It got a little bit lighter.
It’s a complicated one, which means I’m going to mostly be wrong here, but essentially you’re looking at a period of time where reason, philosophy and science started becoming the foundations of what people did. A well argued argument could suddenly bring down a monarchy. Mathematics could be used to challenge assumptions.
That’s probably a key, actually. Assumptions were challenged.
Depending how it’s looked at, it started with Descartes or the English Revolution, and ended when modernity began (French revolution? Napoleonic wars? It’s up to you).
Kant described the enlightenment as the freedom of an individual to use their intelligence.
There’s a narrative of this period that talks of the birth of individualism. The breaking of state and church power in favour of individuals looking at the world around them and drawing their own conclusions.
It’s a fairly big deal, really, and it’s kind of hard to imagine what it was like before.
I recently read a chapter of Douglas Rushkoff’s Life Inc. In that he offered a history of the west in which it’s this first step towards individualism that marks the beginning of the dominance of brand power and self centred consumerism.
Rushkoff emphasises the hugeness of the shift with an example of pre-englightenment deindividualism that I find hard to believe:
Just being able to think as an individual, to experience an interior consciousness, was a major step. Dr John Dee, considered a sorcerer in his day, amazed crowds simply by being able to read without moving his lips. He could silently read a page and then answer questions about it because he had the mental ability to form an internal mental picture formed by the words-a skill inconceivable to those unfamiliar with an internal mental experience. -Rushkoff (2010) p 91
I can’t work out if it’s hyperbole or not, but it’s fascinating to think that this wasn’t just a time when clever people started convincing people that the earth went round the sun and that monarchs should be dethroned and that algebra was useful. It was a time when people woke up to entirely new ways of perceiving the world.
To think that there could’ve been a shift that fundamental in the way people think and know, at any point in history, is kinda freeing for the future.
It’s important to know that our basis for understanding the world could change in the future, before one gets to pessimistic.
One gets the impression of a singularity (of a sort) that already happened. With the Critique of Pure Reason, Principia Mathematica and the Declaration of independence (and a million other texts of the period) we see something totally unprecendented and unforeseeable. Something huge and fundamental to all.
So to answer the question.
Quite a lot happened. There was a shift in thinking throughout society. Birth of science and birth of the individual. Empiricism and the sharing of ideas became huge.
The world changed, from top to toe.
Which is pretty incredible.
Illustration by Lucy.