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The Philosophy of Illuminism


The vast intellectual movement which made its appearance at the close of the "Glorious Revolution" in England (1688) and continued until the French Revolution (1789) is called Illuminism, or the Enlightenment. The new culture, advancing under the aegis of "reason," launched itself in bitter opposition to all the past in general, and in particular to the Middle Ages. According to the Illuminati -- the exponents of the Enlightenment -- the Middle Ages, victim of philosophical and religious prejudices, had not made use of "reason," and hence they called it the age of obscurantism, or the Dark Ages. The new philosophy, on the other hand, was to introduce an age of enlightenment; it was to dispel the darkness of the past.

Opposition to the immediate past had manifested itself, though to a limited degree, during the Renaissance. Humanism had in fact minimized and ignored the Middle Ages, and had accentuated and lauded the classical world of ancient Greece and Rome; and Protestantism had extolled "primitive Christianity."

Illuminism attempted to go further still, to excel the past in its various manifestations of culture, religion and government -- for its philosophers considered the entire past to be the work of "non-reason" (Anti-historicalism). Everything appeared before the tribunal of "reason" to receive its condemnation. With all science of the past discredited, man was brought back at last to his origins, to his natural state; Illuminism then worked to formulate a new philosophical system, a rational system because it was evolved by reason purified of all prejudice. It is a system which embraces all human activity -- civil, juridical and religious (Naturalism).

Reason, as understood by the Illuminati, is the faculty which Descartes had called "good sense" and is equally distributed and common to all men. The rational order means the association of one phenomenon with another, not by reason of finality or causality but simply by virtue of mechanical necessity.

In order to understand the strange trend of the philosophy of the Enlightenment, we must bear in mind that this age is witness to the establishment of modern physics as the science of nature; and physics, as we know, is regulated by mechanical necessity. Illuminism attempted to apply the same laws and methods of mechanical necessity to every field of human knowledge. With all authority and finalism banished and mechanism proclaimed in their stead as the single rational means of solving the problems of nature, there inevitably emerges a natural right, a natural society, a natural religion. Everything consists in a succession of phenomena starting from the so-called "state of nature" and proceeding one from another by mechanical necessity. All these suppositions of naturalism were to find violent manifestation in the great upheaval of the French Revolution.


Illuminism in England was concerned with defending religion and morality against the atheistic conclusion of empiristic philosophy, particularly as expressed by Thomas Hobbes. This aim gave rise to two manifestations, namely, the moralism of Cambridge, and the "common sense" of the Scottish School (Thomas Reid). The first, starting from a world Platonically conceived, tried to defend and justify the laws of "natural religion" and "natural morality." The second held that morality finds its justification in certain primitive judgments which are intuitively known as "common sense." (Note: the use of the term "common sense" here is not the same as we use it in traditional commonsense philosophical realism.)


The Encyclopedie

In France Illuminism found such a favorable reception that it was able to develop to its ultimate consequences. The Encyclopedie was the instrument for expressing these new ideas and spreading them throughout Europe. The Encyclopedie was the work of many years; it required the collaboration of many cultured men. The authors were of varied opinions, but united by a single purpose -- to give a new political and religious doctrine to France in the name of "reason."

The fundamental characteristics of French Illuminism are: Hatred of any positive religion, and in particular of Catholicism; A tendency to endorse English Empiricism, which replaced Cartesian Rationalism - such a theory could better justify the negation of the existence of God and the mechanistic conception of the universe - thus, many French Illuminati were atheists, others Deists; The theory of the equality of all men in the state of nature - hence, the necessity of the organization of a new society in accordance with the rights of man in his natural state.

The outstanding figure of French Illuminism and European culture was Francois Marie Arouet, known to history as Voltaire (picture).

The Sensationalism of Etienne Bonnot de Condillac (1715-1780)

Representative of the philosophy of French Illuminism is the sensationalism of Condillac. He rejected the distinction Locke had made between ideas of sensation and ideas of reflection. Knowledge is nothing other than pure sensation. Intellective life is reducible to sensation. Also, emotional life is a distinct degree of sensation is so far as sensation, affecting the heart, causes emotion.

Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)

Jean Jacques Rousseau (picture) is the most original figure of French Illuminism.

The basic idea of Rousseau was that "nature is good." No progress of culture or civilization results in goodness and happiness. This can be expected only by developing nature rationally. Hence the fundamental idea of Rousseau is to restore human life: "Back to nature." He develops this concept in two masterpieces -- the Social Contract and Emile.

The "Social Contract": Men living in the state of nature were free and happy. The passage from this state to the social state was made by means of a contract with the intention of man's not being a slave but being protected as regards his right to natural freedom. Social authority is the personification of this general will.

Emile: According to the principle that nature is good, Rousseau attempts to show also that in private education man never must be a slave of prejudices. He must obey nature alone.


Germany and Italy received Illuminism from England and France, and each country developed it in accordance with its own traditional character; thus Illuminism was prevalently religious in Germany, and practical in Italy.

German Illuminism

German Illuminism was the occasion for the rise of a movement called Pietism, a reaction against Protestant dogmatism. Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1796) through numerous publications defended the position that philosophy clarifies what is obscure in religion. The most representative exponent of German Illuminism was Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781), who defended the value of history and revelation, because through them men were elevated from earlier forms of life to the higher, and are still elevated by these factors.

Giovanni Battista Vico (1668-1744)

A strong criticism of Cartesian Rationalism is found in Principi di Una Scienza Nuova by Giovanni Battista Vico (picture). The "new science" consists in knowledge of history and the rules governing the course of history. Vico tried to show that the progressive civilization of man is a fact deriving from the exercise of those rules. Vico was neither a historian nor a philosopher. What has to be remembered about his work is that he seemed to have remarkable insight concerning the primitive life of man.

The positive contributions of Illuminism to the Perennial Philosophy

In a word, none. In fact, most of Illuminism is antithetical to commonsense philosophical realism and a source of much modern confusion about philosophy.

Adapted from the book: "Modern Philosophy"

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