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The Enlightenment as fuel

If the Magna Carta was the ignition for liberal democracy, the Enlightenment was the fuel that has powered it through the journey. Where the Magna Carta was politically driven and therefore narrow in its inception, the Enlightenment was an intellectual movement that totally and radically redefined the relationship of the individual to the state, the church, and other institutions of authority.

It advocated science over religion, reason over faith, individuality over communal fiat, and questioning over subservience. These were radical views in the late 18th- to early 19th-century Europe where these ideas were first formally propounded. It was a society that was still steeped in mysticism, religious dogma, and autocratic rule—much like the rest of the world.

Not surprisingly, the Enlightenment—especially its radical expression—had a rough beginning. It was despised and rejected not just by governments and the church, but also by universities, academics, and even the press.8 Its advocates—largely fringe intellectuals— were fiercely persecuted and driven underground for what were deemed subversive ideas. Jonathan Israel summed it up thus:

Vast energy was invested by governments, churches, universities, erudite journals, lawyers, and scientific academies, not to mention the Inquisition and guardians of press censorship, in seeking to prevent, or at least curb, the growing seepage of radical ideas into the public sphere—and eventually the popular

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But ultimately the suppression failed. The Enlightenment gradually took hold in the minds of the broader intelligentsia and ultimately the masses. Its logic was compelling. Well, at least in principle, though not always in practice. The gap between principles and practice explains enduring contradictions, such as the disenfranchisement of minorities and women.

And so, the Enlightenment continues to generate contestations. Its boundaries remain under contention. What is the place of religion in public life? What are the limits of individual rights? What lifestyles must society formally accord its blessings? In effect, the ethos of the Enlightenment is still evolving and being challenged everywhere. Yet, its trajectory is certain. And that’s what inspired Fukuyama to foresee global convergence in political philosophy and hence “the end of history.”

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