The Enlightenment Is Working

Steven Pinker had an interesting essay in this past weekend’s Wall Street Journal:

The Enlightenment Is Working

Dr. Pinker is a professor of psychology at Harvard University. The essay is adapted from his new book out today: Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress. Steven Pinker was referenced indirectly in my previous blog post: Holocaust Scholarship. He was the subject of the New York Times op-ed that I mentioned in that post: Social Media Is Making Us Dumber. Here’s Exhibit A. (Subscriptions probably required to access the NYT and WSJ links. Sorry.)

I’ve only read Dr. Pinker’s WSJ essay, not his book. The first paragraph of the essay:

For all their disagreements, the left and the right concur on one thing: The world is getting worse. Whether the decline is visible in inequality, racism and pollution, or in terrorism, crime and moral decay, both sides see profound failings in modernity and a deepening crisis in the West. They look back to various golden ages when America was great, blue-collar workers thrived in unionized jobs, and people found meaning in religion, family, community and nature.

Dr. Pinker says both the left and the right are wrong. He says that in every material respect our country and the world are vastly better than even 30 years ago, and that the comparison to 200 years ago is so overwhelmingly in favor of today as to be almost two different worlds. He cites many impressive statistics. He suggests that we would do well to recognize and appreciate the progress that has been made and continues to be made, and to let go of our pessimism.

I agree with Dr. Pinker, who goes on to say that the source of our good fortune is:

a continuation of a process set in motion by the Enlightenment in the late 18th century that has brought improvements in every measure of human flourishing.

This prompts a question. My education was in engineering and business, not liberal arts and certainly not history. Just what was the Enlightenment, anyway?

In my own mind, I used to confuse the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, but they were two different periods of history. Following is a brief overview.

The Renaissance (French for “rebirth”) occurred mostly from the 1400s to the early 1600s. It was prominent in Italy, especially Florence. The Renaissance featured humanist themes in art, literature and philosophy. Two individuals especially come to mind:

The Renaissance may have been, in part, a rebirth from the Black Death, which hit all of Europe and especially Florence in 1348-1350. Another major event was the fall of Constantinople (current day Istanbul) in 1453. The Byzantine Empire (Christian) fell to the Ottoman Empire (Muslim). “The fall of Constantinople generated a wave of emigre Greek scholars bringing precious manuscripts in ancient Greek, many of which had fallen into obscurity in the West.” The humanist themes of the Renaissance were consistent with “the rediscovery of classical Greek philosophy, such as that of Protagoras, who said that ‘Man is the measure of all things.’” (quotes from Wikipedia)

Going back further in European history for additional perspective, the Roman Empire split in 395 AD into the Western Roman Empire headquartered in Rome and the Eastern Roman Empire headquartered in Constantinople. Rome was sacked in 410 and 455, and the Western Roman Empire is considered to have fallen by 476-480. The Eastern Roman Empire became known as the Byzantine Empire and continued for another millennium until the fall of Constantinople in 1453 noted above.

The religion of the Roman Empire is relevant to understanding this history. Ancient Rome had many gods, substantially adapted from ancient Greece. Zeus became Jupiter (or Jove), Athena became Minerva, Ares became Mars, Aphrodite became Venus, and so on. While the Romans persecuted the early Christians, the Roman Empire began to look favorably upon Christianity during the reign of Emperor Constantine (306-337 AD), and it became the state religion of the Roman Empire in 380.

The period between the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the Renaissance is sometimes called the Dark Ages or Middle Ages or Medieval Period of Western Europe. The Renaissance was a “rebirth” after that period.

The Enlightenment (also known as the “Age of Reason”) occurred later in Europe – in the 1700s. It was especially prominent in France and Great Britain, and also included Germany and the United States. Major themes of the Enlightenment included increasing reliance on science and reason, and increasing questioning of the authority of church and crown. The Enlightenment led to the American and French Revolutions. The painting at the top of this post is the Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States in 1787 by Howard Chandler Christy.

A few of the many individuals who contributed to the Enlightenment:

Major revolutions in science and religion occurred in the period leading up to the Enlightenment, and laid the groundwork for the Enlightenment. A few of the many people who contributed to the scientific revolution in this period:

Copernicus changed our conceptualization of the heavens from geocentric to heliocentric. Galileo, Descartes and Newton increased our mathematical understanding of nature.

The revolution in religion in the period leading up to the Enlightenment was known as the Reformation and it split Christianity into Catholics and Protestants. The Reformation is considered to have begun with the publication of the Ninety-five Theses by Martin Luther in 1517 and ended in 1648 with the conclusion of the Thirty Years War (the Peace of Westphalia).

Many people of the Enlightenment did not consider themselves either Catholic or Protestant, but embraced a belief system called Deism. As with any philosophy or religion, there were many variations, but common themes included: belief in a deity greater than ourselves; belief that we cannot know much about this deity other than by observing nature and exercising our ability to reason; and skepticism of any organized religion that claims privileged knowledge of this deity.

In his Wall Street Journal essay, Steven Pinker wrote:

The Enlightenment is working. Our ancestors replaced dogma, tradition and authority with reason, debate and institutions of truth-seeking. They replaced superstition and magic with science. And they shifted their values from the glory of the tribe, nation, race, class or faith toward universal human flourishing.

The Enlightenment is working. Let us strive to keep it working.

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