Enlightenment means first of all the trust that an autonomous, free and self-regulated use of reason capable of encouraging a human being, freed from all oppressing and conditioning him, to move towards a certain future of progress and happiness. From a philosophical point of view, Enlightenment appeared in England during the 17th Century, inspired by discussions surrounding the theses on deism, and philosophers such as John Locke and Isaac Newton. It based its anti-dogmatic attitude, addressed at the analysis of experience, on Locke’s empiricist doctrines, and its scientific perception of reasoning and nature on Newton’s experimental philosophy.
However, it was from French culture and philosophy that Enlightenment assumed its most characteristic and particular expression, stabilising the image destined to become paradigmatic in the future and also finding a direct political translation in the revolutionary ideals of ’89, enclosed in the famous triad: freedom-equality-fraternity. The fundamental event of this both philosophical and political movement was the beginning of publication in 1750, by Denis Diderot and Jean-Baptist D’Alembert, of the Encyclopedie or Dictionnaire Raisonné des Sciences, des Arts et des Métiers. The Encyclopaedia, which soon became the most complete and typical expression of Enlightenment’s culture, was immediately interpreted by its promoters not only as a compendium of universal knowledge but also as means for spreading ideological-political ideas.
Among the followers of the French Enlightenment movement, the most representative was Voltaire, the author of numerous pamphlets, essays, satires and short stories. The writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the author of The Social Contract (1762), Emile (1762) and The Confessions (1762), although he remained rather on the sidelines, also exercised a profound influence at a political level. With an awareness that they lived in an “enlightened” or philosophical period, all the leading players of the French Enlightenment movement, which then progressively spread to the rest of Europe, showed a marked inclination for criticising and judging the past and the present, and in this constantly using reasoning. Politics and religion were the two fields in which the enlightened criticism of reason was exercised most strongly.
Starting from the assumption in natural law stating that reason is basically the same in all human beings, the privileged targets of the Enlightenment thinkers were above all political absolutism, the privileges of the oligarchic castes, and the clergy’s interference in political power. On the basis of the anti-dogmatic and anti-metaphysical vision of reason, inherited from English culture, the Enlightenment thinkers’ battle was instead addressed against the system of positive religions consolidated in dogmas, rituals, and apparatus; accused of defending and legitimising prejudice, superstition, fanaticism and dogmatism.
This battle against dogmatic-religious authority and tradition assumed radical and fighting characteristics, which in turn bred germs of intolerance, resulting in positions that were not always coherent with the protection of liberty and rights. It was within this criticism however, that one should identify the consolidation and promotion of that idea of tolerance between different faiths and cultures that is still today the basis of Europe’s overall cultural and spiritual identity. The monument of this political-cultural commitment is Voltaire’s Treatise on Tolerance dated 1763; recreating the judicial case of Jean Calas, a Calvinist executed in Toulouse in 1762, after attacking the fanaticism of the plebe, obscurantist political will and the secrecy of judicial order identified as being at the origin of this execution, in this book the philosopher expresses the reasons for which tolerance is necessary. The promotion of tolerance is therefore indicated as the main means for creating a rational society, capable of protecting the defence of freedom of thought and religion, and able to welcome and respect the differences of the various identities.
Facing the challenge currently posed by the cultural differences which intentionally place themselves outside the European Enlightenment tradition, claiming that is does not acknowledge the dignity and value of other and different traditions, the most instructive definition of Enlightenment available is probably still today the one provided by Immanuel Kant, in What is Enlightenment written in 1784: "Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. Sapere Aude! [dare to know] Have courage to use your own understanding!" – that is the motto of enlightenment..”
This definition in fact contains both that fundamental nucleus of principles through which Enlightenment determined the outline of European modernity, outlining a perimeter of values that are its inalienable raison d’etre; and also those elements that allow Enlightenment and the western modernity it led to, to maintain alive a permanent level of self-criticism that is necessary and indispensable so that its principles are really placed at the service of dialogue and of an encounter between different cultures and identities.
As observed ever since the decades that followed the French Revolution, the battle Enlightenment fought against tradition, obscurantism and authoritarianism, often used as a reference a universalistic paradigm of reason, which proved to be little inclined to acknowledge the value of the particularities and differences, turning out to be the repository for temptations that were in turn levelling and despotic. The controversy that recently saw universalism and the defence of the principles of the French Revolution opposed by multiculturalism and the battle against levelling tendencies of western reason, is simply an updated repetition of the debate that arose in Europe between the 18th and the 19th centuries, criticising the shift arising from the exalting of reason and the excesses of the Jacobin revolution in ‘89.
The concept of autonomy and the public use of reason, implicitly contained in Kant’s definition, can therefore be used as a compass for trying to establish an intermediate position, capable on one hand of defending Enlightenment from its external enemies, and on the other of protecting it from itself; hence from the risk present from the very beginning that it might dialectically turn into the opposite, becoming the victim, as far as the otherness is concerned, of the same principle of intolerance fought in others.
Placing the emphasis on the definition of reason, reminds us in fact that the openness to otherness and the acknowledgment of its dignity must have as an ultimate objective the defence of the universal value of criticism and dialogue, and hence the universal rejection of all forms of fanaticism and intolerance. However, the emphasis Kant placed within this definition on the autonomy of all processes of emancipation, equally reminds us that the principles of Enlightenment conflicted with themselves when expressing the expectation to export them elsewhere also using force; and that the force of Enlightenment lies precisely in presenting itself as a stimulus, a dialogue, because subjects and individuals, depending on the context they originate in and their personal experiences, may have the courage to free themselves of all that restricts their freedom.