3.1—The Principle (20 min video)
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Welcome back to a new lesson. We’re gonna call this lesson Ideas Have Consequences. This is actually the title of a famous book by the southern author Richard Weaver. And Weaver talking about modernity, talking about how culture and ideas have changed, recognizes a very basic idea. That idea that when we actually have certain ideas, when we actually follow certain beliefs, it actually works itself out in the way that we live and in the way that we act.
Now our specific topic this week is going to be on the Enlightenment. We’re gonna be taking a look at several different philosophers that will actually span several centuries. Some of these philosophers will be right around the time of, say, the Thirty Years’ War, or Cominius that we looked at in the previous lesson. But we really have quite a bit to unpack, quite a bit of major thinkers that we need to take a look at in order to understand the rest of modernity, or for example, in order to understand something like the French Revolution, which we’ll be taking a look at in a few weeks. By way of a principle, what I want to do is I want to give you a quote by one of my favorite authors, G.
K. Chesterton. And Justin has this to say about the Enlightenment. He says, “The Enlightenment brought darkness, not light.” Despite the fact that the Enlightenment was supposed to be this time where there’s this great expansion of knowledge, this great expansion of reason and science, and in many ways there were. But let’s carry on with the quote and see what Justin says about it. He says, “The Renaissance brought regress, not progress. “This is the Promethean irony that lies “at the very foundation of modernity.” There’s a couple things we need to look at. First of all, we can talk about the Enlightenment positively before we unpack what Chesterton is really getting at. If we talk about the Enlightenment positively, we will see some incredible strides in philosophy. We’ll see a time period where science rapidly grew in our understanding of the world, in our knowledge of the way things worked, and also in the expansion of things like inventions and machines and medicine and so forth.
But what Chesterton is getting at with the Enlightenment And with some of these philosophers specifically, is kind of the big idea we’re gonna be taking a look at throughout the story of these guys, is that they often elevated human reason to the same level as special revelation, scriptures themselves.
And then eventually it was kind of a short step from there to simply saying that human reason trumped revelation, and perhaps revelation wasn’t even really revelation to begin with. So it kind of brings us all the way up to this modern, secular, humanistic idea where essentially what that means is you simply rely upon your own reason, your own mind, your own observations to determine what you believe is true.
That’s what Chesterton is getting at. What’s curious is he calls it the Promethean irony. So irony is when something is the complete opposite of what it should be. Promethean refers to an ancient Greek character, a titan by the name of Prometheus. Some of you will be familiar already with this character. But Prometheus, whose name means “forethinker,” the most famous–well, there’s two most famous stories about him. The story usually begins with how he tricked Zeus and his assistants to mankind. The story goes that mankind had to offer sacrifices to the god, and to specifically the god Zeus, and mankind not wanting to offer the best of what they had.
This should sound familiar in terms of the Cain and Abel story. but not wanting to offer the best that they had, was given an idea by Prometheus of why don’t you take all of the undesirable parts from your sacrifice, that would be the bones and the organs, and wrap them up in glistening fat, which was seen as kind of the choicest parts of meat from the sacrifice.
And then take the meat and all the parts you really want to eat and put that inside the stomach. And by doing so, you’re going to trick Zeus. He’ll take the one that looks better versus the one that actually has the good meat in it that would actually be the appropriate sacrifice.
And so, Zeus falls for the trap. The humans are able to offer a sacrifice and to obey the god, at least in terms of action, but not in terms of heart or attitude.
And Zeus becomes furious. He becomes so furious that he removes all fire from mankind. He hides it from them somehow. In some stories, mankind hasn’t discovered fire yet, and Zeus just says, “Well, I’m never going to give it to them.” This is interesting because we can begin to see this allegorically. We have Zeus kind of as the chief god character here. We kind of have him in the place of God. And then we have Prometheus as the one who’s actually assisting mankind, and he’s going to be giving things to mankind. He’s already given mankind a means to trick God, and now he’s going to give them something else steals fire from the gods and he brings it down to mankind in the stalk of a fennel plant.
And as a result, if you know the story, as many do, Prometheus is punished. He’s chained to a mountain and he has a large bird come and eat his liver every single day and because he’s immortal he doesn’t die from this. His liver regrows and the same thing happens the next day and the next day and the next. It goes on for all time. So Prometheus receives this eternal punishment. As for And for man, Zeus is upset with man as well, and the fact that he now has fire. And so Zeus gives man another punishment. He gives man the very first woman, Pandora. And she comes with this box of, or sometimes it’s a jar, depending on what story you look at, but this box filled with all the evils and all the miseries of the world, and she’s basically told, “Don’t open it.” But out of her curiosity, she opens it, unleashes all things terrible, all the things that we experience, sadness and misery and sickness and hatred and death and so forth upon the world and that’s man’s punishment. This is really very telling because this is kind of a Greek retelling of the very first chapters of Genesis. As I mentioned to you already have Zeus kind of in the character of God but Zeus in this story is not very likable. He’s kind of the antagonist or almost the villain. Then we have Prometheus who is giving mankind an ability to trick God and is also giving mankind fire. That kind of represents this whole idea of light, this whole idea of knowledge, this whole idea of understanding. So it really puts him in the place of Satan who tempts Eve, who then tempts Adam to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
It’s not like in Genesis knowledge is evil or that knowledge itself is a bad thing. Clearly God gave Adam the ability to speak, he gave Adam the ability to think, he gave Adam the ability to discern things. He had Adam name all the creatures, for example. Adam praises Eve as being distinctly different from himself. So knowledge is not the problem. The issue that we see in Genesis is the fact that man, in the form of Adam and Eve, they actually choose to disobey God.
The disobedience is the problem, not the knowledge. But of course in the story of the Greeks, the knowledge is what God wants to withhold from man and Prometheus is kind of the character we’re sympathetic towards. He’s the character who’s really what we call the protagonist or the hero of this story, but he’s most closely associated with the character of Satan when you compare this to the Genesis myth. And then of course you look at Genesis 2, you also see that Eve is given as a blessing to man, whereas in the Greek version, woman is given as a curse to man.
Complete opposite or the complete inversion of how it should be. But going back to the Enlightenment and why Chesterton makes the connection between the story of Prometheus and the story of the Enlightenment is very important because Chesterton sees the Enlightenment thinkers as being like Prometheus.
They think they’re essentially doing something good. They think they are essentially finding new pathways to the truth apart from Scripture, but what they’re ultimately doing is they’re unraveling the very fabric of Christendom, that very authority that elevated the Scriptures as the basis of all truth, as the standard for all morality and all ethics and all justice.
The other thing we’re going to see with the Enlightenment too is the way that it viewed reason. It often viewed reason, as I told you, as being on the same level of Scriptures or even above Scriptures, but it ultimately viewed reason as liberty itself.
It viewed your ability to be able to think for yourself as being freeing. Now this is curious because it’s kind of based upon the old Christian view of education which would say things like the truth will set you free or would say things like the liberal arts are the freeing arts because they teach you the ability to think for yourself.
But in Christianity they’ve always been based upon certain assumptions such as the fact that God is actually God, that God is good, that God is holy, that he is infinite, that he’s actually there and he’s not silent, as Francis Schaeffer used to say, or that man is made in God’s image, or that man is fallen. All of those were certain presuppositions that were brought in at the very forefront in thinking. Well, in the Enlightenment, we begin to see all of those things kind of pushed aside or even sometimes thrown out, and then beginning with experiences, beginning with what we observe, the various philosophers of the Enlightenment move towards their own conclusions.
As a result, something that I’ve kind of gathered from the various writers I’ve read on the Enlightenment, we see a certain kind of trinity. We’ll call it, for your notes, a trinity of unbelief. So instead of having God the Father who makes all things and who determines all laws based upon his own character and his own attributes, We have something very different.
We have what we’re gonna call classical humanism, where essentially man is the measure of all things, as the famous Greek philosopher Protagoras once said, that essentially man is the highest creature that is known.
Perhaps there’s a god, perhaps there’s not. It doesn’t really matter. Man is at the center of all things. He’s the center of the universe. It’s from man that all things receive their actual meaning. So in other words, we no longer have a God as Father who is transcendent, who is above his creation. He’s either made it and has stepped aside, which is the whole idea of deism that you’ll see sometimes with Enlightenment thinkers and we’ve also seen in American history, or you have a God who simply doesn’t exist at all, or if he does exist, no one can actually know it. The second part of this trinity of unbelief that I want you to write down is the idea of naturalism. So no longer do we have a God the Son who bridges the spiritual world of God the Father and of himself who is also God of holiness and so forth with this fallen physical world through sacrifice.
We don’t have that mediation where Christ is bridging those two things together. Instead all we really have is the natural and the material world. The philosophers had a tendency to focus on this world alone, to focus on what could be observed, to focus on what could be recorded and fact-checked in terms of data and essentially in terms of things you can repeat through experiments and so forth.
It’s kind of a sum of the the basis of what we’re going to call scientism that we’ll look at in later lectures. But it’s also really curious the thing you see in modernity you see this this movement not just to reject the spiritual realm or things like miracles, but you also see this tendency to try to control nature itself.
This kind of gave rise to the whole modern environmental movement where there was suddenly seen, especially in the 20th century and even going back in earlier centuries, there was suddenly seen a need to protect the environment, to protect nature as it was seen because otherwise it might actually vanish.
It might actually be gone. actually reasons for that concern. It goes back to the Enlightenment and the idea, at least by some philosophers, that nature was essentially something that man, being the greatest thing in the world, or the universe for that matter, was there to control.
The third thing in terms of the Trinity of Unbelief that I want to write down is individualism. This one is still very, very much alive in our culture. And that was the whole concept that the individual was more important than any other institution that he was a part of. However, kind of paradoxically, or kind of contradictorily we could say, the individual ultimately derived his meaning from being a part of the state or the government himself.
So we no longer have God as Holy Spirit who unifies individuals in the church or unifies individuals in the family or in the state for that matter through a common love of God and of his attributes.
Instead we simply have individuals kind of doing their own thing. That’s why one of the things you’re going to see in modernity is the rise of this whole idea of people being able to do whatever they want to do so long I suppose as it doesn’t hurt anybody. That’s kind of the mantra you’ll hear in our culture today. So human freedom, the whole idea of having a will that allows you to just do whatever you want to do or that leads you to be whoever you want to be based upon however you were born or however you want to picture that or say that whatever the case may be.
That whole concept really begins also with the Enlightenment thinkers who focused on the value of man’s reason, who focused on especially the value of man to have a mind and to be able to think for himself and to be able to arrive at certain truth based upon his own reason and his own ideas.
That’s why, for example, we also begin to see relativism at this time. That’s why, for example, the French writer Montaigne was able to argue that if you’re looking at, for example, a cannibal culture that eats its own or eats other people, even though we would consider that disgusting and wrong, that’s just relative. We consider that in our culture wrong, but in their culture it’s perfectly right for them. In other words, That’s the emphasis of individual will, or in that case, individual culture’s will, to basically do whatever you believe or your society believes is actually true. It’s one of the things that we begin to see at this time. Curiously, at this time also, we also see a rise of religious toleration, which is not necessarily strictly a bad thing or strictly a good thing.
In fact, typically we would think of that as a good thing. We would praise something like the freedom of religion, because it recognizes the free market of ideas. It recognizes that you can’t force someone or compel someone to believe something or to agree with you. You may not agree with everything that I say. That is normal. But the problem with this, but sometimes that arose, is that there was often one of two responses. One, something that we see especially in more modern culture or postmodern culture, is that when you have kind of this extreme religious toleration, you often have an ignoring of absolute truths.
Essentially all religions become equally valid. All religions become equally true. And you can’t say that one might be true or better than the other, ’cause you don’t have a standard to base it on. The only standard you have is whatever the majority of people say is actually true. And of course the other issue that arises with this kind of extreme religious toleration is you often just have indifference. People say to heck with it. If they’re all about the same, then why even bother with it? It just seems like too much of a hassle. All the same, these are things that distinctively come out of the Enlightenment. Now to give you an idea of this time period and kind of the big ideas going on with it further, I want to read to you a selection from R.
R. Palmer, who wrote in the 1950s. He had this to say about the Age of Enlightenment. He said, “People strangely felt that their time was an enlightened age, And it is from their own evaluation of themselves that our term, the Age of Enlightenment, is derived.
So they themselves called it the Age of Enlightenment. Everywhere there was a feeling that Europeans had at last emerged from a long twilight. That twilight being Christendom. The past was regarded as a time of barbarism and darkness. That’s why the Middle Ages are sometimes called the Dark Ages. Or just before that, called the Dark Ages. The sense of progress was all but universal among the educated classes. It was, after all, a time of great invention. It was the belief both of the forward-looking thinkers and writers known as the philosophes, and of the forward-looking kings and empresses known as the enlightened despots, together with their ministers and their officials.
Far-reaching also was the faith of this age in the natural faculties of the human mind. So here we go. This is kind of the key thing to all of this. The human mind, the ability to reason, this became chief. Pure skepticism, the negation of reason, was overcome. The idea that you just have doubt, that was overcome by the enlightenment. Man through reason could actually discover truth and meaning in the universe. Nor were the educated, after 1700, likely to be superstitious. Terrified by the unknown or addicted to magic. That’s a good thing. The witchcraft mania abruptly died. Indeed, all sense of the supernatural became dim. That’s not a good thing. It means that they had no concept or no knowledge or no belief of the supernatural. Modern people not only ceased to fear the devil, they ceased also to fear God. They thought of God less as a father than as a first cause of the physical universe. In other words, a God or something like God, perhaps even just a force, was necessary to begin everything. But he’s not a father. He’s not personal like that. There was less sense of a personal God, or of the inscrutable eminence of divine providence, or of man’s need for saving grace. God was less the God of love. He was the inconceivably intelligent being who had made the amazing universe now discovered by man’s reason. So we don’t really have a God that enters his creation, that incarnates, that actually saves his people from sin and death. He’s only the creator. But he’s so much more than that. The great symbol of the Christian God was the cross, on which a divine being had suffered in human form. But the symbol which occurred to people of scientific view now was the watchmaker. The intricacies of the physical universe were compared to the intricacies of a watch, which itself was a new invention at the time. And it was argued that just as a watch could not exist without a watchmaker, so the universe, discovered by Newton and others could not exist without a God who created it and set it moving by its mathematical law.
It was almighty intelligence that was thought divine. In other words, God had created this incredible thing and then stepped aside for man to rule and for man to discover it, not by what God had said, because who knows if that’s even true with the idea of the Enlightenment, but based upon his reason alone. We’ll unpack some of these ideas and the next lectures.