1. 21 The Radical Enlightenment and The Underground

The Enlightenment

While the mainstream Enlightenment was definitely an elite affair conducted in public, there were other elements to it. The so-called Radical Enlightenment (the term was invented by historians, not people involved in it) had to do with the ideas too scandalous for mainstream philosophes to support, like outright atheism. One examples of this phenomenon was the emergence of Freemasonry, “secret,” although not difficult to find for most male European elites, groups of like-minded Enlightenment thinkers who gathered in “lodges” to discuss philosophy, make political connections, and socialize.

Some Masonic lodges were associated with a much more widespread part of the “radical” Enlightenment: the vast underground world of illegal publishers and smugglers. In areas with relatively relaxed censorship like the Netherlands and Switzerland, numerous small printing presses operated throughout the eighteenth century, cranking out illegal literature. Some of this literature consisted of the banned works of major philosophes themselves, but much of it was simply pirated and “dumbed-down” versions of things like the Encyclopedia. This illegal industry supplied the reading public, especially the reading public with little money to spend on books, with their essential access to Enlightenment thought.

For example, as noted above, an actual volume (let alone the entire multi-volume set) of the Encyclopedia. was much too expensive for a common artisan or merchant to afford. Such a person could, however, afford a pamphlet-sized, pirated copy of several of the articles from the Encyclopedia. that might interest her. Likewise, many works that were clearly outside of the acceptable bounds of legal publishing at the time (including both outright attacks on Christianity as a fraud as well as a shocking amount of pornography) were published and smuggled into places like France, England, and Prussia from the underground publishing houses. Perhaps the greatest impact of the Radical Enlightenment at the time is that it made mainstream Enlightenment ideas – however poorly summarized they might have been in pirated works – more accessible to far more of European society as a whole than they would have been otherwise.

Implications of the Enlightenment

The noteworthy philosophes of the Enlightenment rarely attacked outright the social hierarchy that they were part of. The abuses of the churches, the ignorance of the nobility, even the injustices of kings might be fair game for criticism, but none of the better-known philosophes called for the equivalent of a political revolution. Only Rousseau was bold enough to advocate a republican form of government as a viable alternative to monarchy, and his political ideas were far less well-known during his lifetime than were his ruminations on education, nature, and morality. Even Kant’s essay celebrated what he described as the “public use of reason,” namely intellectuals exchanging ideas, while defending the authoritarian power of the (Prussian, in his case) king to demand that his subjects “obey!”

The problem was that even though most of the major figures of the Enlightenment were themselves social elites, their thought was ultimately disruptive to the Christian society of orders. Almost all of the philosophes claimed that the legitimacy of a monarch was based on their rule coinciding with the prosperity of the nation and the absence of cruelty and injustice in the laws of the land. The implication was that people have the right to judge the monarch in term of his or her competence and rationality. Likewise, one major political and social structure that philosophes did attack was the fact that nobles enjoyed vast legal privileges but had generally done nothing to deserve those privileges besides being born a member of a noble family. In contrast, philosophes were quick to point out that many members of the middle classes were far more intelligent and competent than was the average nobleman.

In addition, despite the inherent difficulty of publishing against the backdrop of censorship, philosophes did much to see that organized religion itself was undermined. The one stance all of the major Enlightenment thinkers agreed on regarding religion was that “revealed” religion – religion whose authority was based on miracles – was nonsense. According to the philosophes, the history of miracles could be disproved, and contemporary miracles were usually experienced by lunatics, women, and the poor (and were thus automatically suspect from their elite, male perspective). Miracles, by their very nature, purported to violate natural law, and according to the very core principles of Enlightenment thought, that simply was not possible.

Thus, the Enlightenment did more to disrupt the social and political order by the late eighteenth century than most of its members ever intended. The most obvious and spectacular expression of that disruption took place in a pair of political revolutions: first in the American colonies of Great Britain in the 1770s, then in France starting in the 1780s. In both of those revolutions, ideas that had remained in the abstract during the Enlightenment were made manifest in the form of new constitutions, laws, and principles of government, and in both cases, one of the byproducts was violent upheaval.


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PPSC HIS 1320: Western Civilization: 1650-Present by Wayne Artis, Sarah Clay, and Kim Fujikawa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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