The Myths of the West (III) (The Enlightenment)

The Myths of the West (III) (The Enlightenment)

Written by Alfonso Elizondo

The vast majority of the great intellectuals of our time concur in their view that the elements that really create connections between human beings, in addition to genetics, are the myths that come from religious beliefs, cultural traditions, ethnic inheritance, and those acquired through different educational processes, especially during childhood. When one  reaches adulthood, all those elements become incontrovertible truths that determine the future of the lives of the vast majority of people who use analogical thinking to solve all the basic problems of existence, health, education, security and coexistence with other human beings in their society.


In this third article on Western myths I deal with the period of the Enlightenment, where new and unexpected elements emerged to replace the myths that ruled the West during the feudal society of the Middle Ages which lasted a little over four centuries, and later the myths of the Renaissance which lasted five centuries and ended just at the time of the French Revolution well into the eighteenth century.


Feudalism had been maintained in Europe for nine centuries, causing profound economic, social and cultural inequality in the entire population. Like the Spanish monarchy a few centuries earlier, the French monarchy with King Louis XVI had become a very powerful force that had ruined the country with his never-ending wars to try to dominate Europe. Paris was a huge city where the royal court accumulated all the possible luxuries, in contrast to the wretched life of the most humble strata of the population. So it was very difficult to achieve the spirit of brotherhood sought by the leadership of the dominant Catholic religion.


France was living with the chaos of social life, while the elites of America wanted to maintain a homogeneous population. The French elite demanded a rational kind of politics that would eliminate social chaos and organize social life. While the new American State was reaching agreements among its different parliaments, the King of France was stifling the society with taxes, intervening in all the territories of the kingdom and trying to regulate the life of the entire population.


Even though the Enlightenment had foreseen a gradual evolution, the excessive inequality led to a revolutionary situation that was not expected. The old State collapsed, and although reason would gradually come into play, the Revolution could not wait. The idealism of the leaders of the Revolution was kindled in the popular classes and became a kind of massive excitement out of control.


The Revolution demanded a new political constitution for France, and the differences between bourgeois and commoner came to an end. The people defined themselves as sovereign, much of the property of the Church was placed at the service of the people, the holdings of the nobility had to be justified by their productivity and only then could they be bought or sold, although many were confiscated and changed owners.


The individual’s right to equality, to education, property and culture was established. So no one could doubt that the Revolution was a noble cause. With the Revolution came the unpredictable, something that no theory could have anticipated. For the first time in history, the masses of society had access to political activity and continued that way forever. Life in Europe and around the world was completely transformed to such an extent that the Enlightenment as a movement underwent a profound change. The Revolution created new powers in the States and the nineteenth century produced the first attempts to transform society under the new concept of mass society and the modern state.


Young revolutionaries like Marat, Danton, and Robespierre were not considered heirs of the previous generation of Voltaire, Kant, Hume or Diderot, since they did not trust the experience of their ancestors, but they saw themselves as the builders of a new State, and so the Enlightenment did not know how to organize the revolutionary movement.


The most outstanding thinkers were skeptical about the possibility of knowing the basic concepts of reality, or they asserted that the world was an evolving reality without committing themselves to specific ideas. Because of this, the Enlightenment was never fundamentalist; its very materialism prevented it from creating forming a system.


Consequently, there were certain basic elements that the bourgeoisie incorporated into the social life of that time to fight against the anachronistic myths left over from the Middle Ages. I will mention six of them that I consider the most important:


1.  Love of Nature.- This is expressed in the desire to discover the laws that govern nature through the application of reason and observation.


2. Use of Reason.- There was a steadfast faith in the power of human reason, so much so that it was thought that with the judicious use of reason unlimited progress was possible.


3.. Equality.- If all human beings come from the same nature and they can all reason, it follows that all humans are equal and have equal rights.


4 .- Liberty.- Must be absolute in political, religious, economic and intellectual matters.


5º.- Deism.- This is the natural religion. If God and the soul cannot be known through human reason because they are metaphysical realities and cannot be perceived by the senses, God is recognized as the author of nature and must be revealed through reason.


6 .- Secular Morality.- This is independent of religion, since the human being is governed by moral force, not only because God wants it to be so, but because reason requires respect for the rights of others.


Addendum: These last six myths that were developed by the thinkers of the French Revolution are still the ones that now constitute the essence of the thinking or the mythology of the West, except that numerous concepts and technologies of the new digital era have been added to them.