The Heroic Leap from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment

“Whatever appears as a motion of the sun is really due rather to the motion of the earth.” – Nicolaus Copernicus

“Following the light of the sun, we left the Old World.” – Christopher Columbus

A CRASH COURSE IN WESTERN PHILOSOPHY: LESSON 3

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. Try to imagine being alive during The Middle Ages. Your entire understanding of the world, what little you had, would have been made up out of a combination of Christian Doctrine, superstition and maybe a sprinkle of Aristotelian rationality. From our present day point of view it would have been as if you didn’t understand anything at all.

Your experience would undoubtedly have been dominated by fear. You lived in a world with danger on all sides. The strong would take what they wanted and kill you if you resisted. Your greatest source of hope in this bleak landscape came from the church that preached about an all-powerful King who lived in a heavenly realm and would reward the downtrodden in the afterlife. You would have very little sense of causality and what you did have would be explained by a logic that from what we know today had very little basis in reality.

When something as devastating as 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 have no way to imagine that the lack of personal and cultural hygiene could account for the source of the problem.

It was an impossibly unpredictable world full of brutal contradictions. The same God who benevolently provided the Earth under your feet, air to breathe, and food to eat, also left you riddled with disease and ill health, and periodically subjected 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 was an impossible mix of generosity and cruelty.

In these bleak times there were still those who held to higher ideals and those who incubated knowledge in wait for a world that could make use of it. Most of the educated people of the Middle Ages were Christian monks who were heroically busy in monasteries studying texts from the ancient Greece and synthesizing the ideas they found there with Christian doctrine. – The brilliant theologian Thomas Aquinas  is often credited with creating the most comprehensive synthesis of the Medieval wisdom that created a worldview that held the Western world together during its darkest hours.

That worldview was the dominant mode of thinking until a polish born astronomer named Nicholas Copernicus rocked its foundation by pulling 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 challenged one of the central characteristics of Christian thought – the centrality of human’s in the universe and thus their favor in God’s eyes. Over the next few centuries the challenge initiated by Copernicus grew into arguably the greatest global 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 to be feared. It was an organized mechanism consisting of 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 know it through the use of reason. That was the revolution of The Enlightenment.

The universe that emerged out of the Enlightenment resembled a “clockwork.” It was not a universe dominated by Gods and spirits. It was a universe that worked according to natural laws that could be discovered, understood and controlled. There was a utopian impulse that erupted in the Enlightenment thinkers because it was clear that we could now find the keys that would allow us to perfect the world.

The American founders – Benjamin FranklinThomas JeffersonJames Madison, etc. were Enlightenment thinkers who held a vision for a perfect form of governance that would work in accord with the universal laws of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and they risked everything to create it.

The Enlightenment was a magnificent leap forward for humanity and for a time it seemed like final answers to all of the mysteries of the universe would unfold. Total understanding of the workings of the universe was the promise of The Enlightenment and it was a promise that dominants are thinking, for better and worse right up to the present today.