The Enlightenment, Hobsbawm

“Nevertheless, whatever their status, the activities of commerce and
manufacture flourished brilliantly. The most brilliantly successful of
eighteenth-century European states, Britain, plainly owed its power to
its economic progress, and by the 1780s all continental governments
with any pretence to a rational policy were consequently fostering
economic growth, and especially industrial development, though with
very varying success. The sciences, not yet split by nineteenth-century
academicism into a superior ‘pure’ and an inferior ‘applied’ branch,
devoted themselves to the solution of productive problems: the most
striking advances of the 1780s were those of chemistry, which was by
tradition most closely linked to workshop practice and the needs of
industry. The Great Encyclopaedia of Diderot and d’Alembert was not
merely a compendium of progressive social and political thought, but
of technological and scientific progress. For indeed the conviction of
the progress of human knowledge, rationality, wealth, civilization and
control over nature with which the eighteenth century was deeply
imbued, the ‘Enlightenment’, drew its strength primarily from the
evident progress of production, trade, and the economic and scientific
rationality believed to be associated inevitably with both. And its
greatest champions were the economically most progressive classes, those
most directly involved in the tangible advances of the time: the mercantile
circles and economically enlightened landlords, financiers,
scientifically-minded economic and social administrators, the educated
middle class, manufacturers and entrepreneurs. Such men hailed a
Benjamin Franklin, working printer and journalist, inventor, entrepreneur,
statesman and shrewd businessman, as the symbol of the
active, self-made, reasoning citizen of the future. Such men in England,
where the new men had no need of transatlantic revolutionary incarnations,
formed the provincial societies out of which both scientific,
industrial and political advance sprang. The Lunar Society of Birmingham
included the potter Josiah Wedgwood, the inventor of the
modern steam engine James Watt and his business partner Matthew
Boulton, the chemist Priestley, the gentleman-biologist and pioneer of
evolutionary theories Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of a greater
Darwin), the great printer Baskerville. Such men everywhere flocked
into the lodges of Freemasonry, where class distinctions did not count
and the ideology of the Enlightenment was propagated with a disinterested
It is significant that the two chief centres of the ideology were also
those of the dual revolution, France and England; though in fact its
ideas gained widest international currency in their French formulations
(even when these were merely gallicized versions of British ones).
A secular, rationalist and progressive individualism dominated ‘enlightened’
thought. To set the individual free from the shackles which
fettered him was its chief object: from the ignorant traditionalism of
the Middle Ages, which still threw their shadow across the world, from
the superstition of the churches (as distinct from ‘natural’ or ‘rational’
religion), from the irrationality which divided men into a hierarchy of
higher and lower ranks according to birth or some other irrelevant
criterion. Liberty, equality and (it followed) the fraternity of all men
were its slogans. In due course they became those of the French Revolution.
The reign of individual liberty could not but have the most
beneficent consequences. The most extraordinary results could be
looked for—could indeed already be observed to follow from—the
unfettered exercise of individual talent in a world of reason. The
passionate belief in progress of the typical ‘enlightened’ thinker reflected
the visible increases in knowledge and technique, in wealth, welfare
and civilization which he could see all round him, and which he
ascribed with some justice to the growing advance of his ideas. At the
beginning of his century witches were still widely burned; at its end
enlightened governments like the Austrian had already abolished not
only judicial torture but also slavery. What might not be expected if
the remaining obstacles to progress such as the vested interests of
feudality and church, were swept away?
It is not strictly accurate to call the ‘enlightenment’ a middle class
ideology, though there were many enlighteners—and politically they
were the decisive ones—who assumed as a matter of course that the free
society would be a capitalist society.
In theory its object was to set all human beings free. All progressive, rationalist and humanist ideologies are implicit in it, and indeed came out of it. Yet in practice
the leaders of the emancipation for which the enlightenment called
were likely to be the middle ranks of society, the new, rational men of
ability and merit rather than birth, and the social order which would
emerge from their activities would be a ‘bourgeois’ and capitalist one.”

-The Age of Revolution


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