The Context of the Enlightenment–I

Aziz Ali Dad thinks about the flux and fixity of ideas over the past two millennia

by Aziz Ali Dad

‘Weimar’s Courtyard of the Muses’ – a tribute to the Enlightenment. TFT

When the Indian Subcontinent came under the rule of the British Empire, it came into contact with the ideas dominating the European intellectual scene. Discussion about the Enlightenment and its by-product modernity was made necessary in India by the need for comprehending the new order of things. The interface of the traditional mind with the ideas of the Enlightenment created a rupture in the structure of experience as well as thought. As a result, the discussion and disputation about ideas of the Enlightenment shaped intellectual postures. These postures took a number of forms – from outright rejection of the Enlightenment as grafting of Western ideas on native soil, uncritical surrender and ambivalent modernity. This division of thought manifested in the division of society into fundamentalist/revivalist, liberal and traditional/apologist schools of thought.

In Urdu scholarship, the Enlightenment is often rendered as “roshan khayali”. Following the tradition of classical philosophy, Ali Abbas Jalal Puri calls it “khirad afrozi”. His formulation is closer to the basic concept of the Enlightenment. However, “roshan khayali” has become more popular for the reason that most of the progressive intellectuals and literati employed it in their writings to explain social, political, cultural and literary realities.

An important debate about the Enlightenment and its by-product modernity is whether its ideas are universal or relative. This question has become more important after the advent of postmodernism on our intellectual horizons in late modernity. While discussing the Enlightenment, there is a tendency among intelligentsia from both secular and religious persuasions to present it as an anti-religion movement. This misconception about the Enlightenment is due to the reason that both the proponents and opponents of its universality take a short view of the long history of ideas.

The Enlightenment was not a movement against religion per se. Actually, it was opposed to any worldview that constricted human beings. The thinkers of the Enlightenment sought for humanity to become mature by exploring self, society and the world through Reason. The primal figure of the Enlightenment Immanuel Kant himself was a religious person. His definition of the Enlightenment provides an emancipatory vision for those who are engulfed in the darkness of dogma and want to illumine their life and society with the light of rational faculty.

Napoleon Bonaparte in Egypt.

Human beings are strange creatures in the sense that they tend to create a big story for themselves to make sense of self, society and the world. Gradually, the story falls prey to the vagaries of time: it becomes too rigid a worldview that fails to make sense of changing times. Therefore, humans again embark upon a project of weaving an even greater story to connect disparate elements of the world and human experience in a coherent whole. From this tendency, it can be said that the whole history of ideas is about the eternal recurrence of the innate human urge to redefine themselves through a new narrative. That is why Albert Camus declared, “Man” as “the only creature who refuses to be what he is.”

A complex situation needs a vision or idea that enables a society to tackle existential and worldly issues in more meaningful and pertinent ways. Call it an anomaly or mistake in the sequence of history that humans produced prophets, visionaries, reformers and charismatic leaders in the time when human societies were not complex. Today the world has become more complex, but humans may have lost the capacity to produce visionaries with big stories. Max Weber’s pronouncement of the end of charisma in the modern age can be seen not merely as a transformation of charismatic authority into permanent institutions through rationalization of society, but as a loss of the capacity create big stories.

Since we inhabit a modern episteme and are environed by its epistemic structures, we assume that certain things are unique to the modern age. But our assumptions can be wrong. Indeed, some of the concepts in the modern world that we use might be our misconceptions about which are not aware of.

One such assumption is the idea of a rupture with tradition caused by modernity. Those who accept a liberal version of the linear progress of history treat rupture by modernity sui generis for the modern world. In fact, humanity has experienced multiple ruptures throughout its history on Earth. History can enable us to demythologize some of the myths of modernity. We can illuminate our pathway of the present to reach the future by shifting our gaze backward into history.

Today modernity is seen as the permanent emancipatory and epistemic paradigm for humanity. There is an element of truth in it but perhaps not the whole truth. If we treat the Enlightenment within the history of ideas through a longer view of history, we can situate its emergence on the firmament of ideas in its proper context. But because of the proximity of our time with the pre-modern world of organized religion, we tend to lose that longer and broader view of the social history of ideas. That is why we treat religion as monolithic – and as if it were a phenomenon without historical moorings. Like the Enlightenment itself, the different religions of the ancient and pre-modern period were human responses to the crisis in the dominant worldviews of different societies.

Historically, tribal and national religions were attempts by humans to connect their lived experiences and disparate elements of the world within a cosmic order. That is why their issues remained highly localized. These belief systems helped in creating social order. The tribal and polytheistic religions in the ancient world remained relevant because they enabled human beings to make sense of their lives and the world. They provided an outlook for their followers to transcend their mundane experiences and explain different phenomena by attributing them to a cosmic scheme and rules. However, over the time polytheistic and tribal religions experienced crisis because the pantheon of some of those religions became overcrowded with deities, gods and goddesses. Instead of raising humans to the sublime heights of the gods, the gods descended to human level by exhibiting mundane human follies and foibles. The gods started to abduct the wives of other gods and kings. The abduction of Europa by the king of all other gods, Zeus, can be cited as an example.


It was in such a situation of crises that religions and visionary personalities in the axial age emerged on the world-historical scene. Karl Jaspers in his book The Origin and Goal of History treats “the period around 500 BC, in the spiritual process that occurred between 800 and 200 BC” as the axial age. According to Jaspers, the axial age is “a new departure within mankind”. It is a period “when a kind of critical reflective questioning of the actual and a new vision of what lies beyond” occurred. Jaspers is of the view that during this period there was a shift from localised concerns of polytheism towards transcendence. He attributes the development of modern civilisations and worldviews to the great axial turn.

Among the spiritual and intellectual achievements of the axial age, he includes a wide but unrelated variety of phenomena, such as the emergence of Hebrew prophets, the development of science and philosophy in Greece, Confucius in China, Upanishads in India, Buddha, Zoroaster, and Laozi. Although Jaspers does not include Christianity, the advent of Islam and later the Renaissance within his schema, the framework can be expanded to include those charismatic figures, visionaries, philosophers and intellectuals who emerged in the pre-modern and modern period. Due to the proximity of Christianity and Islam with modern times as compared to the pre-axial age, they can be seen as an internal Other of modernity for it was Christianity that worked as a negative foil to trigger ideas about an alternate world under the Reason of the Enlightenment.

So, the Enlightenment can be treated not a rupture with the past, but the continuation of the great thinking in the philosophy that occurred during the last 2,800 years. Robert Bellah in his book Beyond Belief: Essays on Religion in a Post-Transitional World identifies change in perspective of the religion from early forms of religions to historic religions in the first millennium B.C. “[Now] the religious goal” writes Bellah, “of salvation (or enlightenment, release and so forth) is for the first time became the central religious preoccupation. From the point of view of these religions a man [sic] is no longer defined chiefly in terms of what tribe or clan he comes from or what particular god he serves but rather as being capable of salvation.”

Rejecting the traditional worldview based on a certain kind of monotheism and its related ideas, the Enlightenment emancipated individual and society from the prison of religious teleology, which has in its turn begotten repetition of same thought and actions. As a corollary, innovation became a rarity. Emancipation of thinking and society from teleological tyranny provided a space for creative and intellectual energies to flourish. The industrial, social, cultural, political and economic revolutions brought about by modernity bear testimony to influence and relative success of the Enlightenment project. This article was first published in The Friday Times, May 24, 2019.

The writer is a social scientist with a background in philosophy and social science. Email:

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