The Enlightenment view of history

Ancient writers, both classical and biblical, assumed that the essential patterns of life remained identical and therefore that history provided lasting models for instruction and imitation. Hence the search for historical prototypes of current customs and institutions. Legendary founders of cities, ancestors of existing professions, prehistorical legislators, and establishers of rituals were believed to grant them legitimacy. This belief in tradition persisted among Christians, even though the coming of Christ divided their time into two distinct periods. The basic relation between past and present remained constant, except for the unique event of the Incarnation that had set a new beginning and a new end to history.

The scientific revolution of the seventeenth century undermined this stable concept of time. The abrupt change it caused in the modern worldview suggested that time was pregnant with novelty and directed toward the future rather than repeating the past. The new orientation was supported by a philosophy that viewed the person as the source of meaning and value and hence capable of changing the course of history. The modern conception of history resulted in two quite different attitudes toward the past. Some, beginning with Descartes and all those primarily interested in the scientific achievements of their age, felt that the study of the past could contribute little to the scientific enterprise. For others, however, a more accurate knowledge of the past formed an integral part of that comprehensive renewal of knowledge introduced by the scientific revolution. Thus, David Hume regarded the study of history as essential to the study of human nature, the basis of all scientific knowledge. Some historians, such as Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Gibbon, were convinced that a solid acquaintance with the past was to vindicate the changes of the present.

Louis Dupré (2004) The Enlightenment and the Intellectual Foundations of Modern Culture, p. 187-188

February 8, 2024