Society as we know it has been forged over the course of millennia, it has been shaped and melded by movements and ideologies that range from the sweeping vistas of Ancient Athens to the steps of Pretoria. History has shown, beyond a shadow of a doubt that modern society worldwide was created primarily through two different movements separated by about three-hundred years of world history: “The Renaissance” and “The Enlightenment”.
The best place to start is with the Renaissance.
Even if you are not an historian or an academic for that matter there is a good chance that you have heard the term “Renaissance” before even if you did not fully understand it. The Renaissance was, effectively, the rediscovery of ‘ancient’ and ‘classical’ knowledge from the Greeks and Romans. The term “Renaissance” itself means “Rebirth” in French and this was exactly what the movement sought out to achieve; to invigorate a medieval society that was in a state of severe stagnation by the time the Renaissance dawned around the beginning of the sixteenth century. The Renaissance was triggered inadvertently by the Crusades, rather by returning Crusaders bringing back to Europe artifacts and documents from the Arab world, a world that had itself been influenced by the ancient world but unlike Europe had not thrown such knowledge away in the name of religion. There is almost an element of historical irony to this episode where medieval Europe, a notoriously xenophobic region at the time, ended up using the prowess and knowledge of ‘the other’ to further their own society. Through this rediscovery, or ‘rebirth’ if you would, Europe began expanding its borders through technology and intellectual breakthroughs. Among these breakthroughs was the emergence of the Protestant movement which posed a serious threat to the until then dominant Catholic church, a schism which remains to this day.
It was thanks to the Renaissance that Europe pulled itself out of its stagnation and began moving away from the medieval world towards what we would recognize as the early modern world.
The Renaissance however is only one piece of our societal puzzle.
The Enlightenment, here is where things get even more interesting!
The exact event which triggered what became known as “The Enlightenment” is hotly debated by historians to this day with some claiming that The Glorious Revolution of 1688 in England was the catalyst and others pointing to the American War of Independence of 1775. If the Renaissance was the rediscovery and integration of ‘classical’ knowledge then the Enlightenment was the extensive process of refining what had been rediscovered and putting it to practical use. The Enlightenment is an umbrella movement which cast its shadow across the many groundbreaking events and eras that took place between the late eighteenth century and the early twentieth century. The Enlightenment brought about great technological change, such as the development of advanced agriculture which finally defeated the medieval system of subsistence and the great advancements in ship building which allowed man to circumnavigate the globe in ways he had previously been unable to. The Enlightenment also brought a scientific understanding of the world and nature into prominence, completely shattering religious dogma and creationism in the process. Modern systems of education and especially universities would not exist as they do now if it was not for the Enlightenment which sought to encourage men to think for themselves and above all to share knowledge so that all of society could benefit.
Enlightenment thinkers such as Immanuel Kant and Thomas Jefferson believed that once people began thinking for themselves there would be little that could stop them.
In a way, the Enlightenment was also the final political stage of the Renaissance. Notions such as that of questioning arbitrary authority and governments being the servant of the people and not their master became ‘self-evident’. The United States Constitution (pictured being signed above) itself is perhaps the most famous piece of literature in history. It is also essentially the Enlightenment in writing with this famous sentence nearly summarizing the entire movement: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Ok, fair enough. The Americans got it wrong initially by owning slaves and not extending the rights they preached to everyone on American soil but the ideas were still good and would eventually come into practice universally. In fact, every single revolution, uprising, and new political thought that took place between 1775 and 1914 finds its roots in the Enlightenment. Napoleon Bonaparte was basically the Enlightenment personified, Guiseppe Mazzini and Garibaldi sought to bring a unified Italy into the Enlightened world, and even the works of Karl Marx were unquestionably influenced by the movement. This is not even going into the subject of imperialism which is essentially the practice of forcibly bringing the Enlightenment to ‘undeveloped’ countries.
Many would be content with concluding this study here but I feel that there is more to say…
I believe that we are in the “Age of Revelation”.
What do I mean by ‘Revelation’?
I mean that it is becoming increasingly clear that society is not content with the end result of the movements which have forged the world as it is. We are a society that has, with ever increasing impetus, changed many aspects of the modern world through the power of the collective. We are an enlightened people, a people that have withstood the tests of time and have come off the better for it. We know that we can do better than what we have and have proven this time and again.
We are the enlightened world in the midst of our revelation: the revelation that we can do better than this and we know it.
Centuries of history and progress has taken us this far and you can be sure that this generation will be making history again.