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Development of Modernity from Enlightenment

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Politics
Wordcount: 2436 words Published: 12th Oct 2017

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Dare-to-know is the motto that Kant gave to the Enlightenment. In this essay I am going to demonstrate how this motto relates to modernity. My starting point will be the definition of the Middle-Ages and description of events that characterized it, because it is where evolution to modernity initiated. Immediately after the Middle Ages follows the Renaissance, which I will also be explicating, and it is also followed by Enlightenment or the Modern Age. These three time periods are also inter-linked by historical events that marked them. They have a cause-and-effect relationship, meaning the existence of one is the effect of the existence of another. The Enlightenment was wholly based on reason, and its effect was the historical landmarks such as the French Revolution and the American Revolution. These landmarks, particularly the French Revolution, ensured the society’s exit from medieval tutelage and made a radical transition to the Modern-Age. Based on the Weber’s ideal type bureaucracy, I will also be demonstrating how they have influenced the modern institutions and how they operate, particularly the state, which is the biggest idea or effect of Enlightenment. Freedom also emerged after the establishment of the state, and strive to separate religion from the state, or secularism, was undertaken. Therefore, this rationalization led to the various forms of the modern state being devised.

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The “Middle Ages” is the phrase used to describe western countries after the fall of the Roman Empire and the dawn of the Renaissance in the 14th century. It is often called the medieval period. During this period the person’s identity was determined by God. (Dreyfus & Kelly, 2011). Everything was determined and created by God. Therefore people never dared to question the phenomena or what made sense to them. Everything was taken for granted. Even kings and queens ruled by divine right in the Great Chain of Being. By divine right it meant they were chosen by God to rule and lead the society. The Great Chain of Being is a divine order or what can be called a social structure in the modern society. It consisted of God at the top, then kings above noblemen and other people in general, and the animals would be ranked below all the people.

In the wake of the fall of the Roman Empire, there was a need for an alternative form of rule, the structure, or the government that would unite all the people of Europe. This duty was assumed by the Catholic Church which became a very powerful rule of the Middle-Ages. It also became a source of power for medieval kings and queens as a result of their alliance with it. The church also afforded protection to these monarchs.

Rural life was based on feudalism. In this form of existence, the king would give land, or fiefs to noblemen. The peasants, or serfs would work on the land in exchange for protection and to live on the land. However, technological innovations in agriculture resulted in significant evolution in feudalism. Heavy plough and three-field crop rotation efficiently increased production, as well as the supply of food. As a result, less human resource was needed to work on farms. Ultimately, more people flocked to towns and cities.

It was by virtue of these cities’ dynamism that gave rise to the Renaissance period in the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries. The word Renaissance is French and means rebirth. It is the period in which the society started moving away from the medieval values and norms, from God as the determinant of everything, and thus significantly reducing the power and rule of the church, the Catholic Church. Most importantly it was the time that was marked by a massive change in economy and intellect, particularly in art, literature, science and philosophy. New ideas were created and disseminated across all spheres of life. Artistic work became more accurate and had a viewpoint, literature focused more on the characteristics and behaviors of the people, and printing eased access to information and education by society. In science great improvements were made in various fields, particularly in astronomy and physics. This is evident in Galileo’s successful invention of the telescope. Philosophy changed the way people thought about themselves and the universe. It focused on humanism. Humanism is broadly understood as involving a positive approach to human existence and an appreciation of human endeavor. The broad influence of Renaissance humanism in turn filtered back to philosophical and political thought, where various ideas of human reason became the main focus of theoretical speculation. John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, had an optimistic notion of human nature, believing that rationality was a key feature in the way in which human beings organized themselves, with or without state intervention. Locke promoted the idea that unjustly treated subjects had a “right to rebel” if their reason was being insulted. (Bevir, 2010). These philosophical changes culminated in another change in human thought. This was the dawn of the Modern Age which came to be famously known as The Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment is largely defined and popularly known as the age of reason, mainly for its commitment to the use of reason for the promotion of happiness via the amelioration and improvement of the practical conditions of human life (Bevir, 2010). The German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, was also keen to stress the importance of rational critique to the Enlightenment, calling on his readers to dispense with “immaturity” and take up the challenge daring to know for oneself. (Bevier, 2010). He defined the Enlightenment as the man’s exit from his self-incurred minority (Wood, 2001). He described minority as being unable to use intelligence without guidance, and it is self-incurred if it caused by lack of determination and courage to use intelligence without guidance. Therefore, he called Sapere Aude, meaning having the courage to use one’s intelligence, the motto of the Enlightenment (Wood, 2001). This was an attitude towards modernity because it was founded on the principle rationalism. Rationalism is the belief that the world has a rational structure, and that this can be disclosed through the exercise of human reason and critical enquiry. As a philosophical theory, rationalism is the belief that knowledge flows from reason rather than experience, and thus contrasts with empiricism. As a general principle, however, rationalism places a heavy emphasis on the capacity of human beings to understand and explain their world, and to find solutions to problems. It is associated with an emphasis on principle and reason-governed behavior, as opposed to reliance on custom or tradition, or non-rational drives and impulses. (Heywood, 1992).

It was the successful revolution in science of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that gave birth to the Enlightenment. Science undermined the ancient geocentric conception of the cosmos, and the constraining presuppositions that guided philosophical inquiry. It is the period that was marked by dramatic revolutions in science, philosophy, society and politics. The Enlightenment thought also culminated in the historical French and American Revolution, in which the traditional ancient hierarchical political and social orders (the French monarchy, the privileges of the French nobility, the political power and authority of the Catholic Church) were violently destroyed and replaced by a political and social order informed by the Enlightenment ideals of freedom and equality for all, founded, ostensibly, upon principles of human reason (Bristow, 2011). These revolutions served as a society’s transit from the medieval perspective to a modern world-view. In politics, the Enlightenment make present again a course of action to encourage values characteristic of liberal modernity, which are freedom, progress, opulence, and humanitarianism. More specifically, political theorists have found in the Enlightenment the origins of several institutions that define our political landscape today, from liberal individualism and global capitalism to constitutional democracy, value pluralism, human rights recognition, and religious toleration (Bevir, 2010).

The starting point in analyzing these modern institutions and political landscape is Weber’s bureaucracy. According to Marsh, et al., (1996) bureaucratic organizational structure seems to be fixed and permanent, and indispensable feature of the modern society. Most important is the nature of these bureaucracies. They are impersonal with clearly defined rules that also separate work and private life. Their form of reporting is hierarchical and break job into smaller task for increased quality, effectiveness, efficiency, and economies of scale. Candidates are also appointed based on their qualifications and experience. Therefore, Weber’s bureaucracy serves as a guideline in forming a modern organization, and played a crucial role in the development of the modern state.

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The biggest idea that grew out of the Enlightenment is that of the modern state. The proximate sources of the modern state were absolutism and the interstate it initiated (Held, 1992). It came as a response to absolutism. A state is that human community which (successfully) lays claim to the monopoly of legitimate physical violence within a certain territory, this territory being another of the defining features of the state (Weber, 1994). This means that all modern states are nation-states, political apparatuses, distinct from both ruler and ruled, with supreme jurisdiction over a demarcated territorial area, backed by a claim to a monopoly of coercive power, and enjoying a minimum level of support or loyalty from their citizens (Held, 1992). Therefore, the modern state is fixed within exact territorial borders, control the means of violence by the army and police, it is sovereign, and it is the only form of rule that regards its people as citizens. Governments come and go but the state remains. Therefore, the control of state machinery is contested and won by a political party in elections, which makes it democratic and legitimate because it reflect and/or represent the needs of its citizens. The state also uses a system of checks and balances to ensure that no one of its institutions, which are the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary, exerts or exercise too much power over another. Out of the idea of the modern state other concepts and/or ideas emerged, too.

Liberalism emerged as the product of two intertwined developments in early modern Europe. The first was the creation of modern states with the concomitant emergence of semi-autonomous civil societies. The second and roughly contemporaneous development was the invention and spread of a set of values and priorities that broke with the religious traditions that had prevailed in feudal and clerical practice in medieval Europe (Bevir, 2010). Liberalism comes from the word liberty, meaning freedom. In politics, the term is recognized as a unique set of ideas or ideology. The central theme of liberal ideology is a commitment to the individual and the desire to construct a society in which people can satisfy their interests and achieve fulfillment (Heywood, 1992). Liberals believe that human beings are, first and foremost, individuals, endowed with reason (Heywood, 1992). This implies that each individual should enjoy the maximum possible freedom consistent with a like freedom for all (Heywood, 1992). However, although individuals are entitled to equal legal and political rights, they should be rewarded in line with their talents and willingness to work (Heywood, 1992). Secularism is one of the sub-concepts of liberalism, meaning the next step after individual liberties have been achieved is to strive for the separation of religion from the state. The philosophes’ opposition to traditional religious authority stressed the need for secular knowledge free of religious orthodoxies (Hamilton, 1992). It is an ethic that is perceived as the most radical anti-clerical movement. The aim of the early modern political thought is to establish a secular political order capable of settling the wars of religion, stopping the persecution of religious minorities and heretics, and guaranteeing the natural rights and liberties of every man and citizen (Bevir, 2010). Liberalism also influenced the varying forms of the modern state.

Constitutionalism or the constitutional state is the form of state in which political or state decision-making is procedurally or substantively limited. This limits can be either implicit or explicit. Here the practice of the state is restricted and constrained for the maximization of freedom of all citizens. In the liberal state private affairs are separated from public affairs by a concern. This is the form of state in which civil society is freed from unnecessary political intervention and the authority of the state is delimited. Representative democracy is a form of rule in which officers are elected by the citizens themselves to represent their interests within the rule of law. Decisions about social issues are not taken by the society itself, but by the elected officers, the representatives. Lastly, there is also a form of a modern state called a one-party state. Its definition is in its name, a state in which there is only one legitimate political party. Here voters have the opportunity to affirm the party’s choice of candidate, or occasionally to choose from among different party candidates (although some may doubt whether this constitutes an opportunity for the exercise of choice at all) (Held, 1992).

In conclusion, in the Middle-Ages everything was determined by God and existed in the Great Chain of Being. The fall of the Roman Empire ushered in the Renaissance. It was marked by great revolutions in science, philosophy, and astronomy, which then led to the Enlightenment or the Age of reason. This age of reason culminates in the overthrowing of the French monarchy and leads to the establishment the modern democratic state. It also makes Sapere Aude an attitude of modernity, because dare-to-know simply means have courage to find reason. That reason was found and it liberated the society from the shackles of the Middle-Ages. It is also because of that reason the modern state, its various forms and institutions were found. Rationalism thus freed mankind from the self-incurred minority.



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