Europe was labouring under the weight of a socio-political system when Enlightenment dawned on it in the 17th and 18th centuries. Most European countries had a hierarchical system with the King or the Queen occupying the top position claiming to have derived his/her power directly from none other than God. Then there were the priests of the Church who not only brought God’s power to the King or the Queen but also enjoyed a lot of benefits of that power in their own royal ways. Below the clergy reclined the aristocrats. All these three together sucked the blood of the common people who did all the work and paid all the taxes.
The philosophers who questioned this system usually belonged to the aristocratic classes. But they possessed the sensitivity to feel the inhumanity of the system. Thus Rousseau (1712-1778) lamented the chains that shackled man everywhere. The encyclopaedists redefined ‘political authority’ and ‘natural liberty’. The coeditor of the Encyclopaedia, Denis Diderot, is assumed to have said that salvation would arrive when “the last King was strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” Locke, Montesquieu and others asserted that the ultimate object of government was to promote the happiness and dignity of the individual.
These philosophers inspired the French Revolution with its motto of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. The Revolution changed Europe radically. Eventually, after much violence and bloodshed, democracy replaced the monarchies in Europe. Every individual became important.
Two centuries after the Enlightenment, today we stand in need of another Enlightenment. Democracy stands in need of some Saviour. Democracy today has become the handmaiden of the politician and the trader. The politician of today is the equivalent of the monarch of the old regime in Europe and the trader is the equivalent of the clergy.
When Adam Smith argued for capitalism, he thought that self-interest would work for the common good. “By giving free rein to individual greed and the private accumulation of wealth, the ‘invisible hand’ of the market would benefit society in the end, a formula sometimes characterized by the seemingly paradoxical aphorism ‘private vice yields public virtue’” [David S. Mason wrote about Smith, A Concise History of Modern Europe]. Now we are left with private vices without public virtue.
And there are no philosophers left to inspire another revolution, it seems. Or, maybe, philosophers have joined the traders.