Enlightened and Enriched

From The City Journal:

Lamp Was the Enlightenment a Good Thing? At first blush, the question sounds almost sacrilegious. The eighteenth-century Enlightenment, after all, taught us to be democratic and to believe in human rights, tolerance, freedom of expression, and many other values that are still revered, if not always practiced, in modern societies. On the other hand, historians question whether the Enlightenment actually led to brotherhood and equality (it did not, of course), and even freedom, its third objective, was achieved only partially and late. Some have even suggested that its ideas of human “improvement” may have had unintended bad consequences such as twentieth-century totalitarianism, racism, and colonialism.

Yet the debate has obscured the most hardy and irreversible effect of the Enlightenment: it made us rich. It is by now a cliché to note how much better twenty-first-century people live than even the kings of three centuries back. In thousands of large and small things, material life today is immeasurably better than ever before. Are we happier? Who knows? Are we more enlightened? Possibly. But are we healthier and more comfortable? Of course we are. And without sounding too cocky about how progressive history is, or too triumphalist about Western culture as the crowning achievement of human development (a view that a majority of historians label “whiggish”), I would like to suggest that what generated all this prosperity was the growth of certain ideas in the century after the British Glorious Revolution of 1688.

Picture: Paris’s first gas lamp, at the Place du Carrousel (1818).

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