The Enlightenment and Society

THE ENLIGHTENMENT AND SOCIETY

The Moral Order, Part Three

The question faced by the Enlightenment was how to create new world without God? What would be the basis of this new life? Spirituality was replaced with technology; religious laws were replaced by rational virtues, ethics, and morality.“Bon sens”, extolled by René Descartes, could be determined by logical deduction, based upon observation of human psychology and conduct. The Enlightenment sought empirical and pragmatic foundations for society for the material era. The expectation was that peace and harmony would come into being through the minimum use of laws, instead of the heavy-handed tyranny of kings. In the past, the law was the will of the sovereign, in an Age of Reason, law was based upon the will of the people who voluntarily came together under the light hand of the state. The Enlightenment was characterized by this strong sense of humanity and by a belief that all humans are basically good and are deserving of basic rights and freedoms. Humans could come together and rule themselves according to rational principles that all can come to know and live by.

These challenges to the authority of religion and of kings and of a sort of “natural” social contract as a new form of governance were directly related to the rise of nationhood. As early as 1534, Henry VII broke the power of the Catholic Church in England by the Act of Supremacy and made himself the head of the Church of England. Without refuting religion, the King asserted the primacy of a nation to order its own affairs, even to found a new religion under the auspices of the State, not a universal (catholic) religion. The rising tide of the Protestant Reformation allowed European princes to likewise breakaway from the interference of the Vatican and to assert themselves as independent principalities, shaking off the power of a single religion. From the time that MartinLuther nailed his 95 Theses in 1517 to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, the novel idea that the individual human could act independently in his or her own spiritual matters spread quickly. The established Church has discredited itself and was weakened by its own malpractices and internal weaknesses and indulgences. The Protestant idea that each person has a direct line to God and therefore could worship as s/he pleased led to not only a split between the Catholics and the Protestants but also among the Protestants themselves.

The result was the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48), which ended in 1648. In no small part the long period of warfare about religious doctrines was a worldly power struggle for nationhood. When the exhausted combatants finally laid down their arms and agreed to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Newly independent nations were established, Austria and the Netherlands, and the power of the Roman Catholic Church was broken, no longer universal. After three decades of conflict, it was clear that religious ideology could never be allowed to disrupt the order of society and the power of religion as a dominant force was at an end. It is perhaps no coincidence that René Descartes who died in 1650 decided that the only point of certainty was the self: “I think, therefore I am.” But Descartes was concerned as to the ground of his thinking—how did he know he wasn’t hallucinating or deluded? For a sure and certain answer, he reverted to his faith in God, that God would be the guarantor of the validity of his thinking. In his appeal to God, Decartes would be the last of his kind. Indeed, one hundred years later, Diderot would assert that “…the philosopher teaches the priest what the gods are.”

The philosophers substituted “natural religion,” called Deism, a kind of watered-down theism and reconstructed religion in line with modern science standing in for the mysticism of traditional “superstition.” The abolition of God was also the abolition of social and political hierarchies, and the social theory of the Enlightenment stressed the discussion of social problems from the standpoint of the individual–the “true person,” not from the perspective of the state, which was only an artificial machine. The philosophes were the intellectual (and spiritual) leaders of Europe. Natural Law was at the center of Enlightenment thinking and would be the instrument that severed morality from religion and would establish new bases for morality and ethics. If God was to be found anywhere, it was in “natural law.” Philosophers thought deductively about the origins of human society. In Two Treatises on Government, 1680-90, John Locke projected his mind back in time and imagined a race of humans who were free and equal, their “natural” state” or State of Nature.” The question that bothered Locke was why people had given up their freedom to come together into society, which so clearly curtailed their natural freedoms. He reasoned that the state was the entity that gave surety to these rights and used the words “social compact” or agreement that people made with their government to come together under “natural law.” What made Locke so attractive to the budding American revolutionaries was his stress on the individual making a free decision to live within a state that, in turn, had the obligation to protect “natural rights.”

In his book, The Social Contract, 1762, Jean-Jacques Rousseau also went back to nature and considered the question of why humans would give up their natural freedoms enjoyed in their natural state. His philosophical deductions led him to also consider the consequences of their decision to create a “Social Contract.” Discourse on the Origin and Foundation of Inequality Among Mankind, 1754, asserted that the original human equality had ended due to the creation of private property. The first person, who asserted “this is mine” ended the natural paradise of equality, according to Rousseau, who established the idea that private property was to the root of the Fall of Humanity. The origin of the Fall would be reiterated by Friedrich Engels in 1884, and, indeed, Rousseau made a suggestion that the problem of inequality of wealth could be remedied by the redistribution of wealth. Once again, a logical outcome of an inquiry led to an uncomfortable conclusion and even today the idea of “redistribution” is controversial in some quarters.

But beyond equalizing wealth, there is a general will of the people, which ultimately overrules private interests. In other words, presumably, in some future time, the will of the people will demand equality. On one hand, we can see that this sequence of event has played itself out in the West through the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Movement, suggesting, on the other hand, that “redistribution” moves in unexpected ways. Those formally oppressed or locked out of a system push their way in, demanding their inalienable rights. In so doing, they eventually gain access to economic and social opportunities and wealth is, if not redistributed, spread out among more people. Clearly, this process is logical and reasonable. Once the mere idea of being equal is introduced–a major achievement of the Enlightenment–all people want to be equal. It is only natural. Equality is natural law and natural law is based upon reason. Rousseau understood the state as a function of the will of the people who look to the state to preserve and respect their “inalienable rights.” Even as Rousseau was writing, Adam Smith was rethinking the role of government, recasting the activities of society, not in terms of “natural rights,” but in terms of the new economic realities of mercantile society.

coffee1668_2171668b

An eighteenth century coffee house

In 1776, Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, proposed that the sole purpose of a state was not to protect the rights of citizens but to safeguard the protect economic activities and property. Like Locke and Rousseau, Smith was being perfectly rational. Starting with a founding assumption that wealth was served the greater good, he gave priority to commerce, assuming that the wealthier the population, the wealthier the nation. In separating the state from the economy and giving the economy free rein so that the “invisible hand” could enrich everyone, Smith also released the state from its moral obligation to protect people and gave voice to a new kind of political economy based upon the interest of capitalism. Writing in Glasgow, one of the largest slave ports in Europe, Smith produced ideas that were eminently reasonable and rational, but his writings also give pride of place to impersonal forces—science, technology, and industry—that will change the face of Western society and reorder how people would interact with one another. Smith himself was sympathetic to the plight of the poor and concerned over how the factory system dehumanized people but the logic of the “invisible hand” of capitalism gave rise to a ruthless exploitation of human capital in the name of economic prosperity of the nation. As sad as slavery might be, as exploitive as lower class labor could be, the profits were too sweet to allow for moral judgments to intervene with the joy of making money.

Also read: “What is Modern?” and “The Enlightenment: Introduction” and “The Enlightenment and Reason” and “The Enlightenment and the Art Public” and “The Political Revolution in America” and “The Enlightenment and Artistic Styles”

Also listen to: “What is Modern?”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.
[email protected]

Podcast Episode 2: Neoclassicism

THE RISE OF NEOCLASSICISM

The origins of Neoclassicism in art, architecture and interior décor was the excavation of long buried Roman cities, Pompeii and Herculaneum in the mid-eighteenth century. A popular correction of the late Baroque style and the ornamental Rococo style, Neoclassicism became an international style. As the name indicates, this “new” “classicism” was based upon the art of the early Roman empire. Classical art had long been available but what was notable about this particular iteration of classicism is the discovery of painting—murals on the walls—in the resort towns of Herculaneum and Pompeii. Authentic classical painting now joined authentic classical sculpture as an inspiration for an important shift in European academic styles.

For the second half of the eighteenth century, the Neoclassical reform of Baroque art brought a new seriousness to academic art and impacted architectural styles, particularly in England. Despite its antique sources, this style proved to be surprisingly versatile, suiting the needs of English aristocracy and American revolutionaries and French aristocracy and French revolutionaries. An imperial style from the past was appropriated for a variety of purposes from political messages to decorative needs.

 

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.
[email protected]

Important Announcement

The Podcasts from this Website

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available through iTunes and can be listened to on your iPad or iPhone.

Remember, you must download the free iBooks app onto your iPad or iPhone.

Art History Unstuffed: The Podcasts

Also the complete

Art History Timeline Videos

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available and can be viewed on You Tube

This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

this link: Art History Timeline

 

The Enlightenment and Reason

THE ENLIGHTENMENT

AGE OF REASON, PART TWO

The Enlightenment is also referred to as The Age of Reason, a time period that stems from the awakening of European interest in science in the seventeenth century and ends with the unreason of the French Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century. The importance of individual scientists, such as Copernicus and Galileo and Newton, who sought to explain the heavens, not in terms of God but in terms of mechanics, and the significance of the voyages of world explorers, such as Christopher Columbus and Captain Cook, indicated a cultural shift away from spiritual interests and toward worldly interests and a desire to expand knowledge. The need for worldly answers to cosmic questions overtook the spiritual dogmas, and the desire to search the real world for commercial purposes proved to be more compelling than religious revelations. Certainly it needs to be pointed out that the Enlightenment followed a long period–centuries in fact–of religious wars, from the Crusades to the struggle between Christian sects in Europe. Unlike Asia or the Middle East, Europe had been torn apart by these religious disputes over fairly minor issues of doctrine and the trauma of these struggles cannot be underestimated in the revulsion against spiritual dogma.

Over time, it became impossible for educated persons to accept theological limitations of Church dogma and more difficult to explain the world as “God’s will,” while remaining faithful to the idea of a deity. Somehow, religion and science had to be reconciled. Although it does not acknowledge itself as a substitute belief system, philosophy would take the place of established religion as a way to explain the world, and, by the Eighteenth Century, philosophy was tasked with the problem of establishing a new system of ontology (a theory of being) and epistemology (the ground of knowledge) to replace God’s plan for the world. Faced with the apparently irrefutable findings of scientific discoveries, philosophers developed a contempt for religion and welcomed the new light into a world long shrouded in the darkness of misguided belief in a Deity. As Voltaire (1694-1778) remarked, “Of all religions, the Christian should of course inspire the most tolerance, but until now Christians have been the most intolerant of all men.”

François-Marie Arouet known as “Voltaire”

If God, Voltaire declared, did not exist, we, the people, would have found it necessary to invent a supreme being. Voltaire’s cynical statement comes very close to the Modernist concept that all aspects of culture are constructed. Most of the Enlightenment philosophers and political thinkers were Deists in that they believed in a God but rejected organized religion as superstition. Severing themselves from the comforts of certainty that religion brings caused pain. “I grieve,” Denis Diderot (1713-1784) mourned, “that I can no longer believe in God.” The philosophers were at the beginning of a process that moved Western civilizations away from the received wisdom of religion to the relativism of philosophical systems. Because the Enlightenment was based upon the scientific model, there were earthly answers for everything. One conceived of a hypothesis and then tested the theory by employing empirical methods. Reflecting the coming of machines and modern technology, the eighteenth century universe was conceived of as, not a heavenly realm, but a simple clock, a logical and rational mechanism, neutral but dedicated to its purpose. Human beings were mere cogs in this vast system, and insignificant cogs at that, in this vast impersonal, soulless, uncaring machine without a god to appeal to.

The notion of the universe as a gigantic machine reflected the new concern with the new technologies that were connected to the Industrial Revolution. Human beings, who had invented this revolutionary machines increasing found in factories, not God, were in the center of this new universe. The philosophers were confident that God’s mercy, capricious as it was, could be replaced by human reason and rationality. The Enlightenment, in its own way, was based upon a faith, every bit as powerful as the Christian system that was being phased out. The “faith” of the philosophers was based in human Reason. “Dare to reason…Have the courage to use your own minds…is the motto of the Enlightenment,” Emmanuel Kant (1724-1804) declared in 1784 in response to a question asked by a Russian official Johann Friedrich Zöllner. The question was circulated to European philosophers who answered the famous question in the Berlinische Monatsschrift. There were two elements of Reason. First, the Enlightenment proposed a thinking individual self-actualized human being, existing independently of faith and powered, as it were, by his and her own intellectual powers. Second, Reason was the basis of science: one made logical deductions and accepted the inevitable conclusion. If the universe was rational, a machine, then society could also be rational and human beings could come to logical and orderly decisions on their own by reasoning like scientists. So began centuries of assumptions based upon what was really myth–the people could be rational.

Philosophers assumed that there was a rational order of eternal truths and philosophy in the Age of Reason and would seek to ground their deductions in universality and transcendence. They also assumed that human beings were perfectly able of recognizing the validity of these truths and that people would act according to these obvious truths. Reason was a certain kind of thinking based upon a logical progression from hypothesis to conclusion. It was “self-evident,” a favorite term of the philosophers, that humans would not only accept truths derived from the mechanism of Reason but would also act according to these truths in their everyday lives. The idea that people might act irrationally or counter to their best interests or that they might oppose “self-evident” truths was not an option. The Enlightenment philosophers, even those who owned slaves, such as Thomas Jefferson, never questioned the powers of Reason, even when (self)aware of the contradictions embedded in their thinking. Kant brushed aside any claims of women and non-white, non-Europeans despite claims of universality in his Critiques. For Jefferson and Kant, for example, rational thinking led inextricably to the humanity of slaves and of women but accepting such conclusions, much less to act upon the “natural rights” of these humans, would lead to an upset of the order to things.” We see the same lacunae in the minds of many of the Enlightenment thinkers. In 1776 Adam Smith wrote An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, which, for European nations, was built on the slave trade, with as little discussion of the inhumanity of human trafficking as possible.

The philosophically blind eyes that were turned away from the plight of the oppressed reveal in the silences or in the intellectual elisions the concealed political texts embedded in supposedly abstract philosophy concerned with universal laws. In fact the function of Reason in the Enlightenment was to critique, to examine existing belief systems and institutions and to analyze them through rational thinking and logic or, in other words, to deconstruct the current loci of power. Indeed as Jean de Rond d’Alembert (17171-1783) noted in 1753 An Essay upon the Alliance betwixt Learned Men, and the Great that the intellectuals, the gens de lettres, of Europe lived and wrote in repressive regimes that were at odds with the very treatises being penned on individual freedom and natural rights. Not only were their ideas at variance with their rulers, these philosophers, presumably autonomous humans, had no power to change their contradictory conditions. Indeed d’Alembert, mathematician and editor of Diderot’s Encyclopédia, challenged his fellow intellectuals who quarreled among themselves and slavishly sought the favor of les grands, the aristocrats. Unfortunately, for many of these philosophes, it was the patronage of those in power that supported the radical writings of the house intellectuals. As Dana Goodman pointed out in The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment (1994), the ideal of the “republic” of which the philosophers dreamed was an unbearable contradiction to the monarchies in which they lived. These kinds of unresolvable differences brought to light through critique would result in revolutions.

Secular intellectuals believed that the time of Christianity had come and gone and that religion would be replaced by scientific, social and economic Progress. Progress, social, political, scientific, was the logical outcome of the forces of Reason. Progress, the philosophers and scientists assumed, had been impossible when timeless spiritual values dominated society. The notion of “timeless” surely prevented progressing to new ideas and novel concepts, considered unnecessary if all one needed was spiritual belief in powers beyond this world. From the seventeenth century, progress was the inevitable product of unstoppable technological advances fueled by scientific discoveries and inventions. The Age of Reason was grounded in an optimism that Progress would improve humanity, which now cleansed of superstition, could rise as rational and reasonable human beings elevated by scientific practices. Rational thinking could create a regularized system for living, a system that was logical and produced a new enlightened social order that would be self-regulated. Rather than explained as a sudden strike from an angry God, natural events were understood as having a scientific explanation. A flood was too much rain, not a punishment from God. Order or disorder came from laws that arose from Nature, not God. These laws were inevitable and irrefutable, or “self-evident” because they were a priori and logical, that is pre-existing human contemplation. Swiss philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) based his ideas about the human condition upon a Natural Law that could be utilized to resolve social conflicts. Humans could come together as “natural” equals and freely negotiate a Social Contract of mutual benefit. In The Social Contract of 1762 he wrote,

Man was born free, but everywhere he is in chains. This man believes that he is the master of others, and still he is more of a slave than they are. How did that transformation take place? I don’t know. How may the restraints on man become legitimate? I do believe I can answer that question..This question might be rephrased: “How is a method of associating to be found which will defend and protect-using the power of all-the person and property of each member and still enable each member of the group to obey only himself and to remain as free as before?” This is the fundamental problem; the social contract offers a solution to it.

The Social Contract is the Age of Reason’s answer to its critique of the existing systems. An intellectual critique of the kind championed by Diderot, the editor of the twelve volume Encyclopédia, has a certain transcendence in that within salons and coffee houses and universities a social and political critique is disembodied from the real world. And yet these Enlightenment critiques that placed reason before religion and the social contract above authoritarianism spread beyond the philosophical confines and became part of the body politic of the Western world, with long-term consequences.

Also read: “What is Modern?” and “The Enlightenment: Introduction” and “The Enlightenment and Society” and “The Enlightenment and the Art Public” and “The Political Revolution in America” and “The Enlightenment and Artistic Styles”

Also listen to: “What is Modern?”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.
[email protected]

The Enlightenment: Introduction

INTRODUCTION TO THE ENLIGHTENMENT

A Question of Philosophy

Like any great cultural change, the Enlightenment was long in gestation, but its range was short. The Enlightenment, a revolution in philosophy, was strictly a Western phenomenon, linked to Modernism in the sense that certain “modern” social and economic conditions propelled a new form of thinking. When these modern conditions did not exist, the Enlightenment or something like it did not emerge, simply because there was no need for a new epistemology. There was no Enlightenment in Africa, Asia or India, meaning that any discussion of the Enlightenment must acknowledge and deal with its limitations. For example, although the Enlightenment was confined to Europe and America, the philosophical systems it engendered were not extended to either women or people of color. By the eighteenth century, a critical mass of philosophical thinking and social custom had emerged, reflecting a newly capitalistic form of exchange and the consequent rise of a middle class. The Enlightenment can be understood precisely in terms of its entomology–that which sheds light: light into the darkness of religious “superstition,” a word that very precisely targeted religious thinking dependent upon the will of God. The principal conflict of the Enlightenment was the contest between established religious beliefs and a growing body of scientific knowledge that grounded knowledge, not in the mind of God, but in an exercise of empirical evidence. Upon this dialectic between faith and science, struggles for social, political, and economic parity would be launched and would last to this very day. The Enlightenment as a very particular way of thinking in the West resulted in the so-called “death of God” and the rise of science.

Once the social and political links with God were broken, slowly over a century a series of dominoes tumbled. First, the Enlightenment established new philosophical ideas concerning the grounds of knowledge–epistemology—that is the knowledge was based upon empirical observation and provable hypotheses. Second, the new economic system, capitalism was global by the eighteenth century and created new wealth for an emergent class, constructing itself in the space in between the aristocrats who inherited their power and the lower classes who were legally powerless. It was the desire of this new class to encroach upon the powers of kings and courtiers, that new ideals, such as “liberty, equality and fraternity,” “all men are created equal,” and the “inalienable right” of the “pursuit of happiness” would emerge. What were essentially political slogans, designed to delegitimize the ruling class, became, over time, ideals which would not be forgotten, but it would take time for the Enlightenment to become more than the concepts of speculative philosophers and the cant of aspiring politicians to become a gradually unfolding reality that would impact all people, not just white males with property.

A complex phenomenon, the Enlightenment was defined by one central question: how can life be lived and understood without God? If God was “dead,” as Friedrich Nietzsche proposed a century later, then the Deity was certainly an animated corpse, going to its demise, kicking and screaming, and becoming reanimated at unpredictable intervals. The Enlightenment was confronted with Counter-Enlightenments, such as Romanticism and Catholic revivals, but politics, society and economics continued their inexorable march down the secular path..in the West. The twenty-first-century saw the rise of fundamentalism in the Muslim communities of the Middle East and Asia as a direct counter response to the invasion of modernity from the West. Over time, Christianity came to occupy a smaller place in Western culture and ceased to be the basis for society’s belief system, while thriving in certain communities in segments of Europe and America. The new century would witness the reemergence of faith-based thought, resistant to science and to empirical testing. The question for the Enlightenment today would be are these vestigial reactions or a genuine pendulum swing against three centuries of being “enlightened?”

Once religious faith had permeated Western life and the answer to all questions was “God’s will.” It was God’s will that the king ruled the realm; it was God’s will that the duke in the castle should be respected. In other words, God’s will held up and reinforced the existing power structure, a truth that did not escape the revolutionaries of both the American and French revolutions.Unquestioning belief in God was challenged by two forces that proved to be critical to Enlightenment thinking. First, was the idea of “natural rights,” that is, the notion that people were created free and equal and had, as human beings, certain rights that could not be violated. The concept of “natural rights” would be articulated by Enlightenment philosophers, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Thomas Jefferson but it dated back to the Twelfth Century and was present in a nascent form during the Medieval era. The second crucial element in creating the Enlightenment was the explosion of scientific experimentation and results, such as the revelation of Copernicus that the earth revolved a around the sun, that shattered doctrines supported by the Church, such as the earth was the center of the universe. Although there were certain scientific discoveries that particularly irked the religious authorities, such as the findings of Galileo, the combined weight of empiricism and the scientific method undermined the ability of religion to insist upon unquestioning belief, once these beliefs had been scientifically disproven. Doubt entered into society.

Western culture shifted decisively towards secular questions and secular answers. The result of secularism was a ripple effect that questioned the validity of the “divine right to rule,” creating a question of how could society be governed without God. It was not just a question of government in the sense of whether or not to continue with Kings and Emperors but government in the sense of self-governance. Without religious edicts telling people what to do, what kind of system would take the place of God’s law? Just as scientists rewrote the knowledge of the universe, philosophers sought a new epistemology or ground for social relations. But even more urgent was the problem of knowledge. Without God, what was knowable and how? A new epistemology of knowledge had to be established. The profound secularization that is the Enlightenment has installed suspicion of authority, tradition, and divine right to rule in the West. Using the deductive and logical practices of science, rational thinking, and the powers of human reason, the Enlightenment set out to discover universal laws, to take the place of God. To the extent it was successful, the Enlightenment ended eighteen hundred years of spiritualized thinking. As Thomas Carlyle said, “Philosophers strove to sink the supernatural to the natural.” The concepts of “Nature” and “Natural Law” and “Natural Rights” and “Progress” could be used as powerful weapons against traditional powers that once ruled by “divine right.” The concept of “nature” or the “natural” could be used as powerful weapons to deny participation and power to those declared to be outside the confines of progress, such as women and people of color who were tied to Nature and therefore were beyond the forces of History and thus, the democratic fruits of the new social system.

Emmanuel Kant once stated, “If someone asks are we living in an Enlightened Age today? The answer would be, ‘No,’ but we are living in an age of Enlightenment.” The opening lines to his 1784 essay “What is Enlightenment were,

Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. Sapere Aude! [dare to know] “Have courage to use your own understanding!”–that is the motto of enlightenment.

Although the Enlightenment could not guarantee fully enlightened thinking, but the alternative to the Enlightenment, with all of its a prorias was, as David Hume, remarked, “..stupidity, Christianity, and ignorance.” The men who made the new laws were bold, brave and even arrogant, quite capable of using “enlightened” modes of thinking to justify slavery and imperialism, all in the name of European superiority. Indeed in 1784 Moses Mendelsshon remarked in “On the Enlightening Mind,”

Where the enlightening and cultivation of mankind advance with equal pace, they become to each other the best security against corruption, and that civilization of any nation, which, according to the above definitions, consists of cultivation and an enlightened state of the public mind, is therefore the least liable to corruption. A civilized nation has no other internal danger to fear than the excess of its national happiness, which, like the most perfect health of the human body, may be called either in itself a disease, or at least a passage to it. A nation which has through civilization attained the highest pinnacle of national happiness, is for that very reason in danger of falling; whereas it cannot rise higher: but this would lead us too far from the question before us.

In his recent 2010 book, The Enlightenment: A Geneaology, the historian Dan Edelstein, suggested that the modern Enlightenment, apart from its early roots in the writings of English or Dutch philosophers, really began with the French philosophes of the seventeenth and eighteenth century. He credited this century of philosophers as creating not so much an epistemology as a compelling narrative of Enlightenment which explained the ideas of Reason and Natural Rights that would change the culture. It should be noted that there is a reason why the Enlightenment is as Charles W. J. Withers asserted that the philosophical revolution had a particular geographic location: Europe and its tributaries. In his 2007 book Placing the Enlightenment: Thinking Geographically About the Age of Reason, Withers stated that the “where” of the Enlightenment was as important as the “what?”

coffee1668_2171668b

17th century London Coffee House

Although international in scope, the ideas of the Enlightenment circulated among the “spaces,” as Withers pointed out, of the coffee houses and salons and drawing rooms of European cities, where people spoke, read and wrote in a limited number of languages–German, French, English and Dutch, that could be translated and circulated within a relatively limited sphere. The geography of the Enlightenment mirrored the geography of the Industrial Revolution and of Imperialism and of urban centers. This demarcated geography put artists, educated young men drawn to cities to study and to make their mark, in the center of the change. The new philosophical system proposed a new society and a new form of knowledge that would have profound impact upon art and artists, creating new ways of defining both art and artist and developing an entirely new branch of philosophy called “aesthetics.” The idea of “artistic freedom” is an outgrowth of the Enlightenment introduction of the concept of the “individual.” The idea of the defiant artist, challenging the establishment and shocking the conservative public is an Enlightenment concept of rethinking received wisdom.

Also read: “What is Modern?” and “The Enlightenment and Reason” and “The Enlightenment and Society” and “The Enlightenment and the Art Public” and “The Political Revolution in America” and “The Enlightenment and Artistic Styles”

Also listen to: “What is Modern?”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.
[email protected]

Podcast Episode 1: What is “Modern?”

DEFINING MODERN

“Modern” is a Western and European concept and is, in effect, Eurocentric, impacting a limited part of the world. But these changes were profound and shaped the rest of the globe. Driven by technological innovations, the economy evolved from a agricultural feudal structure into a free-wheeling laisse-faire capitalism that altered the social system and rewrote philosophy. The political consequences would be profound.

What were the social, political, economic and philosophical conditions that made the “Modern” possible? The podcast discusses the four revolutions of the eighteenth century that brought about unprecedented change to the Western world: the Industrial Revolution, the Scientific Revolution, the Social Revolution, the Political Revolution. Each revolution impacted the artists and redesigned the world of art making, resulting in a kind of art called “modern.” The result was Modern Art and the Modern Artist.

Also read: “What is Modern?” and “The Enlightenment: Introduction” and “The Enlightenment and Reason” and “The Enlightenment and Society” and “The Enlightenment and the Art Public” and “The Political Revolution in America” and “The Enlightenment and Artistic Styles”

 

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.
[email protected]

Important Announcement

The Podcasts from this Website

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available through iTunes and can be listened to on your iPad or iPhone

Remember, you must download the free iBooks app onto your iPad or iPhone.

Art History Unstuffed: The Podcasts

And the complete

Art History Timeline Videos

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available and can be viewed on You Tube

This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images.

The entire Timeline can be accessed through

this link: Art History Timeline

What is “Modern?”

DEFINING MODERN

“Modern” is essentially a Western concept, based upon cultural forces specific to European countries and transplanted to their colonies. A small and compact continent, Europe was a site of circulation for new ideas and new ways of living in the world. Other continents, such as Asia and Africa, were isolated and self-sufficient and would not be touched by European ideas and values until the age of imperialism. The Middle East, equally self-sufficient, chose, according the Princeton professor, specializing in the Middle East, Bernard Lewis, to sidestep, not so much modern life, but the implications of modernism. If one defines “modern” as a European style passage through the philosophical change called The Enlightenment, then much of the globe missed the Modern in terms of a social and cultural change and most of the world was introduced to modernity through modern technology, usually that of warfare.

The characteristics or events usually associated with the “modern” were invented in Europe, developed in Europe, and played out to their logical (and often tragic ends) in Europe. When did “modern life” begin? The answer depends upon one’s historical perspective. Some would argue that modern life, the life we in the West have inherited, can be traced back to the Renaissance period in Europe. For the purposes of this website, it is more efficient to move beyond the nascent beginnings of the middle class and capitalism and international trade to the outcome of these tendencies, the most significant of which, it might be argued, being humanism. For the modern age, the human being is firmly situated at the center of the universe existing and self-actualizing as a unique individual.

Even though modernity is a European invention, aspects of the modern or of modern life developed and evolved differently depending upon the nation. England was “modern” well before Germany. France would be more modern than Russia, but parts of both countries were still centuries behind the urban centers. And then there was the special case of North America. Both as a British colony and as an independent nation, America played a significant role in developing the modern way of life, but the American “modern” would be significantly different from the European “modern.” Although Canada remained a British colony, like America, this huge territory was so far away from the Mother country that it, too, would develop a distinct modern culture that was uniquely “American” in the broad continental sense of the word.

Wherever the birth of the modern begins, formation of this new way of life, this unprecedented way of thinking, this experimental mode of governing was slow in growing, taking at least two centuries from the beginnings of empirical science in the seventeenth century to the Revolutions of the late eighteenth century. Most discussions of the Modern can be divided into distinct parts, all of which are interlocked: economic, social, political, and cultural. Because of these interconnections, there can no “first,” there is no “beginning,” in absolute terms. Different aspects moved at varying times and at diverse paces. For convenience sake, it can be stated that the Seventeenth Century saw a significant shift away from God and a spiritual perspective on the world and towards scientific discovery and experimentation based upon the real world. The trend to empirical observation and material research not only expanded the discourse of knowledge based upon observable facts but also threatened the role of religion in society. By the Eighteenth Century, the culture was more secular than spiritual and a new breed of people, called “new men” were able to build upon the scientific bases to develop a more rational means of production that evolved into industrialization and mass production.

These “new men” were an ever-growing group of professionals, doctors, lawyers, financiers, and business owners who were middle class and ambitious. They financed, built and serviced the Industrial Revolution, supported on the backs of the lower classes. Women formed a support system, either at home or in the fields or in the factory and were denied the benefits of the modern as were the lower classes. Human labor was needed for industrialized modes of productions, and people, both proletariat and peasant, began to drift away from traditional artisan occupations and rural employments and towards factory work. Mass manufacture and trade encouraged the increase in the size of cities, and by the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, London was the largest city in Europe. The result of what today is understood to be global capitalism, based on monetary investment, where wealth is founded in an abstraction called money instead of land is a new class of individuals, the middle class. Flush with money from manufacturing and business and a seemingly endless supply of capital, the bourgeoisie aspired to political power.

The-Adams-Factory-Greengates.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century it was clear that the “modern” was an urban phenomenon in the sense that “modernity” could be lived in the cities of Europe. Urbanism and industrialism and the trend away from an agrarian society, which was ruled by the landed gentry, began in England and America. Modernity brought with it a new way of thinking and old notions of tribe and community began to erode in favor of the rights of the individual. The combination of a concentration of people in urban areas and alternatives to traditional rural and collective life styles brought pressure on the political system to grant “natural rights” to the people. The concept of a “natural” right to freedom and happiness was essentially a middle class and secular concept. Philosophically speaking, all human beings had the “natural” right to be happy, free and self-governing through mutual consent. “Natural rights” for all people was not a popular idea with the ruling classes and, for all the idealistic writings, these “rights” were limited to those who were white, male and owned property.

It is important to understand the need for the middle class and the intellectuals among it, to re-fabricate society along secular lines. The ruling classes had ruled thanks to the will of God and the only way to bring about change was to replace God with philosophy and to establish, through Reason, a new form of government. As opposed to the Divine Right of Kings, as sanctioned by God, people began to think of themselves as the “natural” rulers of their own society. The change in attitude by the moneyed middle class began to shift the attitude of rulers who listened to the needs of their subjects or paid the price. Monarchs should rule with the consent of the governed and had the obligation and responsibility to preside over their subjects wisely and benevolently. By the nineteenth century, the Benevolent Despot of the seventeenth century gave way to the Citizen King or Enlightened Monarch, answerable to the people. Should the ruler ignore the people, the inevitable result was uprising and revolution. Thus it was that in 1776, Thomas Jefferson (and his editors) wrote,

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed..

And in a single inelegant sentence, written in 1789, the French revolutionaries declared,

The representatives of the French people, organized as a National Assembly, believing that the ignorance, neglect, or contempt of the rights of man are the sole cause of public calamities and of the corruption of governments, have determined to set forth in a solemn declaration the natural, unalienable, and sacred rights of man, in order that this declaration, being constantly before all the members of the Social body, shall remind them continually of their rights and duties; in order that the acts of the legislative power, as well as those of the executive power, may be compared at any moment with the objects and purposes of all political institutions and may thus be more respected, and, lastly, in order that the grievances of the citizens, based hereafter upon simple and incontestable principles, shall tend to the maintenance of the constitution and redound to the happiness of all.

The emerging “Modern” way of life would have major consequences upon Western culture. The “modern” that was emerging was unprecedented and needed to be articulated. Explaining the social and cultural and economic changes was the task of the philosophers who referred to their period as the “Enlightenment.” Enlightenment philosophy articulated a social reaction to scientific achievements, was the achievement of several societies. French and English and German philosophers all made major contributions to Enlightenment thought, the cornerstone of which was Reason. The center of philosophy was human reason, not God’s ideals. However, Reason was a philosophical, not a political stance, which in turn was not a practical method for pragmatic rule. Advances in standards of living over time had increased the population and these restive and aspiring people needed to be housed and fed and employed and, above all, controlled. Among the more important characteristics of modern life were the ways in which humans would be categorized and organized and, as Michel Foucault pointed out in Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison (1975), “disciplined.” Rendered passive and pliable through the mechanisms of a “panopticon society,” the population would be further controlled through massive campaigns of propaganda which would only grow more sophisticated with the expanding reach of technology.

As with all epochs that bring change, the alterations to European culture that determined the modern, whether industrial, political, social or philosophical, was a mixture of promise and missed opportunities. Human reason was capable of establishing a new kind of society, based upon what Jean-Jacques Rousseau called “the Social Contract,” established by the free will of humans who agreed to come together and live in democratic harmony, without Kings and without God dictating the terms. The philosophy of the Enlightenment inspired two political revolutions, one in America and one in France, and was the impetus for political change in other parts of Europe. Thus the “Modern” can be characterized by a number of “revolutions:” 1. A philosophical revolution, 2. A social revolution, 3. A political revolution, and 4. An economic revolution. But on the other hand, there was, for centuries, a refusal on the part of the leaders to extend the benefits of modernity to peoples of color, women, the lower classes–a direct refutation of all the stated goals and ideals.

The task of artists, poets, novelists, musicians, and the visual artists was to give subjective expression of the new age in new languages, which would produce new forms. The artist is the product of all of the “revolutions” of the Modern, which are discussed in other posts.

Also read: “The Enlightenment: Introduction” and “The Enlightenment and Reason” and “The Enlightenment and Society” and “The Enlightenment and the Art Public” and “The Political Revolution in America” and “The Enlightenment and Artistic Styles”

Also listen to: “What is Modern?”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]


Podcast Introduction to Soundbytes in Modern Art

EXPLAINING SOUNDBYTES IN MODERN ART

Welcome to the twenty-first century. Millennial Education for the millennial mind is offered to students of art and art history. This podcast explains how listeners can use and employ the series which presents discussions of modern art, artists and aesthetics in small size “bytes,” suited to the student in a hurry.