Daily Archives: October 22, 2006

The Enlightenment and Universal Law

I just told my class a few weeks ago that the European Enlightenment was characterized by, among many other things, a healthy skepticism for dogmatism, a rejection of blind authority to traditional sources of power and knowledge, an openness to different ideas and opinions from the New World and beyond, and a driving curiosity to explore selfhood and subjectivity (seen best in the 18c novel, via Locke).

But just the other day we were reading Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Man,” and I heard myself telling the same students that the poem is a representative Enlightenment text for its assertive appeals to Universal Truth and an unchanging “Nature” (human and otherwise) that parallels Newton’s “laws” of gravity and physics and the subsequent confidence in the culture at large that God’s ways could finally be explained as a function of Reason.

So which is it? Is Pope’s poem an Enlightenment text for its foundation in Unchanging Universal Truth, or is it a kind of anti-Enlightenment text for its completely trusting capitulation to an (albeit Reasonable) God and its refusal to acknowledge that different people might have different angles on Truth?