Fire and Light: How the Enlightenment Transformed Our World by MacGregor Burns review Carl Caton

Prior to the Protestant Reformation, instigated mainly by
Martin Luther in 1517, European civilization had been mired for centuries in a
condition of absolutism marked by peoples' domination by either the state or
the church, which in most cases were the same thing. People were locked into
whatever social class they were born into, with the masses of them eking out an
existence in dire poverty, under the oppressive rule of feudal masters and
promised eternal damnation for failure to follow the church's teachings. Since
most people were illiterate, they depended on the church for instruction. The
Reformation, while it served to lessen the hold of the Catholic Church on some,
resulted in equally oppressive strictures by the Protestant sects, which
battled for supremacy for men's souls and treasure with the Popes. 

In Fire and Light: How the Enlightenment Transformed Our
World
, James MacGregor Burns makes the case that the Reformation itself did
little to overcome the shackles of dogma placed on people. Rather, it was the
slow but inexorable flowering of what we now call the Enlightenment that began
the freeing of men's minds by the power of reason. The certainties of lives
circumscribed by birth circumstance and religious doctrine began to dissolve,
about a century after Luther's challenge to Rome. Burns says this was brought
about by a diverse and growing number of thinkers who believed in man's
capacity to learn, to reason, to better himself and the world, and to create
systems of government geared to increasing the freedom and  happiness of the people.

Burns systematically traces the course of the Enlightenment
throughout Europe and America, illustrating the ideas of philosophers and the
consequences of those ideas. Burns defines the essence of the Enlightenment as
the progressive effort to answer the question: How could people be secure in
their lives, empowered to make choices conducive to their peace and liberty and
happiness? In Burns telling, the beginning of the Enlightenment can be traced,
in part, to Thomas Hobbes, the pessimistic British philosopher who famously
described life in a natural state as “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and
short”. Hobbes believed that while people were capable of concerted efforts for
social progress, they required coercion (by some institutional construct) to
avoid reverting to an every man for himself state of nature. The idea that
people could elevate themselves and society as a whole evolved through a
growing array of thinkers and philosophers, including Descartes, Bacon, and
Spinoza, each of whom advanced the notion that individual liberty and happiness
were goals reachable by everyone, not just the rich and powerful.

Expanding on those thoughts were English and Scottish
writers, including Locke, Johnson, Hume, and Adam Smith, all of whom argued
that reason and experience (empiricism) could liberate man from imposed
doctrine and state domination and lead to societies that not only tolerated but
encouraged individual freedoms and liberal governments. Enlightenment ideas
ultimately formed the intellectual foundations of American Revolution,  the French Revolution, and the reforms of
England's constitutional monarchy. Burns explains the erratic and often violent
course of the Enlightenment, and addresses the question of why the American
Revolution resulted, ultimately, in a progressive improvement in
self-governance over the first century of independence, while the French
Revolution, catalyzed by the same ideas, degenerated into the emergence of the
Terror, Napoleon, the Bourbon restoration, and decades of violence and
instability. The difference, according to Burns, was that America was blessed
with leaders immersed and dedicated to Enlightenment ideals, while France
lacked leaders of such integrity and commitment.

Burns argues that the Enlightenment has indeed transformed
the world in fundamental ways, resulting not in a perfect world by any means,
but in a world made safer, more stable, and with immensely more freedom of both
conscience and opportunity, not just in the West but globally. He ends his
Enlightenment tour de force with an impassioned plea for America to
treasure and encourage public education as a foundation of our democratic
system and as a proven way for all, including the poor and disadvantaged, to
succeed, an enlightenment idea that he fears is being lost in our country.

 

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Fire and Light: How the Enlightenment Transformed Our World Cover Image
$29.39
ISBN: 9781250024893
Availability: Hard to Find
Published: Thomas Dunne Books - October 29th, 2013