Why were the topics of human nature and morality so important in the enlightened thought? Essay

Up to the eighteenth century Western Europe, Christianity was the stronghold and guide for issues concerning life in general. To be more specific, religion was the long rooted base for morality and had its own description of human nature. Diverse factors contributed to the destabilisation of the Church’s status quo, thus enabling the expression of individual thought.

In fact, Christianity not any longer detained the monopole over human lifestyles, leading to the rise of a vast debate relating to the questions of how to lead a life and man’s position in the universe. Naturally, when looking throughout mankind history there have always been discussions and conflicts within the institutions and there have been changes. Nevertheless, what happened during the Age of Reason is incomparable with previous ages as Reason became conscious, and not any longer only accessible to aristocracy and the Church, but also to a rising bourgeoisie.

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The first part of my essay demonstrates the importance of the religious institution (establishment), as well as some socio-economical factors that have participated in the weakening of Christianity.

These aspects are believed to have led to the emancipation of Reason, therefore to the debate of a new society. The question is whether morals and the perception of human nature really have changed?

Firstly, it is important to acknowledge the significance of the relation between religion and morality. The Church was so deeply rooted in the Western civilisation. Christianity had an incredible influence on peoples’ thought and conduct thus lifestyles. Christianity formed the basis for ethics and consequently the justice system. We can thus imagine how far Christianity managed to spread its tentacles across the culture and the society. The social structure was supported and maintained though religion. The monarch was blessed and the monarchy holly supported by clerical and papal institution. Basically, the important issues related to life were thought through by religion, which spread to all the ‘substructures’1. Christianity represented the ultimate Reason, truth, morality etc and answered all the questions one might ask about the universe or else.

Consequently, mercantilism2 enabled economical stability and increased individual’s wealth, allowing oneself more financial independence. This economical shift threatened the Church’s position as it decentralised its wealth: “A major cause for this general change of religious attitude was the rapidly growing economies of both countries [England and France], which led to social and cultural changes, and influenced religious attitudes and, in England, a relaxation of basic church standards as well.3”. With people trading, thus travelling, leading to a fusion of different nations- as Addison explains when he walks through the Royal Exchange: “sometimes I am just led among a body of Armenians; sometimes I am lost in a crowd of Jews; and sometimes make one in a group of Dutchmen.

I am a Dane, Swede, or Frenchman at different times4″. Voltaire took this notion even further when praising religious tolerance in another country than the one he originated from, “Take a view of the Royal Exchange in London, a place more venerable than many courts of justice, where the representatives of all nations meet for the benefit of mankind. There the Jew, the Mahometan, and the Christian transact together as though they all professed the same religion. (…) If one religion only were allowed in England, the government would very possibly become arbitrary; if they were but two, the people would cut each other’s throat; but as there are such a multitude, they all live happy and in peace.5”

Other factors contributed to the questioning of Christianity. In his Discourse on Arts and Sciences6, Rousseau mentions that “it was the stupid Mussulman, the sworn enemy to letters, that caus’d their revival amongst us”. Rousseau is certainly alluding to the Renaissance where there was a revival of classical literature that started in Italy before gaining the rest of Europe due to the “fall of Constantine’s throne7”. More importantly, the resurgence of Aristotle’s works amongst scholars may have led to rethinking the long held and rooted position of the Church. For centuries, blind beliefs and superstitions surrounded the lifestyles of people; and Reason had made a formidable reappearance through the Greek works.

We can then observe a gradual socio-economical shift relocating the Church’s position to a background scene, bringing forward the individual thought.

As a consequence, the Church’s status quo started to fissure from inside. Although there appeared to be an overwhelming Christian majority, there was not any unity of such. There arise a general question on religious tolerance8 as the religious domination started to openly break apart from inside. Furthermore, the ‘laxest’ political circumstances in England9 saw the decline of the monarchical power thus suggested a new approach relating to the divine right of Kings. There would be a constant conflict between Catholics and Protestants, between Christians and deists, or atheists10 etc. Each party claimed to hold the truth on how to understand the world. The dissidence came along with a strong anticlericalism. Various criticisms where made against the Church, such as lying about the quantity of miracles or the miracles11 themselves, in order for the Church to catch as many individuals as possible12.

Priests and other members of the clergy were accused of Priestcraft. They would conspire to keep the masses in ignorance: “everything conspires to blind them [men], and confirm their errors. Priests cheat them [men], corrupt tyrants, the better to enslave them [men]13 “. As a consequence, a massive confusion seemed to have emerged in relation to human nature and morality, these two issues being based on Christianity. Indeed, the description of human was entirely given by religion14: from being part of a “massa damnata15”- basically a wretched being-, to actually being able to buy one’s salvation, or to being able to improve oneself (but only with God’s help). It is therefore easily conceivable that given the circumstances cited earlier on, thinkers started to question the very fundaments of human nature and ethics.

The atheist, baron d’Holbach supports well my argument: “Crushed under the yoke of spiritual and temporal power, it was impossible for the people to know and pursue their happiness. As religion, politics, and morality became sanctuaries, into which the ungodly were not permitted to enter, men had no other morality, than what their legislators and priests brought down from the unknown regions of the Empyrean.(…) These are the true causes of the corruption of morals16”. In other words, d’Holbach argues that morality bases itself on religion. Moreover, man was the oppressed puppet of the priests, “at the mercy of his priests17”. People were enslaved by being kept in ignorance and fearful of a mysterious phantom (God). According to d’Holbach, the use of knowledge, Reason and liberty would transform people into happy beings. There is not any need of theology for true morality, only of Reason18 which will give man experience and the motivation to “please himself and his fellow creatures19”.

On the whole, it can be said that these internal and external factors lead to a shift of position of Christianity, which was deeply embedded in the European culture. The question is now: how was a new society to be led with a diminished religious power, and based on what way of thought?

Kant suggested a categorical imperative. Although, it could be very much associated with the ‘golden rule’, Kant based himself on the use of reason. According to him, there is a major conflict within morality and happiness. Duty (to the state and to God) is part of non-autonomous ethics, while bodily passions are not, and therefore should be controlled by the reason. Nevertheless, no supernatural authority is to teach us morality. For this, reason needs constancy and constancy requires the same rules for everyone. His universal rule bases itself on treating others as ends, not as means and leads us to act on principle despite the consequences. This view seems rather utopian and extreme, and contradictory within the issue on life preservation. Nevertheless, his famous maxim ‘dare to think’ seems to oppose itself to the gregarian and submissive religious attitude.

More radical was Bentham, who started utilitarianism He focused on the idea that humans are sentient beings. We search to diminish the pain and increase the pleasure for the greatest number. Also basing himself on reason, Bentham refuses to maintain laws and legislations that are rooted in traditions or other customs. His approach appears to drift further away from religion as his principles go against it: “the religious party have frequently gone so far as to make it a matter of merit and of duty to court pain.20”

The atheist Diderot believed that the first error made on human nature is believing it to be bad and vicious, thus morals were to oppress men. He emphasised on instinct pushing us towards happiness and the reason as being the mean to it.

Some deists argued on the ‘discoveries’ of ‘new’ nations demonstrated that a secular society was possible; cultures and moralities were coexisting without the oppressive tentacles of the Church or other religious institutions.

Others like Rousseau also emphasised on the goodness of human nature but argued against progress and civilisation, as a source of immorality. The more advanced the civilisation, the less moral it became. According to Rousseau, humans have two primitive emotions: one is self-preservation and the other a general repugnance at the suffering of others. He believed people to be naturally good, thus condemned the society as the cause of suffering and inequality: “Man was born free, and everywhere he is in chains”. He rejects laws because they are imposed upon individuals, therefore incapacitating people to access morality; as morality bases itself in the conscience of each. This view is totally rejected by Hobbes, who sees the necessity of the laws to control the human nature. He believes it to be selfish and based on emotion rather than on reason.

Most of the ideas suggest men should take their life into their own hands and start reasoning about their condition, but what about women21? According to Rousseau, “Women do wrong to complain of the inequality of man-made laws22”. He not only acknowledges the man-made system, that could be again reminded based on Christianity, but denies women the ability to reason: “this inequality is not of man’s making, or at any rate it is not the result of mere prejudice, but of reason.” If males’ wretchedness appears to have been progressively overcome, females’ status remained problematic and difficult.

Some female writers seem to get along with men’s ideals of superiority, as Hawkins demonstrates it: “In general, and almost universally, the feminine intellect has less strength and more acuteness. Consequently in our exercise of it, we show less perseverance and more vivacity.23”

A very different viewpoint was offered by Wollstonecraft, in Vindication of the Rights of Woman “Would men but generously snap our chains, and be content with rational fellowship instead of slavish obedience24”. One can observe a very strong vocabulary related to submission, but also an insistence on women’s equal ability to reason. It is important to mention that not only women were expressing their unjust position. For instance, Paine25 wrote “Society, instead of alleviating their [women’s] condition, is to them the source of new miseries. (…) women are completely wretched.26”

We can then see that the status quo of the Church being trembled, a new confidence in human’s ability arose, mainly justified by the use of Reason. The perception of human nature became more positive and the same could be said for morality, although most of the ‘philosophes’ did not detach as strongly from the Christian influence27. Their viewpoints have become, nevertheless, important and powerful by their radicalism and individual novelty to reason. However, it is also noticeable that the ability to reason remained mainly an affluent male’s matter. Indeed, female stance on morality does not seem to come across as women’s position still hangs in the darkness of the Christian stand.

Critical bibliography

Daily, D.N. (1999). Enlightenment Deism. Pittsburg: Dorrance Publishing Co. Inc.

I found the introduction very good as it shows the historical context, and how Christianity and its perception have evolved during the Enlightenment. It is nevertheless a modernist analysis as it bases itself on progression (pp. 12) related to economy, culture, reason, atheism etc.

Crocker, L.G. (1969). The Age of Enlightenment. London: Harper and Row Publishers.

Another reader on Enlightenment, which offers an interesting chapter on morals : chapter 4, pp. 120 to 172.

Hampson, N. (1987). The Enlightenment, An Evaluation of its Assumptions, Attitudes and Values. Harmondsworth: A Pelican Book.

This source is more detailed than Outram on some parts related to social context. There are also more quotes and citations to back the arguments.

Hazard, P. (1963). La Pens�e Europ�ene au XVII�me Si�cle. France: Fayard.

Good points on the ‘enlightened morality’ can be found, especially with Diderot (on pleasure, passions and reason) pp. 164. This book is however, as the title suggests, written in French.

Hazard, P. (1973). The Enlightenment Mind 1680-1715. Paris: Penguin University Books.

Some good parts on deism and natural religion pp. 293 and ‘new morality’ viewed by Christians pp. 330 (although not included in the essay because of a lack of space).

Kramnick, I. (1995). The Portable Enlightenment Reader. London: A Penguin book.

An excellent reader that offers a variety of ideas and thinkers. It has been very useful to my essay. It is howerver a shame that there is not any index at the end of the book.

Outram, D. (1999). The Enlightenment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

The book contains a good overview and general ideas of the Enlightenment, especially on women’s position (chapter 6, pp.80)

Singer, P. (2001). A Companion to Ethics. Melbourne: Blackwell Reference.

Some interesting information on Christian morality but I did not find what I was looking for (religious input on jurisdiction). Generally good as background knowledge, although not relevant as such concerning the Enlightenment.

Theories of Human Nature Reader (2001). Kingston University

This study pack contains a good first hand-sources compilation, especially interesting for the women condition seen in Christianity.

The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions (1997). Oxford

The part on Christianity was helpful, especially the one on St Augustine.

Thompson, M. (1999). Ethical Theory. London: Hodder ; Stoughton.

This second-hand source was helpful to underline the ethical mainstreams that have formed during the eighteenth century on pages 84 (Kant), 74 (Bentham) and 66 to 73 (on Hobbes, Rousseau and Locke).

References

In Kramnick, I. (1995). The Portable Enlightenment Reader. London: A Penguin book.

* Addison, J. (1711). article in the Spectator, No. 69

* Bentham, J. (1789). An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation

* D’Holbach, P.H. (1772). Common Sense, or Natural Ideas Opposed to Supernatural

* Paine, T.(1775). An Occasional Letter on the Female Sex

* Rousseau, J.J. (1751). Discourse on Arts and Sciences

* Rousseau, J.J.(1762). Emile

* Voltaire. (1733). Letters Concerning the English Nation

* Wollstonecraft, V.(1792). A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions (1997). Oxford

* St Augustine. The original sin.

Outram, D. (2000). The Enlightenment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

* Hawkins, L. (1792). Letters on the Female Mind

Theories of Human Nature Reader (2001). Kingston University

* St Augustine. Enchiridion, 26,27 in an article on Attitudes to Women in the Christian Tradition

* Luther, M. an article on Attitudes to Women in the Christian Tradition

1 With ‘substructures’ , I mean politics, jurisdiction, social, economical and cultural issues.

2 i.e. trade with European colonies and other countries.

3 Daily, D.N. (1999). Enlightened Deism, the Foremost Threat to Christianity and the Role it has Played in American Protestantism. Dorrance Publishing Co. Inc

4 Addison, J., article in the Spectator, No. 69 (1711), in Kramnick, I..The Portable Enlightenment Reader. (1995), pp.481

5 Voltaire, ‘Letters Concerning the English Nation'(1733), in

Kramnick, I..The Portable Enlightenment Reader. (1995) pp 133.

6 Rousseau, J.J., ‘Discourse on Arts and Sciences'(1751), in Kramnick, I..The Portable Enlightenment Reader. (1995), pp.364

7 Rousseau, J.J., ‘Discourse on Arts and Sciences'(1751), in Kramnick, I..The Portable Enlightenment Reader. (1995), pp.364

8 …especially after the Revocation of the ‘Edit de Nantes’ in 1685 by Louis XIV.

9 In particular after the Glorious Revolution (1688-1689)

10 For instance, Bonvald wrote “A Deist is simply a man who hasn’t had time to become an Atheist.”, in Hazard, P. The Enlightenment Mind 1680-1715. (1973), pp.293

11 Miracles were very much criticised by Hume.

12 Indeed, a miracle would attract believers or others, thereby bringing money to the Church where it supposedly occurred.

13 D’Holbach, P.H., ‘Common Sense, or Natural Ideas Opposed to Supernatural'(1772), in

Kramnick, I..The Portable Enlightenment Reader. (1995), pp.143

14 Although, there have been some changes in human nature’ perception, notably during the Reformation and the Renaissance.

15 St Augustine. The original sin. The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions (1997). Oxford

16 D’Holbach, P.H., ‘Common Sense, or Natural Ideas Opposed to Supernatural'(1772), in

Kramnick, I..The Portable Enlightenment Reader. (1995), pp.143

17 D’Holbach, P.H., ‘Common Sense, or Natural Ideas Opposed to Supernatural'(1772), in

Kramnick, I..The Portable Enlightenment Reader. (1995), pp.143

18 D’Holbach, P.H., ‘Common Sense, or Natural Ideas Opposed to Supernatural'(1772), in

Kramnick, I..The Portable Enlightenment Reader. (1995), pp.150

“The less men reason, the more wicked they are. Savages, princes, nobles and the dregs of the people are commonly the worst of men, because they reason the least… “

19 D’Holbach, P.H., ‘Common Sense, or Natural Ideas Opposed to Supernatural'(1772), in

Kramnick, I..The Portable Enlightenment Reader. (1995), pp.148

20 Bentham, J., ‘An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation'(1789), in Kramnick, I..The Portable Enlightenment Reader. (1995), pp.311

21 Women symbolized by Eve were viewed, in Christianity, as an easy window for evil to act upon but more intensely as the cause of man’s sin: “his spouse – who was the cause of his sin and the companion of his damnation ” . More shocking remains the way Luther represented women: ” the way they were created indicates this, for they have broad hips and a wide fundament to sit on “.

22 Rousseau, J.J., ‘Emile’ (1762) in Kramnick, I..The Portable Enlightenment Reader. (1995), pp. 571

23 Hawkins, L. (1792). ‘Letters on the Female Mind’, in Outram, D. (2000). The Enlightenment. pp 85

24 Wollstonecraft, V. ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’ (1792), in Kramnick, I..The Portable Enlightenment Reader. (1995), pp. 628

25 According to Kramnick, it is uncertain he really was the author of this text.

26 Paine, T. ‘An Occasional Letter on the Female Sex’ (1775), in Kramnick, I..The Portable Enlightenment Reader. (1995), pp.587

27 I have not strongly emphasised on thinkers strongly attached to religion, although I am fully acknowledging their importance. Also, not all philosophes praised Reason: thinkers like Hume or Bayle believed it to be, to an extend, useless. Due to a lack of space, I chose to emphasise on ideas that were as much as possible detached from Christianity. I indeed believe them to be groundbreaking thus more pertinent to answer the question of the essay.