Written by Atle Hesmyr. Originally published in Communalism, Issue #2 (2010).
Looking back along the lines of European history, one may often come to pose the question whether the developments that have occurred involved a real and substantial progress for humanity. High cultures like ancient Athens, with their direct and participatory democracy and exquisite civic virtue among their citizens, were superseded by the brutal and restraining social structures and mentality of feudalism. Self-governed and egalitarian city confederacies have been replaced by centralized State-power and swollen, faceless bureaucracies.
In today’s situation, with tendencies such as a blossoming new religiosity, religious fundamentalism and intolerance, and global ecological systems completely out of order, it is becoming increasingly popular to question the very concept of progress itself. On the contrary, in the 18th century, where the foundations was laid down for modernity in Western history, the importance of religious tolerance and belief in progress ranked high on the agenda.
Religious Conflict and Debate
After the Thirty Years’ War came to a conclusion with The Peace of Westphalia in 1648, religious issues ceased to be a source of conflict between European states. Ever since the Reformation, the conflict between the Catholic orthodoxy and the new credo – which resulted from Martin Luther’s theses at the beginning of the 16th century – had made a strong mark on European countries, in feuds between them as well as within each respective country. Strong dissenter movements had been a rich source of social unrest and even revolution; more specifically, in England during the 1640s, the political end result was the establishment of republican rule under Oliver Cromwell’s leadership.
In England they experienced then another revolution – the socalled “Glorious Revolution” in 1688, and the year after that, drew up their “Toleration Act.” The English authorities sought to put an end to the internal social conflicts spurred by diverging religious views by proclaiming religious tolerance. Philosophers like John Locke (1632–1704) in England and Voltaire (1694–1778) in France were strong and central voices on behalf of the new attitude towards religion. They addressed the authorities’ traditional desire and ability to enforce a unitary and conformist religious creed on every citizen, and argued for individual choice along rational and conscientious lines as far as religious faith was concerned. From such a stance, the road would prove short to a materialistic and largely atheistic outlook, as John Herman Randall has shown in his The Making of the Modern Mind.
It has been contended from several sides, among them Johann Pezzl, that religious issues were a central theme in the Enlightenment era as well, equalling their position in the previous centuries. In view of this, it follows that the problems relating to tolerance and its limits, as well as censorship, would also attract veritable attention. The growing materialism, and to a large extent atheism, expounded by philosophers like La Mettrie (1709–51) and D’Holbach (1723–89) was largely posed against a religious stance, and it grew out of the preceding and parallel deistic movement, such as favoured by Newton (1642–1727) a few decades earlier. In her recent work, The Enlightenment, Dorinda Outram quoted historian Peter Gray’s view that the Enlightenment represents “the growth of modern heathendom.” During this era, though, the tendency was to relax focus on religious issues in favour of ever more rationalistic views, such as manifested in the French Encyclopédie, which was published in several volumes between 1751 and 1772.
From the religious debates the issue of tolerance raised its head, and it was – as argued by Outram – an originally religious idea. The regimes actually in power throughout Europe in the seventeenth century, with their absolutist rule, had been ideologically founded on the idea that the regent was god’s substitute on Earth, surrounded by the clergy and its religious orthodoxy. The dissenter movements, which had haunted protestant as well as Catholic countries for several centuries, had even threatened secular monarchical rule over the people. Hence the authorities persecuted these movements with every means at their disposal. In time, though, it was generally understood that these internal religious and political conflicts proved counter-productive for the respective country’s economy. Holland was an obvious example: It was probably mainly because of this internal tranquillity between citizens of various religious beliefs that the Dutch economy prospered to the extent where it became the leading one in 17th century Europe. People of diverging religious views were united in their urge for prosperity and economic progress, which resulted in a tremendous economic growth and may well have been considered as an example to follow by England when the “Toleration Act” was declared in this country in 1689.
John Locke’s Essay on Toleration was written in defence of the “Toleration Act,” and was followed up by a corresponding work written by Voltaire in France, where the principle of tolerance faired worse in the hands of the authorities. This led Voltaire as well as Montesquieu (1689–1755) to embrace the English constitution as a kind of ideal to live up to for other countries as far as government, tolerance and freedom of expression were concerned. Pierre Bayle (1647–1706) argued that there is no truth sure enough to validate persecution, and in his Philosophical Comments (1686) refused to bow to any other criteria of truth than reason. As early as the 1640’s, John Milton had argued vehemently for freedom of conscience and expression.
Philosophes and Salons
In France, Diderot (1713–84), the co-editor of the Encyclopédie, as well as Voltaire, were imprisoned several times in the infamous Bastilletower for their writings – a fact that illustrrated the far more barren soil in that country (compared to its neighbour across the channel) as far as freedom of expression was concerned. In Prussia, on the other hand, Frederick “the Great” introduced a high degree of religious tolerance, as contrasted to Maria Theresa’s Austrian/Hungarian empire. As noted by John Herman Randall, “the Enlightenment was ready to tolerate religious dissent, but not political, and to this day governments have drawn the line at this point.”1
Diderot, who in his Philosophical Thoughts (written in the 1740s) contended that scepticism was the first step towards truth, witnessed this book being burned by the authorities. In this work he also denies the revelations and the miracles of the Church, although he retains his faith in Catholicism. It was only at a later stage that he moves towards deism and materialism, and thus regards his life as the “wandering of a sceptic.”2 In the subsequent decades, Diderot argues in favour of so-called “natural religion” and contends that all of the world religions are but results of this kind of religion. He even defends materialism and atheism, which as mentioned above caused his imprisonment in 1749. In commenting on his own persecution, the government’s intolerance and censorship generally he uttered that “happy is the age when the rulers of the world acknowledge that their security consists in governing enlightened people.” Diderot attacked prejudices of every kind and regarded them as the “cause of every war.”
For his early writings, Voltaire was imprisoned for 11 months in the Bastille. Like Kant a few decades later on, he was a spokesman for free thinking and admired England for her religious freedom, tolerance of a diversity of ideas, embrace of scientific research, relative freedom of the press and the respect for literary men and women. 3 Voltaire also admired Frederick “the Great” – who was his host during longer stays in Prussia, and who himself was a literary man and wanted to be reckoned among the philosophes – for his support to art and science, his lacking servility towards religious dogmas, tolerance towards every kind of religious beliefs and so on.
In Prussia, under the regency of Frederick “the Great,” emphasis was placed upon the socially useful, that is to say a utilitarian approach to philosophy and science, in the vein that Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) was to articulate later on. Meanwhile, Roger Williams in England expressed the view that the state is a purely secular power and should have no judicial power over any religious faith or congregation. This view would become prevalent within the rationalistic clergy in the 18th century, with its focus on Christian morality as the most essential content of the biblical scripts, before this attitude again came under attack from new pietistic tendencies towards the end of the century.
In several European countries throughout the 18th century – with England as an important exception – a strict and complex censorship was upheld in regards to the written word, although the grip was loosened to a certain extent towards the end of the century. The French Encyclopédie, edited by d’Alembert (1717–83) and Diderot, was also among the victims of this censorship in its earlier publication stages. The authorities held the opinion that the public should be protected against “harmful ideas.” After 1750, authors were to a lesser and lesser degree victims of censorship, but this did not prevent Diderot and others from expressing their social, religious and political views in the form of the novel instead of the explicit non-fictional pamphlets as it is natural in the western world today. As for Diderot and his colleagues, it would seem appropriate to compare their situation with that of Russia in the 19th century, when prominent authors like Tolstoy and Turgenev, faced with the czarist censorship, found it necessary to camouflage their political and social views in novels. As an illustration of the lessening of the censorship in France towards the final decades of the 18th century, the French monarchy in 1787 issued decrees which allowed limited tolerance and somewhat better conditions for Protestants in that country.
Rousseau (1712–78) was probably the most complex and contradictory among the Enlightenment’s philosophes. He remained faithful towards his religiosity and believed in a god of love and beauty, and in his very special way paved the way for tolerance – even as he suffered condemnation in Catholic France as well as in Geneva and thus came to find himself stuck between a rock and a hard place.
The editors of the Encyclopédie cooperated closely on the publication of this work until 1759, when the whole work was examined by a nine censors’ investigation. Following this process, d’Alembert chose to resign from the struggle for freedom of expression and handed this task over to Diderot. The Encyclopédie was thoroughly marked by a sceptical, rational and scientific outlook; in its protracted publishing process Diderot befriended Rousseau for a while, but the two philosophers were to later sharply disagree, as Rousseau’s anti-civilization stance became more and more manifest. All of the aforementioned philosophers belonged to the cosmopolitan “Republic of Letters,” a kind of authors’ community across nationalities, even though Paris was their recognized centre. With his slogan “Ecrasez l’infame,” Voltaire came to defend the case against intolerance most vehemently and argued for the so-called “natural religion” and “natural morality.” His work under the same title also represented a critique of organized religion, and he contended that the religious aspects of life belonged to the private sphere. He was a strong supporter of the cause that aimed to separate church and state; hence his views are highly relevant for the ongoing debate with respect to state churches as they exist to this very day, and which still infuriates so many humanists in various countries.
One of the obvious preconditions for the debates between the Enlightenment philosophers, the clergy and the authorities in general that could reach out and spur interest among the 18th century public, was the great number of salons, or discussion forums, which were established throughout France – and particularly in Paris. It was more often than not women who took the initiatives in establishing these forums in their own homes and in this way got involved in the public debates as well. The salons hosted many philosophes, that is to say, people who met any subject with a critical and investigative mind. In fact, among these were women themselves, such as Emilie du Chatelet, who translated the works of Newton and wrote her own scientific essays. These philosophes wrote generally for the public and were, apart for the better known philosophers, also represented by a large number of lesser known writers and journalists, who benefited from the fact that an ever increasing number of the French public had become literate citizens. From the outset the salons had been directed towards the nobility, but during the process the new middle classes – including the artisans – were welcomed in their discussions. Among the social classes, the peasantry was almost singularly absent from them and thus lagged behind in the general intellectual development and continued to cling to more archaic and conservative attitudes towards social and political issues, religion and morality. However, by and large the public sphere generated by the salons was a crucial element in regards to the spread of new ideas and insights which had originated with the philosophical orientation of the 18th
century; they represented something quite innovative and modern in European society. In the Renaissance, on the other hand, various social strata were largely isolated from the learned circles of society, which consequently prohibited them from acquiring an understanding of new scientific and philosophical ideas. Many of the 18th century salons even survived after the ill-fated French Revolution, and women like Sophie Condorcet – the widow of the philosopher – maintained her salon after her husband’s death and strived to reach out to the public with the liberal and radical ideas inherited from a century of Enlightenment.
Censorship and Tolerance
Regarding the authorities’ position in the various European countries, they disagreed overwhelmingly with respect to how far tolerance should be allowed and accordingly on the extent of censorship in the public sphere. As already mentioned, England was among the most liberal countries in these respects and allowed for a high degree of freedom of expression, followed by Prussia under Frederick “the Great.” France retained a middle position and tried to balance between the respect for the new ideas of its own famous thinkers on the one hand, and its basis in orthodox Catholicism on the other. The Austrian/Hungarian empire under Maria Theresa rejected the idea of religious tolerance altogether, with this stance only moderated when Joseph II ascended the throne, giving way to carefully administered principles of tolerance. As for Scandinavia, the case is illustrated by the fate of cabinet minister Struensee, who was sentenced to death primarily for two reasons. Apart from the fact that he had insulted the monarchy by becoming the queen’s lover after the King suffered from mental illness, in 1770–72 he also introduced progressive liberal reforms and abolished censorship – reforms that affronted the ruling elites in the Danish kingdom. To what extent his execution was a result of insulting the King or due to these liberal reforms is an open question; nevertheless, it illustrates the heated debates that occurred all over Europe with respect to the Enlightenment philosophers’ struggle for freedom of speech and a liberal society. The ideas manifested in this struggle were to prove quite irresistible for governments throughout Europe in the long run, and they tried one after the other to incorporate the new ideas in their own state policies, especially in regards to the rationalization and efficiency of state administrations and economic life. In this period – in the latter half of the 18th century – they abandoned the old mercantilist economics which had dominated the scene for a century or two, and moved in a liberalistic direction, following the ideas of the so-called Physiocrats, Quesnay (1694–1774) and Turgot (1727–81), and finally the liberal economics of Adam Smith as expressed in his famous work, The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776.
Towards the end of the 18th century, women finally tended to become more visible in the public debates. In the early 1790s, Olympes de Gouges in France and Mary Wollstonecraft in England wrote their works on women’s rights, with Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women being the most well known in posterity. In this work Wollstonecraft criticizes the ill-founded exclusion of one half of humanity from political life, and contends convincingly that it is due to the uneven socialization processes of young men and women that the latter were excluded from participating – as England lacked the great extent of the salons in France – in the public sphere, which was a foundation of life as political beings. Wollstonecraft could point to the fact that women who had managed to break these barriers were not lagging behind men in any way with respect to their grasp of fundamental social, religious, scientific and political issues. She also undertook a journey to Scandinavia where she “discovered” a society where women had acquired a fairly advanced social position compared to many other European countries (including her home country). Mary Wollstonecraft lived in a reciprocally stimulating relationship with the political philosopher William Godwin, who produced such classic works in European radical thought as The Enquirer (on libertarian pedagogy) and An Enquiry concerning Political Justice. The issue of women’s role in society received – on a par with the slavery issue – wide attention during the Enlightenment debates, where, at times, philosophers such as Voltaire and Rousseau were at loggerheads. The latter represented a more traditional view of a women’s role; indeed, he expressed the view that a women’s place was in the family home – as mothers, nurses and lovers – and he strongly disliked their part in the lively discussions conducted in the salons.
G. W. F. Hegel (1770–1831) considered the Enlightenment to be a continuation of the Reformation in the 16th century, with their respective focuses on the critically minded individual and secularization processes. For Hegel – and many others – the issue at stake was how far tolerance was to be allowed: he expressed his worries that the spiritual aspects of human life would be lost in this process. Thomas Paine (1737–1809) put it this way in the introduction to his work, The Age of Reason: “Every man [has the right] to his opinion, however different that opinion might be to mine. He who denies to another this right, makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it.”5
In summary, there is every reason to contend that the issue of tolerance pervaded 18th century society at all levels, from the royalty to the artisans and peasantry – and even the slaves at the bottom of the social hierarchy. The issue forced its way into the public debates as a result of the great scientific discoveries which had been made in the previous century, and the new ideas represented an irresistible wave for the search of knowledge and insight. They were to a certain extent more powerful than a massive and armed force of rebellious social elements, and in time constituted a decisive precondition for The Great French Revolution to occur in the way that it did, with its emphasis on written constitutions side-by-side with the more traditional and violent revolutionary ingredients. Frederick Copleston described the Enlightenment’s destructive criticism of religion, and to some extent of social and political affairs, for its negative side, while the “positive aspect consisted in the attempt to understand the world and especially man himself in his psychological, moral and social life.”6
The Idea of Progress
The belief in progress was also clearly expressed among the philosophes of the Enlightenment, even to a certain extent by the most critical of civilization, Rousseau, in a certain way which will be commented on below. In general, the philosophers of the 18th century strongly believed in progress, influenced as they were by Newton and Locke and the previous century’s scientific achievements. They wanted to expand humanity’s insight from the natural sciences to men and women’s social, political and moral life, focussing on the observation of data, actual social phenomena and developmental traits. For instance, the co-editors of the Encyclopédie, d’Alembert and Diderot, held that “progress could pretty well be taken for granted, in the sense that intellectual enlightenment would bring with it social and moral progress.”7 As they appear in the Encyclopédie, the ideas of the Enlightenment are in several ways very complex and partly inconsistent. Anything else would have appeared strange when one takes into account the many diverse authors who contributed to its volumes over the years. What the majority among them held in common, however – with an obvious exception in Rousseau’s writings – was a general belief in progress, reason, science and civilization. According to Randall, reason and science paved the way for a “veritable millennium” where Locke, Helvetius (1715–1771) and Bentham prepared the ground for adherence to the idea of human perfectibility.8 It remained a strong belief that the whole of humanity would take part in the same progress.
As indicated above, the general background for this strong belief in progress was the scientific and intellectual revolution which occurred in the 17th century, when Bacon, Descartes, Bayle, Spinoza, and above all Locke and Newton paved the way for a new and modern insight into the physical laws of nature, humanity’s ability to achieve knowledge of these, as well as social and moralissues. In time, one had come to the conclusion that the conditions of humanity did improve over time – at least this was the opinion held among the so-called “moderns” in their dispute with their intellectual opponents, the “ancients,” who clung to the traditional view that the ideals of the Ancient world could never be surpassed.
After 1700, the idea of progress became more and more explicit, and the monarchies of Europe were to various degrees compelled to incorporate this view in their respective hegemony, the result being the so-called “enlightened absolutism.” Until then, state power had to a large extent been founded on the conception of the monarch as a kind of “substitute for god” on Earth, and their orientation had been of a religious and retrospective character. During the 18th century these governments were forced to acknowledge and make use of the new ideas which inundated Western society, and thinkers like Voltaire and Diderot became welcome guests at the various courts of Europe, more precisely in Prussia and Russia. It was the state that was considered as the main agent of progress, and a well ordered government was considered the best guarantee for social welfare. However, it was universalism – not nationalism – which dominated the public debates. The emphasis was put on the unity of humanity and toned down, or sought to explain away, differences between various peoples and nationalities, though in time France would prove to be the main centre of the Enlightenment.
Many people around 1700 adhered to the “moderns.” At this stage, witchcraft had faded away and everything supernatural was relegated to a diffuse role. People no longer feared god or the devil. Rather, god became a kind of “first cause” of the universe, and this universe was then discovered by reason, through the empirical research conducted in natural science. Symptomatically, the watchmaker became a symbol of the deity. Ernst Cassirer has contended that this age of knowledge, of humanity’s own activity, intellectual self-investigation and foresight, represents the proper function and task of thought. In his classical work on the Enlightenment, Cassirer contends further that “maybe no other century was so thoroughly pervaded by the idea of intellectual progress as the century of the Enlightenment.”9
However, the elevation of reason was confronted with ardent opponents during the 18th century. Edward Gibbon’s critical evaluation of Christianity in his The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, aroused strong reactions among the clergy as well as lay people. In time, counter-tendencies and movements like Methodism in England, Jansenism in the Latin countries, and pietism in Prussia and Scandinavia appeared on the social scene. Debates raged on god’s place in the world, and many people adhered to the so-called deism, according to which the deity was understood as a kind of “omnipotent intelligence,” and the primary task of science was to reveal the laws of nature created by this watchmaker-kind-of-god.
The clerical reaction, however, was not strong enough to subdue the veritable flood of philosophical and scientific literature published during the 18th century. Many people eventually adhered to the view that religion was an identified enemy of progress. This “faith in progress” was a quite innovative tendency and differed diametrically from the traditional belief in a so-called “lost, golden Age,” as for instance the Renaissance had presented the Ancient world as an ideal which, in the best of cases, only could be copied. In the midst of this struggle for progress toiled the contributors to the French Encyclopédie – and the very raison d’etre for its publication was exactly the notion of humanity’s potential for making social, economical and cultural progress. One of its editors, Diderot, was a declared enemy of tradition, and his project included visiting the artisans’ workshops and acquired first-hand insight into their production techniques, which he then scrupulously presented in his articles. Thus, according to Edouard Herriot’s biography, Diderot in this way “accumulated a profound understanding of the role of industrial technology in modern society and in a future society.”10 His co-editor followed suit to conclude that close to no-one knows the names of these benefactors of humanity (the inventors), while almost no-one is ignorant of its spoilers, i.e. the conquerors. Accordingly, the importance of the artisans’ labour in contributing to the welfare of society, in general, was aggrandized to an unprecedented extent: they were honoured in a way that goes a long way to explain their prominent position in the French revolutionary events in the early 1790’s, especially in Paris which had already been a centre of progressive, enlightened ideas about political structure and economic productivity. Diderot drew substantial inspiration from Francis Bacon’s works in the late 16th and early 17th century, and put fo ward a kind of premature Taylorism, i.e. the division of labour and industrialism as means to make human production more rational and efficient. According to Palmer, Colton and Kramer’s massive introduction to world history the Encyclopédie represented an important contribution to the notion of social progress, albeit with such diverse contributors as Voltaire, Montesquieu, Rousseau, d’Alembert, Buffon (1707-88), Turgot and Quesnay taking the lead.11 Even many people belonging to the clergy and the nobility bought and read this comprehensive work, despite the authorities’ suppression in the early stages of its publication.
In regards to views concerning social life and its political institutions, many philosophes elevated the English constitution as an example to be followed by other European states. Montesquieu, for example, envisaged that the French state may move forward in the direction staked out by the English, and in his major work (which, in his own words, “nearly killed” him), The Spirit of the Laws, he elaborated extensively on the preconditions for freedom under republican, monarchical and despotic rule respectively. His preferences tended towards the former. Voltaire, on the contrary, could hardly be termed a democrat as he was much more concerned with freedom of expression for people like himself than of political freedom for the public in general. Rousseau, who as a consequence of his critique of civilization came to be fairly isolated in these disputes, may still be regarded as a kind of radical democrat – as far as he envisaged a kind of progressive, direct democracy. In a passage in The Social Contract he argues that sovereignty cannot be represented as any way similar to processes that we encounter in modern conceptions of “representative” democracy and the election of professional politicians who are beyond recall and independent of bounded mandates from the “electorate.”12 More precisely in relation to the public, such ideas also came to the fore during certain phases of The Great French Revolution, in which direct democratic assemblies were developed at the grassroots level of the Parisian sections in 1792. However, the majority among the philosophers of the Enlightenment were closest to Voltaire’s position, and were prepared to sacrifice political freedom in favour of intellectual freedom.
The so-called Physiocrats, among them Turgot and Quesnay, eventually entered the political scene with their new economic theories and reform efforts. Turgot, who was also a positivist philosopher and contributor to the Encyclopédie, contended that humanity – as distinguished from other animals – has a capacity to achieve progress through its history, in the sense that one generation’s achievements is widened and deepened by the next one’s, and that this progress is going through three stages; the religious, the metaphysical and the scientific, with profound impacts on social and economical life. A decade or so before the Revolution, Turgot was engaged at Court with the primary task of sorting out the French state’s finances following the crises which haunted the country in the wake of the immense war costs during the Seven Years’ War of 1756–63 and the American War of Independence. His reforms, however, were far too drastic under France’s circumstances. The price of grains swelled drama tically as a result of the reforms impacts, and he was dismissed from his post to concentrate only on his studies and writings.
Condorcet (1743–94), who delivered the great testament of the Enlightenment, On the perfectibility of the Human Mind, took an active part in the Great Revolution and penned his famous work while hiding from the guillotine. According to Randall, Condorcet “embodied the very soul of the The French Revolution.”13 Under the culminating “Terror” he eventually took his own life to avoid the disgrace of an execution, and until the end clung to the notion that humanity strives indefatigably towards the ideal.
Amongst the objections raised in our own days against the ideals of the Enlightenment, one may mention that human beings were largely reduced to some kind of machines, that spiritual and religious aspects of life were subdued, and that a new kind of repression was the end result of this process. As one of the strongest voices in defence of the ideals of the Enlightenment and the related social struggles, Murray Bookchin (1921–2006) pointed to the immense social inequalities that riddled 18th century society, the recurrent famines that struck France in this Age, and the horrible conditions of the small farmers and the working classes caused by a stern material scarcity. In this context he acclaimed the fact that the philosophers of the Enlightenment “enthusiastically embraced scientific and technological progress with their potential for enhancing human freedom and personal dignity.”14
The Future of Enlightenment
Last year, the UN reported that 1 billion people around the world are starving on a daily basis, and it would not seem far-fetched that the above mentioned defence of the ideals and achievements of the Enlightenment remain highly relevant for ethically oriented people around the world – not only in the Western world but also at a global level. Vast cultural areas in the East are still awaiting their own Enlightenment Era – it is yet in its starting blocks in some places, and always confronted with harsh repression from the theocratic authorities in the respective countries. A socially emancipating process in these areas necessarily will have to be fought for and conducted by intellectuals as well as the broad populace inhabiting them. The project of forcing “democracy” upon these countries by the use of Western armies seems to only slow down any democratizing process because the local and regional repressive powers strengthen their grip on the inhabitants as they are threatened by a common foreign enemy represented by the NATO forces.
As regards the West (however narrow or broadly we define it), it is clear that we have a rich history and ideals to live up to. Those of the Ancient world belong to these, accompanied by the ideals of the Enlightenment. In the face of the extraordinary challenges that will confront humanity in this century, we will be completely lost if we fail to observe and continue the enlightening spirit of the 18th century. The tradition of understanding ecological phenomena dates back to this Age, and ecological issues were discussed in the Encyclopédie side by side with political, social and religious issues. As argued by Kant, among others, an enlightened public is the very precondition of a democracy which is something far more than a barren word – indeed, a word which is frequently used without any attempt to give it some meaningful content or libertarian substance. A future ecological society is also dependent upon an enlightened public who ideally achieves institutional rights to participate directly in political life through local public assemblies in possession of final decision making authority – in co-operation with their confederated neighbours. In other words, a sovereignty “which cannot be represented” in any way but instead manifests its palpability through confederal ties – directly democratic local assemblies and their recallable and clearly mandated delegates in assemblies at confederal levels – by integrating local communities and regions in ecologically balanced systems with a social and cultural life based on the ideals of mutual aid and complementary relationships, where power remains in the hands of the ordinary citizens as a whole. Such a development would obviously involve a considerable expansion of Enlightenment ideals – which will only fit in well with the very spirit of the Enlightenment.
As clearly revealed during the past decades, the dominating powers – the oligarchic political assemblies and multinationals’ managing boards – are all too strongly profiting by a continuation of the present anti-ecological way of “development” (making a mockery of the word), and their hegemony rests on the fact that most people do not know what is actually going on at the highest political levels and in the lobbying traffic intimately connected with it. This oligarchic system is inherently anti-ecological and repressive: capitalism has existed as such since its ascent over 200 years ago. Today, instead of ecologically and ethically oriented citizens in charge, big business and technocratic elites are ruling the social scene.
So, even if it is not possible to detect smooth and linear progress in the history of humanity, it would be completely foolish to ignore the immense potential encompassed in humanity’s insight into the processes of nature and our own social and psychological conditions – insights which have accumulated over long periods of time. It is hard to envisage that the tension between this potential on the one hand and the present realities tainted by anti-ecological and dehumanizing trends on the other can go on endlessly. For social ecologists the task is clear: to contribute to the materialization of this potential based on direct action at the local level, in combination with regional and global networks and coordi nated political campaigns. The dismal alternative is that such a faith in potentially substantive, democratic and ecological progress is quelled by the “realpolitik” of the ruling elites, which will prove fatal to the possibilities for future generations to repair the social and ecological diseases that haunt humanity, and subvert their ability to create a rational and libertarian society,
1 J.H. Randall, The Making of the Modern Mind; A Survey of the Intellectual Background of the Present Age (1926; New York: Columbia University Press, 1977), p. 9.
2 Edouard Herriot, Diderot (Copenhagen: Martins Forlag, 1951), p. 9.
3 Palmer, Colton & Kramer, A History of the Modern World (1950; New York: McGraw-Hill, 2007), p. 305.
4 Dorinda Outram, The Enlightenment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 114.
5 Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason (1896; New York: Dover Publications, 2004), p. vii.
6 Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy (New York: Doubleday Publications, 1950), vol. 6, pp. 2–3.
7 ibid., p.47.
8 Randall, Making of the Modern Mind, p. 381.
9 Ernst Cassirer, The Philosophy of the Enlightenment (1951; New York: Princeton University Press, 1968), p. 5.
10 Herriot, Diderot, p. 16.
11 Palmer, Colton & Kramer, p. 302.
12 J. J. Rousseau, The Social Contract (1761; New York: Modern Library, 1950), p. 94.
13 Randall, Making of the Modern Mind, p. 382.
14 Murray Bookchin, Re-Enchanting Humanity; A Defence of the Human Spirit Against Anti-Humanism, misanthropy, mysticism and primitivism (London: Cassell, 1995), p. 149.