When we look for a place to begin, we find ourselves early in the second half of the 17th century. The Peace of Westphalia (1648) has brought the religious wars to an end and we are aware of being in a new spiritual climate. It was like the stillness after a storm. There was time to reflect, and a certain weariness about religious issues. Had it all been worthwhile? Couldn't men live in peace even if they differ about religion? Surely they could agree about the existence of God and the laws of nature, since these are truths open to reason, and leave it at that? Through improved communications the mood spread across Europe to Russia in the east and across the Atlantic to the New World in the west.
I am talking, of course, about the thinking, reading and writing classes. The great bulk of men and women were unaware of and as yet untouched by the change. Today, of course, we all think and read. But for men and women of the type I am speaking of, thinking, reading and writing were their life's blood.
In Catholic Europe. Jesuit education had long made the entrance to this aristocracy of intellect much easier for bright boys from poor families. Pierre Bayle (1647-1706) is an example. A Protestant pastor's son, he studied philosophy under the Jesuits of Toulouse for a while. Then, through his literary journal Nouvelles de la république des lettres and his Dictionnaire historique et critique, he helped to turn what had been a mood into a movement, and gave it international cohesion. He was not alone. The proliferation of periodicals of this kind had in miniature an effect not unlike that of the Internet: today.
As a result, the sense of lassitude rapidly dissolved and was replaced by growing confidence. The achievements in mathematics, astronomy, chemistry and physics of men like Descartes, Leibniz, Kepler, Galileo, Boyle and Newton, had at last began to reverse the backward-looking mentality of the Renaissance. They had finally taught European man to see himself as superior to the Greeks and Romans rather than as their perpetual pupil, and therefore to direct his thoughts towards a future full of new possibilities instead of towards a past which might be rivalled but never surpassed. The idea of building a perfect world, which St Thomas More and the Italian Dominican Campanella had played with a century and more earlier, flickered on the horizon and seemed increasingly to be a possibility. 10
By now we have reached the turn of the century. So far the flow of ideas had been changing men's way of thinking by a sort of osmosis, with England and Holland providing most of the input. It had given them new viewpoints, new expectations, new enthusiasms (Progress is inevitable; Nature is the best teacher; Reason must have the last word; God has set the machine going, but it's up to men to do the rest). However, there was no directing or driving force behind them until the rise of freemasonry in England, and the advent of the French philosophes in France. 11
I shall not try to assess the role of freemasonry in the promotion of Enlightenment ideals over the next three centuries, mainly because of the difficulty of reaching an accurate judgement without an enormous amount of detailed research. There is a mass of literature from the Masonic and non-Masonic sides, but as far as I can see, no historian of distinction on the non-Masonic side has been prepared to write a full-scale account of masonry, whether in its deistic or atheistic form, as a cultural, social and political force in Western society. It simply has to be assumed as a presence in the background — one factor among others. This is not a very satisfactory state of affairs; it is rather as though the history of England since the Reformation were to be written without mentioning the Anglican Church. But that's how it is.
For the philosophes, masonic or otherwise, the ideas that had been taking shape were not to be left to make their way as best they could. They were to be actively promoted, which was achieved largely through the plays, tales and poems of Voltaire, and through Diderot's encyclopedia. Soon there would scarcely be a gentleman's library between St Petersburg and Lisbon whose shelves these works would not be adorning. They became for the European gentry and upper middle classes what volumes of the Church Fathers were for the monks in their still unsacked monasteries and priories.
Simultaneously, in the Catholic Church, or in religion as such, the philosophes found an adversary to be overcome, something which is always helpful to the advancement of causes.
This first phase in the development and spread of Enlightenment doctrines in their dogmatic French form was optimistic and relatively apolitical. There was admiration for the English constitution and later for the American colonies in their war of independence. There was also, not without reason, criticism of the existing French social set-up. But the philosophes who, for the most part, were brilliant writers and publicists rather than philosophers, were not averse to absolute monarchs, provided they had the right ideas and carried out reforms of which the philosophes approved. Confidence was momentarily shaken by the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 — how can a beneficent Nature let her children down so badly? — but was soon recovered and lasted to the eve of the Revolution.
The next stage, which overlaps the first, begins with the arrival in Paris of the young Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Just how momentous and extraordinary his influence was to be, just how bizarre the disparity between the kind of person he was and the society he mesmerised into drawing up its own death warrant, is, through familiarity, no longer easy to appreciate. It is as though a 1960s hippy had wandered into a meeting of the Royal Society or the American Academy of Sciences, and been unanimously elected president. I shall have more to say about him shortly. The only point I want to make here is that it is Rousseau who first politicised the Enlightenment doctrines and injected into them a messianic religious dynamism. From the publication of Le Contrat Social, justly described as the Revolution's bible, politics rather than education came to be seen as the main highway to the earthly paradise.
As for the Revolution itself and the Napoleonic period, we can see their role as largely experimental and missionary. Paris under the Revolution becomes a kind of laboratory for testing what happens when Rousseau's ideas are put into practice, while the revolutionary and Napoleonic armies, with the zeal of early Christians, carried the notions of liberty, equality, fraternity and democracy, hitherto heard of only, for the most part, by educated ears, far and wide across Europe to men and women of every social stratum. Is it altogether unfair to compare it to an Islamic jihad?
Outside the dogmatic and missionary French sphere of influence, the milder, looser Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-American Enlightenment, strengthened by the success of the American war of independence, had also been consolidating itself and extending its membership, and when the world began to take stock of things again after 1815, the followers of both forms started calling themselves "liberals:" a decision which has not made life easier for teachers, school children and historians
Liberalism of this period reigned with only minor challenges until 1914, and for the first half of the 19th century was the religion (in the sense of path to salvation) of both the financial and economic overdogs and the urban and industrial underdogs, until after the middle of the century the disenchanted underdogs and their champions started to look elsewhere. It was also par excellence the religion as well as the political creed of a large part of the new European middle classes and the now greatly enlarged European intelligentsia. As a cultural force it competed with the clergy for spiritual leadership. The accent was on individual liberty, safeguarded and made practicable by representative institutions and republican government. In the name of liberty and democracy, things good and bad were swept away, and others good and bad introduced to replace them. Inevitably interests and aspirations sometimes clashed. "Free trade," a panacea for some, was anathema for others. Likewise free love. There was much championing of the rights of minorities and subject groups of which the abolition of slavery was an obvious high point. In foreign affairs, energy was directed towards undermining long-established empires by encouraging national liberation movements. However, before the end of the century, not all liberal regimes were averse to collaborating in the acquisition of colonial possessions overseas.
In France, the epicentre of dogmatic liberalism, the government of Louis Philippe was an attempt to hold off more radical interpretations of the democratic idea, which might have endangered individual liberty, with an English compromise. Similar compromises were tried in Spain and Italy that lasted longer. But in France the compromise rapidly failed and dogmatic liberalism finally came into its own with the arrival of the French Third Republic.
From this point on we can justify using the word "secularism" for this characteristically French brand of liberalism, since the first item on its agenda for the next forty years was its war on Catholicism and its attempt to make atheism, in law if not in fact, a state religion. The second article was republicanism. The French attempt was the model for similar experiments throughout the Latin American world, with Turkey and Mexico becoming the first fully secularist states in the early 1920s. In France, however, the march towards a fully secular state was held back by the still large numbers of practising Catholics and the need for national unity during the First World War.
In the First World War and the subsequent economic crises of the 1920s and '30s, classical 19th century liberalism, in both its mild and dogmatic forms, after triumphing for over a century, met its Götterdämmerung, and, with the success of the Russian Revolution, its cultural influence and intellectual prestige passed to collectivist theories of government and social life and collectivist political parties originating during and immediately after the French Revolution. For the best part of two centuries they were to be the religion for a large part of the rapidly growing European industrial working class, and, in their more moderate forms, won them great benefits. Before 1918, the more extreme forms lived a largely underground life, erupting from time to time in revolutionary outbursts here and there across Europe.
Within this collectivist egalitarian denomination, Marx occupies a position similar to that of Rousseau in the democratic liberal tradition. He was founder and prophet of its most powerful current, he was the author of its scriptures, he gave it its unparalleled missionary dynamism, and he provided it with an incomparably challenging war cry: "Workers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains." Next to this, the call for "liberty, equality and fraternity" sounds almost pallidly abstract. 13
So after 1922, when Marxism became the state religion of the Soviet Union, we find ourselves with three major denominations rather than two jockeying for first place, and at the same time provoking resistance movements on the part of bodies of belief or opinion, mainly local nationalist movements, that dislike or disagree with them.
From the 1930s on, the reaction of many Western liberals of both kinds, the European and the Anglo-American, to their newly empowered rival is not unlike that of moths to a flame or rabbits to a cobra. Some are attracted, others repelled. But the common roots and underlying unity of purpose linking all three denominations produced that curious phenomenon, "No enemy to the left," and that equally curious aberration, people who call themselves "liberals" admiring or making excuses for perhaps the longest lasting and socially and psychologically devastating tyranny known to history.
Within the Western liberal intelligentsia, the intellectual prestige of Marxism remained high from the 1930s up to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, while from 1918 to 1960, old-fashioned 19th century liberalism as a socio-cultural or spiritual force had been in a state of near eclipse. However, with the revival of Western economies after 1960, what seemed like a second great liberal age began. But of which kind?
At first it appears to be an amalgam of several kinds. In spite of Marxist meddling from without, the student revolts of the 1960s and the beginnings of the sexual revolution leave the impression that the ghost of Bakunin, father of anarchism, had temporarily taken charge. However, when things settled down and the next half-generation decided that money-making was more enjoyable than lounging about, smoking drugs, and cocking snooks at authority, it seemed more as if a revived Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-American liberalism, with its practical common sense and emphasis on free enterprise, was going to be the directing or guiding force of the coming age. And to some extent it has been at least in the United States. But in Europe it is otherwise. Dogmatic liberalism or secularism, with its antipathy to religious belief and determination to impose its own code of what it considers right and wrong, regardless of its once stridently proclaimed devotion to freedom of speech and expression, seems to be rapidly supplanting the Anglo-American kind.
After this rapid survey of the way the main denominations stemming from the central core of "enlightened" belief have taken shape, we can now turn to looking at each of its doctrines individually.
11. Clement XII in 1738 was the first Pope to forbid Catholics to be freemasons, and similar prohibitions have been issued by subsequent popes. The reason is freernasonry's repudiation of the Judaeo-Christian revelation, and its claim to be a higher religion capable of subsuming all other religions under its wings.
12. For an account of the Enlightenment down to the end of the 18th century, Carl Dekker's The Heavenly City of the French Philosophers (1935), and Paul Hazard's The European Mind 1618-1716 (English edition 1953), and European Thought in the 18" Century by Hollis and Carter (1953) are still among the most rewarding and penetrating studies.
Copyright © Philip Trower 2006, 2011, 2017
Family Publications has now ceased trading. The copyright has reverted to the author Philip Trower who has given permission for the book to be placed on this website. Further corrected chapters will be added as time permits.