Matrix of Modernity

Roy Porter discusses how the British Enlightenment paved the way for the modern world.

This millennium year led historians to address moments in the past which represent epochs in human affairs. The Enlightenment comprised such a turning-point, since it secularised the world-view and trained eyes and attention towards the future. British thinkers played an influential part in this intellectual revolution – though that is a contribution often ignored or played down, by contrast to that of France.

In the eighteenth century, attention became focused, perhaps for the first time ever, on the future rather than the past, and the drive to create a better future generated a belief in progress. The achievements of scientists like Isaac Newton (1642-1727) and philosophers like John Locke (1632-1704) bred new faith in man’s right and power to achieve knowledge of himself and the natural world, and encouraged practical action in such fields as overseas exploration, technology, manufactures, social science and legal reform. Philosophers became committed to the ending of religious strife, bigotry, ignorance, prejudice and poverty, and the creation of polite new social environments and lifestyles.

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