The Enlightenment Revival and the French Revolution

Honest question. There is a movement out there of returning to enlightenment ideals.

The optimism here reminds a great deal of the first Enlightenment. However, it seems to forget how it ended. The Enlightenment back then looked just as good, but lead to the French Revolution, Communism, and all the pitfalls of utilitarianism. I sense that some people here (@NLENTS and @Patrick?) are inclined to Pinkerton’s renewal of the enlightenment.

How do the exponents of this view think about the ugly consequences of the first Enlightenment? (Gillotines, Pograms, and the like)

Why shouldn’t the rest of us be concerned about a revival of the Enlightenment? Perhaps it is just another prelude to darkness. What am I missing?

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The main premise of Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now is that the promise of the Enlightenment is being realized now. It has taken 200 years or so to get to it. But most people don’t recognize the progress because of all the awful news stories that we get everyday. Bit in a series of graphs, Pinker shows the real progress in key areas. And low and behold, it is not only getting better, improvements are accelerating in the past 30 years and especially this century.


If that is the point, as observational, not proscriptive, this is a far more sympathetic claim. Is that what you are saying? There is no proscription that we should lean into enlightenment values?

Though, I’m not sure we can attribute this to the Enlightenment. It seems that this is attributable to science adn the industrial revolution, which preexist the Enlightenment, right? What am I missing?

For example, by looking at the official numbers and the data, crime (murder, rape, armed robbery,) is way down over the past 20 years, everywhere - big cities, suburbs and rural areas. Listening to the President or to the newsmedia, the average American would say crime must be up. But it isn’t.

Take every social issue that we have. There is real scientific data that is either being ignored, manipulated, or discredited for purely political reasons. Despite ISIS, the world is experiencing the longest period of peace in recorded history.

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Yes, but are we misattributing this to the Enlightenment?

And is this descriptive or proscriptive?

Picker attributes the Enlightment to science and industrialization. Famine is in decline, not because we are being more charitable and equitable with each other but because we are using science and technology to create a food chain to create wealth. Instead of making sure everyone gets an equal share of the pie, Pinker argues that the pie is actually a 1000 times bigger due to capitalism. So what if the top 1% gets 25% of the pie now, the remaining 75% has created a world where being overfeed inside of being malnourished is the new problem to be solved from the wealth effect. In the past the czar lived in splendor and the serfs were impoverished. Serfdom is inefficient today, and let the GPS control combine harvest crops that can feed the masses in fast food restaurants.

Hi Patrick,
Just for clarity, by everywhere, do you mean everywhere in the US?

No, worldwide. Pinker’s book looks at the entire world. Actually, most of the progress in the world is cited to be in the two largest countries by population China and India.

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Ok… then in that context sone of the direct consequences if the enlightenment are -
World war 1
World war 2
The nuclear attack on Japan
Climate change

Did he mention them?

Of course. He goes on to say that despite the two world wars, since 1945 war has seen a significant decline. He attributes it the growing world economy. He makes the claim that global war is now far from probable because of its disruptive of the world economy. Little squishes yes, civil wars yes, but not massive wars like World War I and II.

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Let me give you a hypothetical scenario where a future world war could break out-
Climate change predictions come true. The world didn’t do enough and now the sea levels are high, weather is erratic. Agriculture has gone for a toss. There is large scale famine,death… countries will fall, others will undergo drastic changes with new regimes taking over.
Political alliances change overnight with unaffected countries forming a block, and effected countries forming another. Effected countries ask for damages and resources. Unef cted countries refuse after a point… leading to large scale conflicts and finally global war…
A mad man decides to nuke the other party… …

Here is another hypothetical scenario.I call it new imperialism.
A decade from now, China grows to become a leading superpower and starts to flex it’s muscles. It wants more of the pie.
Europe and America are also on the ascendant and unwilling to cede space to china. Conflicts emerge when china challenges the supremacy of the dollar as an international currency. Trade wars become increasingly intense as countries aggressively pursue trade relationships that are advantageous to them. This increases conflict between China and America/Europe. Countries are not afraid of nuclear attacks as all major countries have developed satellites to track and destroy all incoming missiles.

Meanwhile a disruptive technology (say 3d printing) has changed manufacturing totally. Again putting pressure on china as it loses its advantage of cheap manpower and economics of scale. Japan becomes one of the leading manufacturers using 3d printing.
Facing extreme internal pressure and a possibility of a collapse in its economy, china invades Japan…

Bottom line, a disruption in the current economic balance can and will lead to war… how global it is will depend on many factors.


That was before Brexit and Trumpism. There may be less reason for such optimism.


Actually his book is after Brexit and Trumpism. He discusses both in detail and concludes a big pushback toward humanism, which in the mid-terms are what happened.

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i do agree things have never been better for so many people, and so high a percentage of people.
In health, wealth, you name it. there are evil things about but , on a curve, its less then before.
i see it as the result of christianity having its partner in american civilization.
everyone is becoming american in politics, economics, morality/kindness, intelligence.
Thanks to the Puritan founders of New England.
yet evil is just under the surface. nothing is ever settled.

The irony is that i’m not sure whose argument is better (or worse), that of @Robert_Byers or Pinkerton. Correlation is not causation.

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Don’t get me started on Puritans.

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I’ve made these very same points from the pulpit in recent years and the reaction of people has been varied and quite fascinating. I originally thought that reactions might break down by age/generation but they didn’t. I was glad to see that even some of the senior citizens who tend to follow conservative-oriented media (e.g., Fox News, American Family Radio) were willing to accurately contrast the state of the world in recent decades with their experiences during WWII and the Korean War eras and appreciate my point that we are in an era of relative peace. At the same time, some of the younger adults who didn’t have those memories had a harder time believing that a post-9/11 world is “peaceful” in any way. However, all of the age groups seemed to struggle with the idea that murder, rape, armed robbery, and other violent crime is generally lower. And the news coverage of shocking events like bombings and mass shootings seems to capture people’s attention to where it is very hard for them to believe the actual statistics of violence which shows that we live in a relatively safer world.

Perceptions drive public opinions, obviously. Whether those perceptions have a solid basis in fact doesn’t seem to matter much.

I’d love to read Pinker’s book. It sounds very engaging. Yet, from the descriptions, I get the impression that he may be glorifying the Enlightenment and its aftermath. If @swamidass hadn’t mentioned the French Revolution, I certainly would have. Whenever anti-theists (for example) whine on and on about the Spanish Inquisition, I eventually lose my patient and start statistically comparing the relative “mildness” of multiple centuries of the Inquisition with even just a few violently bloody weeks of the French Revolution. There’s virtually no comparison! The Inquisition was a minor blip, if one is truly objective. People who lack a solid knowledge of European history have often fallen for the very effective anti-Roman-Catholic propaganda of Reformation-inspired Protestant leaders. They did a masterful job of exaggerating and manufacturing what has become an even more popular modern-day Internet “fake history” [Sorry!] of the Inquisition.

Nevertheless, I have long wished that our public schools would do a much better job of explaining the importance of the Scottish Enlightenment in the developments leading to the United States of America. Yes, some high school history classes talk a little bit about John Locke but that should be just the tip of the iceberg. Of course, those same history classes should do a much better job of explaining the geopolitical, economic, and religious reasons for the mass migrations of Scots, Irish, English, Dutch, Germans, Swiss, and French Huguenots. (If I ask a typical high school graduate why Europeans migrated to the Colonies, about all they can say is “Religious freedom!”)

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Pinker’s book is really worthwhile reading. This book is full of real data. And it is really up to date on the present, It doesn’t redo history just takes data from history like infant mortality and famine rates and compares them with today. It is especially well done on items like wealth inequality and world wide wealth for billions in a global economy. Every way that he looks at it, humanity is getting healthier, wealthier, wiser, and happier.

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I assume then that the author probably talks about improvements in educational opportunities for girls and women. It is hard to overestimate just how important literate women are to the development of a stronger economy and culture. I’ve always been impressed by how much teaching a young girl to read will improve not only her own future, but that of most or even all of her descendants. A literate mom will tend to produce not only literate sons and daughter but a much more productive view of the world that can improve the lot in life of generations to come. Her family’s size is also more likely to be a manageable one involving relatively less suffering.