Was the Enlightenment Really the Age of Reason?

Topics: Ancient Greece, Western culture, Age of Enlightenment Pages: 11 (2616 words) Published: August 18, 2014
Reason Assessment Two: Was the Enlightenment really the Age of Reason? Due 11:59pm 16th May 2014 This essay will discuss the impact of reason on Western Philosophy and the extent to which the Enlightenment can be defined as the “Age of Reason”. For the purpose of this discussion, reason will be defined as a form of thinking which aids in decision-making, problem solving and interpretation (Leighton & Sternberg 3). Furthermore, the Enlightenment will be defined as a ‘distinctive cultural movement of the eighteenth century… [focused on] a critical review of all human knowledge’ (Winks & Kaiser 98). This piece will contest the notion that the Enlightenment was the sole “Age of Reason” and will instead argue that the term “Age of Reason” encompasses the span of history from Ancient Greece to contemporary society. A discussion will follow on how alternative periods such as Classical Greece, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and Post-Enlightenment and contemporary society should also be included in the “Age of Reason”. Furthermore the merits and flaws of labelling the Enlightenment as the Age of Reason will be discussed. Two primary texts will be used to support these arguments. Firstly, Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy will be used to discuss the great thinkers and ideas from throughout Western Philosophy, with a particular emphasis on those who studied reason, thus supporting the argument that the span of Western Philosophy should be encompassed within an “Age of Reason”. Secondly, Anthony Pagden’s The Enlightenment and Why it Still Matters will be used in reference to the discussion of the Enlightenment and its classification as the “Age of Reason”. Pagden’s text is relevant as it identifies the importance of the Enlightenment and its contribution to modern society, as well as explaining its limits in being referred to as the “Age of Reason”. The use of reason can be traced at least as far back as Ancient Greek Philosophy, thus proving that the so-called “Age of Reason” began more than 2000 years before the Enlightenment commenced. Bertrand Russell supports this argument through his emphasis on the philosophical discoveries that occurred in Classical Greece (Russell 15- 280). In fact, Ancient Greece has often been labelled as the birth of rational thinking (Frede & Striker 2), Pythagoras most notably being attributed with the discovery of the importance of human reasoning, particularly in the understanding of Mathematics (Guthrie 217). Pythagoras introduced the commonly-held Ancient concept that reason is superior to empirical knowledge in that it allows for the acquisition of understanding through the use of cognition without the need for observation (Russell 42). In this way, Pythagoras advocated the importance of reasoning within everyday life, an idea that was prevalent within Ancient Greek society centuries before the Age of Enlightenment.

Also during this Ancient Greek period, Russell notes that both Plato and Aristotle were fascinated with reason (Russell 108-199), further supporting the contention that the “Age of Reason” commenced far prior to the Enlightenment.  According to Russell, Plato held reason in great esteem, claiming that it was the ‘higher kind’ of intellect, concerned only with pure ideas (Russell 135-137). He used reasoning in his Allegory of the Cave to argue that everything in our world is just a shadow of its perfect from (Plato 514a-518b), concluding that reason is humankind’s insight into perfection. In addition, Aristotle’s views on reason, also demonstrates its prevalence at the time. According to Aristotle, rationality is ‘divine and impersonal’ (Russell 167) and if used correctly allows one to become immortal: ‘man must, so far as we can, make ourselves immortal, and strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best thing in us [reason]; for even if it be small in bulk, much more does it in power and worth surpass everything’ (Aristotle 1177b). Russell claims that the...
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