Richard Nisley

The Penny Universities
History - World Released - Nov 11, 2012

The Age of Enlightenment. Why is it important to know about?

Well, if you drink coffee, it’s important to know about. After all, the Age of Enlightenment began in coffee houses. Look it up. The Enlightenment was about ideas, and what better place to talk about ideas than at the local coffee house, or “penny university” as they were called. For a penny cup of coffee you could sit in on what amounted to a college course conducted by, say, Adam Smith, or whomever happened to be around that day.

It started in London, moved across the English Channel to Paris and Amsterdam, on to Milan and Florence in the south of Europe, and to Geneva, Berlin, Weimar and Vienna, and as far east as St. Petersburg in Russia, and up to Edinburgh in Scotland. It reached as far as America, in the form of a single man--Benjamin Franklin.

People speak of the German Enlightenment, the French Enlightenment, the Scottish Enlightenment, when in fact it occurred among a small group of thinkers who lived in these 11 cities. The ideas they brought forth were discussed and debated in coffee houses and cafes across Europe. The Enlightenment touched on nearly every aspect of life--science, religion, politics, economics, industry, medicine, music and art. Wherever people met it was the topic of conversation. The Enlightenment was a window into the future, at the heart of which was a single idea--the ability to use thought to make the world a better place.

In 1784, at the height of the Age of Enlightenment, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote an article explaining the meaning of the word that gave the age its name. “Enlightenment,” Kant began, “is man’s emergence from his nonage.” This nonage or immaturity, he continued, was caused not by “lack of intelligence, but lack of determination and courage to use that intelligence without another’s guidance. Dare to know! Have the courage to use your own intelligence!”

Kant implied that man was smart enough and mature enough to find his own way without the paternal authority of church leaders, overlords, and kings. Kant urged man to understand his own nature and the natural world by the methods of science. In short, Kant’s words were a declaration of freedom. He and his fellow thinkers wanted men to shake off the overbearing hands of religious and political authority, and think for themselves.

The Age of Enlightenment began in England precisely because it was here that men first began to think for themselves. It started with the Elizabethans and the miraculous 70-year age that produced the works of Shakespeare, and the publication of the King James Bible. John Locke and Isaac Newton were the immediate heirs of the Elizabethans. They were hostile to organized Christianity, and said so; they openly deplored cruel legal procedures and arbitrary government; they believed in freedom of speech and the press, and in personal liberty. They were erudite, outspoken, and extremely confident in the rightness of their ideas. Having failed to stop the translation of the Bible, the free press, free speech, and encroaching democracy, England’s powers that be had little success in silencing Locke and Newton and their growing influence. The new philosophy of Locke and the new science of Newton were published in books that circulated widely and sparked the Enlightenment across the European continent. Kant’s article had been preceded by a vigorous campaign conducted by philosophers in country after country over several years, designed to expose the evils of religion and extol the virtues of their own enlightened philosophy.

The problem for common Europeans who were dirt poor and worked 16-hour days--and that included nearly everyone--was that the Enlightenment was little more than talk. Frederick the Great of Prussia and Louis XV of France loved to entertain the likes of Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau, as did the aristocracy, while ignoring the plight of beggars at their doorsteps. Louse XVI exhausted the national treasury supporting the American Revolution while ignoring the grinding poverty of his own countrymen, which led to the French Revolution and his eventual execution.

The greatest accomplishment of the Enlightenment didn’t occur in Europe at all, but in America, and that was the creation of the American republic. It was the ideas of John Locke that inspired the rebellion, the ideas of David Hume and Montesquieu that made the federal government workable, and the ideas of Adam Smith, David Hume and James Steuart--all Scotsmen--that created American capitalism. The work most quoted at the Constitutional Convention, however, was the King James Bible.
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