Thus, for some on both Left and Right today, “the enlightenment” stands as proxy for “Western civilization”. If you’re on the Right, this “civilization” would be under threat from Leftist forces. If you’re from some elements of the Left, it would be a wholly dark legacy which we should criticize, en bloc, in order to somehow transform, en bloc.
The enlightenment the lumières (as they were styled) hoped to achieve through their encyclopedias, dictionaries, plays, novels and stories was one which would hence cultivate new ways of thinking, less prone to the kinds of collective, mad superstitions that would lead a man like Jean Calas, as late as 1762, to be hanged by a Catholic mob in Toulouse on the false pretense that he had wanted to stop his boy converting to the One True Faith.
How to do this, if not by writing story after story in which the main characters would be figures like Uzbek and Rica, Persian visitors to Paris who can’t get over how weird, in places almost crazy, 1720s Catholic France appears to them (Montesquieu’s Persian Letters); how weird but liberal England looks to a Frenchman in exile and how backwards France appears in comparison (Voltaire’s Letters on the English); how ridiculously proud and miniscule our species’ sense of cosmic centrality would look to civilizations advanced enough to conduct interstellar travel (Voltaire’s Micromegas); how unenlightened most people with sight appear compared to a blind man like Nicolas Saunderson, who could conduct geometry and teach mathematics at Cambridge without the capacity to see (Diderot’s Letter on the Blind, for the Use of Those Who Can See [great subtitle]); how unrealistic and needlessly cruel European marriage customs of the day were, when compared to the sexual norms of Tahitians (Diderot’s Supplement to Bougainville’s Voyage)?, and more.
Any reader of Diderot will soon discover that, in his interpolations to the very widely read History of Two Indies, he was the author of some of the most inflammatory attacks on the barbarism of Europeans’ violence against, and enslavement, of the peoples of other continents.
Any reader of the Encyclopedia will know that, in this central book of the enlightenment, alongside many articles written by clergy and establishment figures, there are also deeply impious criticisms of the established religion, Christianity, and an impassioned call for the end of the African slave trade as an abomination to “all religion, morals, natural law, and human rights”, a trade which, if it could be “justified by a moral principle, then there [could be] absolutely no crime, however atrocious, that cannot be legitimized.”