Being a Child of the Enlightenment
*Missing Works Cited*
When I am asked to determine if I am a "child of the Enlightenment," the first thoughts that come to my mind question the characteristics of the Enlightenment. What kind of movement was it? Who else claims to support Enlightenment ideals? What characteristics are associated with the Enlightenment, and do I want to label myself as sharing these? It didn't take much time for me to happily embrace the fact that I am a "child of the Enlightenment."
The Enlightenment encompasses many ideas concerning knowledge, political theory, science, and economic theory. The Enlightenment worldview stresses reason instead of authority and revelation. Enlightened thinkers believe in the freedom of choice of natural religion instead of more formal and organized church religions (like the strict Roman Catholic Church). Furthermore, the Enlightenment is characterized by the optimistic belief in the improvement of the human condition, knowable laws discovered through the scientific method, and natural rights. While I agree with much of what Enlightenment thinkers believe concerning these areas of life, I am most interested in Enlightenment aspects concerning the value of the individual, and the subtleties of natural rights such as life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. I want to examine the human in and of itself, without the outside influences of forced government or religion. How do people feel about religion and their rights when they are allowed to reason freely?
John Stuart Mill makes a very influential argument for the power of reason and the power of the individual in his work, On Liberty, published in 1859. In it, Mill speaks of the "tyranny of the majority" (Mill, H-3), and how this tyranny represents a contradiction to human improvement. Intellects of the Enlightenment such as Mill, Locke, and Newton make a rather strong point for this. We now know and appreciate these mens' contributions to society and human improvement (which is a key theme of the Enlightenment), but during each contemporary time period, these men were criticized for their own use of reason and for thinking "outside of the box." Mill showed the world that traditionalism and authority of the masses isn't necessarily right. He preached to society that every man must be allowed his own liberty at all times only with the exception that man's liberty does not interfere with the "utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being" (Mill, H-4). Mill further explains that it is unreasonable to shut out the opinion of even a single man out of one hundred because we now know that the "majority of the eminent men of every past generation held many opinions now known to be erroneous, and did or approved numerous things which no one will now justify" (Mill, H-6). Human progression is earned through the rectification of mistakes by...