How the Enlightenment Works


Josh: Josh Clark

Chuck: Charles W. "Chuck" Bryant

Vo: Voiceover Speaker

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Vo: Welcome to Stuff You Should Know from HowStuffWorks.com.

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Josh: Hey, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Josh Clark, here's Charles W. "Chuck" Bryant and Jeri R. So this is Stuff You Should Know.

Chuck: The enlightened ones.

Josh: Exactly.

Chuck: The three of us.

Josh: Yep.

Chuck: No one else.

Josh: No.

Chuck: We're the enlightened ones. I am going to go ahead and preface this with what I just said off the air. This is a very tough subject to distill-

Josh: Yeah.

Chuck: -in a 30- to 45-minute podcast because volumes of books can be written on the Age of Enlightenment.

Josh: And have been.

Chuck: And have been. So this is tough. This is going to be a very bird's-eye view.

Josh: Yeah. There's a dude named Jonathan Israel, who just came out with I think the third volume of a three-volume set on the Enlightenment. And he wrote literally several thousand pages of it. And it's considered an obscure text.

Chuck: Yeah. He probably doesn't even think that he covered it in full.

Josh: No. I'll bet he doesn't. Although he's-

Chuck: He's like, "Oh, fourth volume coming soon."

Josh: Right. I think he does have another one coming, so maybe it was the second. But he-the idea that he doesn't think that it's done, that it's not finished, is actually a pretty standard view of the Enlightenment. During research for this, I realized that there are tons of intellectual arguments going on right now, like the Bill Maher thing, Bill Maher and Islam.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: He's been accused of being just a complete racist, xenophobic dude because of his recent statements on Islam. Did you see him and Ben-

Chuck: Affleck.

Josh: Did you see them get into it?

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: Okay. That argument is an Enlightenment argument.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: It provided-the Enlightenment was so massive that the ripple effects are still being felt on a daily basis, because it was such an enormous change in the way humans think that we're still trying to sit there and analyze what the heck happened. And that is one manifestation of it.

Chuck: Yeah, sure.

Josh: Is what Bill Maher is saying is Islam is a religion or whatever, and therefore it's antithetical to progress and culture and real thought and rationalism, and Ben Affleck is saying, "You can't say that about a culture. Each culture is its own thing." So what we're seeing there is the idea of moral absolutism arguing with moral relativism, and that is textbook Enlightenment argument.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: Pretty interesting.

Chuck: Sure.

Josh: Researching this article, seriously, I tied together probably ten different things that I didn't realize were connected.

Chuck: Well, yeah, I mean-

Josh: I love it when stuff like that happens.

Chuck: It was the start of-and you know, the Age of Enlightenment, quote/unquote, started and ended but it was the birth of just a new kind of thought, a new value system.

Josh: Yes.

Chuck: Philosophical, scientific, cultural, intellectual, basically saying reason over this previous long-held belief that just strict religious dogma is all you need to worry about.

Josh: Right, exactly.

Chuck: You don't question anything.

Josh: Right.

Chuck: Don't try and think about science and nature and things like that, other than just this is God's creation and what does it mean in terms of religion.

Josh: Exactly.

Chuck: So of course it's still going on.

Josh: But it wasn't just that, it was definitely-Enlightenment was the-if you were an Enlightenment fan, you would say Enlightenment was the domination of reason over religion or faith.

Chuck: Yeah. It was a value system basically.

Josh: But there was another aspect of the Enlightenment, the domination of the will of the people over the monarchy. Economic, there was-

Chuck: Religious monarchy, yeah.

Josh: Economic change, huge economic changes thanks to Adam Smith. There were a lot of huge monumental changes in the way people thought. So much so that modern historians who are trying to unpack the Enlightenment, still, one of the schools of thought is that you can't just call it the Enlightenment. It happened in too many different places, under different circumstances. And then again, the different aspects of it, the fact that one part of it dealt with governmental change, one part of it dealt with religious change, another part dealt with economic change, that it's been kind of distilled into separate compartments now.

Chuck: Yeah. I mean separate compartments, some were divergent and contradictory. It occurred nearly simultaneously in the 18th century in France, Great Britain, Germany, Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Portugal, American colonies-all over the place. I like to say it's the period of time where the world started waking up and pulled their heads from their rear ends.

Josh: Right.

Chuck: Basically [LAUGHS].

Josh: Well, the question now-I mean if you're a religious type, you're probably happy about the fruits of the Enlightenment, like everybody points to the Industrial Revolution as proof positive the Enlightenment was great, or the American experiment, proof positive the Enlightenment was great. But you probably don't like the fact that the world completely turned its back on religion, or not completely but largely did. If you're a pro-Enlightenment type, you're probably saying, "This is for the best. We were backwards, we emerged from the Dark Ages thanks to the Enlightenment." And this is the argument that's still going on today, like yes, the Enlightenment changed everything, but did it go too far? So that's-we'll get into all that. But Conger, who wrote this article, I think did a very good job of taking the whole thing back further than the 18th century, out of the French salons, and set the stage for what created the basis for this change in thinking.

Chuck: Yeah, I think Cristen did a great job of distilling a complex topic down to an eight-page article. But she does take it back to-there were a couple of things that sort of laid the groundwork. Well, a lot of things. But a couple of them are Sir Isaac Newton and the famous story of the apple falling on his head, which makes a great story. He told a lot of people that. I don't know how factually exactly true that is but it makes for a great story. But either way you want to look at it, Isaac Newton looked at the space at some point between that apple and the ground and said, "There's something going on in that empty space that should be explained because that apple doesn't fall up. Something's keeping us all rooted here on the ground and I want to look into that."

Josh: Although if you were a fan of David Hume's you would say, "Well, actually it could conceivably fall up because we've never proven it won't fall up."

Chuck: Yeah. And Hume was one of the proponents of-well, not proponents but he was active in the Age of Enlightenment. Another thing that really laid the groundwork was the Thirty Years' War, from 1618 to 1648, which pretty much paved the way for Protestant Reformation and the Roman Catholic Church, took a lot of the teeth away from the Roman Catholic Church for the first time.

Josh: Hugely. Yeah. There was a huge change. So what you just described, Chuck, is the foundation for the intellectual branch of the Enlightenment thinking usurping the power from theological thinking. And then with the Thirty Years' War, political power was taken away from the Church because for the first time now, the precedent has been set that you, as a citizen, your allegiance is not split between church and state. Your allegiance is first and foremost to the state. And we see that still today. If somebody kills their parents or whatever because it's the seventh sign and Demi Moore is running around and it turns out that they were brother and sister, so you kill them because it's the will of God, the state says, "I don't care if it's the will of God. You can't kill your parents." The state's law is more powerful and more important than God's law. That's straight out of the Thirty Years' War. That changed everything. Have you ever seen The Seventh Sign?

Chuck: Man, I saw that when it came out. I don't remember anything about it.

Josh: I just remember one of the characters was this kid with Down's syndrome and he murdered his parents because he found out that they were brother and sister and he was super religious.

Chuck: Was that one of the signs?

Josh: And the state was going to execute him. Yeah, when they execute-I think he was the last martyr. Man.

Chuck: I'll have to check that out again.

Josh: Yeah, Demi Moore.

Chuck: Man, she just keeps getting better looking, doesn't she?

Josh: Does she?

Chuck: How do you do that? Yeah, you look at Blame It on Rio-

Josh: Was she in that?

Chuck: Yeah. She's kind of doughy and not tubby but just round, and then she got all chiseled-

Josh: Man, they-

Chuck: -and remained chiseled.

Josh: That was Michael Caine, wasn't it?

Chuck: Great movie. Yeah. But I mean she was a kid back then. Everyone was doughy back then when they were kids.

Josh: Blame It on Rio.

Chuck: It was a really good movie. So Conger points out even further back, about the Dark Ages sort of laying the groundwork, which the Dark Ages were dark for many reasons but one of the big ones was that the Roman Catholic Church basically ruled everything. Latin was the language. The center of life and academia were monasteries and abbeys. You weren't encouraged to get educated outside of theological realms.

Josh: Right.

Chuck: It was not encouraged.

Josh: You have to actually, I want to say, you have to be careful using the term "Dark Ages" because apparently it is a disparaging label that people on the pro-Enlightenment side of the argument, the humanists-

Chuck: Oh, they say-

Josh: They say, "These are the Dark Ages. That was back when the Church controlled everything when everybody was just an ignoramus. Once the Enlightenment came along, we emerged from the Dark Ages." Technically once the Renaissance came along we emerged from the Dark Ages. So if you're an historian, you call it the Middle Ages. But even the Middle Ages are kind of sad because it just says these ages kind of existed between this important age and this important age. We just call those the Middle Ages. But it's better than the Dark Ages.

Chuck: I like Dark Ages.

Josh: But that's an argument or a label, a disparaging label that humanists use. Unfairly, because there were scientists working and laying the groundwork for future science in the Dark Ages, and Conger even mentions them in this article. Like Thomas Aquinas came up with scholasticism.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: And scholasticism is basically the idea that you can understand God even more, and be even more pure and divine yourself, by studying nature.

Chuck: Yeah. Roger Bacon was another monk who was a proponent of that. And I think that allowed them-and I don't think this is the reason they did it, but that allowed them to pursue the scientific avenues because it was still tied to God. Another big change was, like I said before, in the not-so-dark ages perhaps, Latin was the language and they didn't have something called the printing press until Johann Gutenberg came along in 1438 and says, "You know what? Everyone should be able to read. Start printing stuff in your native tongue." And that led directly to people starting to educate themselves.

Josh: Yeah. It was the democratization of education right there.

Chuck: Exactly.

Josh: And all of this didn't happen out of the blue. Roger Bacon and Thomas Aquinas and a guy named Leonardo Bruni, they didn't necessarily come up with their ideas on their own. There was some-this really seminal thing that happened back in the mid 13th century, where somebody-I don't know who did-somebody translated Aristotle, I believe, his works into Latin. And all of a sudden the Greek rational thinkers of antiquity, their ideas were suddenly available to the West for the first time. And it just so happened that some people started paying attention to these things. Leonardo Bruni read Petrarch and revived the idea of humanism, which is a huge sea change because humanism says humans are pretty awesome and the fruit of our labors, the fruit of our intellect, the fruit of everything that we do comes from human ability, not God. We're not just vessels for God's brilliance to be shone through. If you create something, you come up with a work of art, that's not because God did that, you did that. And let's figure out how you did it. That's humanism and this is what the Renaissance started to revive and was a huge change.

Chuck: Like maybe we should start paying attention to ourselves a little more.

Josh: Exactly. Let's explore the human condition.

Chuck: Yeah. Aristotle was not a heretic because he tied his geocentric universe ideas to God, as well. He thought the universe was composed of ten separate crystal spheres and beyond the tenth sphere there was heaven and God. Copernicus pretty much said, "No, that's not true. The universe is infinite." And he was pretty alone in that thinking early on. He faced a lot of criticism from every religion, Protestants and Catholics. They thought it was a dangerous way of thinking because he didn't make room for God in the cosmos.

Josh: And it definitely was a dangerous way of thinking to the Church. The Protestant Reformation was going on, you had the Thirty Years' War coming down the pike, you had Copernicus, thanks to this revival of interest in astronomy.

Chuck: Yeah, and Galileo Galilei.

Josh: Yeah, starting to look at the universe around us and finding even like symbolic stuff. Like, who was it, Kepler, he was an assistant to Tycho Brahe, and Kepler figured out that the planets revolve around the Sun in an ellipse. Well, the Holy Roman Church said that the circle was the symbol of perfection, so of course everything revolved around the Earth in a circle. Not only did things not revolve around the Earth, they revolved around the Sun, and they didn't even do that in a circle, they did it in an ellipse. So the Church is just losing its mind because all these people are coming forward saying, "Everything that you're saying over here is starting to prove to smell like BS." And the Church is losing its power left and right, both politically and intellectually. It's losing its authority.

Chuck: Yeah. Galileo even recanted because he was accused of heresy for his theory that the Earth rotates on its axis, so he said, "I'll take it all back. I didn't mean that. Please don't kill me."

Josh: Right, but he's like, "Just make sure my manuscripts survive."

Chuck: So we were talking about Bacon. He is the creator of the scientific method and he says, "And you know what, we should use experiments to actually try and explain things. And so it's 1620, I think it's high time we have a method for doing so."

Josh: So that was Francis Bacon.

Chuck: Yes.

Josh: I wonder if he was related to Roger Bacon.

Chuck: I don't know.

Josh: They were separated by a few centuries but they could have been fam.

Chuck: Sure. I think so. And he was-did you ever take philosophy in college?

Josh: No. I think I might have. I didn't get much out of it if I did, because I don't remember.

Chuck: I took one class. We studied Descartes a lot.

Josh: I've grown to be a little more interested in it but I like the more-I like existential crisis philosophy, like Nick Bostrom's stuff.

Chuck: I don't know what that is.

Josh: Just basically how the world is going to end.

Chuck: Oh, okay. [LAUGHS]

Josh: This stuff is, I think Descartes is interesting but I'm not-it doesn't light my fire.

Chuck: Yeah. It was all right. I think I made an A in that class actually, because it interested me at the time, but I never took a follow-up class, I just took the intro, so it clearly didn't mean that much to me. But I get it.

Josh: Well, yeah, and what Descartes was saying is our experience is not-it's not what you thought. Mind and matter are two different things and the human experience is a subjective experience, and what the mind produces is different than what is reality. And really kind of, that changed things tremendously, too. So you've got all these people contributing to this. We haven't even reached the 18th century yet. The groundwork is definitely being laid. And it's still being laid, as far as the government goes.

John Locke was one of the people who contributed to the idea of the social contract. The social contract, there was Hobbes, Locke, and later on Rousseau, and others, contributed this idea that humans are born with natural rights. You are born free, I'm born free, even Jeri is born free.

Chuck: I know, and look at her.

Josh: And to form a society, you give up some of these natural rights. For example, one thing that you give up is your right to kill in retribution. Any society typically demands a state monopoly on violence, which means that if somebody kills your family member, you don't go kill that person. You go to the state and say, "That guy killed my family member. Try him, convict him, and kill him on my behalf because there's a state monopoly on violence." So that's a natural right that you give up, I think, appropriately so and for the better, but as part of this social contract. And so the idea that humans have these rights and that society in turn had rights because humans gave them rights, that was a big basis of Enlightenment thinking that would be added to later on, too.

Chuck: Yeah. And Locke also was one of the first champions of what would kind of become nurture over nature, his idea of the tabula rasa, that when humans are born, their minds are a clean slate and they are shaped by experience and education and not some preordained thing that you're born with. And this French intellect gobbled that stuff up, his name was Francois-Marie Arouet and he went by a name you might know, Voltaire. And he really loved this stuff and went back to France with all these ideals and said, "We've got to get on this. We can't go out in the streets right now and talk about this stuff but we can meet in private in homes, like a Tupperware party, and we'll call them salons and we'll talk about these radical ideas and this new way of thinking in the privacy of homes for those that are willing to host it."

Josh: Yep. And we'll talk more about Voltaire and what he did, right after this.

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Josh: Hey, Chuck.

Chuck: Yeah.

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Josh: So Chuck, Voltaire has been lit up. He was in England from 1726 to 1729, living in exile because he was already critical of the French monarchy. While he was there he ran into the ideas of Locke, of apparently Descartes, as well. He basically got turned on to rationalism. And he was primed and ready for it. This guy was just waiting for these ideas to pour into him. And when they did, he became a lightning rod for what we think of as the Enlightenment. Voltaire was the main dude to start, from what I understand.

Chuck: Yeah. And like we mentioned, the salons, they had to do this in private because Louis XIV-is that right?

Josh: Yeah.

Chuck: I'm getting better at that. He was pretty hard on-he didn't like that kind of talk. It threatened him, for a good reason.

Josh: Well, yeah. I mean, the reason why is the power was taken from the Church and placed more on the monarchy, but in very short order people said, "You know, we're not really that fond of the monarchy either. We think we should rule ourselves or at least elect people to rule ourselves. This divine right of kings thing seems kind of hinky now that we think about it." So the monarchies were threatened as well by the Enlightenment, so-

Chuck: Well, yeah. The monarchy liked the dumb masses that stayed under their thumb and any kind of radical thought or original thought was super dangerous.

Josh: It sounds familiar.

Chuck: Exactly. It is interesting how you talked about-I think there are periods of time where things like the Age of Enlightenment keep popping up-

Josh: That's where-

Chuck: -like the 1960s in the United States, and I think like you said, we're in one right now.

Josh: I think we're in one probably more than even the '60s right now.

Chuck: Yeah. And I think there are periods where that lulls, like maybe the 1980s, where there seems to be-

Josh: Or the '70s. Remember disco?

Chuck: Yeah, like a dumbing down of things.

Josh: Yeah, just people not caring or whatever.

Chuck: Yeah. It's weird and cyclical.

Josh: I read this article called "Things Fall Apart: How Social Media Leads To A Less Stable World," and it was by a guy named Curtis Hougland, H-O-U-G-L-A-N-D.

Chuck: I'll have to read that.

Josh: And it's on Knowledge@Wharton, the Wharton Business School website. And it was basically saying-it wasn't, I thought it was condemning social media and this guy was just basically stating matter-of-factly that social media erodes the state, in that now we have ways to connect with other people in ways that are more important to us than, say, our allegiance to the state. So you may feel more connected to somebody over Hello Kitty and your fondness for Hello Kitty more than you would identify yourself as, say, an American. And with social media, you're able to connect with other people who feel the same way, and so you form on social media basically bodies that supersede the state, in your opinion.

Chuck: No boundaries.

Josh: Exactly. And as this happens more and more, the state's what's called sovereignty erodes more and more and more, and it becomes a less and less stable world. The guy's point was that yes, while it's very unstable and things are much more dangerous during periods like this, it's basically just a period of upheaval and change and then eventually things stabilize again. But what this guy was saying, using this as an example, is that we're in a-right now, possibly on the cusp of a period of tremendous fundamental change in the world.

Chuck: Oh, I see that every day. Yeah.

Josh: It's a pretty interesting time to be alive.

Chuck: Yeah. A little scary to me.

Josh: Yeah. Well, I mean it's like the guy said, it's more dangerous than your average time because change frequently comes out as spasms of violence or upheaval, just where nobody's in charge because there's a power struggle going on. Or our normal structures are being eroded. It's interesting.

Chuck: It's super interesting. So back to the salons. We're back to the Age of Enlightenment, the traditional Age of Enlightenment. The salons, the members were known, there was a group of people known as the philosophes. We've mentioned a few of them-Rousseau, Diderot, Voltaire. How do you pronounce that? Is that-that's not "Montehugh," is it?

Josh: Montesquieu.

Chuck: Montesquieu?

Josh: Uh-huh.

Chuck: And they were kind of skeptics and critics of not everything, but the establishment of government or the way government was at the time.

Josh: Especially the Church. Hated the Church. Voltaire especially hated the Church and the very fact that it even existed.

Chuck: And a lot of the enlightened ones were deists. And deism basically-I like the way Conger put it, in a big picture way, they believe in a clockmaker God, which means maybe God created everything and set things in motion but then was like, "All right, that's it. I'm out. I'm not getting my fingers in all the pies of everyone." You have free will, basically, after you're born. Which again was pretty dangerous to the religious establishment.

Josh: Yeah. So you've got the basis, you've got the foundation of the Holy Roman Empire in the West losing tons of power and political and intellectually. You've got the monarchy now being assaulted by the French salons, who are planting the seeds of democracy. Montesquieu, for example, wrote in 1748 The Spirit of the Laws. And he basically proposed the idea of a separation of powers. He's the first guy to do that. He's this French lawyer who was in the salon scene and all of the sudden it's like, "Separation of power? What are you talking about? No, you've got a monarch and what the monarch says is right." And as a result of this kind of thinking, the seeds of democracy are planted. And then a hostility toward religion of almost any kind that you still see today, like in the form of Bill Maher or Richard Dawkins or formerly Christopher Hitchens. All of this started coming out of the French salons.

Chuck: Yeah. All right. After this message we're going to talk a little bit about how the Age of Enlightenment manifested itself in different parts of the world.

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Chuck: Joshers.

Josh: Yes.

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Chuck: So we've mainly been in Europe this whole time. In France there was an emphasis on the arts. In England they had more emphasis on science and economics. You mentioned Adam Smith at the beginning, a Scottish man in-1976-in 1776 wrote his Wealth of Nations, which basically said government should not interfere with matters of finance and economics. There should be the invisible hand guiding all these principles.

Josh: Yeah. I read this article by this guy who is explaining that change in thought. Before that, it was that whole social contract thing, like Rousseau saying, "This is an interplay between citizens and citizens and citizens and their government and the government's role is to protect the rights of people." What Hume said is the government is legitimate-or not Hume but Smith. The government is legitimate insofar as it steps out of people's affairs and lets free trade take place, which that might sound familiar if you subscribe to Republican or conservative or libertarian ideology. The whole laissez faire attitude of government is what legitimizes government, and the government that meddles in someone's affairs is an illegitimate government as far as classical economic thought goes.

Chuck: Yeah. And we talked about that in our Stuff You Should Know Guide to the Economy, which we got an email, someone bought that the other day.

Josh: Yeah. They thought it was 17 hours long or something.

Chuck: I don't know.

Josh: And then also in Scotland was David Hume, who's my favorite philosopher of all time just because he's-

Chuck: He's the only one you studied.

Josh: He's a meat and-he's the only one who's ever really spoken to me of the Enlightenment philosophers. And Hume was this meat-and-potatoes dude who basically said, "Show me the proof."

Chuck: Yeah, he was a skeptic.

Josh: He was an empiricist. He said, "You basically can't believe anything that you can't see with your own eyes." My belief in his philosophy has been eroded with the idea that consciousness is a subjective experience, totally subjective basically. But I like his idea. And it was the cause and effect, right, I think he used billiards as an example, where you hit a ball like you're playing eight ball. You hit the eight ball with the cue ball. You can predict where that's going to go, where the eight ball is going to go, based on how you hit it with the cue ball. But Hume's point is you can't say for certain that that's what's going to happen. You're basing that strictly on previous experience rather than proof that this is what will happen. So we can't prove that hitting that cue ball will make this eight ball go in a certain direction ahead of time, and so therefore we've come up with this thing called cause and effect, which basically serves as a stopgap between what we think will happen and the phenomenon we've already observed. In other words, you can't say for certain the sun is going to come up tomorrow just because it's already come up so many days before. And the reason why is because we don't have empirical proof. And I liked him for that.

Chuck: So you don't think the sun will come up tomorrow necessarily?

Josh: It's not the point that I don't think it won't come up tomorrow, it's-what Hume was saying is we can't prove that it will. You can't prove that it will just based on previous experience.

Chuck: Right. Well, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were on board that train, to a certain degree. And we mentioned earlier that most of the establishment was pretty threatened by most of these ideas and the people in power, but not everybody. Some people wanted to get on the Enlightenment train because I think it was progressive and maybe made them seem open to ideas and modern perhaps. Empress of Russia, Catherine the Great was one of those who had a lot of dealings with the philosophes, and Frederick the Great of Prussia even had Voltaire over and said, "You know, why don't you come and live here." And he did.

Josh: Yeah. He said, "For free?" and he said, "For free." He said, "Okay."

Chuck: I'm just trying to think of Prussian money but I have no idea.

Josh: The prollars.

Chuck: The pruble?

Josh: That's way better.

Chuck: It was also happening in Germany, all over the world, with Immanuel Kant. He was one of the first champions of freedom of the press, and his motto is one that I love: "dare to know." And again, he was just challenging people: go out there and learn about something and don't just accept what these religious leaders are telling you you have to accept.

Josh: Yeah. And actually he came up with this idea called the categorical imperative. Basically Kant gave the world the idea that there is such a thing as moral absolutes. And I guess he didn't give the world that because the Judeo-Christian ethic and most religious ethics say that there is such a thing as right or wrong. And today you have that argument of is there such a thing as moral absolutism or is moral or cultural relativism a thing. That's one of the arguments that's playing out right now in the intellectual world. I just think that's fascinating, too.

Chuck: It totally is. So what does this all lead to? Eventually it's going to lead to war because anytime there is-well, not anytime but a lot of times when there is an uprising of radical thought, people are going to want to take action. And it happened in the United States by way of the American Revolution and in France by way of the French Revolution. And they had different results, to say the least.

Josh: Yeah. They were both experimentations in this new idea of democracy.

Chuck: Yeah, pretty much.

Josh: And yeah, the American one worked out pretty well, some would say. The French one, not so much. Because apparently Robespierre, who was the head of the Jacobin party that took power during the French Revolution, Robespierre was a follower of Rousseau. And remember Rousseau contributed to the social contract by saying the people will something and then it's up to the people in charge to carry out that will. And so Robespierre took that to mean that the people storm the Bastille and overthrew the monarchy, and so it was his job as the head of the Jacobin party, which is now in power, to kill everybody who wasn't down with the revolution. And so thousands and thousands of French people lost their lives at the guillotine as a result, during this Reign of Terror. So some people would say America founded itself based on democratic principles and let's not pay attention to some of these darker spots over here and just pay attention to the democratic experiment and it worked out great. And then the French one, there was a revolution, they tried to install democratic ideals and thousands of people had their heads chopped off, so it didn't work quite as well.

Chuck: Well, and some people say that effectively killed the Age of Enlightenment as we know it, the French Revolution, because the chaos and violence that erupted was, in certain circles, blamed on the Enlightenment and proof that we can't self-govern and these are radical ideas and that's why we got stomped on. Have you ever heard the theory that the French Revolution was due to moldy bread?

Josh: No.

Chuck: There is one theory that people got a hold of bad bread-

Josh: So it was ergot poisoning?

Chuck: -and basically were tripping on acid on July 14, 1789, when they decided to storm the Bastille.

Josh: That was one of the explanations for the Salem witchcraft trials.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: Crazy. I hadn't heard that. So they were like, "It's go time."

Chuck: I guess so.

Josh: "Let's get this party started."

Chuck: But like I said, some people say that ended the Age of Enlightenment as we know it. Romanticism was soon ushered in, and was way more appealing to the common folk than this weird radical thoughts that were going on before.

Josh: Romanticism was the first time people questioned the idea on a large scale that maybe the rationalism and the humanism of the Enlightenment went too far in the other direction. Like, "Sure, maybe we were way too religious and the religious organizations had way too much power, but we swung way over here, and just rationalism had this idea, too, and it became dogmatic in and of its own right." And so this is-we still never really figured out if-how to fine-tune it enough and that's what we're still figuring out right now. A lot of people say the Enlightenment, the idea that the course of humanity is always towards civilization and rational thought and that any culture that's not there is inferior to a culture that does think rationally. So that means that colonialism and imperialism was supported by Enlightenment thought, which is a huge-Enlightenment is not supposed to be about that. It's supposed to be about good things and freedom and all that. But it also supported colonialism. That was a huge-people are arguing about that right now, too.

Chuck: Yeah. "Let's go conquer these people and make them modern and bring them into today's world."

Josh: Exactly. So there's another article I want to recommend, it's called "The Trouble with the Enlightenment." It's by a guy named Ollie Cussen. It's on Prospect Magazine. Awesome article about this that's just-he basically reviews a couple of books, one by Jonathan Israel, who I mentioned earlier, where he basically says, "Forget the philosophes. You've got to look at Baruch Spinoza," who was a Dutch philosopher from I think the 17th century, "he was the one who came up with the Enlightenment ideas and had we followed his Enlightenment ideas, there wouldn't have been any governments now or there wouldn't be any religion whatsoever. He came up with the real revolutionary Enlightenment and what we got, what we think of as the Enlightenment was a watered-down moderate version that was change, sure there was tons of change, but it was still palatable to the elite that the people could still be governed easily, even in these new democratic experiments and stuff like that." There's a lot of people who take issue with his book but it's pretty interesting to discuss it.

Chuck: What's it called?

Josh: Democratic Enlightenment, I think. He's the one who wrote the several-thousand-page trilogy.

Chuck: Oh, that guy.

Josh: And then there's another guy, an historian named Anthony Pagden. He believes that the Enlightenment project is still going on, and basically that as long as there's religion in the world, the Enlightenment won't be fulfilled entirely, which is again, it's like this idea that rationalism has become dogmatic. And if you're not just strictly rational, if you hold any kind of what could be considered irrational or superstitious belief, you're acting irrationally, you're not thinking correctly and therefore you have to be converted. Which is-

Chuck: Just as dogmatic.

Josh: Yeah.

Chuck: Sure. Yeah.

Josh: Lots going on right now. A huge time of change. And also go read The Dark Age Myth: An Atheist Reviews "God's Philosophers" by Tim O'Neill, on StrangeNotions.com.

Chuck: Tip O'Neill?

Josh: Tim O'Neill.

Chuck: Oh.

Josh: And I think that's about it, huh?

Chuck: That is it for me.

Josh: If you want to learn more about the Enlightenment, go check out those three articles or check out-and check out how the Enlightenment worked by typing that in the search bar at How Stuff Works. And now it's time for listener mail.

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Chuck: I'm going to call this "Mad Cow Theory" from Seattle. "Hey, guys, just listened to your podcast on fatal familial insomnia. In it you mentioned the late 18th century cases in Venice, and then wondered about the unrelated cases and what they were eating. This made me finally sit down and write my first email. For years I've had a theory about prion disease and mad cow in specific. Years ago I was watching a program on Egyptian mummies. They talked about how mummification may have started out with the pharaoh, but the practice eventually made it down to call it budget mummification. They talked about how in the late 18th and 19th century crypts of these early mummies, they would be ground up and sold as fertilizer, specifically in England. Sometime later when I learned about prions and how nearly indestructible they were, I wondered could ground up mummies have been used to fertilize a field, then a cow comes along and eats grass that has been contaminated with prions, leading to mad cow disease. A human eats the mad cow's brain and get Creutzfeldt-Jakob's. So I've always wondered, could never figure out if you could prove it or disprove it, if CFJ was a real mummy's curse of desecrated Egyptian corpses." And that is Darren Gray in Seattle and, man, I just like that kind of speaking of radical thought.

Josh: I had not heard that one.

Chuck: Darren is having-well, it's Darren's own "Grayism."

Josh: Nice going, Darren.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: If you have anything to say about that, anybody else, we would like to hear from you. Can you prove or disprove that Creutzfeldt-Jakob's disease is a mummy's curse? You can tweet to us @SYSKPodcast, you can join us on Facebook.com/StuffYouShouldKnow, you can send us an email-which seems appropriate-to StuffPodcast@HowStuffWorks.com, and join us at our home on the web, StuffYouShouldKnow.com.

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Vo: For more on this and thousands of other topics, visit HowStuffWorks.com.

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