The enlightenment and “pleasure”

“The Enlightenment was convinced, as Bayle wrote, that basic to the human temperament was ‘our natural inclination to seek pleasure.’ In reaction to the religious view that in this life and under its veil of tears a virtuous person lived a life of self-denial and privation, Enlightenment writers emphasized enjoyment and happiness, not the least of which was sensual pleasure. How better to ridicule the asceticism and self-denial preached by religion than to mock it in sexual fantasy. So it was that the eighteenth century is the fountain of modern pornography, be it the Marquis de Sade or John Cleland’s Fanny Hill. Montesquieu, Diderot, and even Franklin wrote their share as well. In his Encyclopédie entry on ‘Enjoyment’ (jouissance), Diderot praised sexual pleasure as the most noble of passions. To the ‘perverse man’ who takes offense at this praise ‘I would evoke Nature before him, I would make it speak, and Nature would say to him: why do you blush to hear the word pleasure pronounced, when you do not blush to indulge in its temptations under the cover of night.'”


The origins of “society” during the enlightenment

“From the Greeks to James Harrington in the seventeenth century (not to mention for his followers among American revolutionaries), extremes of riches and poverty were opposed, but as a matter of the stability of the commonwealth, not as a matter of justice, and not in the name of material equality. It was essentially not until the eighteenth century in Europe that anything like distributive justice within political order, whether aiming at sufficiency or equality, became widely conceivable.

When this finally occurred, the credibility of a politics of obligatory sufficiency competed with the credibility of a politics of obligatory equality almost from the first. What followed in the invention of ideals of modern distributive justice was one of the fundamental shifts in our understanding of how human beings ought to live among one other at any scale. Like so many other discontinuities in the eighteenth century, this one took place as the social realm became something distinct. Before, the notion of ‘society’ had been precluded by visions that prioritized God or nature as suprahuman authorities to which humans must conform, and political regimes were defined according to their relation to divine plan or natural law. The Enlightenment inventors of a new understanding of humanity insisted, by contrast, that the structure of social institutions does most to determine a people’s way of life, including what they believe about the divine and what sort of political authority they embrace. There was ‘a fundamental transformation in what might be called the vocabulary of human relations during the period.’ The newly coined notion of ‘society’, described ‘an entity which did not owe its existence to any religious or political authority or indeed to any principle external to itself.’ It signified a profound transformation in how Europeans ‘imagined the world around them: from a perspective in which the human terrestrial order was seen as subordinated to exterior (particularly divine) determinations, to one in which it was seen as autonomous and self-regulating.’ And before ‘society,’ there was no possibility of ‘social justice.'”

Diderot, Kant and “Enlightenment dialogue”

“Diderot therefore exemplifies another major enlightenment preoccupation: curiosity. All periods exhibit curiosity about some issues. But the Enlightenment, unlike earlier periods, valued curiosity itself. In late antiquity, Saint Augustine had deemed curiosity a vice. But Immanuel Kant’s famous essay “What Is Enlightenment?” (1784) challenged people to follow their own understanding wherever it might lead. “The motto of enlightenment,” Kant declared, “is…Sapere aude! [Dare to know!] Have courage to use your own understanding!” Perhaps no one lived out this creed more boldly than Diderot. He and his fellow Enlightenment philosophers valued the companionable exchange of ideas in spontaneous conversation as the highest form of discourse. This is one reason Diderot chose the rambling philosophical dialogue as his trademark genre, Enlightenment dialogue is not just an exchange of views, but a collaborative project in which participants open them selves to each other’s points of view. Implicit in this free-ranging, exploratory form is the assumption—not shared universally by intellectuals of preceding periods—that innovation is at least potentially a good thing.”