In fact, the origins of his new book, Fire and Light: How the Enlightenment Transformed Our World, date to 1949, when Burns was in London studying the British political system during a sabbatical from Williams. Admiring the Great Reform Act of 1832, a major step in the democratization of Parliament, and impressed by the arduous, decades-long campaign for the bill, he saw that it was fueled by ideas traced back to the Enlightenment, including the fundamental principle that all people have the right to participate in their own government. The American founding, central to Burns’ work as political scientist and historian, produced a cadre of thinker-activists that matched Europe’s finest: men like Franklin, Adams, Jefferson and Madison. They shaped a distinctive American Enlightenment and led an experiment that put the ideas of philosophers into practical action to create a republic unlike any the world had known. The Enlightenment values at the heart of the experiment—above all, liberty, equality and happiness—were crucial to Burns’ own theory of leadership as both the motivation for leaders and followers and as the standard by which change could be measured.
But it was only late in his career that Burns sat down to write his Enlightenment book, conceiving it as a vast case study of leadership, ideas and change across two continents and more than two centuries. Ideas in the Enlightenment were like a contagion and were communicated along new networks of a thriving print culture. They spread over national borders and across lines of class, race and gender, overturning old dogmas and inspiring fresh expectations. They spurred creative leadership from the grassroots, from subjects who, enlightened, began to think like citizens and would help lead the challenges to authority that sparked revolutions in Britain, America and France. Fire and Light burns bright with its author’s passion for the Enlightenment’s continued relevance. We are all, he says, its children; and from it we’ve learned to think about ourselves and our societies, about constructing leadership and creating change that fulfills human wants and needs and values. As the crises of the 21st century mount—environmental, political, economic, social—our most powerful weapon in confronting them, he argues, will be the humane and rational program of the Enlightenment.
What follows is an excerpt from his book.
Change was at the very root of this new era, and knowledge and freedom were change’s twinned preconditions and outcomes. Together enlightenment and liberation raised men and women into a condition of possibility, the opportunity to better themselves and their world. And “as the human mind becomes more enlightened” over time, declared the French economist Turgot in 1750, “the whole human race … goes on advancing, although at a slow pace, towards greater perfection.” Revolutionaries and innovators were inspired to push beyond the status quo in politics and government, science and technology, in entrepreneurship and the arts, in philosophy, in every field of human endeavor.
The human mind was where revolution originated. Breaking from a universe in which God was the final answer to any question, Enlightenment philosophers moved attention to human beings as the measure of all things. Now, as Alexander Pope put it, “[the] proper study of Mankind is Man,” especially the human mind and its potentialities. The old philosophy held that the mind was furnished top-to-bottom by God. And mental submission to clerics was imperative, especially among the lower orders, when the alternative was an eternity of hellfire.
But Enlightenment savants condemned these shackles on the human mind. They tested received ideas by the new, unflinching standards of empiricism. Science, previously erected on stilts of axioms and premises, was stripped to the ground. As the founder of the New Science, Francis Bacon, insisted, “Man, being the servant and interpreter of Nature, can do and understand so much and so much only as he has observed in fact or in thought of the course of nature.” Only from close observation and careful experiment could the grandest theories be built—the “conclusions of human reason,” the general laws that governed nature, such as Isaac Newton’s explanation of gravity. The empirical assault on dogma was the method not only of the natural sciences but of such emerging disciplines as sociology, anthropology and political economy that studied human life in all its complexities. For over a decade, Adam Smith analyzed financial data from all sources to create his groundbreaking account of the new capitalist economy in The Wealth of Nations.
That fresh spirit of empiricism transformed the Enlightenment’s understanding of the nature of thought itself. John Locke rejected the “received doctrine” that men had “native ideas” stamped “upon their minds in their very first being.” Instead he described the mind of an infant as like a “white paper, void of all characters, without any new ideas.” The mind was all potential, like wax, according to Locke, to be shaped and vitalized by experience and education. In fact, “the difference to be found in the Manners and Abilities of Men, is owing more to their Education than to anything else.” Great care, therefore, “is to be had of the forming Children’s Minds,” not least because enlightenment was critical to their preparation to live in rational and virtuous freedom, the highest condition of human life.
The tool for liberation, the mind’s crowning glory, was man’s power to reason. The “motto of enlightenment,” according to Immanuel Kant, was “Have courage to use your own reason!”
By reasoning, the mind exposed falsehoods and discovered truths and gave birth to far-reaching ideas from an intake of humble facts. Reason equipped men and women to live freely, enabled them to make their own way, to think and act for themselves, even the lower orders of servants and shoemakers, peasants and pieceworkers. And when people began to think for themselves, an English friend of Jean-Jacques Rousseau cautioned ironically in 1792, “when they have carried their temerity of free-thinking perhaps so far as to suspect that nations may exist without monks or tyrants, it is already too late to burn libraries or philosophers.”
If enlightenment empowered the human mind for new worlds of liberty and self-government, why should it not enable a community to govern itself, free of monks and tyrants? Enlightenment philosophers knew men needed government—that without it, in an anarchic “state of nature,” it was every man for himself, making life, in Thomas Hobbes’ vivid phrase, “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short.” But the regimes of that age, whether absolute monarchies or parliamentary governments under aristocratic control, answered neither to their subjects’ wants and needs nor to their dignity as human beings. A new doctrine of natural rights—to life, liberty and property, in Locke’s influential formulation—established those values, which belonged to all people by birth, as the bedrock of individual freedom. How were they to be secured under conditions that kept most of the populace voiceless and in subjection?
It became a cornerstone of Enlightenment thought that governments were not, as Locke put it, born of “the Ordinance of God and Divine Institution” and descended from “Adam’s Monarchical Power,” but were the work of men in a time and place and as such could be changed by men. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson contended that inasmuch as government derived its “just powers from the consent of the governed,” the people had the right to abolish it when it violated its compact with them, as when a ruler, in Locke’s example, “sets up his own Arbitrary Will in place of the Laws.” Such a tyrant was the true rebel, an aggressor in a war against his own people. His abuses of power led to “the Dissolution of the Government.”
Governments, as Locke well knew, did not simply dissolve. Many powerful factors were behind the great revolutionary movements of the era: always the struggle for political power; typically, severe economic and social crises; and, too often, searing religious conflict. But in the upheavals that transformed Britain, America and France in these centuries, the ideas of the Enlightenment were at the center of the action, as both inspiration and end. With them, leaders and their activist followers justified rebellions, explained motives and fashioned visions for change based on the values they risked their lives and liberties to achieve. The American colonies in the years before 1776 were a hotbed of debates over representation, self-determination, natural rights and, above all, liberty, the most cherished value in the war for independence. In 1787, with the French government on the verge of fiscal collapse, King Louis XVI himself tried on the robes of Enlightenment philosophy. His controller general declared that the royal principle of “as the king wills, so wills the law” would be amended to “as the people’s happiness wills, so wills the king.” The king’s people were not persuaded and two years later sent deputies to the Estates-General who were genuine men of enlightenment, authors of tracts that challenged royal policies, advocates of legal and economic reforms, members of learned academies and sometimes philosophes themselves. To their own surprise, they became revolutionaries, too, and, “with all the force of a conversion experience,” in historian Timothy Tackett’s words, began to think that “a new political order and a new system of social values could actually be realized.”
This sweeping ambition could not have been conceived without the Enlightenment and the possibilities it created for transformation. The institutions American revolutionaries established in 1789 and the settlement forged by British statesmen a century earlier after the Glorious Revolution that enshrined the liberties of citizens were no less achievements of Enlightenment thought, the work of leaders who took seriously the intellectual currents of their time and were responding to the rising aspirations of their people.
And their accomplishments stood the test of time. Even the French Revolution, with stages that appeared to fulfill Enlightenment expectations and others that perverted them, remains at the core of French identity and a touchstone of its politics. Still, it was an Enlightenment imperative that, in the words of Jefferson, “laws and institutions” advance “hand in hand with progress of the human mind.” As people became more enlightened and their “manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances,” their political order must “keep pace with the times.”
The greatest change of circumstances, which both confirmed and challenged the Enlightenment, was the Industrial Revolution that began to sweep the West in the 18th century. The power of enlightened science and technology, as well as the Enlightenment’s celebration of social mobility through individual achievement and ambition, created what historian Joel Mokyr called the “enlightened economy,” a new economic order that especially empowered the middle classes. They would dominate politics and society in the 19th century. Liberalism was their ideology, championing individualism and personal liberty and free enterprise.
Yet progress in the Industrial Revolution left behind another new class—impoverished workers laboring in often subhuman conditions in factories, fields and mines, while living with their starveling and sick families in overgrown cities and squalid factory towns. Philosophy came to speak for these working men, women and children only slowly, at first through Utopian thinkers and radical journalists; it was not until 1867, when Karl Marx published Das Kapital, a monument to the Enlightenment’s critical method and empiricism, that Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations was answered by an equally compelling study that centered on the exploitation of labor by rampant capitalism.
Meanwhile, barred in Britain, France and the United States from forming “combinations,” workers searched for their own answers. They realized that among the inequalities confronting them was that of knowledge; ignorance was a tool of capitalist domination. In response, workers sought to enlighten themselves. They opened lending libraries and newsrooms and met together in reading groups. They devoured working-class journals as well as Voltaire’s essays and Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason. They absorbed the ideas of contemporary thinker-activists like Louis Blanc, a French apostle of organized labor, and Englishman William Cobbett with his plainspoken depiction of the “two classes of men” the industrial economy had created, “masters, and abject dependants.”
At stake for laborers was the full dignity of human beings promised by Enlightenment precepts. They wanted to be treated as men and women capable of reason and of freedom, not as wage slaves or beasts of burden; they wanted to join together in order to fight for their common interests and to have a voice in choosing those who governed them.
Enlightenment was their pathway, the tenacious faith that self-improvement would lead ultimately, through enlightened activism, to improvement in their conditions. And that persistent drive for betterment gradually spread its transforming power until few corners of the earth remained untouched. The 19th-century wars of liberation against Spanish rule that spread across Latin America were led by enlightened generals, including Simón Bolívar, who followed Locke and Montesquieu and others but, equally, embraced the Enlightenment injunction to think for oneself. In the 20th century, anticolonial campaigns in Asia and Africa drew on Enlightenment ideas imported by the Westerners that native peoples now sought to evict. Proclaiming Vietnam’s separation from French rule in 1945, Ho Chi Minh’s Declaration of Independence opened with Jefferson’s “immortal statement” on human equality and inalienable rights. In South Africa, the anti-apartheid movement appealed to the principles of majority rule and equal rights while its leaders, notably Nelson Mandela, spoke eloquently of a “rainbow nation” of toleration and respect for white minority rights.
The last four centuries have demonstrated that once the flame of Enlightenment has been lit, however much it might be repressed or distorted, it cannot be extinguished. Enlightenment remains the most powerful tool for challenging authority and liberating the human mind, an inspiration to leaders and followers worldwide, a method for effective change and a framework of values by which that change can be measured. For these same reasons, the Enlightenment remains a target for authorities of all colorations, who regard ignorance—and in modern propaganda terms, minds force-fed with falsehoods—as the bulwarks of their power, apart from brutal force. But in an age of quicksilver networks of mutual enlightenment that continually widen through newer and newer social media, ignorance is a wasting resource.
Even so, as demonstrated by the overthrow of despots in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya in the remarkable Arab Spring launched late in 2010, revolution may put people on the path to freedom and self-government, but many urgent questions about means and ends remain. English, American and French revolutionaries faced them centuries ago, but they are no less vital and controversial today, not only in nations struggling to invent a new civil society but in regimes long-established on enlightened principles. The latter, too, face, as they ought to, constant critical examination of their dedication to those principles. What should a people expect from government? Who should lead and how are leaders to be chosen? How should leadership be made accountable, how should its powers be limited, and how can the rights of all citizens be protected? How can people be readied to play an enlightened role in exercising their freedom and governing themselves? How far should tolerance extend for those of differing religious or political views or ethnicities or classes? In what ways should government promote the great Enlightenment values of freedom and equality for all of its people? Are freedom and equality complementary or clashing values?
So long as the potential for human betterment—the philosophers’ “perfectibility of man”—persists, Enlightenment will be a living, vital work in progress, a continuing condition of possibility. Its transformative power has always been in the crucial binding of means and ends.
It has never been limited to pondering purely abstract ideas nor has it been a guide for the merely pragmatic. To consider a principled outcome has been to consider the method to achieve it. For men and women, Enlightenment is both the destination and the road. It means that people think for themselves and act in their own interests, with reason as their tool and enlightened values to live by and strive for. They become interpreters of their world and shapers of it. “Know then thyself,” Alexander Pope urged when declaring the proper study of mankind.
In the age of the Enlightenment, to seek self-knowledge is to discover humanity.
James MacGregor Burns ’39, a political scientist, historian and biographer, is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of more than two dozen books, including Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox (1956) and Leadership (1978). He is the college’s Woodrow Wilson Professor of Government, emeritus.
Video: Watch George “Al” Goethals, Williams’ Dennis A. Meehan ’54 Professor of Leadership Studies, emeritus, interviewing James MacGregor Burns ’39 at the University of Richmond’s Jepson School of Leadership Studies.