enlightened on the enlightenment

I’m reading a series of books on the history of Britain. I picked them up at the British Museum in London last May. A very enjoyable read – usually accompanying my morning oatmeal! Currently I am in A Brief History of Britain, 1660-1851: The Making of the Nation, by William Gibson. This is volume three in the series; each volume has a separate author.

Came across this quote on the Enlightenment today… made me sit up and take notice!

The Enlightenment is one of those historical ideas that can easily give the impression of inevitability, methodically working towards some pre-determined event or goal. Folk practices and ancient customs, it suggests, irresistibly gave way to science and the laws of nature. This feeling of inevitability is partly because of the way in which historians approach it. The Enlightenment in Britain, and in Europe, was not a single monolithic phenomenon. It was a collection of processes and movements, some of which coincided, some of which were connected; others were disconnected and occurred haphazardly. These events and movements were as contingent and prone to reversal and failure as any other parts of history. The word ‘Enlightenment’ adds to the inevitability as it implies an emergence from darkness, and suggests a shedding of the light of reason on ignorance and superstition. In fact ‘Enlightenment’ was not used by people at the time and was only used much later to summarize all sorts of processes and trends in this period which were quite disparate. So we should restrain the tendency to see the Enlightenment as a victory of science over superstition.

The idea of the Enlightenment as a period of reason is challenged by much of the emotionalism of the period. The evangelical revival, the understanding of the human mind and the growing sense of individualism are examples of the way in which the Enlightenment was also preoccupied with emotions and feelings. How people felt, as opposed to how they thought, forms an important part of the Enlightenment. So while much of this chapter refers to ‘reason’, we should not discount the impact of emotions. (pp. 92-93)

I thought this was a remarkable observation, especially coming as it appears from a secular writer. Gibson is Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Oxford Brookes University. He is also Director of the Oxford Centre for Methodism and Church History. So perhaps he is not as secular as I thought. In any case, he makes a very interesting observation.



  1. And Friederich Schleiermacher, the father of theological liberalism is a textbook example. He taught that the essence of religion is feeling, more exactly a feeling of dependence on God.

    • Yeah, he was the king of feeling, no doubt about it.

      What struck me is that I had been laboring under the mistaken notion that modernism was rational, “Reason is king.” I thought that it was post-modernism that brought in this wave of emotion. PM may have changed some aspects of this, but this observation made me sit up and take notice: Individualism and the “Age of Reason” are charged with emotion. We’ve lived under this for a long time.

      That is not to disparage emotionalism entirely, I suppose. But we must recognize that it is a big part of what drives modernism, “rationalism”, science, etc. It probably drives us a good deal as well, we’ve been raised to think this way. Or should I say, “feel this way”?

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3