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The Philosophies of the 18th Century and the Ideals of Enlightenment
The Western Civilization is what is today precisely because it followed a distinct historical path marked by regular and powerful upheavals of ideologies and philosophies time and again. It underwent intense changes and restructuring in each of its social, religious and political aspect throughout the span of its history most significantly during the Renaissance era. As a consequence, the Western world has seen the creation and inevitable destruction and recreation of the monoliths of convention and establishments, especially in relation to religion and its dogmas, to its advantage. Towards this end, it is the aim of this paper to describe and situate the textual evidence both of literature and philosophy in order to show the significant changes in Western thought covered thus far in the course right during the Renaissance in comparison to the ideologies extant during the Middle Ages. This is to highlight the one important quality unique to the Western world which is the relentless pursuit for the truth even as it causes ferment within established conventions—which, in a sense, is a celebration man’s reason and intellect and his role in the world as a free and liberated individual.
The Enlightenment or the Renaissance period during the 18th century would have been meaningless were it not for the horrors of the dark ages that preceded it. In general, the Enlightenment sought the rediscovery of old ideals formulated and developed during the time of Socrates and Plato in the Hellenic period and the literature and philosophies that came immediately after. It is without a doubt that the dawn of Christianity, after the decline of the Roman Empire, brought with it the destruction of the natural capacity of men to reason and the diminution of the use of his intellect to perceive and deduce truth and justice. Superstition and dogma replaced critical analysis and liberal thought during the Middle Ages. Ideas of political freedom, individual autonomy, democracy, individual rights, reason and intellect for the common man were replaced with strict theocracy, aristocracy, censorship and authoritarian regimes. People were turned into slaves to theological dogmas and to the feudal lords who used religion as a justification of the legitimacy of their authority to rule.
During the heyday of the Middle Ages, religious authority and influence pervaded the entire culture of the West. The teachings of the church were unassailable and the mere expression of doubt and skepticism as to their validity produced dire effects. A reading of the Trial of Galileo shows exactly the extent of the influence the church and its apparent stubbornness and ignorance before the objective facts of reason and science. The entire affair was disheartening not only because scholasticism, superstition and absolutism prevailed over hard-cold scientific evidence and deduction, but also because Galileo was forced to adopt the erroneous judgments of the inquisition despite of the fact that this would run contrary to his scientific principles if not his very own conscience.
Fortunately, however, the Middle Ages finally ran its full and final course when the church met its sudden downfall by its very own oppressive and irrational tenets. There was already a growing ferment of ideas brought about by the excesses of the church. But it was only through the potent dissent of Martin Luther against some of the doctrines of the church which spurred revolutionary ideological movements or now otherwise known as the reformation of the church. The rise of the Protestant religion and the reformation of the church as a whole were among the most important precursors of the Western world’s return to rational thought, individuality, humanism, liberalism and the like which would eventually lay down the foundations for the emergence of the Scientific Revolution and modernity.
Literature and the arts during the dark ages did not also escape the pressure and control of the church. Needless to say, progress in the field of literature was painstakingly slow inasmuch as the works that were produced at that time were followed church standards of censorship. Most of the works of art and the masterpieces of the time invariably contained biblical references and images. However, during the nascent years of the Enlightenment, literary works became the source of inspiration for the people to reject the status quo.
The literary freedom and liberal creativity to analyse and criticize the existing dogmas of the church or religion during and after the medieval period in the form of satire and parody is nothing new. During the time of Plato, there were a number of theatrical productions that poked fun at the gods as a comment to the absurdity of the premises of religion and superstition to which most of the people showed blind adherence. However, that same enthusiasm to look at religion with a comical if not critical eye had been suppressed during the middle ages. At the pain of excommunication or worse, the penalty of death, people became very careful with their thoughts lest they be tried for the capital crime of heresy and blasphemy.
Yet Shakespeare’s Hamlet appear to have been the exception to the rule since while it did recognized the rituals of the church it also alluded to the Hellenic gods in some of the passages. Notable are the several references made to the Roman gods Neptune and Zeus and the allusion to the supernatural and other occult ideas of the ancient tribes in Europe regarding ghostly apparitions and like ancient ritual. Note also that during the time when Hamlet was written, the Protestant and the Catholic were at the throes of a bitter theological debate on the theory of indulgences and the Purgatory. It would seem therefore that the inspiration behind the creation of Hamlet was to outline an unorthodox criticism of the existing doctrinal issues of its time.
As such, perhaps the importance of Shakespeare’s Hamlet is not so much as its literary value to the modern audience as a scholarly and objective study of English prose and literary technique alone. But perhaps it is also historically significant as an instructive literary happenstance which shows that despite the influence of religions and dogmas from either side—Protestant and Catholic, people are able to absorb the issues of religion and still find it entertaining and appealing. Indeed, Hamlet contains a mix of religious allusions as it makes reference to gods in Roman mythology at the beginning, and then afterwards developed a thematic allegory doctrinal Catholic teachings on Purgatory, what with the ghostly apparition of Hamlet’s murdered father to seek vengeance and justice, and lastly, it alluded to the Protestant thesis against the sale of indulgences and the act of repentance. To wit: “Offence’s gilded hand may shove by justice, and oft’t is seen the wicked prize itself buys out the law; but it is not so above […] try what repentance can: what can it not? Yet what can it, when one cannot repent?” (Act III, Scene 4). In other words, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, despite the fact that it uses a lot of religious metaphors and theological doctrines, was written with the end in mind of presenting a secular treatment to the story of the Hamlet. The play is secular in the sense that it discriminates against the folly of religions equally, so to speak, regardless of whether it is Greek, Catholic or Protestant.
On another note, Voltaire’s Candide functioned as a social commentary over the dangerous if not passive attitude of the majority to live on an “all that is, is for the best” basis. Upon first impression, Candide appears to be merely a humorous take on man’s tendency to mistake causation for inevitability and intelligent design or destiny. Yet despite its comic value and the apparent deliberate exaggerations in the life of Candide, the narrative contains exquisite and deeply wrought observations against the reliance of men towards the will of God and the fates. In a sense, the novel is the Middle Age writ large because it details the helplessness of man against his environment and as against his peers. Man, as represented by Candide, is portrayed as one having no control over his life and that is why he must humbly accept his pains and suffering. The narrative is a reflection of the spineless pre-Enlightenment man who is taught to be contented with his lot in life and be grateful even for the worst events e.g. the Earthquake at Lisbon, the rape of Women and burning of people at the pyre.
In a nutshell, Candide is the characterization of the false sense of or misplaced optimism of how things are and should be. The narrative portrays the surrender of man to his world quite unlike the idea of man espoused by the Enlightenment philosophies where he is considered to be at the centre of the universe once again. Thus, in contrast to Candide, man should be able to question his existence and should never be contented with anything at all. Thus, optimism and martyrdom as the main highlight of religious teachings were substituted with the philosophies of Skepticism and Pessimism and eventually with the modern ideas of Existentialism. While religion distorted the perception of man towards the world, science and philosophy gave him a wider purview of his existence.
Machiavelli’s The Prince, in the same sense, sought to free man from the chains of authority, and liberate him from his total lack of sense of individuality. The Prince, arguably, is a treatise on ambition and resolve. To my mind, the work celebrates the full potentials of man by giving a primer on how one must act in order to climb the ladder of success. There are no rules, in fact, the ends justify the means. The chapter on how The Prince should act—both with cunning as a fox and brute force like the lion, is an acknowledgment that with the right attitude and the perfect circumstance, a man or a ruler can control people’s actions according to one’s desire. Perhaps unlike the spineless Candide and the rash Hamlet characters, The Prince is the paragon of the Renaissance man who possesses certain qualities that underscore the power of a rational and ambitious man to change his surroundings according to his design if not whims.
Upon final analysis, the number and variety of literature, philosophy and ideology the Western world has produced and re-produced during the Enlightenment bespeak the kind of critical and analytical characteristic attitude particular the Western civilization. It had its first traditions and rituals as pagan and barbaric tribal groups but later developed ideas of a solid and united government with a strong democratic and republican foundation. Later, during the Middle Age, dogma and religion dominated the form of governance as well as fashioned the laws and culture of men. Soon enough, during the Renaissance, a heightened sense of individualism and humanism began to permeate society which led to a re-discovery of Hellenic or ancient philosophies and literature.
However, at the height of the Enlightenment period, people began to turn their interest into science which had long suffered the suppression and development by the church. Scientific ideas flourished: common sense and superstition were replaced with the objective rigor of the scientific method. New ideas at this stage revolutionized the world view of the West. At precisely that point, Western Civilization had become the most influential and most powerful in the world.
It is said that any social institution begins to decay the moment it is established. Such decay is a natural consequence of man’s inability to be permanently fixed to an idea or a certain way of life (Kuhn 31). There is this innate desire for constant modification of whatever it is that has already gained stasis in societies from across different cultures and peoples (ibid.). Man, equipped with reason and intellect, starts to question his present state of existence inasmuch as there is that stirring urge in him that breeds discontentment and dissatisfaction (34). This itch to change the rubric of society is to some extent an advantage to any civilization because it allows for a meaningful evaluation and criticism of the current ideologies and traditions. Invariably, the result of such self-(re-)examination is a progressive advancement of ideas which ultimately heads towards the fruition of man’s true potentials. Thus, such was the case with the emergence of the revolutionary ideals and philosophies of the Enlightenment period succeeding over the dogmas of the Middle Ages.
Kuhn, Thomas. Foundations of the Unity of Science: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1970.
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