CRF Blog

New Republic: What do we owe the Enlightenment?

by Bill Hayes

In What do we owe the Enlightenment? for the New Republic, Jacob Soll reviews The Enlightenment: History of an Idea by Vincenzo Ferrone.

Ferrone’s model of an Enlightenment tradition comes directly from Voltaire. He was one of the first to recognize the Enlightenment as a distinct movement; he used the word lumières to describe philosophers seeking progress through criticism, and claimed that the new gens de lettres, or “men of letters,” were super-scholars who, as living encyclopedias, would master the arts, sciences, and, above all, literature. These enlightened ones had a primarily social function: to critique in the name of progress. Kant summed up Voltaire’s idea best when he said: “Our age is the age of criticism to which all must be subjected.” The ultimate goal of this critical movement was to create reason for the betterment of society, and this reason would have to stand the “test of free and public examination,” Kant said.

At least on the level of creating a critical tradition, the Enlightenment project worked. Books, pamphlets, journals, and papers proliferated during the eighteenth century, and public debate, in turn, created public opinion that began to stand as a counterauthority to kings, religious leaders, and states. The great philosophers who followed Voltaire and Kant — Hegel and Nietzsche in particular — might have questioned secularism, the power of science, and human agency, but they always defended an ideal of criticism. [more]

For a related free classroom lesson, see “Tolerance: Voltaire and the Spirit of the Enlightenment.” It is available from  CRF’s Bill of Rights in Action Archive. It is currently only in PDF and you will have to register (if you haven’t already), which is free.