What is Enlightenment?

Yesterday: Essay on the Principle of Population  Tomorrow: The Theory of the Leisure Class

Twitter: @GreatBooksDude

Website: http://goetzeducation.wordpress.com/our-mission/ (specializing in online Great Books programs!)

So Malthus is not a fan of the welfare state.  But Malthus focuses on an interpretation of population and effects.  Today we will take a look at David Hume’s essay discussing whether the population of 1750s Europe met that of the ancient world.  This is a landmark essay on a topic that has since become completely obsolete, but for its presentation and approach it is remarkable (and I hereby refer my reader directly to it).

My main concern here is with the relevance of the topic to the world in which Hume was living.  That world, in the midst of a centuries-long period of strict, rational inquiry that came to symbolize the material and political advancement of Europe over the rest of the globe, was trying to separate itself from the world of the ancient Romans.  We are all (except anyone who’s been in school after about the year 2006) familiar with the stages of historical development, from antiquity to the dark ages and then into the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment, which gave us the age of political revolutions and the technological and industrial revolution.  What isn’t always made so clear is that the Renaissance, and to a large degree the Reformation as well, were very distinct from the Enlightenment in that while the Renaissance was, broadly speaking, a revival of classical learning designed to go along with the revival of urban life, and the Reformation was an application of this revival to the moral and ecclesiastical issues of the day, the Enlightenment was an attempt to move past what was increasingly seen as a limited intellectual framework stuck in a world that was a millennium and a half old.

Here it might help to give some dates.  My personal dating system is different from those commonly in use, but I see the Renaissance starting in Italy around 1270 and ending there in the mid-1500s, but not ending in England and Western Europe until 1620.  I see the Reformation as at least in part a backlash against Renaissance luxury and dissipation, thus having to operate simultaneously with it, so I see it between 1517 (the obvious starting date with Luther’s initial protests against the sale of indulgences) and 1600, by which point Protestantism had already taken root in every place in which it was to flourish.  I see the Enlightenment, then, starting between 1600 and 1620, and extending through John Stuart Mill in the 1840s and 1850s.  Many intellectuals give the Enlightenment a much later starting date and a much earlier ending date, but they probably could not give a coherent reason for their dating system.  Note the word coherent.

What this means is that Galileo’s scientific career marks the beginning of the Enlightenment.  Galileo presented one of the first major attempts to distance the modern world from the world of the ancients, using strict reasoning; other breakthroughs had been made prior to him (Copernicus, Kepler) but were nowhere near as systematic, as they sought to work with ancient learning to a certain extent.  The chain of thinkers who follow Galileo in philosophy, political theory, ethics, mathematics, and science all use Galileo’s platform.  Thus Descartes, Milton, Hobbes, Spinoza, and Locke all create vastly new intellectual chains in the 17th Century, showing by the end next to no connection with the discourse of classical antiquity, and Montesquieu, Berkeley, Rousseau, Voltaire, Johnson, Gibbon, Hume, and Adam Smith follow in direct order in the 18th Century.

Thus when Hume writes his essay on comparative population–conducted with little statistical knowledge of both present and past, and done mostly on guided speculation with reference to the major historical works of antiquity–he does so with the intent to show that Europe was past the age of antiquity or, if it wasn’t, to spark it to get past that age.  In doing this he casts a doubtful eye on the reports of Herodotus, Thucydides, and Livy.  He has to cast doubt on the size and splendor of the plethora of cities they mention.  He has to somehow show that the ancient world was not as safe or as comfortable as had been generally assumed.  He had to discuss the factors of agricultural production and early mortality (especially as it related to disease and prevention), reproductive capacity, and so on and so forth.

By now, of course, we are well past the population figures referred to in either era.  Major scientific and medical advances have extended the length of lives and general political advances have made the world, in many places (but not necessarily in most), a much safer place.  This of course is neither here nor there.

This marvelous essay is some 89 pages in the Liberty Fund’s volume of Essays: Moral, Political, and Literary.  Thus I cannot teach it this school year unless I have adults who want to read it with Malthus and Gibbon’s Essay on the Study of Literature and others of the same variety.  Now a good portion of those 89 pages is comprised of footnotes, but the essay ain’t short, that’s for damned sure.  Hume, by the way, was good pals with Adam Smith.

I will note in closing that Hume is straightforward in his language–he is a good writer, as much as he is a good thinker–and that his essays as a whole are extremely valuable.  I have at least 4 of his shorter essays on my tentative list for the fall.  Whether you agree with him or not–and in so many ways I don’t!–he is the kind of thinker whose writings legitimately bring you from a lower to a higher plane just by exposure to them.

On that note I take my leave.  Adios, fellas!


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