Select Page

The Enlightenment

European intellectuals of the Renaissance (= re-birth) were inspired by the depth and range of thinking revealed in translations of ancient texts from the classical world. They found a vibrant world of free thinkers in ancient Greece and Rome who had explored and advanced our understanding of art, science, politics, mathematics, engineering, philosophy, and much more. From the 14th to the 17th centuries this new learning passed from southern Europe’s Mediterranean cities to its distant northwestern promontory, travelling across the monastic and feudal Christendom that had followed in the wake of Rome’s decline. To the enquiring mind these ideas were an exhilarating liberation from the stifling influence of religious traditions, rituals, and dogma.

Baron von Mueller

Eminent guests in the salon of Marie Thérèse Rodet Geoffrin

This 1812 painting by Anicet Lemonnier (1743-1824) is now in the Chateaux de Malmaison

Back row, left to right: Jean-Baptiste-Louis Gresset, Pierre de Marivaux, Jean-François Marmontel, Joseph-Marie Vien, Antoine Léonard Thomas, Charles Marie de La Condamine, Guillaume Thomas François Raynal, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Jean-Philippe Rameau, La Clairon, Charles-Jean-François Hénault, Étienne François, duc de Choiseul, a bust of Voltaire, Charles-Augustin de Ferriol d’Argental, Jean François de Saint-Lambert, Edmé Bouchardon, Jacques-Germain Soufflot, Jean-Baptiste Bourguignon d’Anville, Anne Claude de Caylus, Fortunato Felice, François Quesnay, Denis Diderot, Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, Baron de Laune, Chrétien Guillaume de Lamoignon de Malesherbes, Armand de Vignerot du Plessis, Pierre Louis Maupertuis, Jean-Jacques Dortous de Mairan, Henri François d’Aguesseau, Alexis Clairaut

Front row, right to left: Montesquieu, Sophie d’Houdetot, Claude Joseph Vernet, Bernard Le Bouyer de Fontenelle, Marie-Thérèse Rodet Geoffrin, Louis François, Prince of Conti, Duchesse d’Anville, Philippe Jules François Mancini, François-Joachim de Pierre de Bernis, Claude Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon, Alexis Piron, Charles Pinot Duclos, Claude-Adrien Helvétius, Charles-André van Loo, Jean le Rond d’Alembert, Lekain at the desk reading aloud, Jeanne Julie Éléonore de Lespinasse, Anne-Marie du Boccage, René Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur, Françoise de Graffigny, Étienne Bonnot de Condillac, Bernard de Jussieu, Louis-Jean-Marie Daubenton, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The revival of critical thought was accompanied through the early modern period (c. 1500-1800) by a Scientific Revolution which saw major advances in astronomy, biology and medicine, chemistry, mathematics, and physics. Though scientists now challenged the scientific frontiers of their classical predecessors, it was during the 18th century Enlightenment (also known as the Age of Reason) that intellectuals, using the ancient tools of logic and science, also questioned traditional and authoritarian dogmas in the worlds of politics, religion, and commerce. For Europeans this was also an extension of the Age of Discovery as colonial expansion suged. Both geographic and intellectual horizons were opening up as never before.

A new social order

At the time of Australian settlement Europe was indergoing profound intellectual change as old assumptions and traditions were challenged. Exhausted by the religious wars of the 17th century the intelligentsia of Europe had turned to natural philosophy (present-day science) and the principles of the Enlightenment as a potential source of peace and harmony. However, conflict simmered only just below the surface as this entailed challenging the royal and aristocratic social order of the day, as well as loosening the grip of theology on human ideas. There was a desire for a devolution of power from its traditional religious and royal base (where it had lain since the origin of the first city states in the Bronze Age) to lower echelons of society. One consequence of the new thinking was a challenge to the absolute monarchy in France, the French Revolution in 1789.

If we trace a Scientific Revolution to the approximate dates of 1570 to 1710 then we see an intellectual battle that represented ‘a successful rebellion by the mathematicians against the authority of philosophers, and of both against theologians‘.

Expansion of trade

Following the commercial triumphs of the Age of Discovery – Spanish silver and gold from the Americas and Portuguese spices from the East Indies – European political and economic power shifted to new countries who followed in their steps by set up their own trading networks. Trading companies were strongly associated with the origins of capitalism, stock exchanges and the concentration of political power in private hands, with many thousand employees needed to maintain their armies, navies, and territories. They were the equivalent of today’s multinational companies and starkly demonstrated the many-sidedness of human enterprise and greed.

In 1600 the ‘Company of Merchants of London Trading into the East Indies’ was formed with a Royal Charter from Queen Elizabeth I to become the British East India Company (BEIC). This was swiftly followed in 1602 by the formation of the Dutch East India Company (VOC), followed much later by equivalent companies in France (est. 1664) and Sweden (1731). All these companies provided the opportunity for botanizing in the Far East, Linnaeus having a special arrangement with the Swedish company.

The English showed initial interest in the East Indies by establishing a trading post at Bantam in Java but interest quickly moved to Indian Surat where cotton factories were built in 1615 with businesses spreading along both east and west coasts the most significant being at Madras (now Chennai), Calcutta, and Bombay. By 1833 local Moghul rulers had been subdued and Indian land was under a private British administration, a situation with unfortunate consequences that ended with the British government assuming control in 1874. Trade further east had not ceased however and from 1699 the tea trade with China proved popular and lucrative. However, China expressed little interest in western goods demanding bullion, mostly silver, as payment. Struggling to meet the bullion requirement, opium grown in India was, against Chinese wishes, used instead, leading eventually to the Opium Wars of 1839–42 and 1856–60. By smuggling tea plants into India and developing their own plantations the British eventually broke the Chinese monopoly on tea trade.

Conquest, collection & classification

The extraordinary cost and risk entailed by such long and hazardous sea trips carried potential rewards. For the European powers of the day it was a matter of colonial reconnaissance. There was always the attractive possibility of gaining some military, commercial or strategic advantage over rival countries. Above all, new lands held the prospect of new resources. Fortunes had been made from spices, the potato, tobacco, maize and other plants discovered overseas and here was a vast unexplored continent. To the north (Indonesia) the Dutch East India Company had flourished on the proceeds of the spice trade, the Spice Islands (Moluccas, a group of small islands between New Guinea and Sulawesi) yielding nutmeg, mace and cloves that had commanded higher prices than gold. With the prospect of similar yet undiscovered treasures the Dutch sent ships to investigate and map the lands to the south. British navigators used Dutch charts and the French produced the most impressive charts through the 18th century.[2]

A finite world

European exploration and subsequent colonial expansion, after the discovery of Australia, resulted in what we would now regard as the world’s first accurate representation of the world’s land massess and therefore depicting the boundaries of the physical world. At virtually the same time the Enlightenment mind-set began a tentative assessments of the Earth’s biological boundaries and limits – by making large-scale inventories of animals and plants across the world, both their numbers and kinds. By acknowledging physical earthly boundaries and limits to the numbers and kinds of organisms humans were confronting the physical reality that the Earth and its resources were finite. Accounts of maritime exploration were published in travelogues that were devoured by a general public eager for the revelations of real-life adventurers and their dramatic encounters with new creatures, peoples and lands.
Plants were to play a major role in Enlightenment science.


The European cultural movement known as the Enlightenment extended from roughly 1675 through the French Revolution of 1789 to the early Napoleonic era which lasted from 1799 to 1815. It was a period of unprecedented intellectual optimism, excitement, and controversy as academic societies, universities, museums, herbaria, zoos and other institutions proliferated and flourished, scientific communication networks were forged, and the natural wonders of newly discovered territories were progressively opened up to European eyes, not just those of eccentric wealthy collectors but now the well-to-do upper class.

Philosophes and savants

The salon was an Italian invention of the 16th century which flourished in France throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. A salon is a gathering of people under the roof of an inspiring host, held partly to amuse one another and partly to refine the taste and increase the knowledge of the participants through conversation. These gatherings often consciously followed Horace’s definition of the aims of poetry, ‘either to please or to educate‘ (aut delectare aut prodesse est). Salons, commonly associated with French literary and philosophical movements of the 17th and 18th centuries.

At the head of the new thinking were Europe’s intellectuals mostly in France (where they were called savants or philosophes) and Britain. Reason and science (the Enlightenment was also known a the Age of Reason) were optimistically promoted as the tools that would forge progress through general moral and physical improvement. At its political heart the Enlightenment was a challenge to authority, the absolute authority of monarchs and the intellectual authority of the church: church and state together controlling peoples’ lives and thought through the traditional dogmas of theology and the politics of the court. Reforming society was to be achieved through the application of reason. Evidence-based (empirical) knowledge was to be the means by which society could understand nature, using that knowledge to control the natural world and improve the lot of mankind, all within a climate of religious and intellectual tolerance, and a respect for other peoples of the world. Part of this agenda would entail transfer of some royal and aristocratic power to the general populace. Enlightenment ideas like these were to play an important role in the American War of Independence (1775-1783) and French Revolution (1789-1799).

Attention was turning from heaven to Earth, from the supernatural to the natural, and from God to man, with decreasing emphasis on the afterlife and increasing attention to the improvement of the here and now.


Leading the Enlightenment movement were public philosophes like the reformist writer, wit and social critic Voltaire (1694–1778) and the political and social commentator Charles-Louis Montesquieu (1689–1755). Among the ranks of scientists were British figures like mathematician and physicist Isaac Newton (1643–1727), Charles Darwin‘s grandfather Erasmus Darwin, and Frenchmen like Museum director Buffon, mathematician Condorcet, and encyclopaedist Diderot.

Philosophers associated with the new ideas included, from Britain, John Locke (1632–1704) and David Hume (1711– 1776), from Germany Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) who wrote a famous essay Answering the Question: What Is Enlightenment? in which he attributed a lack of Enlightenment (as the inability to think for oneself) not to the lack of intellect, but a lack of courage which allows us to accept someone else’s authority to lead us in areas where the use of reason is called for, and from France Alembert and Condorcet. Another influential thinker of the period was the economist Adam Smith (1723–1790).

In America supporters included Benjamin Franklin and the young Thomas Jefferson. Immanuel Kant followed the science of his day closely, his 1755 Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens (Allgemeine Naturgeschichte und Theorie des Himmels) setting out a theory for the nebular origin of the solar system, later known as the Kant-Laplace hypothesis and his crowning work the Critique of Pure Reason as one of the most influential philosophical works ever produced.

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) owned a plantation called Monticello in Virginia the magnificent on neo-classical mansion built according to his instructions. From 1784 to1789 in the period preceding the French Revolution, he served as an American diplomat in Paris where he was deeply impressed by the ideas of the Enlightenment especially those of the eminent British philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) (a proponent of classical liberalism) who in his tract On Government had specified the ideals of ‘Life, liberty and the pursuit of property’.

The American War of Independence against the British was a reaction to the high taxes demanded by Britain. Jefferson was cakled on to help draft The Declaration of Independence (1776), upermost in his mind being a resistance to the government restriction on peoples’ freedom that Americans had experienced under British rule. There was to be no king or emperor in America –the constitution would enshrine the sovereignty of the people, demarcate the appropriate concerns of Church and State, and avoid the focus of power within any one group through the separation of powers of the three arms of government: the President in the Whitehouse (Jefferson was America’s third President from 1801 to 1809), the elected representatives in Congress, and the law-makers in the Courts. This was a grand vision that has stood the test of time although sadly, following the Classical world on which the Enlightenment was based Jefferson, though publicly opposed to slavery, took no action to emancipate the slaves on his own property and was deeply racially prejudiced being convinced of black inferiority. The world-famous preamble statement to the Declaration of Independence that ‘All men are created equal …’ has echoed through the years but the words which followed it ‘Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free. Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government. Nature, habit, opinion has drawn indelible lines of distinction between them’ have been subsequently removed and remain an unfortunate reminder of the character of his times.

While in France Jefferson had befriended Condorcet a French Enlightenment mathematician (later beheaded during the Terror) and Jefferson’s assistance was sought in the drafting the Declaration of the Rights of Man, a historically critical document. Written in response to the extravagances of the absolute monarchy of Louis XVI in Versailles and th foundation of Western politics today. It demanded ‘Liberty’ as freedom of thought and expression and no taxation without representation and ‘Equality’ of rights under law, of opportunity, and of taxation. This document summarised Enlightenment political thought concerning representative government (as a response to the absolute monarchy in France and elsewhere in Europe), human rights, educational and legal equality, and the capacity to improve the lot of man through a sharing of knowledge.


Scientists like Newton, though often religious people, had demonstrated universal objective laws that would apply at any time and any place in the world. Enlightenment thinkers began to question the place of religion in society as they tried to reveal natural, not divine, order in the world.

Natural histoory tools picture

Tools of the natural historian-botanist
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Natural philosophy

Our modern idea of science and scientists dates back only as far as the 19th century, the word ‘scientist’ first appearing in 1834 created by the naturalist-theologian William Whewell to distinguish those who sought knowledge of nature from those who sought knowledge of other disciplines. Before this time ‘science’ simply meant ‘knowledge’ but from this time would be more closely associated with the scientific method. Modern forms of science developed out of philosophy or, more specifically, natural philosophy (loosely equivalent to modern physics and chemistry).

Natural history

Natural history was the mostly observational rather than experimental study of plants, animals and minerals, loosely equivalent to modern biology and geology. It had emerged as a discipline in the 16th century among wealthy dilettantes and it gathered momentum during the Enlightenment as museums, zoos, and botanic gardens were opened for the public and travel around Europe became more commonplace (see museums and communication)

During the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries Copernicus had finally replaced the classical Ptolemaic view of the Earth as the centre of the solar system, Galileo had resisted religious dogma, and medicine had become more empirically based. Supernatural perceptions of the physical world were being discarded as alchemy was transformed into modern chemistry, and astrology was becoming more like modern astronomy.

Natural theology

In the 18th century there religious conflict diminished. Science and geographic exploration were exposing weaknesses in the old religious certainties.

Europeans became aware of sophisticated cultures, like that in China, that were non-Christian; the injustice of religious persecution was being questioned; humans were being perceived more as material beings and less as spiritual ones; the possibility of miracles was being challenged; explanations for natural catastrophes like floods, famines, earthquakes, fires, volcanic eruptions and disease, were being attributed more to natural causes than supernatural ones, like ‘the wrath of God’; rock formations and fossils appeared to be much older than the age of the earth as declared by biblical teaching, the director of the Paris Museum, Buffon for example, declaring the world to be many thousands of years old while in private believing the age to be more like millions of years and likewise Georges Cuvier’s 1808 Geology of the Paris Region suggested that the Earth’s history spanned millions rather than thousands of years; the idea that each organism was individually distinct as created by God was being challenged by new ideas of organic change and extinction.

Biblical literalism, already scarred by the former Catholic anti-Copernicanism, was facing a further assault that was resulting in a change of approach as biblical accounts were increasingly treated as allegory or folk legend but with an underlying religious significance.

Religion was also adapting to the new science through the field of natural theology (loosely defined as what can be discerned of God through human reason). At the heart of natural theology was the ‘argument from design’ the belief that pattern in nature is the revelation of God’s design, an argument stated clearly by Newton in his famous Principia Mathematica: “this most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being”. Science was revealing the wonder of God’s Creation. This was the prevailing view for many scientists of the age including its most illustrious naturalist Carl Linnaeus.

There were many dissenters to the new ideas. English poet William Blake (1757-1827) detested both science and natural theology, believing that the presentation of God as a kind of divine clock maker destroyed the possibility of a spiritually rewarding and loving relationship with God. The great philosophers Hume and Kant both resisted natural theology but arguments about the intricate complexity and perfection of the natural world demonstrating the mind of the Creator have remained to the present day: they convinced the early Darwin and Australia’s most eminent botanist Ferdinand Mueller, so far as we can tell, never countenanced the theory of evolution or doubted his natural theology.

Popular science

Natural history had an instant appeal for the general public and was much more accessible than subjects like Newtonian mechanics. Its popularity reached a peak in the first half of the 19th century before declining in the face of the more analytic and sedentary experimental science of the laboratory.[3] Even so the opportunity for popularization through books, magazines, museum lectures, talks and exhibitions was not lost, the Enlightenment creating an international Republic of Letters. It seems easier to translate to the general public than the Working men and women could appreciate the beauty of the natural landscape and the plants and animals it contained without having to learn the complex and obscure terminology of mathematics, physics and chemistry.

There was a new humanity and just a touch of humility – a willingness to work with indigenous peoples (albeit in a patronizing way) rather than adopting the uncompromising and plundering role of conqueror. Sailors were persuaded to strip naked to present themselves to natives in an unthreatening way, and vegetable gardens were left so that the produce could be shared with indigenous people in the belief that the possible development of agriculture might have a civilizing influence: even natives could be ‘improved’.

Foreign cultures

The British empire had, through its ‘worldliness’ stimulated Enlightenment thinking which, in turn, had presented ways of improving its outcomes. Then in its latter stages Enlightenment skepticism began to question the imperial enterprise itself.

Encountering new cultures and peoples had opened up a new questioning of traditional European social customs, traditions and values. Not only religion was under question but the underlying social values of European society. Perhaps the march into the grime, city slums, human exploitation and greed of the Industrial Revolution was a mistake? Could there be another path?

Mercantile corruption and greed were evident to all. If everyone was equal in the eyes of God then how should you rule people you believe are incapable of living in civil society? Were colonial societies really being uplifted for their own good?

French philosopher Jean-Jaque Rousseau in 1762 published The Social Contract which criticised civil society and property. ‘‘Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. One man thinks himself the master of others, but remains more of a slave than they are’‘ he said. Native peoples are ‘innocents’ who have not received God’s word and they live in ‘state of nature’ which is a pure state when compared with oppressed and corrupt modern civil man. After all the Enlightenment had not brought peace and wellbeing but warfare and bloodshed: so who is more human, the savage or civil man? Most insulting to the Enlightened mind was the atrocity of slavery. Rousseau became renowned for his portrayal of the innocent and romanticized ‘noble savage’ as he pleaded for naturalness and simplicity in a reaction to the pomp, ostentation and excesses of French high society. His work was fuel for the Abolitionist movement while others pointed to the inexorable path of all empires into oblivion.

Finally, the search for souls so characteristic of the fervent Catholicism of Spain and Portugal, the desire to convert infidels and pagans to the one true religion, now acquired less urgency.


The search for spices, precious metals and other luxury goods in the Age of Discovery was followed by a hunt for scientific treasures during the Enlightenment voyages of scientific discovery.

Social fads and trends were established by the fashionable upper echelons of society – and this meant the country estates which took great pride in their paintings, China, tapestries, libraries and grounds. The Enlightenment had inspired patronage of the arts, sciences, and music. The wealthy excited by the romance of exploration in unknown distant lands displayed their exotic plant trophies in hothouses, orangeries and stovehouses. Desire to show these new botanical treasures a broader section of society inspired generations of high quality floral and botanical art. Australia certainly played a significant role in the Golden Age of Botany.

Ideas, attitudes and personalities of the Enlightenment would certainly have permeated the higher levels of Australian society. However, it was essentially an intellectual movement and it should not be forgotten that poor and mostly illiterate English convicts would only obliquely have had any part in this.

The Enlightenment was a period when European botany was integrated with society as never before: with the social and economic impact of beverages like tea, coffee, and cocoa; plantation crops like sugar, cotton, tobacco, and rubber; and a cultural preoccupation with ornamental plants and gardens linked to scientific exploration and colonial expansion. Joseph Banks served as a father figure, the glue that cemented together the world’s botanical dilettantes and the rising class of botanical academics through close-knit institutions like Kew Gardens, the Royal Society, Linnean Society, the Royal Horticultural Society and wealthy and influential nurserymen, his connections including royalty, politicians, and the fashion-conscious wealthy elite.

Plant hunting acquired a special mystique in horticulture as it engaged a spirit of adventure and danger accompanied by the stimulation of new lands and new peoples. It was part of the 18th century plant phenomenon known as botanophilia and seems to epitomize a uniquely European, and especially British, form of ‘collectomania’ that produced museums, herbaria, and botanic gardens. This was also a critical element of global economic botany and plant geography as humans, more than ever before, redistributed between the continents of the world the plants that they found curious, beautiful, useful, and new.

The excitement of this plant journey generated a rich literature about these intrepid travellers, one genre exploiting the thrill of gardener as plant hunter. As with mineral prospecting, plant prospecting could reap rich rewards. Many gardener-botanists led precarious lives supported by the money paid for their collections. There are libraries of books and travelogues on this topic but the classic popular read is Alice Coates’s The Plant Hunters: Being a History of the Horticultural Pioneers, their Quests and Their Discoveries from the Renaissance to the Twentieth Century which opens with the words:

‘It is an axiom that the territory available for profitable plant-hunting shrinks as agriculture expands and civilization advances’

Today the romance of exploration has been tempered somewhat as we try to come to catch up in our understanding with the mix of civilization and economic botany (agriculture, horticultural crops and garden plants) – the cultivated plant globalization – that has transformed the landscape of planet Earth … and not always for the better. Plant hunting has played a significant role in the human influence on global plant geography.

Gardener-botanists were heroes of the European voyages of scientific discovery during the Enlightenment. Though plant collecting in foreign lands dates back to antiquity, its modern-era institutional form was launched by Linnaeus from the University of Uppsala (his team of ‘Apostles’), by Joseph Banks at Kew Gardens in London, Andre Thouin at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, and from Scotland’s Edinburgh Botanic Gardens.

Plant commentary & sustainability analysis

The ideas of the Enlightenment were in many ways a continuation of an intellectual tradition derived from the classical world and reinvigorated by the knowledge acquired during the early modern period as subsumed under historical categories that included the Scientific Revolution, Age of Discovery, Age of Reason, Age of Revolutions, and Commercial Revolution.

Harvard cognitive scientist Professor Steven Pinker, one of the world’s leading public intellectuals (a modern-day philosophe), in his 21st century reinvigoration of Enlightenment principles Enlightenment Now (2018) discusses four key Enlightenment themes: ‘reason’, ‘science’, ‘humanism’, and ‘progress’ as our legacy from the Enlightenment. These, he argues, underpin much of our contemporary world view which can be characterised as modern secular humanism or classical liberalism as a charter for the future. No doubt after two world wars the West is shy of any doctrine, theory, program, or ideology but perhaps the time is ripe for a re-examination of what might count as a universal set of values with the harnessing of knowledge to improve human flourishing at its heart.

For all our human frailties and flaws we are at least capable of producing:

norms and institutions that channel parochial interests into universal benefits‘. ‘Among those norms are: free speech, nonviolence, cooperation, cosmopolitanism, human rights and a recognition of our human fallibility, and among the institutions are science, education, media, democratic government, international organizations, and markets. Not coincidentally these were the major brainchild of the Enlightenment‘.[5]


Reason is fundamental. It is the non-negotiable tool we use to communicate, regardless of our beliefs, and it must therefore be ruthlessly applied in the face of loyalty to tribe and deference to traditionally accepted sources of authority – like: ‘faith, dogma, revelation, social standing, charisma, mysticism, divination, visions, gut feelings, or the hermeneutic parsing of sacred texts’.

The claims of religion were frequently criticised, especially when used as a justification for political power (Absolute Monarchy). Most Enlightenment thinkers were suspicious of: the writers and interpreters of holy texts; an anthropomorphic God with the time to take a special interest in human affairs; the performance of miracles; and the way that ‘different cultures believed in mutually incompatible deities, none of them less likely than the others to be products of the imagination’.[6]

Enlightenment thinker Immanuel Kant regarded the relentless use of reason as an antidote to ‘dogmas and formulas’ and a way of avoiding our tendency to become intellectually ‘lazy and cowardly’. His motto was ‘Dare to understand!’.[7]

The Enlightenment call for reason was loud precisely because we find the application of reason to our affairs so difficult.


The Scientific Revolution and its technological spin-offs were a manifestation of reason applied relentlessly to our understanding of the physical world. The staggering consequences we all now take for granted. But the Enlightenment was still in the thrall of the fears and superstitions of the Middle Ages. Expressed crudely, the Enlightenment marked a transition from alchemy to chemistry, magic to medicine and botany, astrology to astronomy, and mystical numerology to mathematics. The demonstrable success of science served as a model for acquisition of reliable knowledge.[8]

The Enlightenment increased an awareness that, both individually and collectively, we can take charge of our destiny. ‘Understanding’ could overcome fear (of the sea, forests, ghosts and demons, even death) as the influence of poorly or erroneously understood external influences were reduced.

Focus on the empowerment of humans prompted early speculation about human nature, the ‘science of man’, and the possibility of a universal human nature. Theories were propounded that we would today speak of in terms of cognitive neuroscience, evolutionary psychology and instinctive behaviour, psychopathology, social psychology, and cultural anthropology.[8]


European Enlightenment humanists had experienced centuries of religious warfare including the Crusades, Inquisition, huge loss of life squabbling over theological interpretation. This resulted in a secular morality that protected the individual in the face of conflicts over the tribe, race, nation, and religion. It is individuals who feel pleasure and pain, not groups. Since we are capable of sympathy this can expand to include all humankind. Reason makes us realize that although our concerns are local and directed towards those close to us, there is ultimately nothing uniquely deserving about ourselves. We are forced into cosmopolitanism: to accept that we are citizens of the world.

Science creeps forward steadily by experiment and observation: this can be applied to social phenomena as well, even though set-backs are likely. This approach can be applied to governments, the law, education, markets, and international institutions. Significantly government is not a God-given right, or an opportunity for advocacy of religious, national, or racial programs. Attitudes to war were changing. Once thought of as divine struggles and/or the opportunity for glory and the demonstration of masculine heroism war was now regarded as something to be mitigated and possibly solved.[9] Immanuel Kant recommended representative republics (democracies), mutual transparency, cautions against conquest and internal interference, freedom of travel and immigration, and a federation of states to adjudicate disputes.


The fourth Enlightenment principle, ‘Progress’, is the topic of a separate article. Suffice it to say that Pinker assembles an impressive 75 graphs of statistics demonstrating empirical evidence for improvement and progress in: life expectancy, health, sustenance, wealth, equality, peace, safety, terrorism, democracy, rights, knowledge, quality of life, happiness, and existential threats.

Enlightenment thinkers had their share of foibles and faults and were products of their times: and, of course, they did not know then, what we know now. According to Pinker we now have three additional items to help us understand the human condition which were not available to Enlightenment intellectuals: entropy, evolution, and information (these are discussed elsewhere). These has been associated with the vast changes that have occurred in the human physical environment, largely as a result of the application of science and technology.

In 1800 communication was by letter and books, transport was by horse, the world population was 1 billion, and about 3% of the world population lived in cities. In 2018 communication is through an electronic world wide web and smartphones, transport is by cars, planes, and trains, the world population is 7.6 billion and more than 50% live in cities. What do you think the philosophes would have made of such a momentous socio-cultural transition?

As 21st century philosophes we need to consider the broad significance of what has happened in the last 200 years. What would we pass back to the philosophes from what we have learned in subsequent times? This, Pinker suggests, can be summarized with three foundational ideas: entropy, evolution, and information. These concepts ‘define the narrative of human progress: the tragedy we were born into, and our means of eking out a better existence‘.[10]

As discussed at length elsewhere I take exception to the the view that:

A major breakthrough of the Scientific Revolution – perhaps its bigggest breakthrough – was to refute the intuition that the universe is saturated with purpose. Which is a ‘primitive but ubiquitous understanding, everything happens for a reason . . . ‘ . . . ‘Projecting goals onto the workings of nature is an illusion’.

Here Pinker is targeting anthropomorphic agents like God, or innocent ethnic and religious minorities, say witches, who may be held responsible for social ills like famines and other natural disasters, possibly inflicted as punishments etc. But putting this wrong-headed kind of thinking aside, it is science itself that trumpets the axiom that ‘everything happens for a reason’. And where could reasons be more evident than in the functional design of nature? Reasons are a short step from purposes. Is it the purpose of our eyes to see, or is seeing the reason why we have eyes … or what? Scientists constantly and legitimately use purpose talk, not as metaphor, but as a description of what has come from within nature (not God) – (see the various articles on Purpose). The ultimate long-term human reason or purpose is to fulfil our destiny by becoming victims of entropy. But short-term we can fulfill many purposes – all of them, even our conscious choices, a consequence of scientific deterministic reasons.

‘Events are caused by conditions in the present, not goals for the future’ … ‘projecting goals onto the workings of nature is an illusion’. Here we have must confront the dilemma of free will and determinism. Goals link to ends which link to effects. If we believe in the power of scientific explanation, that consciousness is not something over and above scientifically explicable things going on in our brains. Our minds, and consciousness, are not independent of nature but a part of it. There are reasons in nature which, when they appear in the human domain we elevate, using expressions like ‘purpose’, and ‘conscious decision’. Once it is accepted that this concept applies across nature then the choice of the word ‘reason’ or ‘purpose’ does not matter. I prefer the word purpose. And confining the use of the word ‘purpose’ to human activity is yet another form of human presumption and arrogance.

What scientists need to do now is to take purpose away from God and spooky consciousness and place it where it truly resides – in nature.

Enlightenment today

Cognitive scientist and public intellectual (modern-day philosophe) Steven Pinker suggests three key ideas that have emerged in the interlude between the 18th century Enlightenment and today: entropy, evolution, and information.


Entropy, the Second Law of Thermodynamics (which matured into its modern form in about 1880) is the universal tendency to randomicity and disorder – to loss of structure. Organic systems have the ability to absorb energy to briefly maintain their structural order. For Pinker, from a detached viewpoint the ultimate purpose of life, mind, and human striving is ‘to deploy energy and knowledge to fight back the tise of entropy and carve out refuges of beneficial order‘. Our world is not chaotic, random, and featureless – it has clouds, mountains, trees etc. These are temporary orderly configurations of matter that have arisen under the influence of physical constants (the laws of nature) on the path to entropy following the Big Bang. We seem to be attracted to these manifestations of order, this possibly being ‘a receptiveness to the counter-entropic patterns that can spring forth from nature‘.[11] Poverty is a state of entropy that can be battled by using energy to create the structure of clothes, shelter, technology, social organization and good government. Pinker quotes Adam Smith who apparently stated that we do not need to explain poverty, what really requires explanation is wealth.

Above all, complexity and structure are difficult to build up but easy to break down. We are by nature illiterate and innumerate. Following our natural instincts and intuitions is easy, but conscious deliberation is hard. Learning the precepts of a religion – of faith – is simple, but learning science and mathematics, medicine ands law, is difficult. Stock markets tend to rise slowly and plummet quickly.


Living organisms display functional design: that is, they have functional features that increase the organism’s capacity to survive and reproduce. Since we accept that survival and reproduction are beneficial we say that these features are there ‘for a reason’ – they have a ‘purpose’. Charles Darwin in his Origin of Species (1859) showed how functional design arises mechanically in nature as a consequence of natural selection. Until this time it was assumed that the design in nature must have been put there by God the designer. Darwin removed the need for a supernatural designer but he did not remove the design itself which arose from within nature, as had been pointed out by Aristotle 2000 years before. Scientists of the Scientific Revolution, notably Francis Bacon, conflated Aristotle‘s teleology with human-like conscious intention or Godly design and therefore insisted that all teleology – all talk of purpose and design in nature, should be discarded as non-scietific. Thus Pinker, with many scientists today, still reject Aristotelian teleology as implying God or mysterious forces operating in nature. But it is clear from Aristotle‘s writings that he had no such intentions. Further, since there are clearly ‘reasons’ (within nature) for functional design, biologists correctly continue to use ‘for’ and ‘purpose’ talk – not as an heuristic or convenient mode of communication, but because Aristotelian teleology is a product of nature, not the human mind. The attack on teleology was an intellectual anti-religious over-reaction of the Renaissance that has, unfortunately, persisted to the present day (see the four articles on ‘purpose’).


Organic structure is only maintained by the expenditure of energy. Pinker points out that the energy channeled by knowledge is the elixir that staves off entropy. Plants obtain this energy directly from the sun using photosynthesis while animals obtain it either from plants or by eating other animals. Stored energy for human use arrived with the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution which led to cities and hierarchical societies, followed later by the energy of fossil fuels that charged the Industrial Revolution.

Information is an ingredient of orderly, structured systems – a pattern that correlates with something in the world (or our minds). Orderliness is a reduction in (or resistance to) entropy. A phrase of music, a manifesto, a word, a picture of a cat. The factors that controls (?describes correlates with) the formation of structure we describe as information. The order of the universe contains information of this kind.

Examples of information would be: the genetic history of an organism as manifested as the base sequences of its genome; accumulated experience present in an organism’s nervous system as it lives its life, a practical example being ‘sound’, as interpreted by the brain, from vibrating airwaves, diffusion of ions, and firing of neurons. [12]

Pinker suggests that ‘The principles of information, computation, and control bridge the chasm between the physical world of cause and effect and the mental world of knowledge, intelligence, and purpose‘.[13] We are inclined to assume that there is a world of difference between our conscious choice of the way we will drive home and the unconscious choice made by the navigator on our smartphone. But how are we to explain consciousness beyond neural activity of some kind? Human intelligence is a specialized cognitive niche that can manipulate abstract models of the world, cooperate with other human beings, and language that allowed the pooling of experience and development of cultural norms.

Resistance to modern secular humanism

Pinker’s list of the key values of science, reason, and humanism might seem unnecessary- sufficiently obvious as to warrant the title ‘straw man’. Who would resist such seemingly obvious goals?

But opposing forces there are. These include: modern tribalism that opposes any form of cosmopolitanism; authoritarianism rather than democracy; a popular contempt for experts rather than respect for knowledge; the trend towards a nostalgic ‘looking back’ rather than a hopeful and constructive vision for the future.

Media Gallery

The Enlightenment: Crash Course European History

CrashCourse – 2019 – 16:22

Heroes of the Enlightenment

DreamState WG -2016 – 52:05


First published on the internet – 1 March 2019
. . .  revised 7 October 2020

Eminent guests in the salon of Marie Thérèse Rodet Geoffrin

This 1812 painting by Anicet Lemonnier (1743-1824) is now in the Chateaux de Malmaison

Back row, left to right: Jean-Baptiste-Louis Gresset, Pierre de Marivaux, Jean-François Marmontel, Joseph-Marie Vien, Antoine Léonard Thomas, Charles Marie de La Condamine, Guillaume Thomas François Raynal, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Jean-Philippe Rameau, La Clairon, Charles-Jean-François Hénault, Étienne François, duc de Choiseul, a bust of Voltaire, Charles-Augustin de Ferriol d’Argental, Jean François de Saint-Lambert, Edmé Bouchardon, Jacques-Germain Soufflot, Jean-Baptiste Bourguignon d’Anville, Anne Claude de Caylus, Fortunato Felice, François Quesnay, Denis Diderot, Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, Baron de Laune, Chrétien Guillaume de Lamoignon de Malesherbes, Armand de Vignerot du Plessis, Pierre Louis Maupertuis, Jean-Jacques Dortous de Mairan, Henri François d’Aguesseau, Alexis Clairaut

Front row, right to left: Montesquieu, Sophie d’Houdetot, Claude Joseph Vernet, Bernard Le Bouyer de Fontenelle, Marie-Thérèse Rodet Geoffrin, Louis François, Prince of Conti, Duchesse d’Anville, Philippe Jules François Mancini, François-Joachim de Pierre de Bernis, Claude Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon, Alexis Piron, Charles Pinot Duclos, Claude-Adrien Helvétius, Charles-André van Loo, Jean le Rond d’Alembert, Lekain at the desk reading aloud, Jeanne Julie Éléonore de Lespinasse, Anne-Marie du Boccage, René Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur, Françoise de Graffigny, Étienne Bonnot de Condillac, Bernard de Jussieu, Louis-Jean-Marie Daubenton, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Gathering of distinguished guests in the drawing-room of French hostess Marie-Thérèse Rodet Geoffrin , by The picture shows a gathering of distinguished guests in the drawing-room of French hostess Marie-Thérèse Rodet Geoffrin (1699-1777) who is seated on the right. There is a bust of Voltaire in the background.
Print Friendly, PDF & Email