Darkness as a metaphor in the historiography of the Enlightenment

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Darkness as a metaphor in the historiography of the Enlightenment

By Janne Tunturi

Approaching Religion, Vol.1:2 (2011)

A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery - 18th century

Abstract: This paper concentrates on darkness as a metaphor in eighteenth century historical writing. In contrast to the celebration of light as a symbol of knowledge and progress, the interpretations of the meaning of darkness varied. For many historians, it symbolised backwardness, or decline, which culminated in medieval society. Yet, the relationship between eighteenth century historiography and the Middle Ages was not as explicit as the usual suspects such as Voltaire and Edward Gibbon suggest. First of all, the understanding of the culture or texts of the Dark Ages signalled the skilfulness of the interpreter. Secondly, some supposed features of the medieval culture, such the free use of the imagination, gradually became more appreciated.

The Enlightenment in the eighteenth century was a movement which renewed the world by adapting the rhetoric of Christianity and giving it a new meaning. From this viewpoint, the secularisation process can be seen to have reached its culmination in a reinterpretation of the Biblical dualism of light and darkness. In Christianity, the idea of truth is reflected the eternal light God has given humankind. This metaphor was gradually replaced by the idea of scientific truth, which illuminated the dark areas of human knowledge. The Enlightenment writers considered light as a symbol of progress, reason and tolerance. Their relationship with darkness became more complicated as they began to consider what it actually meant. This essay attempts to describe the various meanings of darkness in Enlightenment historiography.

My examples come from historical writing, which was a dominant genre in the literature of the eighteenth century. Almost everyone from David Hume to marquis de Condorcet aimed to write an interpretation of the origins and development of the Age of Light. The concept of ‘history’ was radicalised by defining it as a description of the processes leading to the modern use of reason. Clairvoyance or visual acuity was conceived of as the essential characteristic of the scientific spirit. Light symbolised the natural sciences, as well as the use of reason untrammelled by superstition and religion.

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See also Why the Middle Ages are called the Dark Ages

Sharan Newman