This is the monologue for the most recent episode of Why? Radio: “Do We Still Need the Eighteenth Century” with guest Ryan Patrick Hanley. Click here to listen to the episode.
When Americans think about the 18th century, they think of war. They remember the American Revolution and all that comes with it. Some will add the French Revolution to the mix, seeing the late 1700s as the beginning of the modern democratic state, an introduction to a new world order that wouldn’t actually see the light of day until the end of World War One.
But when philosophers think about the 18th century, they think of texts. They celebrate the great works by David Hume, Adam Smith, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, and Mary Wollstonecraft, books that were no less revolutionary than the wars we celebrate in our history textbooks. Thomas Jefferson was a philosopher, so were Hamilton and Madison. Benjamin Franklin was a philosopher of sorts, although in the 18th century, a philosopher had a much wider portfolio that we have now. They could be expansive and exploratory. They weren’t worried about tenure.
The 18th century saw the first encyclopedia, the first modern histories and the founding documents of modern feminism. It ushered in globalization and free-markets, condemned slavery, and rejected religious fanaticism. It celebrated reason over passion, truth over perspective, and an educated citizenry over the passive acceptance of aristocratic rule.
Except, of course, it didn’t. Slavery wasn’t abolished until the 19th century and women weren’t allowed to vote in most of the world until the 20th. We are still trying to figure out how to provide universal access to education, and globalization is as controversial as it ever was. Women are still not treated equally to men, either in law or in fact, and individual rights are unrealized across the globe. Poverty is still widespread. War still rages. Religion still divides.
There is as much myth about what philosophers call The Enlightenment—the 18th century defense of reason, science, truth, and progress—as there is about the American founding. The fact of the matter is that many Enlightenment philosophers prioritized the emotions over reason and thought individual perspective was inescapable. Truth often blurred the line between democracy and authoritarianism, and there are times when it is unclear whether philosophers were talking about real people or just ideals that exist solely on their pages. It is not surprising that Charles Dickens famously called the 18th century, the best of times and the worst of times, the age of wisdom and the age of foolishness, an epoch of belief and epoch of incredulity.
And so, the 18th century was a mess. Or rather, it wasn’t just one thing. It was a period of conflicting ideas and of changes that would have an unyielding impact on everything that followed. What makes it interesting for us today is that as central as it is to the American and European myths, it has become the locus of intellectual and political conflict. Every discussion of Thomas Jefferson seems to end up focused on his personal hypocrisy about slaves, and the modern university is still a place divided by those who think there is something called truth or and those who regard facts as tools of oppression. From debates about climate change and vaccination to conflict about what kind of person is best suited for political leadership, we are still mired in the legacy of the eighteenth century.
On this episode of Why? Radio, we are going to look back at this tumultuous century and ask whether it’s still relevant. In reality, we’ve answered it already since we know that we are still fighting its battles. What we are really asking then, is whether the Enlightenment stills represent an ideal worth fighting for, or whether its goals are passé. Do we celebrate our heroes or expose their inadequacies? Do we aim for the highest intellectual ideals or do we compromise based around human limitations? Do we look to the past at its best or do we focus on mistakes, striving to be different rather than emulate? Or, can we find a balance between these extremes, cherry picking what works for us and leaving behind those aspects we are the most ashamed of?
The 18th century was a time of revolutionary liberals who sought progress and change. But now, those same people are regarded as the archetypes of conservatism, throwbacks to injustice, racist privilege, and aristocratic wealth; the radicals have become the reactionaries. What do we do when the loftiest aims become the object of ire and dissatisfaction? How do philosophers hold onto a vision that many think is obsolete without waving away the new moral awareness that our forbearers were blind to? There’s only one way to find out and that is to dive in head first. Today, we’re going back in time to the 18th century. We are rediscovering the enlightenment.