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20210214 – Fire and Light




The main idea of this book is to look at Enlightenment as ideological revolution that changed focus of human attitudes from the hierarchical group, either religious or national or both, with kings, assigned by the god via birth right at the top, aristocrats in the middle layers of hierarchy, and regular people at the bottom to actions by individuals regardless of their birth, that have material impact on society.

This book is not limited to ideological discussion – this is just a small part of it. It rather provides relatively details review of history of late XVIII and early XIX century, when these ideas become dominant in Western societies leading to revolutions and reforms that restructured 3 most populous and important countries of the Western civilization: Britain, France, and United States of America.


Introduction: Enlightenment as Revolution
Here author presents the idea that enlightenment was a revolution, but not a usual one:” The human mind was where revolution originated. Breaking from a universe in which God was the final answer to any question, Enlightenment philosophers moved attention to human beings as the measure of all things.” Author then discusses reason as the main tool of human mind that should allow not only understand nature, but also create the new world of human society that is much better suitable for happiness than whatever existed before. Author connects this with industrial revolution in the West that created material base of contemporary society and ideological revolution of Locke that created philosophical foundation for somewhat self-governing societies in Western Europe and North America. Author also expresses believe that Enlightenment is currently in process of expanding all over the world, which will make it into much better place.

1: The Revolution in Ideas

In this chapter author reviews ideas about the state of Nature that went into foundation of Enlightenment: Hobbs with his necessity of Leviathan, Bacon with his scientific method, Descartes with his separation of reality and believes (matter and mind). Author also looks in details at specific Enlightenment idea of Freedom of thought as it was expressed in live and works of Baruch Spinoza. Finally, the last part of chapter is about John Locke whose work created foundation for practical implementation of Enlightenment ideas to transform societies to the new political forms based on equality, tolerance, and rule based on consent. Author stresses that all these thinkers of XVII century created foundation for massive move of Western societies to implement these ideas into reality in XVIII century.

2: Rule Britannia?

In this chapter author looks at the first steps in political process starting with British Glorious Revolution of 1689, even if its was just final establishment of superiority of Parliament over king, rather than anything like individual freedom. Author discusses explosive economic development of Britain in XVIII that increasingly moved power away from old landed aristocracy, which resistance was imbodied in persona and policies of king George III. Author extolls economic development in manufacturing, banking, insurance and such, but he also does not neglect fate of people at the bottom who made it happen by working hard in miserable conditions just to survive for a while. Author also briefly retells history of wars and political developments of this period; however, the most important part of this chapter is about Scottish enlightenment of Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, and Adam Smith that expanded ideological foundation of enlightenment society by explaining ideas of human happiness, human nature as it really existed, and market economy.

3: Revolutionary Americans
Author begins this chapter by describing how prosperous was America in 1760s, while its active population has been increasingly unhappy with growing interference of British officials in their lives. Then he describes events of American revolution from ideological point of view, demonstrating that ideas of Enlightenment created strong push to rule themselves, which in reality meant rule by local American elite instead of remote British elite. This push was strong enough to go through revolution and war for independence despite of hurdles and costs. Author also notes that reality for majority of population that carried these costs did not change that much except in psychological and ideological spheres:” The Revolution was a time of traumatic violence for some, small alterations in the lives of others, and of a huge potential that went unrealized. Before the Revolution, America was essentially a hierarchical society in politics and economy; despite some reshuffling in the upper reaches, it remained so. Wealth, status, and family were the great triumvirate still dominating society, even if to a lesser degree as British impositions were removed. The most common talk was of an equality of personal respect, not of money or status, or of power or condition.”

4. France: Rule or Ruin?
Here author narrates the events of the next country that embraced Enlightenment ideas – France. Once again, the great ideas of equality and freedom brought in anything but equality and freedom. The formally absolutist, but mainly benign hierarchical system with just a few political prisoners in Bastille and highly liberal aristocracy that supported philosophers and actively promoted enlightenment ideas was substituted by blood drenched revolutionaries with their guillotine. Author describes personalities of French enlightenment: Voltaire, Montesquieu, Diderot, and Rousseau, then events of revolution, and then provides conclusion about consequences:” … the sheer ferocity at every level must have originated more in psychological forces than political. This was the psychosis of fear, which can arouse savage hatreds. If a Great Fear gripped people in the early years of the Revolution, a Greater Fear rose later. To a degree it was a rational fear in response to the foreign powers threatening France from all directions, land and sea. It was also a fear based in severe economic insecurity. But above all it was a fear of the radical instability—even chaos—that was overtaking the Revolution, the lethal game politics had become, the knowledge that victors in factional struggles could propel losers to the guillotine. Distrust blanketed the land. French civil society had collapsed into a nearly Hobbesian state of nature. It was all against all; no one was safe.”

5. Transforming American Politics
Here Author moves to American society after revolution. He looks at formation of American society based on Enlightenment ideas that attempted to find perfect spot where “The Liberty of a Person” would be accommodated with “The Happiness of the People”. Author describes this process and concludes that it led to creation of two intertwined attitude – Republicanism and Liberalism the former strived to: “subordinate individual wants to the collective needs of the community or country. Self had to yield to the bonds of unity forged in families, churches, and schools”, while latter represented “competitive individualism”. Author also expresses admiration for how Madison and other fathers of Constitution handled this division.

6. Britain: The Rules of Rulership
Here author looks at parallel British developments and the end of XVIII century and the reasons it avoided revolution, concluding that it was mainly because of successful suppression:” Nothing better reflected the inability and unwillingness of British rule to adapt to emerging challenges than the old and new social and economic problems that plagued the underclass. The poor could not vote, they could gain no representation in Parliament. Their organizations were outlawed, their speech proscribed, their leaders jailed and harried. As industrialization began to gather pace, they were helpless to improve their work and living conditions. When food riots—that most primitive and elemental protest—broke out in 1800, the nation that Montesquieu and Voltaire had glorified as the model of political modernity seemingly reverted to a land that the Enlightenment had passed over.”

7. Napoleonic Rulership
In this chapter author describes how France moved from revolution to Napoleonic military dictatorship, while not only retaining many ideas of Enlightenment, but also codifying them in Napoleon code: “Millions across Europe who had been born into a world that differed little, politically, economically, intellectually, from their ancestors’ in the Middle Ages, regarded Napoleon Bonaparte as an embodiment of modernity and progress in the age of Enlightenment. In his aftermath, that grand movement of ideas and action appeared to be on the defensive, almost as beaten as the man himself. As counter-Enlightenments flourished, tradition seemed to be in the saddle. Yet even as ideas of progress were under heavy assault by ruling elites and their apologists, the force of progress was bursting through old restraints.” However, despite restoration of monarchy and dominance of reaction, the ideas of enlightenment did not completely disappear, but rather started permeate ideology of educated classes of Europe.

8. Britain: Industrializing Enlightenment
In this chapter author describes development of Britain in early XIX century when industrial revolution began changing society on the massive scale, bringing in class struggle between business owners and workers, mass implementation of machines and corresponding increase in productivity. It also led to decrease in labor value and deterioration of conditions. Author specifically discusses violent clashes such as Peterloo, which brought British society to understanding of the need for reforms.

9. France: The Crowds of July
Here once again author moves to France’s development, discussing events that led to July revolution of 1830, development ideas of socialism as potential solution for all problems of class struggle and industrialization, and attempt to have “popular throne surrounded by republican institutions, completely republican.” Here is how author describes conditions of this period:” In the almost half-century since France’s original, earthshattering revolution, the nation had swung from enlightened constitutionalism to terror to dictatorship to restoration and reaction. Now, with liberals securely within the circle of power, if not fully in charge, and radicals mobilizing on the outside, France faced a new contestation, which produced different visions and expectations of change, different conceptions of the ultimate goal of human happiness. The Enlightenment provided a framework for the pursuit of happiness. Leaders and followers—citizens—were left to fight over the meanings of happiness and the path for pursuing it.”

10. The American Experiment

Here author retells the story of formation of American system from Jefferson’s presidency to Jackson’s democratic semi revolution, ending this narrative with Tocqueville’s detailed description and analysis of this system in “Democracy in America”. Author stresses some unique features of this system and refers to multitude of foreign intellectuals that came to America at the time to learn about this practical implementation of Enlightenment ideas.

11: Britain: The Fire for Reform
Here author returns to British history to discuss reform movement of XIX century and ideas of John Stuart Mill and Bentham that eventually implemented the reform that expanded suffrage beyond propertied classes, voting rights universal for men in 1832. The process of fighting for the Reform activated previously passive masses of middle and lower classes that created hundreds of Political Unions to promote their interests. At the end it all merged into Liberal party, with its raise and fall, eventually establishing somewhat of a two-party system with Conservatives as counterpart.

12. The Negative of Liberty
Here author reviews how newly established democracy prompted movement against property in people – slavery. He writes about abolitionist movement in both Britain and then United States completing narrative by 1845 when Andrew Jackson died believing, as it turned out mistakenly, that he saved Union by preventing nullification and achieving compromise preserving Southern “peculiar institution”, while limiting its expansion.

13. The Transformation

In the final chapter author completes the narrative by discussing Triumph of Enlightenment ideas of individual freedom and democracy in Western world by mid XIX century and birth of the new anti-individualist, socialist movement that was boosted by ideas of Karl Marx. Author characterizes these ideas as both product and rejection of Enlightenment. At the end author discusses the American Enlightenment that until recently mainly avoided socialist ideology by opening opportunities of individual advancement via education. The author’s generalized evaluation of Enlightenment’s role:” The force of Enlightenment ideas was tested not only by their immediate impact on creative leaders and followers but by their persistence across generations, an extraordinary process of transmission as new generations of leaders mobilized people around the great values, and followers in turn became leaders themselves. The Enlightenment, of course, supplied no rigid or detailed program to political leaders. Rather, philosophers offered a set of transcending ideas and—equally significant—a structure of conflict. Some conflicts, as between authority and liberty and between liberty and equality, are fundamental, everlasting across a host of dimensions. Others, like that between sectarianism and secularism, ebb and flow in intensity. Still others originate through new circumstances, as between liberalism and socialism, a conflict which, because the terms of debate have themselves undergone changes without losing their Enlightenment roots, remains highly relevant today. Conflicts among values—order versus freedom, liberty versus equality, individual rights versus communal solidarity—ensure that the Enlightenment remains a work in progress. It suggests no finished state, no resting point, no culmination, no end to history. It was born in conflict and conflict renews its transformational energy. Still, the Enlightenment has been far more than an engine of conflict. It has been the realization that human beings are not slaves of the past or present and that the future is theirs to make. It has opened the minds of men and women to do the most brilliant work transforming nearly all the old ideas and assumptions about human beings, about government and economic life, about religion and nature. No field that human understanding can reach has been left untouched, and entirely new ones, like sociology, anthropology, and many of the sciences, have been invented to give wing to the hunger for knowledge. The Enlightenment has created the opportunity and freedom to take part in a mighty intellectual revolution that has changed the lives of whole peoples. Indeed, the Enlightenment has taught that change is the constant, and that the opportunity and burden for human beings is to harness it for their common benefit.”


I think it is obvious that Enlightenment ideas did change the world and not only in these countries that author looks at, but everywhere. One of interesting indicators of penetration of these ideas is that the idea of god given sovereign king – ruler at the top and aristocracy by birth is pretty much out. Nowadays every tin-pot dictator, communist general secretary, or theocratic leader claim to be in his/her place on merits and by the choice of people. Similarly, any dictatorship either moderate or totalitarian conducts elections and claims consent of ruled as necessary foundation of their legitimacy, even if this consent obtained via rigged election and suppression of opposition. However, I think that author paid too little attention to ideological causes of Enlightenment failure to support individual freedoms on the long run, succumbing either to fascist/communist dictatorship or oligarchical welfare state in which individual freedom either openly suppressed or mainly illusory. I think that the main cause of this failure is insufficient attention to property and its allocation. It is understandable because in XVII and XVIII centuries, when these ideas were mainly formed, the main form of productive property was land and/or small artisan shop. This circumstance practically guaranteed that once feudal rights of king and aristocracy removed, the productive property would be more or less available to everybody. It was especially clear in America when constantly moving frontier provided additional land and opportunities for mainly independent existence until end of XIX century. After that vast majority of population become dependent for its existence on some form of participation in business hierarchy either as employees or small business owners highly dependent on local and later national powers. As long as these powers remained divided and competed between themselves, there was some space for individual freedom, but when all powers consolidated, this space just disappear.

I think, however, that Enlightenment ideas of individual freedom are too deeply imbedded in mind of everybody, so even people who do not think twice about suppressing other people’s freedom, strongly believe that their own freedom should not be limited. Because of this we are facing some period of struggle between people trying suppress other’s freedom, while defending their own and, since Enlightenment ideas would prevent anybody from wholeheartedly accept inferior position, any victory in this struggle bound to be temporary. The only solution to end this struggle would be to find way to provide everybody with property sufficient for mainly independent existence, which would support freedoms required by Enlightenment ideas for human happiness.

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