Difficult economic times have a tendency to get communities to pull into themselves. No light appears at the end of the tunnel, no dawn on the horizon. The longer we remain in such circumstances the easier it becomes to just go along to get along. Citizens pass by and acknowledge one another, but no sparks are kindled, no dreams established. Citizenship, even democracy, often succumbs and “goes dark” for a time.
But there are those who refuse to adopt the spirit of such an age and work relentlessly to bring new measures of hope and adaptability to society, ruminating in their minds about how best they can aid humanity. Famed Canadian author, Robertson Davies, wrote stories about such people, saying, “Extraordinary people survive under the most terrible circumstances and they become more extraordinary because of it.”
For one brief 20-year period (1735-1755) some of the “extraordinary” people refused to succumb to the difficult years previous and brought a remarkable amount of innovation to their generation – so much so that the word “optimism” was used for the first time in 1737.
The accomplishments began to unfold when Linnaeus named and classified all of known botany. The French naturalist Comte de Buffon systematized all of natural history into a 36-volume set. Thinkers like Voltaire, Montesquieu and Scotsman David Hume plumbed the depths of the nature of humanity and the moral foundations of law and science that it proposed to live by. We are all aware of Benjamin Franklin, his kite, and how he demonstrated electricity from lightning. Samuel Johnson, summoning up great individual effort, gave the English language its first dictionary. The first set of Encyclopedias was developed in France by Denis Diderot.
No less than 150 newspapers and journals circulated throughout England during those 20 years. The novel was first developed. At its first London performance, Handel’s Messiah created such a profound impression that by the time of “Hallelujah Chorus” at its conclusion, King George II rose to his feet, along with the rest of the audience – a tradition still practiced to this day. Someone destined to shape the progress of the American continent – Thomas Jefferson – was born during these years. Jean-Jacques Rousseau composed his Social Contract on the rights and responsibilities of self-government.
This list could go for a time yet, but just this cursory look reveals a remarkable era of innovation, social solidarity, spirituality, and knowledge that blossomed in what has been termed the Enlightenment. And what we discover is that much of the groundwork for these developments took place in the dark age that preceded their eventual unfolding. They worked through the days of despair in order to deliver to humanity a progressive view of itself.
These were the things that “appeared” over a two-decade period of time. But what is just as remarkable is what declined or disappeared as a result of that era. Child labour was eventually banished. The insane were delivered from the harsh treatment they historically received and provided more support. Death penalties were done away with or reduced. Perhaps most significant of all, a spark was lit that led to the abolition of slavery.
This last development reveals a clear sign of how humanity was looking at itself through a new and developing lens. It was personified in William Wilberforce who later built on the work of the Enlightenment thinkers and stirred a great movement among citizens that was to eventually force the hand of governments and their empires. His efforts are often portrayed as lofty and, at times, elitist, but a look at his everyday activities reveals a citizen in motion, engaging his peers in the process. He led a movement that held countless meetings, printed pamphlets, collected information on the horrors of slavery, and advocated governments to change the law. Wilberforce’s success at galvanizing other citizens became profound and powerful enough that in the end governments had to listen. In the words of one commentator, “the energized citizenry melted the hard prudence of statesmen.” A few years later slavery was finally abolished in the British empire.
From the worst of times can come the best of times. “Optimism” can again become a more prominent part of our collective demeanour. For centuries people believed that the powers that be simply controlled too much of the economic, social and religious structures and that resistance was futile. But as citizens began backing causes, pursuing the betterment of humanity, and coming together, cracks began to appear in the governing structures. Autocracies crumbled in the wake of a people energized about their own generation.
I know citizens – good people all – who are breaking the ground for a new age of equity, opportunity and basic fairness. They are meeting in the real birthplaces of democracy – homes, board rooms, coffee shops, libraries, even churches, and they are planting seeds on hardened soil. But the ground will eventually break and their diligent efforts will prepare us for a new age of democracy.
The entire original Christmas story tells of one grand act of innovation. Clearly, few were expecting it. A manger? Shepherds? Wisemen? A star? It was a bold new stroke in the broad tapestry of humanity and it taught us that innovation is possible in any age. This holiday season a timely gift would be to provide those who you know are fighting the good fight with the support and belief they require to change their world. It’s what brings imagination to citizenship and hope to our age.