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The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw astonishing philosophical changes which led to life and society-changing political and literary fall-out.
Understanding French literature and historical events of the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries is greatly enhanced if one has at least some knowledge of these philosophical influences.
In the pages below I will by no means attempt to present a detailed analysis of every philosophical concept or movement of these times, but rather an overview giving a general idea of the concepts and progression from Plato's Idealism, through the Enlightenment Movement, to Existentialism.
PLATO AND IDEALISM
According to Plato, all knowledge is innate and is "brought out" by physical experience. Our purpose is to gain knowledge through The Forms, the ultimate form of abstract notions such as Truth and Beauty. As we experience life, we are able to judge these experiences, or make sense of them, by comparing them to our innate knowledge of the appropriate Form.
Truth is achieved through the spirit and knowledge of the Forms, which is superior to physical experience, as the senses cannot be trusted. Senses can be duped or simply mistaken, and so cannot be used to affirm knowledge - this is achieved by means of the spirit and knowledge of the Forms. Thus ultimate reality should be regarded as spiritual rather than physical.
What is spiritual is eternal, and what is physical is temporary. Thus Plato has established the great spiritual/physical divide where physical experience should be regarded as merely a means to spiritual development.
When you add to this Plato's belief in reincarnation and his conviction that man is involved in a continual process of spiritual refinement in which he may move on to a further stage of development or be regressed if he has not achieved a sufficient standard of spiritual development, it is clear that we have the basis for morality and religion in the modern "civilised" world.
BEGINNINGS OF ENLIGHTENMENT
Plato's philosophy continued to exercise great influence on thought, religion, politics and life in general for several centuries, until authors such as John Locke and David Hume (seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, respectively) issued a challenge in the form of reason and scepticism.
Through the course of the centuries education remained a mainly ecclesiastical province, and as such was protected from challenge or independent thought. Nonetheless, education began to spread beyond the cloisters as the nobility and others upon whom the clergy was dependent, insisted on education for their members, and with it began thought and philosophy which was not restricted by clerical doctrine.
Completely opposed to Idealism, the supporters of Scepticism took the view that all knowledge came from the senses, and indeed was quite dependent upon them.
They rejected the view that knowledge was innate and developed an ontology by which all knowledge could be explained by sensory perception and intelligence. This, of course, had the effect of doing away with the necessity of spiritual intervention and therefore undermined religious teachings.
It must be emphasised what a major departure from accepted religious and political credence this represented. The church, in the guise of The Holy Roman Empire, was not just a religious movement, it had become the accepted political ruler as well, since education was largely restricted to the religious orders. To challenge religious thought was therefore also to challenge the political masters, whose authority was based on religious doctrine.
These early writings won considerable favour with free thinkers and those who wished to take advantage of any criticism of the established order. The movement gathered pace and became the Enlightenment Movement where the essential difference from the preceding philosophies was its use of reason rather than faith or idealism.
Basically the philosophy behind the Enlightenment Movement challenged the necessity for God's existence and certainly the part He plays in the building of our knowledge.
Scepticism forms the basis for the Enlightenment Movement. The theory goes that in order to achieve certain knowledge we must rid ourselves of all thoughts and ideas about which we have any doubt. What remains after this process of refinement is what we know.
It is suggested that we should doubt the very existence of God - we should look around us and form conclusions about life from the evidence presented to us through the senses rather than hypothesise such conclusions based on unproven beliefs and theories.
There were of course considerable differences within the movement. Some philosophers such as David Hume and John Locke demanded that reason and moderation be the watchwords, and that we should cast aside notions that could not be supported by any means other than reason, thus directly challenging the necessary existence of God. For others such as Voltaire, God the creator existed, but not the omnipotent, omniscient God of the Bible and the Church. Descartes used the method of scepticism to prove (he thought) the existence of an infinite God. Rousseau was much more practical and set about outlining a model of civilisation not dependent on God and traditional morality.
The variety of conclusion is immense, but the overall effect of challenging the authority of those in power was to diminish automatic respect and to establish an increasing insistence on accountability.
Philosophy may usually be regarded as remote and obscure, having little to do with everyday life, but in the case of the Enlightenment Movement nothing could be farther from the truth.
Since these ideas were translated directly into political terms, the effects were almost immediate and striking.
Incensed by injustice and starvation, the largely peasant population of France needed little more than the suggestion that it was perfectly legitimate to challenge the authority of their rulers. The French Revolution was undoubtedly ignited by the ideas of the Enlightenment. In a similar way, though on a much smaller scale, the mutiny on the Bounty (in the same year) can be regarded as the embodiment of the principles of the Enlightenment Movement, as the sailors no longer meekly accepted the judgement and decisions of those who held authority over them. Justice was not seen to be done, and ordinary men felt justified in demanding that their voice be heard.
Just over a century after the Revolution there came the Dreyfus Affair which almost ripped the French Republic apart as the population sided either with the authorities, or with the Jewish officer accused of treason on the flimsiest of evidence. Once again, but more clearly still, there came the demand for accountability.
The movement had a profound effect on literature, with, for example "Les Miserables" examining the plight of the poor and questioning the wisdom of blind faith. Charles Baudelaire wrote a series of magnificent poems vividly describing the spiritual torture of believing man to be free of morality, and indulging in physical pleasures, and yet wishing for something more meaningful than the emptiness of such indulgences.
Existentialism is the twentieth century extension of the Enlightenment Movement.
Where the Enlightenment challenged and doubted God and morality, existentialism denies their existence.
If God and morality do not exist then man is alone and free, except that this freedom imposes its own constraints. If man is free then it is wrong to deprive him of that freedom, and this extends to influencing others in their lives and the choices they make.
It often appears to me that while mankind has vaguely accepted the notion that God and morality may not exist (and behaves accordingly), mankind has not yet embraced the "moral conclusion" of existentialism, i.e. that it brings with it a code of conduct and responsibility which invite the individual to assume responsibility for oneself and one's actions by respecting the freedom of others. This notion is at least as powerful as codes of conduct based on religion, and may even be more so and more pervasive as it is based on common humanity, understanding and compassion rather than dogma and faith.
Elements of this philosophy can be seen in "Les Miserables" and many other major works of literature in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with writers such as Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir making major contributions to the cause of existentialism, promoted also by the experiences of millions during the second world war.
French cinema of the thirties and forties was also greatly influenced, and produced such classics as "La Grande Illusion", "Le jour se leve", "Les Enfants du Paradis" and "Le Salaire de la Peur" (50s).
The American cinema of the forties was also heavily influenced, especially in the film noir detective genre, with films such as "The Big Sleep", "The Maltese Falcon" and "To Have and to Have Not".
The influence continues today and can be seen in a great variety of films and literature, though the effect is much less shocking now.
Existentialism in society today
It seems to me that in the wake of the two World Wars there was a general upsurge in the principles of equality, justice, democracy and fraternity. Naturally, changes were far from instantaneous, but the old order (based primarily on class superiority, assumed authority and position) was challenged and largely overhauled due principally to a spirit of entitlement, openness and impartiality in recognition of the fact that members from across the spectrum of society had defended its fundamental values and then participated in its post-war reconstruction.
This may be viewed as a practical embodiment of the philosophy and values upheld by the Enlightenment Movement wherein the principles of equality, reason and accountability are held paramount.
However, as time passed and the direct threat of injustice and subjugation for all mostly subsided, the intense flames of the fight for freedom and integrity calmed to mere embers and a large swathe of people have come to adopt an almost existential acceptance of political, social and commercial chicanery (perpetrated by those unfettered by a sense of rectitude and responsibility for impacting on others’ lives), provided the quality of their own lives remains intact or is even improved.
Schemes and conspiracies have been conducted behind the scenes, often involving hardship and injustice for many who oil the machinery of such commercial enterprises and political machinations, while maintaining a façade of political and commercial correctness and legitimacy which most are more than willing to accept.
As one-time military and political conquests and subjugations have been insidiously replaced by commercial acquisition and financial control, values and principles once considered worth defending are in danger of being invisibly but steadily eradicated, swallowed by an existential fog of self-centred apathy and abandonment. Careerism and hedonism appear to be steadily replacing professionalism and purpose, yet apparent impassivity, lack of direction and lack of positive action are being recognised and rejected by some and this is evidenced by a trend toward independence and self-determination. This is born of frustration and discontent in the face of apparent inability or unwillingness on the part of governing bodies to tackle ongoing urgent social, political and economic issues, exacerbated by the perception that an influential minority seems to actually gain through their protraction.
In the past, when people faced common external issues and threats (crushing social injustice leading to the French Revolution, industrialisation and its attendant social pressures and reforms, and attempted subjugation leading to two World Wars), they united to fight for a cause, for values and for a common purpose, reflecting the spirit of the Enlightenment Movement.
However, after the immediate post-war period there followed a turbulent period in the sixties and seventies, characterised by confrontation over workers' rights, conditions and wages, social and political upheaval, huge economic pressures and rising unemployment. As a result, there was a return to more conservative policies in the eighties, involving the re-establishment of traditional working practices and an emphasis on market freedom, and the suggestion that the individual should act in his/her own best interests, with the view that this would strengthen society overall. This philosophy was reflected in the famous line "Greed is good" in the film Wall Street (1987).
Today, it might be said the problems we face are increasingly internal as we encounter political, administrative, financial and socially divisive issues. We appear to have lost the perspective of "the bigger picture" and focus instead on individual satisfaction, maintaining our own standard of living or making our way in the society we have built. We appear to be losing sight of values, purpose and the common good, opting instead for a self-centred path toward "success". This may be said to reflect the spirit of existentialism wherein the existence of God, morality and principles are refuted and we are invited to think only of ourselves and the place we can make for ourselves in society.
This attitude has led to inward-looking and defensive governance, administration and law-making which conceal inaction, indifference and lack of comprehension and empathy and this has, in turn, led to frustration and discontent, causing some to want to break away from traditional and accepted government.
However, as I suggested previously, existentialism is not the same as nihilism. If we accept responsibility for one another and our impact on one another, we can achieve far more together than if we limit ourselves to what is best for individuals or small groups with shared interests.
Careerism, self-gratification and a blinkered outlook have insidiously crept in to our political and administrative systems and this has led to many sections of society feeling disenfranchised and willing to pursue change, any change, as an alternative to a system they feel has failed them. That is not, however, a reason to reject the structure itself. Structures and systems can be re-invigorated and re-imagined with fresh, practical and positive ideas put into practice by constructive and conscientious personnel resulting in tangible change and improvement for all instead of apparently incessant discussion and pompous focus on procedure and position resulting in inaction and indolence.
Threat and danger have previously united people in a common cause. Today need be no different, but now the threat lies within our society and the loss of perspective we have developed by encouraging members of society to focus on individual success. We need to develop an awareness of and a sense of responsibility toward others if we are to evolve as a society.
Even if principle, morality and values have no celestial authority, the concept exists and therefore we can create, adopt and enforce values when dealing with fellow human beings. Success does not necessarily mean self-serving. While a degree of selfishness may be required to inspire or stimulate action, that action should ultimately serve others if it is to have any lasting value, and that precept may be seen as one of the corner-stones of a healthy and enduring society.To my page on Existentialism in the Cinema.
The films of Luc Besson provide an interesting take on society and life, combining his reflections with action, adventure and humour.
My thanks for taking the time to read this page.
Stuart Fernie (email@example.com)
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