Excerpt: Fire and Light: How the Enlightenment Transformed Our World

Posted on January 8, 2014
By James MacGregor Burns

Enlightenment as Revolution

For hundreds of years European minds were locked in orthodoxy. Save for scattered rebellions against the Catholic Church and the emperors and kings it anointed, most Europeans had no prospects other than the “life after life” in heaven promised to true believers. With church and state united in their determination to uphold their centuries-old authority, the laboring people were exploited by nobility and clergy, as a Czech layman wrote, “stripped of everything, downtrodden, oppressed, beaten, robbed,” and forced by hunger and misery from their land.

At the close of this era, historian Johan Huizinga wrote, “a sombre melancholy weighs on people’s souls.” Their unhappiness sounded in chronicles or poems. Huizinga recalled a French court ballad:

Time of mourning and of temptation,

Age of tears, of envy and of torment,

Time of languor and of damnation,

Age of decline nigh to the end…

Then, like a thunderbolt, Martin Luther’s nailing of his Theses to a church door in Wittenberg in 1517 shattered the old order. It was, Luther taught, not the pope and his clerical legions who were the source of divine knowledge but a book, the Bible, as read and understood by believers. This radical insight opened the Western mind to new and even revolutionary ideas, both sectarian and secular.

What would happen in a West liberated from orthodoxy? Chaos, warned the Holy See—without a single authority, humankind would dissolve into warring states and factions. The church fathers were right. The Reformation swiftly ignited an age of ceaseless strife as Catholics and Protestants battled for preeminence. By the early seventeenth century, Europe collapsed into a ferocious and engulfing civil war of all against all. Protestant leaders proved as authoritarian and brutal as Catholic princes and cardinals. A great fear dominated ruler and ruled alike—a fear of anarchy in a time of searing religious and political hatreds. Rulers had to deal not only with rival powers but with violence that erupted among their subjects—peasant revolts, urban riots. Even the nobles that surrounded them were a danger. Uneasy was the head that held the crown. Far uneasier were the people who suffered invasions, famine, plagues, persecution.

Yet, amid the devastation, Europe was intellectually alive. A torrent of fresh ideas and intense disputes erupted when the restraints that had bound men’s minds for so long were smashed. With the authority of the Catholic Church broken, every phenomenon—from the stars in the heavens above to the bedrock beneath the earth, from the inward lives and spirits of human beings to their blossoming into political communities—was seen in a new light, exposed to a fresh examination, to discussion and debate, as people were encouraged to think for themselves.

It was the beginning of a wondrous era of enlightenment, a time of transforming leadership across the widest fields of action, of creative, revolutionary thought about human nature and liberty and equality and happiness, of ideas that thrilled readers of books and newspapers and echoed on the lips of the illiterate, ideas that brought conflict to courts and parliaments and clashes to city streets and remote villages.

The Enlightenment project would range over three centuries and migrate from the Old World to the New and then around the globe; it would be vast, all-encompassing, cutting across collective life and action, empowering some leaders, destroying others, mobilizing poets and industrialists, factory workers and university students and people’s armies. The ideas of the Enlightenment and the leadership and action they inspired would transform the world.

* * *

Change was at the very root of this new era, and knowledge and freedom were change’s twinned preconditions and outcomes. Together enlightenment and liberation raised men and women into a condition of possibility, the opportunity to better themselves and their world. And “as the human mind becomes more enlightened” over time, declared the French economist Turgot in 1750, “the whole human race … goes on advancing, although at a slow pace, towards greater perfection.” Revolutionaries and innovators were inspired to push beyond the status quo in politics and government, science and technology, in entrepreneurship and the arts, in philosophy, in every field of human endeavor.

The human mind was where revolution originated. Breaking from a universe in which God was the final answer to any question, Enlightenment philosophers moved attention to human beings as the measure of all things. Now, as Alexander Pope put it, “[the] proper study of Mankind is Man,” especially the human mind and its potentialities. The old philosophy held that the mind was furnished top-to-bottom by God. And mental submission to clerics was imperative, especially among the lower orders, when the alternative was an eternity of hellfire.

But Enlightenment savants condemned these shackles on the human mind. They tested received ideas by the new, unflinching standards of empiricism. Science, previously erected on stilts of axioms and premises, was stripped to the ground. As the founder of the New Science, Francis Bacon, insisted, “Man, being the servant and interpreter of Nature, can do and understand so much and so much only as he has observed in fact or in thought of the course of nature.” Only from close observation and careful experiment could the grandest theories be built—the “conclusions of human reason,” the general laws that governed nature, such as Isaac Newton’s explanation of gravity. The empirical assault on dogma was the method not only of the natural sciences but of such emerging disciplines as sociology, anthropology, and political economy that studied human life in all its complexities. For over a decade, Adam Smith analyzed financial data from all sources to create his groundbreaking account of the new capitalist economy in The Wealth of Nations.

That fresh spirit of empiricism transformed the Enlightenment’s understanding of the nature of thought itself. John Locke rejected the “received doctrine” that men had “native ideas” stamped “upon their minds in their very first being.” Instead he described the mind of an infant as like a “white paper, void of all characters, without any new ideas.” The mind was all potential, like wax, according to Locke, to be shaped and vitalized by experience and education. In fact, “the difference to be found in the Manners and Abilities of Men, is owing more to their Education than to anything else.” Great care, therefore, “is to be had of the forming Children’s Minds,” not least because enlightenment was critical to their preparation to live in rational and virtuous freedom, the highest condition of human life.

The tool for liberation, the mind’s crowning glory, was its power to reason. The “motto of enlightenment,” according to Immanuel Kant, was “Have courage to use your own reason!” By reasoning, the mind exposed falsehoods and discovered truths and gave birth to far-reaching ideas from an intake of humble facts. Reason equipped men and women to live freely, enabled them to make their own way, to think and act for themselves, even the lower orders of servants and shoemakers, peasants and pieceworkers. And when people began to think for themselves, an English friend of Jean-Jacques Rousseau cautioned ironically in 1792, “when they have carried their temerity of free-thinking perhaps so far as to suspect that nations may exist without monks or tyrants, it is already too late to burn libraries or philosophers.”


JAMES MacGREGOR BURNS is the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning author of Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox and Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom. He is the author of more than two dozen other books, including The Deadlock of Democracy and Leadership, which remains the seminal work in the field of leadership studies, and his latest, Fire and Light.