An Execution, Place de la Revolution Christophel Fine Art/UIG via Getty Images

A Tale of Two Realities

The material and moral progress made possible by the Enlightenment is evident across a wide range of metrics, from human rights to life expectancy. But today's political leaders seem inadequate to the task of managing the Enlightenment's more troubling legacies.

MADRID – The opening line of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities retains its universality to this day. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” Dickens writes, “it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, … it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

Dickens’s classic novel, set in London and Paris during the French Revolution, decries both the social injustices of the despotic ancien régime and the excesses of the French revolutionaries. When asked his opinion of the French Revolution almost two centuries later, former Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai reportedly answered that it was “too early to say.” That quip – though possibly the result of a misunderstanding – perfectly captures Dickens’s own ambivalence about the period of which he wrote.

The Enlightenment ideals that inspired the French to rise up against Louis XVI also drove the American Revolution. And both were set against the backdrop of another sea change: the onset of industrialization. The combination of more liberal political regimes and transformational scientific advances inaugurated the most prosperous period in the history of humankind.

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