The Age of Reason

The Age of Reason existed between the second half of the seventeenth century and the end of the eighteenth century, between what could be described as the Age of Faith and the Age of Ideologies. It was a period in which beliefs were not accompanied by the urge to convert; it did not, therefore, contain the more aggressive tendencies of the Reformation and Counter Reformation before 1648 or of the series of ‘isms’ spawned in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. An integral part of the new mentality was the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, the philosophers of which entirely abandoned the previous assumption that human nature per se was imperfect and therefore in need of divine direction. Instead, the emphasis was placed on deducing from Nature certain precepts which would make possible a new advance towards perfection in human institutions. The basic requirement for this progression was not divine revelation but human Reason.

The Age of Reason grew from seventeenth–century roots, reaching its peak early in the second half of the eighteenth century. By this stage, however, it was already being eroded by philosophers who no longer saw Reason as the universal remedy for all problems, but as an instrument for specific courses of action, incapable of achieving perfection in any form. A new and more profound influence eventually emerged in the form of Romanticism, and Reason was increasingly subordinated to the role of service to the senses rather than mastery over them.


The Age of Reason originated in a period when the religious and metaphysical approach to philosophy was being abandoned. A new and secular form of philosophy developed, the synthesis of three important changes.

The first was largely a new method of reasoning which made it possible to reject many assumptions which had previously been considered above criticism. Largely responsible for this were Descartes (1596–1650) and Bacon (15611626). Descartes subjected the search for truth to the most rigorous logic, based on four principles enumerated in his Discourse on Method (1641). Among these was his determination ‘never to accept anything for true which I clearly did not know to be such; that is to say, carefully to avoid precipitancy and prejudice’. His method sought to ‘divide each of the difficulties under examination into as many parts as possible’ and then ‘to conduct my thoughts in such order that by beginning with objects the simplest … to … ascend little by little … to the knowledge of the more complex’. The end of the process was ‘to make enumerations so complete, and reviews so general, that I might be assured that nothing was omitted’.1 This produced the most effective means yet devised for the operation of human reason.

The second was the belief that if this rational approach were applied to an examination of Man and Nature, certain principles for future human conduct and progress would emerge, in the form of fundamental laws. This assumption was greatly influenced by the success of Newton (1642–1727), who had deduced the most extensive and far–reaching physical laws then known. His impact on the contemporary imagination was considerable, as is indicated by Pope's epitaph:

Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night;

God said, Let Newton be! and all was light.

There was every expectation that philosophy could be served in the same way as science; that laws for progress and happiness were as deducible as those for dynamics and gravitation.

The third was the existence of certain assumptions which were used as starting points for the elucidation of such laws by Reason. Most of these ideas were provided by Spinoza (1634–1677), Bayle (1647–1706) and, above all, Locke (1632–1704). Locke, for example, made an open plea for religious toleration in his Epistola de Tolerantia. So evident was the connection between toleration and rational behaviour ‘that it seems monstrous for men to be blind in so clear a light’.2 His logical and far–reaching conclusion was that ‘The care .of every man's soul belongs to himself, and is to be left to him.’3 He also provided, in his Second Treatise on Civil Government, a theoretical structure for representative institutions and, above all, greatly weakened the notion of original sin. For Locke the human mind was initially an empty vessel, gradually filled with impressions and influences from the environment. This socio–logical approach meant that humanity could be seen as infinitely adaptable and capable of being remoulded in accordance with those basic laws deduced by reason.

The eighteenth century saw the climax of the Age of Reason in the Enlightenment, the undisputed centre of which was France. The Huguenots, in their attack on the establishment after 1685, had created an environment in which the authority of the Church was no longer accepted without criticism, and in which it had become fashionable to examine new ideas on constitutional development. The actual spread of the Enlightenment within France was made possible by a particularly receptive elite which eagerly promoted discussion within the numerous salons. France was also affected by early influences emanating from England. After 1700 Locke's works were published in France; Voltaire visited England in 1726; and the famous Encyclopédie grew out of an original intention to produce a French edition of Chambers’ Encyclopedia.

Once established in France, the Enlightenment synthesized the influences of Descartes, Newton and Locke, elevating Reason to the highest pinnacle it has ever attained in human history. The common theme was that Man's happiness was the main consideration of philosophy. The potential for this was contained within his nature and could be brought out by the use of Reason. Hence, as Burlamaqui observed, ‘.reason is the only means by which men can seek happiness’.4 Indeed, Diderot (1713–84) went so far as to claim: ‘Reason is for the philosopher what Grace is for the Christian.’5 Reason could be applied in two ways; it could deduce and analyse the basic traits of human nature and then, step by step, construct the perfect society. By this means, according to Turgot, ‘the total mass of the human race...marches always, although slowly, towards still higher perfection’.6 This progress had an absolute aim, for Turgot could envisage the stage where ‘humanity perfects itself. This view was echoed by Condorcet: ‘The time will come when the sun will shine only upon free men, who know no other master but their reason.’7

What were the implications of this attitude for religion, politics and the economy? The general aim of the philosophers was not to abolish religion but, in Diderot's words, to ‘Enlarge and liberate God’.8 Divinity was seen as the driving spirit of Nature, and was therefore contained within it rather than having a separate existence above it. God, therefore, became more rational and less vengeful, no longer prepared to abandon a large proportion of His creatures. Thus the philosophers demolished the concepts of hell and predestination along with that of original sin. ‘Man’, according to Voltaire (1694–1778), ‘is not born wicked; he becomes wicked, as he falls ill.’9 The upholder of the traditional concept of God was the Church, which the philosophers wished to see greatly weakened.

Under the influence of Locke's theories, some writers concentrated on examining political institutions. Turgot believed that ‘The Science of government will...become easy, and will cease to be beyond the reach of men endowed with only ordinary good sense.’6 Montesquieu (1689–1755), basing his analysis of institutions on careful observation, proceeded to generalize about different influences and conditions, and then constructed his ideal, the best known element of which was the separation of the legislative, executive and judicial powers. His whole approach was based on Reason. ‘There is, then, a prime reason; and laws are the relations subsisting between it and different beings, and the relations of these to one another.’10 Economic theories, particularly those of the Physiocrats, followed the general dictum ‘Let Nature rule.’ This came to be closely connected with the policy of free trade and with minimum state interference (laissez–faire). At the same time, the chaos of internal customs barriers, unevenly distributed taxation and oppressive guild regulations, had to be dealt with by a carefully planned policy if the government was not to abdicate its responsibilities. Reason again showed the way to a common land tax (impôt unique) and the liberation of all serfs. Diderot, d'Alembert (1717– 83), Quesnay and Le Mercier all assumed that once the ideal economic environment had been provided, both population and wealth would continue to grow indefinitely. This form of progress would combine with social harmony and new political institutions to bring about the type of optimism about the future which is certainly absent in the twentieth–century predictions of Huxley's Brave New World and Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four!

The practical effects of the French Enlightenment are examined in Chapters 28, 29, 30, 31 and 33. The impact was geographically extensive, affecting most countries in Europe and linking up with regional variations like the German and Austrian Enlightenment. Quantitatively, however, it was rather restricted. The vast majority of the population was entirely excluded, for, according to Voltaire, the supremacy of Reason influenced only ‘the thinking portion of the human race, i.e. the hundred thousandth part’. This narrow base was the Enlightenment's greatest weakness, for it could not gain the mass appeal of Christianity or of later ideologies. Moreover, since it was monopolized by the wealthy and educated sectors of society, the ideas of the Enlightenment were frequently distorted, either in the form of enlightened despotism (see Chapters 28 and 32) or as the justification for retaining traditional privileges (see Chapters 35 and 37). Any philosophy based on Reason therefore suffered from inherent disadvantages when compared with one based on faith or feeling.

No eighteenth–century philosopher ever launched a direct attack on Reason itself. At times, however, Reason was made the object of satire; Voltaire's Candide and Swift's Gulliver's Travels both provide examples of this. More fundamentally, the Enlightenment did have a strand of thought which questioned the prevailing view that Reason was a means of achieving perfection. This was particularly apparent in Britain, largely because the British Enlightenment had evolved out of its idealistic phase by the second quarter of the eighteenth century. The struggle between Parliament and the Stuarts, which had made the works of Locke so popular, had long been replaced by a limited monarchy which was acceptable to a larger cross–section of the population. Religious tolerance, although far from complete, was more advanced than in France, and Britain was the one state in Europe where the economic policy of laissezfaire was partially working. Most British writers regarded Britain's concrete achievements as a satisfactory compromise and therefore saw little need to pursue an elusive perfection.

Such an environment inevitably reduced the role of Reason. The most articulate and influential writer of the later British Enlightenment was David Hume (1711–76), who observed that Reason was no more than an instrument capable of serving good and evil designs equally since it was ‘morally neutral’.11 He placed far more emphasis than his predecessors on experience and the passions in human development: ‘It is certain that the most ignorant and stupid peasants, nay infants, nay even brute beasts, improve by experience and learn the qualities of natural objects by observing the effects which result from them.’12 Reason is an integral part of the human faculties, but ‘is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions’;13 it is, in other words, merely the means of achieving a specific objective.

The impact of this approach was considerable. Such views were not unique to Hume or to Britain, for there were waverers in France who felt that Reason had its limitations. But the lucid arguments and acid phrases of Hume's Treatise of Human Nature (1739) and his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1749) did much, during the next few decades, to erode the thesis that Reason provided the means for progress, leading to perfection. He also prepared the way for a continental re–examination of Reason later in the century, particularly by Kant (1724–1804), and left room for a new line of philosophical argument.

The search for a new spirit as an alternative to the mastery of Reason could have led back to the Age of Faith; certainly there were religious revivals towards the end of the eighteenth century. The replacement, however, usually took the form of Romanticism. This emphasized traditions and feelings, thus opening up further areas of expression and making possible a new degree of intensity in the works of Rousseau (1712–78) and Burke (1729–97). Both, it should be emphasized, constructed their arguments by rational methods, but neither accepted the view that pure Reason could show the way to improvement and progress. Rousseau placed his confidence in Nature, and Burke in the accumulated wisdom of a nation's traditions.

Philosophers like Locke and Voltaire had denied that Man is naturally evil. Rousseau now carried this to its extreme conclusion and claimed that ‘Man is naturally good’.14 Rousseau claimed that Man has unfortunately been affected by a combination of irrelevant ideas and vicious social institutions. The former ‘sap the foundations of our faith, and destroy virtue’.14 The latter produced the famous paradox at the beginning of the Social Contract: ‘Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.’15 The solution, Rousseau believed, is to return to Nature and to the very simplest forms of democratic government. Only in this way will the natural goodness of Man be able to reassert itself, quite independently of Reason. Rousseau seemed to have an aversion to material progress, referring to cities, for example, as ‘the sink of the human species’.16 Since he was challenging one of the most important beliefs of the Enlightenment, he found himself the butt of considerable scorn. Voltaire wrote, in a letter to Rousseau: ‘.one is seized with a desire to walk on four paws. However, as it is more than sixty years since I lost that habit, I feel, unfortunately, that it is impossible for me to recover it.’14 Voltaire clearly thought that Rousseau's search for natural goodness through simplicity was thoroughly facile, but Rousseau was, in fact, trying to break away from what he considered to be the stultifying tyranny of Reason. ‘What can be proved by reason to the majority of men is only the interested calculation of personal benefit.’14

Burke emphasized natural goodness less than natural wisdom, believing that ‘Man is by nature reasonable’.17 It was not, however, the type of reason which could be used to construct perfect institutions; it was an accumulation of the wisdom of the past: ‘We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason: because we suspect that the stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations, and of ages.’18 Why, therefore, search for perfection? This can only be based on theories, and theories in themselves, are to be mistrusted. Indeed, ‘There is, by the essential fundamental constitution of things, a radical infirmity in all human contrivances; and the weakness is often so attached to the very perfection of our political mechanism, that some defect in it. becomes a necessary corrective to the evils that the theoretic perfection would produce.’19 Progress was possible only in an organic sense. Societies, Burke maintained, are not constructed on principles; they evolve. Any attempts to change the direction of this evolution by imposing different theories can result only in permanent damage and distortion.

Romanticism was capable of providing an enormous variety of views, and it brought extremes to replace the tones of the rule of Reason. Rousseau and Burke were both Romantics, but they stood further apart than had any two philosophers in the Age of Reason. Rousseau condemned most forms of existing society; Burke upheld existing societies because they were the result of organic growth. Rousseau advocated a return to Nature; Burke urged states to hold to an evolutionary course. The greatest difference was apparent in their attitude to political authority. Rousseau had such faith in the innate goodness of the majority that he was prepared to see the dissident minority conform to the ‘General Will’ in the belief that they were being forced to regain their freedom. Burke regarded such theorizing as futile and dangerous, and upheld the concrete base of parliamentary sovereignty, with all its inherent defects.

Such a capacity for divergent thought meant that Romanticism could flow into many channels, altering its shape in the process. Sometimes this resulted in distortion; Rousseau's ideas, for example, were used by Robespierre between 1792 and 1794 to justify the Reign of Terror. Sometimes, too, Romanticism in political thought was used to glorify the power of the state and to tighten the control of the government over the masses. The one common factor, however, was that Romanticism, in all its forms, affected the majority of the population: either through the arts or through the development in the nineteenth century of modern political ideologies.

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