Revisiting the European Enlightenment

Teaching Philosophy is not only to analyse abstract concepts (or Ideas) but to shed light on universal values in their factual, human dimension. French modern thinkers like Mill or Sartre applied their utilitarian and existentialist principles to the English universal suffrage or the French colonial wars. For this reason, the tragic events of January 7 and 8 in Paris should be discussed in a Philosophy classroom as they impact directly upon our very understanding and support of ethical and political values. What does it mean to live together in a multicultural democracy is the question at the heart of the Western debate as well as the potential threats to an ideal of tolerance inherited from the Enlightenment.

A fruitful exercise would consist of identifying the key figures of the European Enlightenment and compare their degree of opposition to their own régime and the risks they personally incurred by expressing their convictions on paper, Spinoza being the most extreme case of ostracism as he was not only banned from his Amsterdam synagogue but banned from meeting any member of his family for the rest of his life.

The case of the young French nobleman, le Chevalier Lefebvre de la Barre, tortured and beheaded for not saluting a Roman Catholic religious procession and carrying a copy of Voltaire’s ‘Philosophical Dictionary’ shows the heavy tribute to be paid for freedom of expression in eighteenth-century France.

1 Comment
  • Andrew Fournier
    January 21, 2015

    Though I feel self conscious and pedantic in pointing it out, Mill was English. As to you actual point- Is this entirely philosophy?

    “For this reason, the tragic events of January 7 and 8 in Paris should be discussed in a Philosophy classroom as they impact directly upon our very understanding and support of ethical and political values. What does it mean to live together in a multicultural democracy is the question at the heart of the Western debate as well as the potential threats to an ideal of tolerance inherited from the Enlightenment.” This can be seen as a worthwhile philosophical concern. But I’m not sure martyrdom, in any cause, significantly enhances the goodness of that cause; most specifically in a philosophical sense, and especially regarding the context of the Paris attacks.

    Again, apologies for the pedantry. Your essential idea has merit and should see discussion in both ToK and philosophy classes.

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