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Lecture 2c: Scottish Enlightenment

February 7, 2014

This is more or less the essence of deism. Whereas in the old order, the good is the fact of standing in a certain relation to God through contemplation of his being, loving him, serving him or merely being in his presence, the good for humanity is now framed in terms of human happiness and makes reference essentially to goods in the world. In other words, the vision of good is self-contained or immanent to the material world. It is not that God is absent from this world, but rather that good is defined in creaturely terms, not in those of the divine. There is no reference to a beyond except in terms of future rewards or punishments, and even these are merely more intense, projected variations on those terms that we know already in this world. Moreover, these future rewards and punishments serve merely to secure the improved functioning of the interlocking system here on earth. What we have, in the end, proves to be a non-theocentric conception of the good. Certainly, humans still need to love God to be good, but that good is itself human happiness. In contrast with classical systems of morality, there is no higher moral activity for which we must strive. In short, humans love in order to be happy. In this way, we see the four theses of the last class, modified, retained and updated.

1.) Deism or theological providence: The world is a machine with interlocking parts, designed by a benevolent creator to serve humanity by promoting individual happiness and the common good. Beings pursue the good of the whole because a.) it is in their own interest and 2.) their natural emotions push them to do so.

2.) Affirmation of ordinary life: As each being’s role is vital to the machine’s workings, no part is more important or holier than another, and, thus, no life or person is more valuable than another. Everyday emotions are a guide to our part in this machine.

3.) Materialism: If the world is a cosmic machine designed to promote happiness, then its purpose consists in providing sustenance to humanity. Things in the world are neutral matter serving to sustain humanity.

4.) Technical progress: If the world is a cosmic machine, then knowledge and science consist in using reason to understand the machine and change the material world to improve its workings.

This is all good and well, but we must be careful not to label Shaftesbury a deist. Why is this case? In general, Shaftesbury thinks that love of God is not enough to set us on the path to happiness, for we still need God’s grace. This grace constitutes an extra dimension outside the human realm of affirmation and activity, and it is only with the removal of this extra dimension that we move into full-fledged deism. Even if Shaftesbury thinks that God sets us up to fulfill our natural desires and feelings so as to be happy, this is not enough, for God will still have to set us on the right path.

As I mentioned before, it is only with the Scottish Enlightenment that the extra dimension of the divine is full removed, for even Locke considers humans have a fallen nature in some sense and are in need of a push from God. Through this, we can see to what extent 2.) has influenced 1.). The question remains: where do 3.) and 4.) come in on the present picture?

Broadly speaking, we can say that there are two ways in which the extra dimension of the divine is suppressed. The first of these is through the process above whereby we no longer have need of divine grace. The second owes to the role that instrumental reason has to play in this interlocking system that makes up the world. For us to make use of our reason in reliable fashion, once God has set in place a particular universal order, intervening in particular cases can only serve to rob us of our ability to anticipate and use reason to further the workings of that order or system. More simply, we count on the set way of things in order to be agents within and of that system. Therefore, there can be no divine interventions so as to upset that order and our place within it. Yet miracles are just such phenomena of this kind. Therefore, with the disappearance of miracles from the picture of the world goes the extra dimension previously maintained in that everything now becomes historical. God has become separated or cut off from the world, and the miraculous has disappeared from our age. The new emphasis on reliable cause and effect and induction within the framework of the cosmic order means that things necessarily change and can be changed.

c. Scottish Enlightenment – How do we get here and what does it hold?

First, we should get clear on a number of terms. What is Enlightenment? Generally speaking, we can identify this as a humanist and rationalist perspective in which there is entailed the fundamental importance of human reason and a rejection of authority that cannot be justified by reason. In its Scottish variant, this is also paired with an optimistic belief in the ability of humanity to change society and nature for the better through the use of reason and the tools that accrue to it therethrough. Still within this Scottish localization, we find that there is a strong emphasis on empiricist outlooks and practicality where keys included improvement, virtue and practical benefit for the individual and society.

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