The Enlightenment &
The American Revolution

The Enlightenment 
The Age of Reason 
The Neo-Classical Era 

Notice the difference in age between Franklin and Edwards. 1706 for Franklin and 1703 for Edwards. They are only three years apart, but they live in different eras. It was a choice that they made. You can be like Jonathan Edwards even now, and some people are. Ben Franklin is part of new movement, one that arises in Europe then moves out from there. This is called the Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Reason or the Neo-Classical Era.

      -  This period goes by the names "the Enlightenment," "the Age of Reason," and "the Neo-Classical Age."

       - There was a great turning away from religion as primary way of life.

       - People had been caught up in religious schism and sometimes outright warfare from 1534, the year Henry VIII split away from the Catholic church, until the Glorious Revolution of 1589.  England now turned its attention to politics and scientific/logical analysis & reason.

       - belief had been based on authority; restoration brought the scientific method.

       - scientific method - beliefs should be proven through repeated experiments.  Until now, one was to trust the pronouncements of some authority.  In religion, you accepted the dictates of the church; in science, you would turn to a recognized authority like Aristotle, Ptolemy, etc.  Your own experience could mislead you.  Chaucer's Wife of Bath trusted experience over authority, but she was wrong to do so.  In this era, she would be right.

    Copernicus & Galileo trusted their own experience, their observations of the stars, over the authority of Ptolemy.  They concluded that the world circled the sun rather than the other way around.

    Newton discovered the laws of gravity, motion, & created a new branch of mathematics - calculus.

A valid experiment would be repeatable.  Thus others who turned telescopes toward the skies should observe the same things Copernicus & Galileo did.

       - people wanted proof; did not want to accept an idea as true just because some person of authority said.

The big name for the Enlightenment is Sir Isaac Newton. He discovered gravity, this is the calculus branch of mathematics. Newton was a great thinker. He discovered the idea of gravity, that bodies attract to one another based on their mass. He discovered a principle, why things fall to the earth. For Edwards, you fell to the earth because of God. Now we have another explanation, a natural explanation, it is the pull of gravity. In the religion of these people, once you discover the way that the planets move around the sun and the reason of this is gravity, then you eliminate the need for supernatural intervention. In the Ptolemaic system understood by the medieval Christian, angels were responsible for that making the sun, the moon, and the stars go around. Could an angel be up on the moon pushing it? Is there any way to disprove it? It could be possible, we cannot disprove it. Do we really think there are angels? No, because gravity was a sufficient explanation. We do not need the angels anymore; we have gravity now. They could be there but they arenít necessary. In the idea of cutting away that which is unnecessary, moving from that which is complex to that which is simple in science is not as Occamís razor. Occam was an English priest and a scientist. Occamís razor is the idea that you cut away any unneeded part of your hypothesis.

The thrust of Enlightenment was to search for natural explanations for things in the scientific method. The idea of supernatural becomes something of a scandal, something of a great difficulty; why would God need to intervene? If Mars was doing loops out there, then God would need to do so, but He made a more simple and elegant system which operates on its own. The universe is like a giant clock and God is the master clock maker. In this period, they loved to make clocks. Clocks were emblematic of the universe. You could tell time by the way the planets move around the sun. Theyíre only in this position every so many years. Based on that, if youíve been out time traveling and you come flying into the Solar System, you can take a snapshot of where the planets are and figure out when it is. It moves like a giant clock and they were discovering this. These arenít random or odd motions up in the sky, they are very regular.

So God created a world that operates according to laws, natural law. This means that He does not need to intervene. They had their own sort of religious expression. They were called the Deists. Deism is sort of a natural religion. That is itís based on observation of what we can see. Another element of this Enlightenment is the idea that we should be able to see the evidence for ourselves and judge it for ourselves. A movement away from authority. Before, if you wanted to prove a scientific theory, you would consult Hypocrites and Aristotle. You would put together your quotations, and itís proven because you quoted the proper authorities. In religious matters, you quote the Bible, and the Bishops, and the theologians, the proper authorities. Now they say move toward your own individual ability. We see that somewhat also in the early stages of the Puritan movement, but this is expressed very differently.

If I turn down a light switch, it will turn the light off. If you turn the switch, will it do the same thing? If it is scientifically valid, it is universal, anybody can turn the light off. The one thing an experiment has to be is repeatable. The idea of special revelation goes away. We now have the appeal to general revelation. The goal is to have a religion based on stuff that is accessible to all of us. You donít have to be in a certain place at a certain time, anybody anywhere can repeat this experiment.


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Edited by Group 1, English 303-02 Winter Quarter 1998