A collective Awakening Movement is growing around the world. Mindfulness, meditation, empathy, love, spirituality have become commonplace words in our vocabulary. Yet, history already witnessed humanist movements, grew up and disappeared because they failed to they failed to leverage the eagerness and actually shift the existing paradigm(s).
These movements include the Vander Vogels initiated in Germany in the 1920s (of which Hermann Hesse was one of the prominent thinkers) which underpinned the hippie movement of the 1960s and more recently the rise of the environmental consciousness of the 1990s.
Whilst calling for radical systemic changes, these movements happened to have little long-lasting effects. So far the environmental movement has been failing: slow decisions, the failure to comply to commitments towards the reduction of greenhouse gases (note that the Kyoto Protocol dates back to 1998), the recent departure of the United States from the Paris agreement and ultimately the relatively weak engagement of citizens for a more responsible consumption are the evidence of a difficult breakthrough.
In recent history, there is only one single movement of thought that actually offered a new paradigm and was able to rally the support of the people for lasting change in society: the Enlightenment Movement.
Today, many indicators seem to point at the rise of a New Age of Enlightenment. Last October, at the Paris conference “Cultivons Notre Confiance Pour La Planète”, Satish Kumar, once again, mentioned the need for a new French Revolution based on a new trinity: the former Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity becoming Soil, Soul, and Society.
Whilst, we must refrain from embellishing the French Revolution - not forgetting the violence and excess that resulted from it - we are taking notice of Satish Kumar’s proposal and think it is worthy of investigating further the idea that we would be living a New Age of Enlightenment.
So let's delve into what made these Enlightenment philosophies successful in transforming society radically. In the hope to better impact our future, it is necessary that we analyze further the mechanisms and inner workings of this historical paradigm shift and combine these findings with the clarity of understanding we have of our present.
In this first part,
we will draw parallels and intersections between the Enlightenment period and our current times, which will be followed - in a second part - by focussing on defining principles supporting the advent of the current movement.
1. Mistrust leading to Anger
The reign of Louis XIV is synonymous with the apex of the French monarchy. Then the Aristocracy reveled in libertinage and enjoyed French prosperity to the detriment of the Kingdom’s colonies and its people. The end of the reign nevertheless is marked by a series of wars (and their defeats) as well as famines and riots on the national territory. It is within that highly tense context, with people being radically opposed to the system in place, that the Enlightenment movement takes place. Voltaire even reported that alongside Louis XIV’s funeral procession came a slew of people drinking, laughing and singing. The mistrust of the people for the system in place is manifesting within our modern world including through the current rise of nationalism or far-left protest movements. Most recently the “Yellow Vests” movement in France was also the sign of a divided society.
Liberalism is no longer the unsurpassable horizon that it was in the 20th century. The economic prosperity that was heralded as the ultimate solution to the great challenges of our civilization, and was aiming at reducing inequalities in order to allow people access to happiness is radically questioned. Hence, our contemporary times look akin to the context of the original Enlightenment Era - especially when it comes in clear disbelief from the people for the system and their will to rule out the decision-making elites, accounted responsible for the failure.
2. Shaking the beliefs system
Bear in mind that the Enlightenment Era is primarily the Age of Reason and Science before being that of Freedom and Human Rights. It would be tedious to list all the Scientific advances of the Age of Enlightenment but again the parallels between our two periods are quite confounding. Also, note that the immense progress of science in the 18th completely reshuffled the way individuals thought their place in the world and approach its representation.
In the late 17th century, Newton formulated the Universal theory of Gravity. The 18th century saw the birth of the first theories of evolution (by JB Monet, well before Darwin), the authorization of Galileo's publications claiming that the Earth revolves around the Sun and not the contrary, the discovery of positive and negative energies (protons and electrons) as well as the generalization of measurement systems.
If today these theories are accepted by all, other scientific advances are shaking up our current belief systems. Artificial intelligence challenges the notion of consciousness, quantum mechanics that of matter, advances on multi-universes or experiences of 'Near Death Experience' question the notion of reality and soul.
3. For the sake of Freedom
The Enlightenment wanted to promote reason and science in opposition to religious obscurantism and superstitions in any way. The movement was all for the freedom of thought, of belief but also of trade. Rousseau and Diderot were liberals defending the individuals’ freedom as a fundamental principle. The separation of powers, the freedom of thought, the belief in progress and in the individuals, the right to happiness and social equality, these are the main pillars of the Enlightenment movement. As we will see in chapter 5, we should never forget that the enlightenment century war integral to the rise of economic liberalism.
Although these founding principles remain cornerstones of our current thought (and economic) system, note that the current movement does not favor the total freedom of the individual to the detriment of the community’s. On the contrary, this movement reminds us of how interdependent we are - being an integral part of an ecosystem. If the Enlightenment separated, today we seek to unite. The linear thinking of the world in the 18th century gives way to a systemic even holistic thinking. Everything is in everything: and this is the paradigm shift!
4. The power of communication
The dissemination of its ideas was paramount to the success of the Enlightenment movement. This philosophical movement appeared in a very particular context where ideas could be spread easily. The 18th century witnessed the birth of the public opinion, the arrival of the press, the democratization of literature and the emergence of meeting places. Thus the Enlightenment ideas are not taking place at the court, but in salons, clubs, and cafés, thanks to the Romans, the press, travel and of course the writing of the Encyclopedia of Knowledge.
The Enlightenment thought/philosophy besides carrying powerful ideas was largely spread thanks to the current and efficient promotional means. The Enlightenment philosophers endeavored to educate and popularize their ideas amongst the people, being savvy in their use of the considerable means of communication of their time.
The parallel is obvious here with our contemporary period being strongly characterized as the Information and Communication Society. Media platforms and social networks are within everyone's reach, even more, accessible than they were at the time. Nevertheless - from our standpoint - we argue that these means are largely under-exploited by the thinkers and actors of the change in the humanist movement. We will come back to this point in Part 2.
5. Robespierre vs. Adam Smith. Who won?
This panorama - though very concise - would be incomplete if we did not talk about the post-Enlightenment. At the beginning of the 18th century, France was then the world's leading power but gradually came after England (including by selling them Canada and India). Therefore the century of Enlightenment ends in Europe with two major facts that will change the world for the next 200 years to come.
On one hand, in France, there was the French Revolution of 1789, with the uprising of the people against the monarchy and the emergence of the Republic as well as the declaration of the rights of the Man and of the Citizen.
And on the other hand, in England, a monarchy which is maintained by balancing/ compromising between the Enlightenment and the emergence of the liberal economic theories (and the notion of the free market) by Adam Smith, between 1776 and 1789, which marked the beginning of liberalism as we know it today.