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The Enlightenment: Giving Start to Equality Essay

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Updated: Jul 8th, 2021

Introduction to the Issue

The Enlightenment, which is also referred to as the Age of Reason, is linked to the significant historical changes that occurred between the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The ideas inherent to the philosophy of the Enlightenment changed the course of history and gave rise to the French Revolution and the start of the Constitution of the United States, human rights, and the pursuit of equality around the world. Discussing the idea of equality within the context of Enlightenment is considered essential because modern society is still struggling with reaching the desired level of social justice and equal treatment.

The great thinkers of the Enlightenment movement considered themselves as irreplaceable contributors to illuminating the human intellect and culture after the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. During these periods, the power of the Catholic Church gained extreme leverage and infiltrated every part of politics, life, including the monarchy of most European countries. The rise of such ideas as liberty, reason and the scientific method encouraged society to think about the ways in which some people were treated, thus starting considerations of equality within and between societies. Thus, despite the fact that the history of humankind had to undergo many more changes and developments since the Enlightenment, the period should be seen as the starting point to discussions on equality.

Inequality Before the Enlightenment: Gender Issues

The secularization of learning, universal education, individual liberty, and the separation of church and state was the principal concepts of the Enlightenment, developing a certain philosophy and a worldview. It was believed that the application of reason to every aspect of life could help people break free from irrationality and ignorance and through learning start acting reasonably. Inequality between social layers was one of the unreasonable aspects that prevailed before the Enlightenment.

One of the most pressing equality problems that existed in the Middle Ages, which preceded the revolution of thought, was linked to the treatment of women. When speaking of Europe of that time, most people in medieval times inhabited small rural communities, predominantly making money from the land. Women were responsible for taking care of the family, preparing food, and tending to the livestock. One of the key symbols that accompanied the depiction of a medieval woman was the distaff, a tool used for spinning wool and flax. Thus, women were seen as fulfillers of a distinct domestic purpose and nothing beyond.

The thinkers of the Enlightenment thought that all aspects of human life should be aimed at increasing reason and knowledge instead of eliciting emotion. However, in the Middle Ages, women were considered inferior to men due to feelings evoked from the Bible. It was believed that Eve was created from Adam’s rib and ate the forbidden fruit, which led to the expulsion of men from paradise. Because of this, a woman was seen as the embodiment of sin – they were morally weaker and responsible for tempting men into committing sinful acts.

During the Renaissance, women did not experience any significant improvements in treatment; however, some changes in gender roles based on class took place. The historical period was referred to as the “flowering of urban culture between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries” and implied the introduction of a new consciousness (Reilly 258). However, women still did not experience the deserved level of respect and dignity. For example, women from low social classes were seen as housewives and had to fulfill their responsibilities in the house. Working-class women were expected to help their husbands run their businesses while upper-class women had servants and other employees working for them. Notably, women could not work by themselves or live alone if they were single. Therefore, the lack of options that women had continued in the Renaissance.

The Enlightenment attempted to abandon such a myth, initiating the first attempts of discussing their equal status to men. John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Adam Smith, and David Hume debated issues of gender equality. For instance, John Locke argued for the same education for both young boys and girls, making a little allowance for beauty disciplines and a few other considerations. In addition, the philosopher had no objections to women being ministers or having political power and praised the influence of the Queen Mary and Elizabeth to which he referred to in respectful terms. Therefore, some of the aspects of early feminism, which could never have been born in the Middle Ages when women were seen as beacons of original sin. While feminism as a movement started gaining momentum in the 1830s, the earliest considerations regarding gender equality should be attributed to the Enlightenment (Reilly 307).

Enlightenment and Global Inequality

Focusing on the subject of global equality and inequality in the discussion about Enlightenment is essential because it also divided the philosophers of the eighteenth century as well as modern-day commentators and critics. The universalistic claims that the proponents of the movement put forward gave rise to the mono-cultural worldview, which eventually spawned the civilizing mission of the European colonial powers. The worldview of the natural equality of all human beings on the planet was similar to a utopia. However, within such philosophy, the authority of the enlightened and those who possess an intellectual advantage over others was given authority on a global scale. Moreover, the equality of non-European citizens was seen as a receding target, suggesting that it was not the time yet for them to become equal to Europeans. This points to the elevation of the role of Western countries in shaping the course of modern history within the Enlightenment philosophy.

If applied to the modern liberal context, the values of Enlightenment are those that champion the core principles of equality and liberty. As a repository of such values, the movement provided a framework of moral and intellectual foundations of the liberal-democratic civilization. Furthermore, it is believed that those belonging to ‘other cultures’ cannot be considered equal to Westerners unless they become enlightened – abandon religious superstitions or adhere to the liberal set of values that most countries in Europe or Northern America share. Therefore, Enlightenment was considered the core of modernity; it was both desirable and unavoidable.

Answering the question of whether the economic and political revolution brought by the Enlightenment led to more or less inequality, it is imperative to consider the rationale with which the philosophers of that time explained slavery and racism. Both were institutionalized and enabled the representatives of a superior social class to impose power upon others. As written by Randolph, “sometimes the poor slave takes courage to ask his master to let him pray, and is driven away, with the answer, that if discovered praying, his back will pay the bill.” Such a sentiment was also shared by Turner who revolted against slavery due to the poor treatment.

Even Immanuel Kant said that compared to whites, Indians (meaning – citizens of India) were not talented enough and that Blacks were the lowest of all American people. It was also recounted that the philosopher dismissed an opinion given to him by a person of color because his skin color was clear proof that what he said was not worth any attention. Today, such an opinion would be challenged and criticized; moreover, it does not mean that the Enlightenment as a movement was inherently racist. It just shows that mistakes were made and that not all proponents of the movement were true advocates for equality.

As slavery was established before the conception of the Enlightenment as a movement, it did not end with the social and political liberation of the West. As written by Douglass, “you have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.” Later, when slavery as an institution was declining, racial distinctions associated with discrimination assumed great significance (Reilly 336). This means that while the Enlightenment gave the start to a discussion about equality among people in a global society, no indications of complete abolishment and discrimination were present.

Globalization and Social Inequality

The links between social equality and globalization have been heavily debated. Globalization was brought by the industrial revolution, which was associated with a significant increase in production and the use of machinery and new technologies (“Coal, Steam, and The Industrial Revolution”). While it was believed that the elimination of barriers between nations would decrease the extent of inequality, the opposite effect was witnessed. Inequality matters both across and within countries, especially in regards to developing countries where communities are more likely to witness unequal opportunities, injustice, and insider privilege. This is linked directly to economic theory, which explains that inadequate education and weak credit markets enable the rich and the powerful to take advantage of the investment opportunities. An example of this is Latin America, where the high land concentration and the low concentration of income limited the opportunities of education and developed a very small middle class, dependent on the state, and a largely poor and near-poor lower classes. Thus, the most powerful social segments hold most of the wealth, leading to increased income gaps within most countries.

In regions that were considered lucky to inherit the equal distribution of land and political impulse, such as East Asia, governments invested in health and education, thus encouraging the development of the middle class on the basis of smallholder agriculture and technology-based manufacturing. Thus, the rate of inequality among citizens of such countries was lower than in Latin America. However, if compared on a global scale, there is a significant gap in inequality of opportunity and outcome in Latin and East Asian countries.

Globalization increased inequality because global markets are dis-equalizing in their nature and such would increase inequality in developing countries a greater possibility. In the environment of free markets, there are several reasons why globalization increased inequality instead of decreasing it. For example, the large economic gains linked to efficient global markets are not shared by all participants. Markets only reward those economies that possess the correct assets, such as financial and human capital or entrepreneurial skills. Thus, only the accomplished countries increase multiply wealth with the help of globalization. Since social equality among people is directly tied to financial well-being, it must be concluded that globalization did not play a decisive role in the distribution of equal opportunities and outcomes for people.

Concluding Thoughts

The links between the Enlightenment and the global strive for equality are undeniable. In the Middle Ages, all aspects of social life were guided by the Church. The emotional attachment to sin and wrongdoing made people scared of thinking independently. Because of the Bible, women were considered sources of original sin and were diminished in their roles in society. The Enlightenment attempted to elevate the fear and encourage society to use learning as the primary source of decision-making. The movement in support of scientific thinking spread across the Western world and initiated such important developments as the US Constitution and the French Revolution.

Nevertheless, despite the expectations that the industrial and scientific modernization brought by the Enlightenment would elevate the burden of inequality, history suggests that humanity had a long way to go for reaching equality to its full degree. There is evidence suggesting that even the greatest thinkers of the Enlightenment, such as John Locke, were racially biased and considered Westerners as ‘enlightened’ and thus superior to other populations. In regards to globalization, social and wealth gaps between and within countries increased based on the principles of free trade. This was linked to the fact that free-market models rewarded only those fortunate states to have technological and financial resources, leaving the less fortunate behind and without any opportunities for growth. Overall, discussions on the Enlightenment and its impact on global society are relevant to this day, and it is imperative not to underestimate such an influence.

Works Cited

YouTube, uploaded by Crash Course, Web.

Douglass, Frederick. Vgskole, Web.

Randolph, Peter. Vgskole, Web.

Reilly, Kevin. The Human Journey: A Concise Introduction to World History, 1450 to the Present. Rowman & Littlefield, 2019.

Turner, Nat. Vgskole, Web.

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