The leap that occurred in human consciousness from the time known as The Middle Ages to the Age of Enlightenment is nothing short of miraculous. Imagine being alive during The Middle Ages. Your entire understanding of the world was made up almost exclusively of a combination of Christian Doctrine and superstition. From a modern point of view it was as if you didn’t understand anything.
When the plagues hit you would have no idea why three quarters of the people around you were dying. You would probably conclude that either evil spirits were attacking and/or God was punishing humanity for some regression. You would never imagine that your own lack of personal and cultural hygiene could almost entirely account for the source of the problem. The Middle Ages were a time undoubtedly dominated by fear. The same God who mysterioiusly provided you with the Earth under your feet, the air to breathe, and food to eat, also left you riddled with disease and ill health, and periodically subjected you to natural and human disasters of all kinds. There was no clear way to act that would accurately allow you to predict or control the future and the God you worshiped must have seemed an impossible mix of benevolence and cruelty.
The most learned people at the time were Christian monks – perhaps most famously the great Thomas Aquinas –who were heroically busy in monasteries studying the texts of the ancient Greeks and synthesizing these ideas with Christian doctrine to create a worldview that would dominate the Western world – with some real success – for hundreds of years. In fact that world view would remain intact until the polish born astronomer Nicholas Copernicus would pull out the first pillar that would bring the whole house tumbling down.
Copernicus showed convincingly that the Earth revolved around the Sun and not the Sun around the Earth. This discovery over threw one of the central characteristics of Christian thought at the time and it initiated arguably the greatest intellectual revolution in human history. Soon the German born astronomer Johannes Kepler showed that the planets revolved around the earth according to simple mathematical relationships and later the Englishman Isaac Newton explained the motion of the planets using his simple and elegant conception of gravity.
The Enlightenment changed the universe. Suddenly it was clear that the universe wasn’t an unknowable place that had to be feared. It was an organized mechanism consisting of many different parts that acted in accordance with natural laws that could be discovered and understood. The universe was knowable and man had the ability to reason and to know it! That was the revolution of The Enlightenment.
The universe that emerged out of the Enlightenment was a “clockwork” universe that worked according to particular laws and in particular ways and those could be discovered, understood and controlled. There was a utopian impulse that erupted in many of the Enlightenment thinkers. We could now find the keys that would allow us to perfect the world.
The American founding fathers – Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, etc. – were Enlightenment thinkers. They realized that there could be a perfect form of governance that would work in accord with the universal laws of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and they dedicated themselves, risking everything, to create it.
The Enlightenment was a huge leap forward for humanity and for a time it seemed like final answers to all of the mysteries of the universe would unfold. Total knowledge was the promise of The Enlightenment and it was a promise that ruled the day, but that was not ultimately to go unchallenged.