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The Age of Enlightenment is a term used to describe a phase in the history of Western civilization, during the late seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries,  that emphasized rational thought and empirical observation. Although there were some common elements, there were also significant differences among the “enlightenments” in the different European countries. All of these movements were influenced by the scientific discoveries of the seventeenth century and the resulting confidence in human rationality.

Enlightened Religion

A philosophic approach to religion that has been called “Deism” emerged in Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Its main tenets were a belief in a creator God who does not interfere with the events of the world and the denial of any form of revelation. This thinking has been largely identified with the Enlightenment in general, and it generally included an active antagonism against Christianity, especially in countries like France. But these characterizations did not apply universally. The leading figure of the Spanish Enlightenment was Benito Feijoó (1676-1764), a Benedictine priest, and through his influence, this movement remained largely Christian. The Scottish Enlightenment included deist philosopher David Hume (1711-1776), who was very critical of organized religion, but it also produced some of the best examples of enlightened Christian thought around its universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh.

University of Edinburgh  Photo Source: Wikipedia, Author: Kim Traynor

The Scottish movement included an attempt to place Christianity on a footing more consistent with contemporary thought, through alternative interpretations of some of its teachings, and a lessening of dogmatism. The tone was set by Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746), generally considered to have been the foundational figure of the Scottish Enlightenment. The process was described by one of his students at Glasgow:

It was owing to Hutcheson and  him [professor of theology William Leechman] that a new school was formed in the western provinces of Scotland, where the clergy till that period were narrow and bigoted, and had never ventured to range in their mind beyond the bounds of strict orthodoxy. For though neither of these professors taught any heresy, yet they opened and enlarged the minds of the students, which soon gave them a turn for free inquiry; the result of which was, candour and liberality of sentiment.[1]

Hugh Blair (1718-1800), a professor at Edinburgh and a Presbyterian minister, expresses the clear Christian humanism of this group:

The spirit of true religion breathes gentleness and affability. It gives a native, unaffected ease to the behavior. It is social, kind, and cheerful: far removed from that gloomy and illiberal superstition which clouds the brow, sharpens the temper, dejects the spirit, and teaches men to fit themselves for another world, by neglecting the concern of this, Let your religion, on the contrary, connect preparation for heaven, with an honourable discharge of the duties of active life.[2]

Moral Philosophy

A course on moral philosophy was often included as part of the Arts curriculum in European universities throughout their history, with Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics as a popular text. Francis Hutcheson  provided an important update of the contents of this course at the University of Glasgow, where he taught it from 1730 to 1746. In addition to the classical content, he included more political and legal material, based mostly on the thought of German jurist Samuel Pufendorf (1632-1694).[3] Hutcheson's textbooks on this subject have been highly influential. We have records, for example, of their influence at early American  colleges where the moral philosophy course was used as a sort of senior "capstone" course to help students develop a social conscience.[4]

Adam Ferguson (1723-1816, who taught Moral Philosophy at Edinburgh from 1764 to 1785 provides a clear expression of the goals of the discipline.

The highest point to which moral science conducts the mind of man, is that eminence of thought, from which he can view himself as but a part in the community of living creatures; by which he is in some measure let into the design of God, to combine all the parts together for the common benefit of all; and can state himself as a willing instrument for this purpose, in what depends on his own will; and as a conscious instrument, at the disposal of providence, in matters which are out of his power.[5]

The Common Good, the Professions and Progress

As teachers, Hutcheson and Ferguson tried to inspire in the students a sense of idealism about their education:

Go forward, then, in virtue, beloved young men, the hope of this generation and the glory, I trust, of the generation to come. Take nature and God as your guide, apply your minds to liberal studies, and lay down a varied store of useful knowledge which you may bring forth one day in all honorable, temperate, modest, and courageous service to our country and the human race.[6]

We should always repute it as our business in the world, the end and purpose of our being, our duty to our kind, the natural use of the powers we enjoy, and the most suitable testimony of our gratitude to our Maker the parent of all good, to contribute something to the general good, to the common fund of happiness to our species.[7]

First, each one is obliged to cultivate his own powers of body and mind so as to fit himself for what offices of goodness and humanity his station may allow... 'Tis also the duty of each individual toward mankind, as well as toward his peculiar friends or relations, to follow some profession or business subservient to some common good.[8]

Ferguson has been particularly inspiring in his celebration of human progress and the knowledge heritage:

Man’s specific talent for expression and communication, also, notwithstanding the diversity of tongues… serves, upon the whole, to reunite the efforts of mankind to one common purpose of advancement in the progress of intelligence. The lights of science are communicated, from the parts in which they sprang up, to the remotest corners of the inhabitable world. The works of singular genius are a common benefit to mankind; and the whole species, on every quarter, in every nation, and in every age, cooperates together for one common end of information, invention, science, and art.[9]

So that the most retired student of nature, in extending the limits of knowledge, works for his community; separate communities mutually work for one another, for ages to come, and for mankind. And attainments in this branch, perhaps more than in any other, may be considered, not as local advantages gained to any particular society of men, but as steps in the progress of the human species itself.[10] 

Applied Science

Xavier María de Munibe (1723-1785), Count of Peñaflorida was born in the Basque region of Spain. He studied in the Jesuit school at Toulouse, France, where he concentrated his studies in experimental physics and mathematics.[11]  Peñaflorida, an admirer of Feijoó, dedicated himself to the application of the sciences to economic development. In 1763, with a few of his friends, he founded the Royal Basque Society of Friends of the Nation. The society concentrated on improving agricultural and industrial practices through studies, publications, and contests.[12] Similar societies were established in the rest of the country and in the Spanish colonies, some of which are still functioning.[13]

The faculties at he Scottish universities had a strong tradition of being conscious of community needs.[14] The University of Edinburgh achieved recognition as a medical school during the eighteenth century. The rise of this medical school stimulated the development of related scientific disciplines such as chemistry and botany.[15] In 1790 Edinburgh established what was probably the first chair of agriculture at a university.[16]

[1] Alexander Carlyle, Autobiography of the Rev. Dr Carlyle, Second edition (Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons, 1860), 84.

[2] Hugh Blair, Sermons, Vol. I (London: T. Cadell and W. Davies, 1818), 179.

[3] William Robert Scott, Francis Hutcheson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1900), p. 63.

[4] Frederick Rudolph, Curriculum: A History of the American Course of Study since 1636 (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1987), pp. 40-41.

[5] Adam Ferguson, Principles of Moral and Political Science (Edinburgh: W. Creech, 1792),Vol. I, 313. .

[6]  Francis Hutcheson, "On the Natural Sociability of Mankind: Inaugural Oration" in Logic, Metaphysics, and the Natural Sociability of Mankind, ed. James Moore and Michael Silverthorne, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2006). The Online Library of Liberty

[7] Francis Hutcheson, A System of Moral Philosophy (Glasgow: A Foulis, 1755), Vol. 2, 116.

[8] Ibid., Vol. 2, 111-113.

[9] Adam Ferguson, Principles of Moral and Political Science (Edinburgh: W. Creech, 1792),Vol. 1, 36.

[10] Ibid., Vol. 1, 281.

[11] Joaquín Iriarte, S.J., El Conde de Peñaflorda y la Real Sociedad Bascongada de los Amigos del País (Donostia-San Sebastián: Colección Ilustración Vasca, 1991),  46.

[12] José de Aralar, El Conde de Peñaflorida y los Caballeritos de Azkoitia ( Buenos Aires: Editoral Vasca Ekin, 1942),  91-95.

[13] Robert Jones Shafer, The Economic Societies in the Spanish World (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1958), 48-52.

[14] Douglas Sloan, The Scottish Universities in the Enlightenment (New York: Teachers College Press, Columbia University, 1971), 13, 23.

[15] Ibid., 22, 27.

[16] Ibid., 207.