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Free «How the Assumptions of the Enlightenment Were Undermined by 19th Century Thinkers» Essay Sample

According to the Enlightenment point of view, the proper study of humanity address the process, through which people act and cognize the world. When individuals take the information received from their senses and reflect on it, they are able to arrive at complex and sophisticated ideas. The nineteenth century thinkers were the first to agitate against the power of reason and Enlightenment in other people. Perry et al indicate that all new theories like realism, positivism, social Darwinism, and liberalism tended to concentrate on the empirical world; therefore, they opposed ideas and deflated interpretations of society and nature established in previous epochs. On the other hand, each movement derived from and expanded the Enlightenment tradition (Perry, et al 561). The representatives of Romantic movement glorified intuition and passion; they used their imagination and dreams to get them into Middle Ages, which they considered an idyllic era and where they looked for solitude alone with wonderful nature (Perry, et al 561). With clinical detachment and meticulous care, they analyzed how people actually looked like, worked, and behaved with no power to reason (Perry, et al 561).



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It was a popular fashion among the representatives of the Enlightenment to enrobe their thoughts and ideas in a sophisticated, encyclopedic form. Perry et al noted that different thinkers, for example, the social Darwinists, dwelled increasingly on the old regimes inequality, which seemed to stifle men of talent (576). The 19th century thinkers, such as Romantics, social Darwinists, and other theorists undermined the Enlightenment and power to reason. They questioned the belief of people in the Biblical story of creation, presented in the Book of Genesis. This theory was questioned and opposed by Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of Charles Darwin, who asserted that the earth had existed for million years before the appearance of people (Perry et al 567). Social Darwinists, in the middle of the nineteenth century, strived to undermine traditional Christian belief. Perry et al indicated that because of a growing secular attitude, which questioned the power of Christianity to reason, they pushed religion to the periphery of human concerns for many people (571).

According to Perry et al, several intellectuals in the tradition of the Enlightenment attacked religion as an obstacle to progress (574). The thinkers also questioned the well-established opinion about the authenticity of the Bible texts. Even though the Enlightenment influenced many philosophers of the 19th century significantly, Karl Marx affirmed that history of human civilization, just like any other natural activity, was subjected to the scientific laws. Perry et all indicated that the theorists were “strict materialist, rejecting all religious and metaphysical interpretations of both nature and history, they sought to fashion an empirical science of society” (574).

After the First World War, in the early twentieth century, intellectuals of the Old World were disillusioned and psychologically broken. This state of total demoralization was caused by the changing trends and unstable conditions in the world. Perry et al asserts that the Enlightenment worldview significantly weakened in the nineteenth century because of the assault of romantics, social Darwinists, extreme nationalists, and race mystics. In addition, the glorification of the irrational has disintegrated by the time (574). The thinkers said that the enormity of the war had shattered faith in the ability of reason to deal with crucial social and political questions.

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Romantics, social Darwinists, and other theorists said that the Gospel contained lots of mythical, religious content with little historical facts. Other thinkers attempted to discern what was historically valid and asserted that the New Testament was replete with inherited legends and myths (Perry at al 728). The assertion that history, as presented in the Gospels, provided a firm basis for belief in Christian teachings was permanently undermined by these theorists. Marx, in turn, criticized the Enlightenment by noting, “material technology, the methods of cultivating land, and tools for manufacturing goods determined society’s social and political arrangements and its intellectual outlooks” (Perry et al 728).


Before 1914, the dominant mood in Europe was one of pride and strong confidence in the accomplishments of the Western civilization and its future progress. Perry et al noted that irrationalism led to the advancement in science and technology, rising standard of living, and development of democratic institutions (697). The Europe’s position of power in the world also contributed to a sense of optimism, as did the expansion of social reform and increase in literacy among the masses. Perry et al mention that there existed a direct connection between irrationalism and the outbreak of war in 1914 because only few individuals recognized that the West’s outward achievements masked inner turbulence that was propelling the Western civilization towards cataclysm (697).

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Prior to the outbreak of the war, the generation living in that time hoped that world and life would become more humane, democratic, and rational. Everyone expected that democracy was going to ensure social justice to everyone, eventually. Perry et al assert that it was expected that the progress of science and technology would make humankind richer and that this increasing wealth gradually would spread from a minority to majority (697). The ideas of irrationalism were based on the perception that the course of humanity was set at achievement of an earthly paradise. People believed that the way towards this goal was predestined by historical necessity.

According to irrationalists, which tried to expand the life of a human beyond the limits of rational and grant it with its full and meaningful dimensions, the European system of states was failing. Perry et al argue, “By 1914, national states, fueled by explosive nationalism were grouped into alliances that faced each other with ever-mounting hostility” (723). Nationalistic passions, overheated by the popular media and expansionist societies, poisoned international relations. In addition, nationalist thinkers propagated pseudo-scientific racial and social Darwinist doctrines, which glorified conflict and justified the subjugation of different territories.

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In the era of strong nationalistic movements all over Europe, Austro-Hungarian Empire with its multinationalism caused serious tensions; in 1914, it reached the peak and resulted in the beginning of the war. Perry et al assert that war might have been avoided or at least limited to Austria and Serbia if irrationalism had not split Europe into two hostile alliance systems (723). The twentieth century reviled the reality that civilization was in constant and despairing battle against the irrational part of the people’s. This confrontation caused almost all serious political and social conflicts of the age.

The achievements of the Western science and technology, which had been viewed as a progress for humanity and clearest testament to the superiority of European civilization, were called into question (Perry et al 728). The history of the Western civilization was altered completely by the First World War of 1914. This war undermined the power and authority of the West, and made many question the vitality of this civilization. According to Perry et al, irrationalism planted the seed of doubt that the whole notion of civilization was nothing more but a fragile image. It seemed that, despite all progress and technological achievement, the Western people did not manage to overcome barbarism at all (728).


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