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4. The Enlightenment’s view of how man should live


So you can think of what the Enlightenment was advocating and arguing for, which culminated in a demand and the desire for political freedom, and culminated in the creation of a country explicitly dedicated to the ideal of freedom: the United States of America, of securing liberty for its citizens, which was, of course, the United States of America. In the Declaration of Independence, there’s a capturing of really the Enlightenment view of what government is about: it’s subordinate to the individual, it’s subordinate to the citizen. It is, in effect, the servant of the citizen, and you see there the imagery is very different than an authority to whom you owe obedience. The government was the servant of the people, there to protect each person’s rights.

And the United States of America is really the last achievement of the Age of Enlightenment. It’s the country that came into existence because of the ideals put forth in the Age of Enlightenment. If you want to capture sort of what the Enlightenment was doing in creating the United States of America, of leading to this political achievement, you need to understand their picture of what I’ve been talking about, and I’ve talked about: they have a view of enlightenment. And they have, in effect, you can say, during the Enlightenment period, they have a view of what an enlightened life looks like. And this is a moral notion of the way it’s proper to live. And if you understand that, then what they’re arguing is that there’s a political corollary, a political consequence, an inescapable consequence—that if you want to live an enlightened life, what you need is political freedom. And I want to talk a little bit about this.

This is the basic philosophical architecture of the Enlightenment period. And their view of an enlightened life is the primary. What was an enlightened life? Well, its basic goal or cause was “self-preservation.” This is one way they would put it.

And I’m going to use all the terminology that John Locke uses, who was really the philosopher of the Enlightenment, if you had to single out one philosopher as capturing what is unique and distinctive about this period, it’s John Locke. And he talks about self-preservation, as: that’s the basic goal, that’s what you’re seeking, what you’re striving for. And if that’s your goal, you need to exhibit two characteristics above all else. Now, these are not the only things that are important to exhibit, these are not the only important qualities to try to build into your character, but they’re certainly crucial, on Locke’s argument. And to use his terms, you need to be rational and you need to be industrious.

Take “rational” first, and that’s the primary. What you need to be seeking in life is the knowledge necessary to live. And that knowledge comes from proceeding rationally, of using your reason, of forming considered judgments, of thinking things through, of following the evidence no matter where it leads. So there was a whole picture of what a rational life looks like, if you’re really using your reason. And philosophically it’s during this period that you get all kinds of works that, in effect, are investigations into the nature of reason and how to use it properly, versus all kinds of ways in which you can use it improperly, how you can use your own mind properly or improperly. So, for instance, Locke has his [Essay Concerning Human Understanding] which is exactly this kind of thing: what is the nature of reason, how do you use it well, what are the ways in which you misuse it? This is what he’s talking about. And this is the Enlightenment ideal, in effect: to teach people how to be rational. It’s not easy, it’s not self-evident, it’s not obvious how to be rational. But it’s possible, if you learn what reason is, how to properly use your mind. So this is one aspect that is crucial to an enlightened life, and if you’re on the quest for self-preservation.

The other thing that is crucial is to be industrious. That is, you have to make things. You have to use your knowledge and make things, create the things that life requires. You had to be productive. And there’s an admiration during this period of commerce, of industry, of the growing economies, and you’re getting now a more global economy. People like Adam Smith are interested in this kind of thing. They’re interested in industry, the division of labor, of how industry, and increasing industry, is possible. And this required of a person that he be dedicated to this kind of work, this kind of effort in life. It requires effort, it’s not automatic, but it’s, again, possible. So it was to be rational and to be industrious (these are, again, Locke’s terms) if you’re concerned with self-preservation. And the result of those things, if you’re concerned with self-preservation, you’re rational, you’re industrious, the result is you’ll achieve a happy life. You’ll achieve happiness in this realm, on this earth, if you exhibit these characteristics and you have this kind of goal, of self-preservation.

And this, in a nutshell, I mean, there’s much more you could say, but in a nutshell, this is the picture of an enlightened life that you get during the age of the Enlightenment. And, in effect, their argument for political liberty was: If this is the life that you should be trying to lead, if this is what an enlightened life looks like, then there are crucial things, politically, that you have to have the freedom to do. And this whole view is encapsulated in the doctrine, which is the doctrine that you get at this time, during the Enlightenment, of the Rights of Man. And there’s direct corollaries, there’s direct lines from what I’ve just been talking about: self-preservation, rational, industrious, happiness, to what they thought of are The Rights of Man.

So, again, if you think of just the language used at the time of the founding of America: it’s the rights to life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness. Now, those four connect intimately to what an enlightened life is, according to the Enlightenment. The right to life is the right to take all those actions that are necessary for self-preservation, which goes back to the moral ideal that morality is about self-preservation. So the right to life was connected to that, it was, in the political sphere, your ability to engage in the actions that self-preservation requires, you’re free to do so, which means there’s not the obstacles, in particular, the obstacle of an authority telling you how you have to live and for whom you have to live. So there was a right to life.

A right to liberty. Well, what does that mean? It means freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of association. That is connected to the whole picture of what you need to be, morally speaking, if you’re leading an enlightened life, is rational. If you’re going to be rational, then you have to have the freedom of thought and the freedom to speak, which a Socrates or a Galileo did not have. You have to have the freedom to associate with who you want, which a Galileo in prison does not have. So these rights, or the right to liberty, were intimately connected to this picture of the need to be rational.

The need to be industrious, to make things, to create things. Well, that is what the right to property is about. The right to use, to dispose of what an individual has created, of what he’s made for himself. It is about the right to use and to dispose, including to trade it to other people, to consume it, the right to use, to dispose of what an individual has created, of what he’s made for himself. So they were champions of the right to property, which meant, again, authority cannot trespass here, it cannot seize some part of a person’s property, it can’t redistribute it. It was a right to property, because, morally speaking, of their ideal of industriousness.

And then, that this culminates in happiness means, politically, that you have to have the right to pursue your own happiness, to structure and order your life as you think best, so that its days and years will actually add up to happiness. So the Rights of Man were just a consequence of the enlightened view of life, or the Enlightenment morality, or its picture of what a proper life looks like. The rights of man were a consequence of the Enlightenment morality, or its picture of what a proper life looks like. And it’s crucial to understand this, to understand why the cause of liberty as a political cause comes about in the Age of Enlightenment. It’s not a primary, it comes from a certain moral view, moral foundation, or moral pillars that underlie it. The cause of liberty in the Age of Enlightenment comes from a certain moral view.

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