity of thesis and morality thesis, have been firmly and steadily resisted by subsequent generations.

The Enlightenment and Education

Education is the area of the enlightenment hopes for the future seems to have been fulfilled. Louden (2007), indicated that once we move beneath the rosy surface, true achievement of enlightenment educational ideals is much more difficult to detect. The widespread growth and accessibility of education at all levels that people of the world have been enjoying since the enlightenment has not led to intellectual and civic transformation. It is important to note that the economic means advocated by the enlightenment intellectuals for achieving certain goals such as peace, strong civic culture and elimination of poverty have proven to be ineffective (Louden, 2007). This means that if these goals are still desired, different means now need to be used.

The Enlightenment and Politics

The two enlightenment political ideals which include nationalism and republicanism have both fared extremely well since the appearance of the movement. Louden (2007), says that the nationalistic fervor that exploded after the enlightenment was nothing but the enlightenment nationalism. Democracy has received the highest level of realization in the post-enlightenment world. Louden (2007), says that the legacy of enlightenment in political ideals over the past two centuries shows a very high level of endorsement by subsequent generations. It is however important to note that the widespread enlightenment assumption that external institutional change would lead to desired internal attitudinal change still lacks sufficient empirical support.     

The Enlightenment and Contemporary Civilization

On the account of its impact and legacy in modern democratic societies and their constitutive values and institutions, the enlightenment can be considered the critical historical point. Zafirovski (2011), says that the enlightenment has also been the landmark intellectual event in the culture, specifically, in the post medieval western and world civilization since the eighteenth century. Zafirovski (2011), further says that the enlightenment can, thus, be considered in conjunction with the industrial revolution and the French and American revolutions, due to its direct or indirect economic and political outcomes, realizations or expressions.

According to Zafirovski (2011), the enlightenment is the crucial decisive cultural factor in the contemporary western society because in association with these economic and political revolutions implementing or expressing its ideals, it intellectually ushered in liberal democratic modernity as its child. The negative side of enlightenment was the factor that in virtue of intellectually ending by delegitimizing despotic traditionalism, notably feudalism and theocratic medievalism, as the dead past (Zafirovski, 2011).  The enlightenment, including its revolutionary economic and political corollaries, is what Weber calls the most fateful or fatal for its conservative fascist adversaries and its postmodernist detractors, cultural force in modern democratic western and other societies.        

The enlightenment conjoined with democratic, political and industrial revolutions reflecting and implementing its ideals, illuminates and overcomes the medieval darkness and oppression through the light and liberty of liberal, secular, egalitarian, rationalistic, universalistic and humanitarian democracy and society (Zafirovski, 2011). The enlightenment is, therefore, likely to continue operating as the primary foundation and justification of modern liberal-secular and civil society. On the other hand, it will probably operate as the agent provocateur of neoconservative authoritarianism, including neo-fascist aspect.

Grell & Porter (2000), noted that viewing enlightenment as a movement enables one to recapture the contemporary sense of the enlightened virtue spreading far and wide, while the impetus and focus remained in Western Europe and towards the end of the century in America. The enlightenment saw the development of the science of society, especially in Scotland, and this offered new emphasis to the practical impact of toleration. Not only did the enlightenment generally impact upon the notions of toleration by changing the understanding of the relationship between state and society, it also helped to change the self perception of religions (Grell & Porter, 2000). 

The enlightenment affirms both religious and political tolerance. Johnson (2006), established that toleration is necessary for human beings to develop their natural capacity for reasoning to decide what they will believe. Compared with pre-enlightenment views, enlightenment thinkers tend to be very critical of past interactions and intersections of politics and religion. While religious and political phenomena are to be approached using the same fundamental conceptions and the same methodology, there is a strong tendency to undermine their intersection and to affirm a separation of religion and politics (Johnson, 2006). The enlightenment thinkers affirm a natural and rational deism, a rational theology, and a natural religion over a religion of supernatural revelation. Johnson (2006), says that “even these religious figures of the enlightenment oppose the use by religion of supernatural revelation, dogma, scripture and institutional and clerical authority to interact with and restrict political life” (p. 309). 

The enlightenment constitutes the highest point or climax and completion of European civilization and history in general since the classical Greek and Roman democracy, culture and society. Zafirovski (2011), says that it does by renewing or reaffirming as did the Renaissance in mainly artistic terms and developing and completing, through the French and partly American Revolutions. He also adds that the enlightenment forms the highest stage and completion of being continuous with the European civilization and history, primarily in the sense of their beginning with classical democracy, culture and society, and distinguished from their medieval Christianity. In Schumpeter’s terms, the enlightenment constitutes the process of creative adaptation or reinvention and extension of pre--medieval classical civilization and of creative destruction or overcoming of its medieval Christianity phase (Zafirovski, 2011).   

In addition, the enlightenment is, probably, the supreme expression and culmination of the human perennial quest for liberty, equality, inclusion, justice, including free, equal and just life chances. Zafirovski (2011), says that to restate what Heine said of Voltaire “in the great war for the liberation of humanity the enlightenment will always stand first” (p. 76). As a corollary, the enlightenment is continuous and discontinuous, convergent and divergent, in relation to the previous societies and historical periods and the pre-enlightenment.

The enlightenment is the highest point or the logical ultimate stage of the evolution of western, notably classical, civilization, specifically the further development and extension of democratic Athens as a local prototype in the form of modern liberal secular, inclusive and rationalistic democracy and society (Zafirovski, 2011). In this context, Zafirovski argues that the enlightenment is the greatest, strongest and the most consistent creative adaptation of classical civilization and democracy by its further evolution and universal expansion (2011).

The period of the enlightenment and its outcome, modern science and knowledge represent the ultimate stage or essential part of an often interrupted movement. According to Zafirovski (2011), this movement involves human aims and attempts at liberating from the cage of the closed society and at creating an open society. The enlightenment therefore, intellectually and morally overcomes or delegitimizes medieval traditionalism, notably the feudal, despotic, theocratic, exclusionary and irrational regime of the society. It also conceptually creates, legitimizes and ushers in modernism as the new or reinvented after the model or the precedent of classical democracy including modern capitalism (Zafirovski, 2011).          

The core project of the enlightenment was the creation of an indispensable morality, rationally connected to all people and, thus, the construction of global civilization. Gray (2007), emphasizes that the enlightenment embodies a distinctive philosophical anthropology, for which cultural differences are inessential and in their political manifestations at any rate- are transitory incident in human affairs. According to Gray (2007), “in relation to the philosophical anthropology of the enlightenment, the diverse and often rivalrous cultural identities manifest throughout human history. They are not expressive of any primordial human disposition to cultural difference”. 

In terms of the historiography, the enlightenment should be seen as an ex post facto construct that does not necessarily correspond to one particular data set, but rather acts as a construct imposed upon a given body of sources (Caradonna, 2012). The enlightenment is and has always been a heuristic device that has greatly evolved over the past two centuries and will likely continue in the future as the new perspectives and sources emerge. As a concept, the enlightenment should be used as a means of making sense of the apparent changes in European cultural practices and intellectual perspectives.

Admittedly, Israel (2011), says that the enlightenment was the most important and profound intellectual, social and cultural transformation of the Western world since the Middle Ages and the most formative in shaping modernity. Israel (2011), further says that it must be understood both as an intellectual movement and as a mainstream socio-economic and political history. Like both the renaissance and the reformation, in the enlightenment, intellectual and doctrinal changes came first but impacted on and responded to social, cultural, economic and political context so profoundly that they changed everything (Israel, 2011). According to Israel (2011), “there was a great deal of social grievance and archaism in the 18th century and the enlightenment precisely by establishing new principles, understood intellectually, set up a powerful process of social and political innovation, reformism, and change which profoundly affected the whole of society”.

Critics of the Enlightenment

Kant following Hume, pointed out that there were no guarantees possible within the empiricist epistemology of the enlightenment. Capaldi (1998), further adds that inability to establish the way people think about the world is, in fact, the way the world is. Kant, therefore, in view of the enlightenment postulated a separate realm of unchanging transcendental norms in the human mind.

Hegel, as an absolute idealist, was at odds with the enlightenment. Capaldi (1998), says that the enlightenment as a philosophical movement stood for philosophical materialism. It took what science said about the physical world and made that knowledge primary, while the knowledge of the subject was both secondary and derivative. The proponents of the enlightenment interpreted human beings and the society in terms of individual rights as well as maintaining that all social and political problems should be solved through the social technology modeled after physical science and technology. As a result, both Kant and Hegel subscribed to some of the liberating social and political aspirations of the enlightenment, but only by transforming their context to a kind of idealism.

In conclusion, Israel (2011), says that the enlightenment is not a story of ideas, but a story of the interaction of ideas and social reality. It should, therefore, be seen as a new focus on the world betterment, without regard for the existence or non-existence of the next. Therefore, the enlightenment should focus on improvement of the world and avoid social practice as well as general values, but rather put the emphasis on the new concepts, principles and lawful arrangements targeted at bringing positive changes to  the society. The enlightenment operated by revolutionizing ideas and constitutional principles, hence, in its essence it is closely related to revolution.

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