Political scientist James MacGreor Burns, known for his work on leadership and his Pulitzer Prize-winning Roosevelt: Soldier of Freedom, 1040-1945, tries his hand at intellectual history in Fire and Light: How The Enlightenment Transformed Our World. As a history of the cultural movement, however, Fire and Light misses a few details. First and foremost, it fails to set the stage for the Enlightenment.
All cultural movements have multiple causes but Burns conflates these complex elements into a reaction against the Church and its monopoly on intellectual and public discourse. The Church and its dogma was certainly one element, but it wasn’t the only one or even perhaps the most salient cause of the cultural movement of the Enlightenment. One could also argue, for example, that Enlightenment thinkers were rebelling against totalitarianism or absolutism, which happened to be embodied in power complex of monarchy and the Church, rather than religion in general and Christianity in particular. This distinction matters because the totalizing influence arises again and again in human history and is independent of specific political contexts.
Second, in discussing the context of Enlightenment, one cannot ignore the economic changes that were occurring at the time and how these provided the opening for new narratives. It is fine to argue that enlightenment ideas were powerful critiques of the old order but without structural change in society and economy, these ideas would not have flourished or perhaps even been voiced as ideas are as much the work of the environment as of the thinkers. Something was happening in the early 18th century that was undermining the old order, and opening the way for critical assault on old ideas, but Burns does not tells us much about it.
Leonard Kireger in his comprehensive treatment of the rise of Enlightenment Kings and Philosophers offers a clue. He characterizes that era as one of the changing nature of cultural production that permitted a more robust intellectual life than had previously been possible when patronage was the only means of support for cultural endeavors. The era was in some ways akin to today, when the Internet has made it possible for anyone to publish their work. There were new venues for discourse, a cornucopia of publications — for the first time, a republic of letters — all occasioned by the changes in the economic order.
The rise of the middle classes was, therefore, a significant enabling factor for Enlightenment: these newly wealthy were a ready audience for a new narrative that empowered them by offering a new world view in which not the chosen few such as kings and Popes, or the aristocracy, for that matter, were the naturally ordained choice makers, but they, the apparently ordinary men, who decided not only their fate but that of their nations. Enlightenment, then, was also an opportunistic enterprise, for it was, whatever else it may have been or appeared to be, a highly convenient cultural product for a newly created class and political power center.
Given this economic factor, it becomes clear that natural philosophers’ attack on the Church and its dogmas had a lot to do with the fact that the Church and monarchy were closely linked and formed a competing power center in societies in which increasingly a new aristocracy of money was developing.
What was Enlightenment, then, coming so neatly just at the moment a new social class and political economy were being created? It was certainly more than the naïve reading purports it to have been, a movement of liberty, reason and other good things. It was also a justification for a new political class and a new political economy.
Foucault taught us that power is created by narrative which produces truth and defines what is reasonable. And a serious postmodern thinker can only be skeptical of the Enlightenment’s naïve notions of reason, for reason is, can only ever be, a reflection of power relations — whoever owns the presses and the men of reason defines what is reasonable. Hans Kellner called notions of truth and reality the primary authoritarian weapons of our time — but so is the concept of reason.
Third, the Enlightenment was not without precedent. The rationalists of the seventeenth century had done important intellectual work that enabled 18th-century Enlightenment thinkers. But all these men were educated in stifling Church-run educational instructions, which suggests that the Church, far from being solely a stifling influence, was in fact something more complex, being also the guardian of reason and learning through the centuries. Had it not been so, the intellectual foundations for Enlightenment would not have been laid. To think differently one must first learn how to think.