The Enlightenment was not an age of freedom

The Enlightenment was not an age of freedom. This claim is meant to sound paradoxical to most of my readers–but it shouldn’t. It’s no more paradoxical than the statement that that the Civil Rights era in the United States was not a golden age of racial equality. The Enlightenment was an era when many people were arguing loudly for religious an intellectual freedom–but they spent so much time arguing for it because religious and intellectual freedom wasn’t something they had yet.

This is something that even very few well-educated people seem to understand. Histories of the time period tend to focus on the ideas that being circulated for the first time (at least since before the fall of Rome), without talking about the dangers advocates of those ideas faced. Historians will also often make assertions about what various thinkers believed, without explaining if they mean, “this was something he said in his magnum opus,” “this is something he said once, privately, in a letter to a friend,” “this was something his writings strongly hint at,” or “this was something he was accused of believing by his enemies.”

For example, take Thomas Hobbes (a bit before the Enlightenment proper–but his story fits in with the stories of later thinkers I’ll talk about). Hobbes his most famous for his 1651 book Leviathan, which was mainly dedicated to advocating for absolute monarchy, but also had some thoughts on religion, including a claim that we can know God exists through the First Cause argument, but we can know nothing about what God is like. This sounds rather suspiciously like saying, “Okay, I grant that a first cause must exist, but why assume the first cause is God?”

As a result, in the 1660s, Hobbes came under investigation for heresy. He responded by burning some of his more compromising papers, and also defended himself publicly by arguing that the heresy law of the time only forbade opposing the Nicene Creed, which Leviathan hadn’t technically done. Hobbes managed to avoid the death penalty (probably in part due to intervention from the king), but was banned from publishing further political writings.

Another instructive example is Spinoza, a Dutch philosopher of Jewish ancestry. In the 17th century, the Netherlands was a relatively tolerant place–which is what attracted so many Jews (particularly from Spain and Portugal) to settle there in the first place. All the same, Spinoza did not feel comfortable publishing his most radical philosophical ideas openly. Instead, he would first make the case for “freedom to philosophize”, as he called it, and then once he had won people over, publish his philosophical system.

The case for “freedom to philosophize” took the form of Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise, which was not only a groundbreaking defense of freedom of thought, but also a groundbreaking work of Biblical scholarship which, among other things, rejected Mosaic authorship of the Torah. While paying lip service  of the authority of scripture, Spinoza’s interpretations of scripture were unorthodox in many ways. In spite of Spinoza’s optimism about his ability to win people over, the book was published anonymously, in Latin (so he couldn’t be accused of corrupting the common people), and with a false place of publication on the cover.

The Theological-Political Treatise has the opposite of its intended effect. There was a huge backlash, with the book being denounced as having been “forged in Hell by a renegade Jew and the Devil”.  Spinoza got additional reason to be fearful when his friend the relatively liberal Dutch politician Johan de Witt was murdered by a mob in 1672 along with his brother Cornelius. Authorities officially banned the Treatise in 1674. As a result, Spinoza’s magnum opus, his Ethics, was not published until after his death in 1677.

It’s not hard to see why Spinoza was afraid of what the reaction to the Ethics might be. The Ethics presented a metaphysical system centered around a being Spinoza called “God”, but Spinoza’s God does not perform miracles because for Spinoza, the laws of nature flow necessarily from God’s nature, and therefore it would be self-contradictory for God to violate those laws. In fact, Spinoza is widely (though not universally) read as simply identifying God with nature (or the universe) itself. While Spinoza’s system is complicated and he’s harder to classify than Hobbes, the Ethics was nevertheless widely denounced as an atheist tract once it was published.

One striking fact about this era is that we often don’t know what some of its most important thinkers really believed. I mean, of course we don’t! If you can be killed for being an atheist, everyone is going to deny being an atheist, and the fact that someone denied being an atheist is no indication of whether they were one or not. When you spell it out like that, it seems obvious. But if you don’t think about that context, trying to read between the lines to figure out what a thinker really believed can seem needlessly conspiratorial (see various dismissals of Leo Strauss).

Sometimes the case for a between-the-lines reading is straightforward, as with Hobbes. Other times, calling a writer an atheist would be pure speculation, as with Descartes. But other cases are genuinely confusing. For example, the French philosopher Pierre Bayle’s Philosophical and Critical Dictionary compiled many arguments against orthodox Christian doctrine without trying to refute them. He also praised Spinoza’s personal virtue. This was enough to get Bayle accused of atheism. Bayle, however, insisted he was a Christian who believed that Christianity had to be taken on faith rather than grounded in reason. To this day, historians aren’t sure what Bayle really believed.

Or, consider the case of deism. When most people think of deism, they think of something like the views advocated by the American revolutionary Thomas Paine in his book The Age of Reason, which was published in three parts from 1794 to 1807. Paine believed in God, and his God was much closer to the traditional Christian God than, say, Spinoza’s God.

For Paine, God had created the world and could work miracles if he so chose. However, Paine argued, miracles would be a terrible way for God to reveal himself to his creation. Better, Paine argued, for God to reveal himself through nature. Paine furthermore assailed the Bible on moral grounds, using much the same arguments one would expect to hear from Richard Dawkins today.

However, if you read the writings of some of the earliest thinkers who’ve been labeled “deists”, they don’t sound very much like Paine at all. The Irish philosopher John Toland’s Christianity Not Mysterious argues, as you might guess from the title, that Christianity contained no true mysteries and in fact was totally in accordance with reason. This was enough to make the Irish parliament want to burn Toland for a heretic. He fled to England, where he was prosecuted but never convicted of anything.

Toland, however, did not explicitly deny miracles. Indeed, he argues the concept of a miracle is perfectly intelligible and consistent, therefore not a mystery. Had Toland been as radial as Paine, he might have met a different end–one year after Toland published Christianity Not Mysterious, a 20 year old college student in Edinburgh was hanged for saying Christianity was a load of nonsense (the last person in Britain to be executed for blasphemy).

One of the more extreme early “deist” thinkers was English theologian Thomas Woolston. In his Six Discourses on the Miracles of our Saviour, published between 1727 and 1729, Woolston says that Jesus was “justly famed” for “the Miracles of healing all manner of bodily Diseases”, but also that some of the miracles attributed to Jesus would be absurd to take literally, and therefore should be read allegorically. Woolston quotes from the early Church Fathers to argue that this should be an acceptable position for a Christian to hold, but that argument was not enough to save him from being imprisoned (though not executed) for blasphemy.

Move forward a few decades, and we encounter the Scottish philosopher David Hume, who was more straightforwardly anti-Christian. But even Hume didn’t abandon all caution. He published his Treatise of Human Nature in 1739-1740. Hume’s Treatise avoided directly dealing with religion, but its view of causality was perceived as threatening the traditional arguments for the existence of God. In spite of Hume’s later protestations that his views were only incompatible with some versions of the arguments, this very indirect threat to religion was enough to prevent Hume from ever receiving a university post.

When Hume , Hume professed his allegiance to Christianity, but these professions had an unmistakable note of sarcasm. For example, in his famous essay on miracles (published in 1748), Hume argued that no miracle could ever be established on historical evidence. But he insisted he was on Christianity’s side:

I am the better pleased with the method of reasoning here delivered, as I think it may serve to confound those dangerous friends or disguised enemies to the Christian Religion, who have undertaken to defend it by the principles of human reason. Our most holy religion is founded on Faith, not on reason; and it is a sure method of exposing it to put it to such a trial as it is, by no means, fitted to endure.

His 1657 book, the Natural History of Religion, is what we would call to day a social science study of religion. The book casually mocks Catholicism and Islam, while officially exempting the Protestantism of Hume’s native land from criticism. But it’s hard not to notice that much of what Hume says about Catholicism and Islam applies equally well to all forms of Christianity. One of my favorite passages (hyperlinks mine):

Were there a religion (and we may suspect Mahometanism of this inconsistence) which sometimes painted the Deity in the most sublime colours, as the creator of heaven and earth; sometimes degraded him so far to a level with human creatures as to represent him wrestling with a man, walking in the cool of the evening, showing his back parts, and descending from heaven to inform himself of what passes on earth; while at the same time it ascribed to him suitable infirmities, passions, and partialities, of the moral kind: That religion, after it was extinct, would also be cited as an instance of those contradictions, which arise from the gross, vulgar, natural conceptions of mankind, opposed to their continual propensity, towards flattery and exaggeration. Nothing indeed would prove more strongly the divine origin of any religion, than to find (and happily this is the case with Christianity) that it is free from a contradiction, so incident to human nature.

Around 1750, Hume wrote the first draft of his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, a debate over the traditional proofs of the existence of God. Unlike many philosophical dialogues, Hume tried to make his three main characters roughly equal parties in the debate, thereby concealing his own views. Nevertheless, most readers today assume Hume meant to attack the arguments. Hume’s friends ended up talking him out of publishing the book, so like Spinoza’s Ethics it was published posthumously.

One thing is a bit puzzling about Hume, though. There’s a story that once, at a dinner party in France in the 1760s, Hume declared that he didn’t believe in atheists because he had never met one. In the context of the time period, Hume probably meant to imply that atheists existed only in the imaginations of religious fanatics who were fond of accusing their opponents of atheism. But Hume’s host, Baron d’Holbach, corrected him: there were fifteen atheists at the party, and the other three guests hadn’t made up their minds yet.

Hume liked to describe himself as a “sceptic”, not in the sense of denying but in the sense of striving to suspend judgement. So perhaps, had he lived later, he would have called himself a religious agnostic (a word that wouldn’t be coined for another century). But maybe it was more than that–maybe in spite of all his arguments Hume felt the intuitive pull of religion after all. Hume often said that we just can’t help but believe certain things, even when those things can’t be proven through reason.

Voltaire is famous for his biting critiques of the Catholic Church, but like Spinoza, he published some of his most explosive works anonymously. Indeed, Voltaire feigned indifferences as the authorities burned his Philosophical Dictionary. D’Holbach, likewise, is known for being one of the first people to ever defend an explicit atheist position in print, but did it all anonymously.

Hume died in 1776. Voltaire died in 1778. D’Holbach died in 1789, mere months before the French Revolution with its Declaration of the Rights of Man that guaranteed religious liberty (which preceded the ratification of the American First Amendment by two years). They never got to see the world of intellectual freedom that they longed for, that so many of their contemporaries fought for. The least we can do for them is remember their struggles.


I’ve done a lot of reading on this time period, as it’s a favorite focus of historians of philosophy. In addition to reading primary sources, Jonathan Israel’s books on the Enlightenment are excellent. I’m also fond of Steven Nadler’s books on Spinoza (though I’m biased because he was one of my professors in college). I’ve had surprising difficulties finding good books on other specific figures, but A.P. Martinich’s biography of Hobbes does its job. Would love to get recommendations for books I’ve missed in the comments.


5 thoughts on “The Enlightenment was not an age of freedom

  1. The political hostility to the Enlightenment in Europe probably explains why wealthy philosophes like Voltaire and d’Holbach didn’t leave provisions in their wills to fund institutions to carry on the Enlightenment’s projects after they died. .

    By contrast, Thomas Jefferson in the United States felt free enough to use his political and social influence to start the University of Virginia, devoted to Enlightenment ideals. And the French immigrant banker, Stephen Girard, left part of his fortune to found a nonsectarian school for white orphan boys in Philadelphia. Girard, largely self-educated, named a couple of his merchant vessels after Voltaire and Rousseau, which says something about the role the Enlightenment played in his inner life.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Since you’re talking Enlightenment, might as well talk Newton: For every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction. So logically Enlightenment only happens in ages that are somewhat dark. Crisis equals opportunity, etc. Disaster capitalism? Hmm, wonder if that works for causes that rival capitalism….


  3. Payne was so advanced in his thoughts of the Bible and theism, that even without the information we’ve garnered over the 200+ years since his death, that much of his arguments still hold up to this day and are still applicable. His writings in regard to organized religion of any kind about what is demonstrably true and the necessity that a belief be falsifiable before it can be considered a legitimate possibility are still at the core of what atheists and agnostics argue is needed today, with very little if any need for adaption. Although he did consider himself a diest, were he around today to see the refinements of secular definitions, he very well may have considered himself a “pragmatic agnostic atheist” (the definition I currently give myself), as his views mirror that definition almost perfectly.

    To me, it’s very intersting when someone without the benefit of 200 years of additional information, debate, etc is still so on point with many (not all) of his ideas and wording that no revisions are necessary.


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