Richard Nisley

Book Review: Fire and Light: How the Enlightenment Transformed Our World
History - World Released - Jul 10, 2020
“Dare to know! Have the courage to use your own intelligence.” So said Immanuel Kant in 1784, at the height of the Age of the Enlightenment. What Kant was saying was that man is smart enough and mature enough to find his own way without the paternal authority of church leaders, overlords, tyrants 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 individual freedom. He and his fellow Enlightenment thinkers wanted men to shake off the overbearing hands of religious and political leaders, and to think for themselves.

The Enlightenment was hatched in Europe, but was put into practice in America, with the American Revolution and the creation of the United States. The effect the Enlightenment would have in Europe was delayed, long delayed, which is the subject of “Fire and Light,” a wonderfully informative book by James McGregor Burns.

The book begins with a refresher course on the Enlightenment’s most influential thinkers (Immanuel Kant, Frances Bacon, David Hobbes, Rene Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, John Locke, Francis Hutcheson, David Hume and Adam Smith). A world away, in America, their ideas were embraced by the likes of Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and James Madison. They found in them the necessary literary ammunition they would need to declare independence from England, and to create a representative government based on individual liberty, private property, and the rule of law.

Meanwhile, Europe struggled with the acceptance of these very ideas, resulting in a long ordeal of bloodshed and war, especially on the continent. Burns focuses on the struggle of two countries—England and France.

The Enlightenment actually began in 17th century England, where rule of law rather than the rule of kings, had already taken hold, beginning with Magna Carta. One of the results was the creation of Parliament, but it hardly represented the welfare of the common man; rather it served the interests of wealthy landowners and the nobility. Burns points out that the industrial revolution brought about more change to government with the demands of the emerging middle class. Even so, progress on behalf of individual liberty and representative government took several centuries to evolve and be widely accepted.

The same was true of France; the French Revolution of 1789 resulted in a great deal of blood-letting but nothing in the way of lasting change. Throughout the 19th century, progress in France was a case of three steps forward and two steps back—painfully slow. One of the stumbling blocks to a truly democratic French government was the general lack of public education and the lack of a thriving middle class. As eduction began to spread and a growing middle class began to emerge (thanks to the French Industrial Revolution), representative government emerged with it.

Burns tells a story where the most effective weapon was not guns, but ideas. War is quicker with results—to oust a corrupt government—but without the power of transformative ideas behind it, the results change nothing, as one corrupt government tends to replacer another. Burns’ is a book of ideas—ideas of individual liberty and the freedom to choose, of tolerance and religious freedom—and of how these ideas took root—quickly in American, and gradually in Europe—and transformed Western Civilization.

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