The Enlightenment was an international movement which was made possible thanks to the numerous links and bonds established throughout Europe by a new generation of thinkers united against state despotism and church intolerance. Among them, Rousseau appeared like a dissident as he willingly chose to retreat from public life after his quarrel with his philosopher friends. This semi-voluntary solitude inspired his most intense works as he undertook to analyse and depict his inner nature away from the critical eyes of his contemporaries. In many ways, Rousseau’s soul-searching quest was the harbinger of a new Romantic sensitivity placing individual experience above any previously received opinion or revered dogmatism. Listening to nothing but his inner voice, Rousseau paved the way to existentialist philosophy and its early figures, Kirkegaard and Nietzsche, both developing their distinctive philosophy independently from academic circles, strengthened by their determination to open new untrodden paths.
By contrast, twentieth-century philosophers were deeply influenced by the rise of partisan political ideologies and many of them became willy-nilly involved in the affairs of a world threatened by totalitarian regimes. No philosopher, with the exception of the misanthropic Cioran, could remain indifferent to the horrors of WW2 and the plight of its millions of innocent victims. Solitude suits quiet times and purely speculative minds. For individuals like Camus, Sartre and Arendt, passivity was synonymous with acquiescence, if not complicity with barbarian regimes. Seventy years on, their pleas for freedom still find a resounding echo in younger generations faced with the prospect of a new barbarian age. Who to turn to in this age of tension and uncertainty?
The Net has become the new global ‘agora’ where everyone can express his own point of view on every possible subject under the sun. This democratisation of philosophy is a phenomenal development in the on-going human ‘conversation’. At he same time, many half-baked ideas circulate freely and become part of a potentially dangerous new ‘doxa’. All ideas are worth a hearing and tolerant societies have, so far, thrived on encouraging total freedom of expression. However, out of the millions of words put on line everyday on philosophical topics, how many are taken notice of, read or pondered over? Philosophy requires concentration and if not isolation, at least the ability to step back from the hurly-burly of the media. Following its long tradition, philosophy will, no doubt, continue to produce great thinkers but will these future enlightened minds be able to combine originality and objectivity in a world more and more complex and drowned in an expanding ocean of information?