Obviously, if there was an enlightenment at a certain point in the timeline of the European history, it had to come as a reaction to a darker period of the human existence. Indeed, we often refer to the Dark Ages of the medieval history which, tradition informs us, ended with the English Civil Wars and the Glorious Revolution. And just a few decades later the first Grand Lodge in London has been formed. Recently I was in a lodge when fifty and sixty years pins were presented to some older brothers of ours – which means those fifty years of new era could have happened during the lifetime of a person.
What are those lights that we commonly refer to with a celebratory tone when we mention Enlightenment? How did they shape the course of the European history and the way we think about the world and ourselves? These are – or should be – the questions to ask if we want to grasp the importance of the new paradigm that came to define not only our Masonic experiences but also the ideals and notions of government that our society and our country is based upon. Actually, most of what we refer to as “Western societies and culture” are based exactly on those ideas inherited from this era of the light.
Most historians put the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment between 1650 and early 1700s. This is also the period when many individual lodges with “speculative” or “accepted” masons are already in existence in England, Scotland and Ireland. This is also the period when very educated men, scientists of the era, started to get together to form what later became the Royal Society, which practically is, up till today, the Academy of Science of UK. Regarding the importance of this society and the ideas discussed there it should suffice to say that Isaac Newton was its president, right during the period of the official start of Freemasonry, namely between 1703-1727.
Similarly in the same period we have on the continent the creation of the famous Encyclopaedia in France by a group of men dedicated to science and arts – as the title of those tomes says. They really aimed to change the way people think, they wanted to teach people about their natural rights, they questioned the hereditary and “divine” authority in politics and society, and professed the equality of all the citizens. All in the name of reason. Today we find all that the norm, it’s normal, we take it for granted, including people’s right to consent to their government in form of a social contract. But what today seems to be the normal and obvious thing, it was a dangerous idea then!
In the European Christian world big changes were happening as well: the Reformation started around 200 years before the formation of the first Grand Lodge in London, and by this time there were already many different factions and denominations with various interpretations of the tenets of Christian theology, like the divine providence, predestination, essence of the trinity and many others. A great number of the important thinkers and leaders of those times were deists (who believe in an initial Creator who doesn’t mingle in the everyday life of the man) or even atheists or agnostics who didn’t believe in a Supreme Being.
This is the era when everything is questioned. The European man re-discovers the traditions of the Roman civitas (from where our word citizen derives), the power based on the community of conscious people, an idea perfected in the ancient Greek city states, mainly the Athens: demos – the people rules, it is the democracy. For the hierarchical societies where the possibilities of the individual are strictly defined by birthrights, the fraternity of equal brethren dealing with the sciences of the time… is quite dangerous.