Joe Cannon: A world in upheaval: Sources of the Enlightenment

Published: Sunday, May 17 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

The Enlightenment laid the political, scientific, philosophical and religious foundations and framework of the modern world we live in today. Last week, we discussed some of the early precursors of the Enlightenment. Today we will focus on two of the towering pillars of the Enlightenment: Rene Descartes (1596-1650) and Baruch Spinoza (1623-77).

To appreciate Descartes, we first need to understand the many forces at work in his world. The world of the first half of the 17th century was in upheaval in virtually every respect. There were at least four tributaries to this upheaval, all deeply interrelated: the Reformation, the Thirty Years' War, the collapse of Catholic authority and the collapse of the near total authority of monarchies.

The Reformation (1516-63) set in motion the undermining of the Roman Catholic hold on religious authority, ultimately leading to four principal Christian faiths and a number of dissenting faiths. This fractionalization led not only to various theological and doctrinal differences but ultimately eliminated the possibility of a single supreme authoritative voice declaring religious truth.

On the heels of the Reformation came the Thirty Years' War (1618-48). The war, originally between Protestants and Catholics, over time became political and involved most European countries. In terms of blood and treasure, it is hard to overstate the devastation that resulted from this war. The war and its resulting famine and disease decimated vast numbers of the population of the continental European countries. Many countries also faced bankruptcy. Unlike the philosophical musings of the few, the savagery of this war touched the lives of virtually everyone. The Thirty Years' War was only resolved near the end of Descartes life.

The divine right of monarchies also came under attack during this same time frame. In England, King Charles I was beheaded in 1649.

In many senses, then, Descartes was living in the ruins of an older established world. According to my friend, professor Jim Faulconer (Richard L. Evans, professor of religious understanding at Brigham Young University), "There wasn't anything in Descartes' world he could recognize as authoritative." According to some accounts, Descartes, after a period of concentrated introspection and reflection, had dreams which he felt were divinely inspired calling on him to develop a new unified science of nature (Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

To that point in history reason had been the servant of revealed religion. Descartes, starting from nothing, and in the absence of ultimate religious authority, turned to reason to formulate his new science.

Descartes knew one thing — he existed. Hence, the famous cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am. Descartes, no atheist, had no intention of his new science displacing God. In fact, Descartes' central aim was to demonstrate the existence of God. He reasoned that if he, Descartes, existed and was imperfect, then contingent upon that understanding, there must be an infinite and perfect source outside of him and that had to be God. It is crucial to understand that his "arguments for the existence of God proceed, as his system demands, only from the contents of his own consciousness ... he intends (only) the purely intellectual and rational comprehension of God" (Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

Later in the 17th century, scholars and philosophers, notably Spinoza, took Descartes' way of reasoning and developed a worldview called Cartesianism. Spinoza took the view that Descartes had it right, except for his notions of the existence of God. To Spinoza, if God exists at all, he exists in nature or is the sum of the natural and physical laws of the universe and certainly not an individual entity or creator. Spinoza went to great lengths to dismiss the Bible as "a purely human and secular text, meaningful judgments about which can only be made by philosophers" ("Radical Enlightenment"). Indeed, Faulconer regards Spinoza as a "radical materialist."

Jonathan I. Israel writes that Spinoza and his followers "rejected all compromise with the past and sought to sweep away existing structures entirely, rejecting the creation as traditionally understood in Judaeo-Christian (sic) civilization, and the intervention of a providential God in human affairs, denying the possibility of miracles, and reward and punishment in an afterlife, scorning all forms of ecclesiastical authority."

Joseph A. Cannon is editor of the Deseret News.

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company