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May 17, 2006

the age of reason?

Does it make any sense to call the 18th century the Age of Reason? The primacy of reason had been argued long before then and would be defended later. Most (if not all) of the main techniques of rational analysis had been discovered earlier. And many of the era's leading thinkers held mixed or even negative views about reason. For instance, Hume: "Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them."

Nevertheless, the Age of Reason seems an apt title, as long as we define "reason" in a certain way. It strikes me that 1689-1788 was a time of judicious selectiveness, a period when the intellectual options were deliberately narrowed according to certain rational criteria.

In the seventeenth century, alternatives had proliferated. There were countless Protestant sects as well as new strains of Catholicism. The Scientific Revolution occurred, yet alchemy and astrology also flourished. Vital political ideologies ranged from royal absolutism to the communism of the Diggers, by way of constitutionalism, the Mayflower Compact, and the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell. Scholars had unearthed a great variety of ancient texts--not only the ones that we view today as "classics," but also various Hellenistic, late-Roman, and early-Christian books that few people read any more. More Western scholars could manage Greek than at any time since the fall of the Roman Empire; some also learned Aramaic and Coptic. They not only admired Plato and Aristotle, but also Hermes Trismegistus, Dionysus the Psuedo-Areopagite and Zoroaster. Jesuit missionaries and others brought back the earliest reliable information about China, Japan, and India. See the Wikipedia entry on Athanasius Kircher for a sample of what an intellectually omniverous man could know ca. 1660.

To people of education and discretion a century later, it appeared that men like Kircher knew too much. Some of their erudition had been wasted on fruitless topics. The Age of Reason, if we can generalize about it at all, was a time for sorting out the heritage of early-modern Europe, distinguishing science from the occult, the literary canon from the rest of the library, mainstream religion from various radical sects, civilized people from barbarians, and reasonable political options from crazy ones.

Such consolidation was perhaps inevitable, but gradually a desire built up for broader and less temperate options. A rough definition of Romanticism could be: Views and ideas that would have been dismissed as "irrational" between the Glorious Revolution and the storming of the Bastille.

Posted by peterlevine at May 17, 2006 02:32 PM

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