England and the Enlightenment

 In his book “Enlightenment:  Britain and the creation of the modern  world”, the  historian Roy Porter remarks how peculiar it is  “that  historians have  so  little  to say about the role of  English  thinkers   in  the European  Enlightenment  as a whole” (p3).  Peculiar  indeed  when  one considers  the  English  intellectual personnel of the  17th  and  18th centuries and the  high  reputation  English institutions and ideas had amongst    the  leading  lights  of  the   continental   Enlightenment, especially  in  the  country  which is  generally  represented  as  the powerhouse of Enlightenment thinking,  France.   Here is the philosophe of philosophes,  Voltaire,  at full Anglophile admire: “The English are the only people on earth who have been able to prescribe the limits  of Kings by resisting them;  and who,  by a series of struggles,  have  at last  established  that  wise  Government,  where  the  prince  is  all powerful  to  do  good,  and  at the  same  time   is  restrain’d  from committing evil;   where the Nobles are great without insolence,   tho’ there  are no vassals;  and where the People  share in  the  government  without confusion.”  Lettres philosophiques on Lettres Anglais (1775).

 A  strong argument can be made for the English Enlightenment  not  only existing  but  occurring  a century or so  before  that  of  any  other nation  and subsequently providing much of the  basis  for the  general Enlightenment movement.  

Consider these figures from  the seventeenth century:   William Gilbert (science,   especially  magnetism),   Francis  Bacon  (philosophy   and science),  Thomas Hobbes (philosophy), John Locke (philosophy),  Thomas Harrington     (nascent economics     and    sociology),   William  Harvey (biology/medicine),    Robert   Hooke   (polymathic    scientist    and technologist),  John Rae (biologist), Edmund Halley (astronomy),  Isaac Newton  (mathematics and physics).  What did they have in common  other than  intellectual distinction?   They were all driven by the  idea  of reason,  by the belief that the world could be  understood  rationally. That  is  the  real  essence  of  the  Enlightenment,   the  belief  in rationality,  in particular,  the belief that the world is  subject  to  physical laws, that God does not intervene capriciously, that the world is not governed by magic.  Such ideas did not preclude a God or prevent an intense relationship with the putatively divine, but they did encase God   within  a  rational system of thought in which  His   action  was limited, voluntarily or otherwise. Newton may have been utterly fixated with the numerology of the Bible but he believed the world was  ordered according to physical laws.    From  the belief that the universe is organised  rationally  comes  the corollary  that it can be understood,  that everything is  governed  by laws which can be discovered by men. This idea pre-dated Newton, but it was his ideas,  most notably his laws of motion and theory of  gravity, that elevated the idea to almost a secular religion.   During  the next century   intellectuals   took  the  example  of   Newton’s   inanimate mechanistic physical world and extrapolated the idea to every aspect of existence, from biology to philosophy  to social policy. If only enough was known,  if only enough effort was made,  then everything,  of  this world  at least,   could be understood and controlled  and   everything could be the subject of rational decision making.      

The 18th  century Enlightenment  had another aspect,  an  association with the  democratic or at least a wish that the power of kings  should be greatly curtailed – the Voltaire quote given above is a good example of the mentality.  This also  has its roots in England.  The ferment of the  English  Civil war  not only produced  proto-democratic  political movements  such as the Levellers, it also started  Parliament along the road  of being more than a subordinate constitutional player by forcing it to act as not only  a legislature but as an executive.  Stir  in  the experience  of  the Protectorate,  simmer for  30 years or so   of  the restored  Stuart kings,  mix in  the Glorious Revolution of 1689  which resulted  in  the Bill of Rights and established the English  crown  as being in the gift of Parliament  and  season with half a century of the German  Georges  and   you have the British (in  reality  the  English) constitution   which was so admired by Voltaire,  who  thought it quite perfect,  and  which  gave the American colonists the  inspiration  for their   own political arrangements (president = king,  Senate =  Lords, House  of Representatives = Commons,  with a  Constitution and Bill  of Rights  heavily influenced by the English Bill of Rights.)

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One Response to England and the Enlightenment

  1. Ben says:

    great article

    the supposedly radical french enlightenment thinkers actually took their ideas from the 17th Century English radicals like Toland, Blount and Tindal. It’s unusual that there is supposedly no English enlightenment, yet the 17th century was a golden age of English radical and enlightenment thinkers. Not to mention Newton, who is one of the single most important persons in human history. Montesquieu based much of his writings on the highly regarded English constitution. many historians are now starting to recognise the Glorious Revolution as the world’s first modern revolution – not the French revolution.

    as David Hume the famous Scot said of the English constitution:
    ” by the great precedent of deposing one king, and establishing a new one, it gave such an ascendant to popular principles, as has put the nature of the English constitution beyond all controversy. And it may justly be affirmed, without any danger of exaggeration, that we, in this island, have ever since enjoyed, if not the best system of government, at least the most entire system of liberty, that ever was known amongst mankind. ”

    Think of all the movements that originated in England; empiricism, deism, radicalism, unitarianism, dissent, and yet we are still expected to believe there was no English enlightenment! id argue there would be no enlightenment at all, without england

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