The Enlightenment as the Sixth Estate

This is difficult for an American to write because it involves concepts from another time and place, but we’ll give it a try. Historically there have been three Estates of the realm. Wikipedia says:

[They] were the broad orders of social hierarchy used in Christendom (Christian Europe) from the medieval period to early modern Europe. Different systems for dividing society members into estates developed and evolved over time. The best known system is the French Ancien Régime (Old Regime), a three-estate system used until the French Revolution (1789–1799). Monarchy was for the king and the queen and this system was made up of clergy (the First Estate), nobles (the Second Estate), and peasants and bourgeoisie (the Third Estate).

In some regions, notably Scandinavia and Russia, burghers (the urban merchant class) and rural commoners were split into separate estates, creating a four-estate system with rural commoners ranking the lowest as the Fourth Estate. Furthermore, the non-landowning poor could be left outside the estates, leaving them without political rights.

For those who live in what we call Western civilization, that describes a creepy, alien kind of society. But the concepts linger. We now have people who refer to themselves as the Fourth Estate, about which Wikipedia says:

The Fourth Estate (or fourth power) is a segment of society that wields an indirect but significant influence on society even though it is not a formally recognized part of the political system. The most commonly recognized part of the fourth estate is the news media, or press.


Thomas Carlyle attributed the origin of the term to Edmund Burke … . [They quote Carlyle:] “Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.”


Oscar Wilde wrote: “In old days men had the rack. Now they have the Press. That is an improvement certainly. But still it is very bad, and wrong, and demoralizing.”

And that’s not the end of it. Wikipedia also describes the Fifth Estate as “a socio-cultural reference to groupings of outlier viewpoints in contemporary society, and is most associated with bloggers, journalists publishing in non-mainstream media outlets, and the social media …:”

The “Fifth Estate” includes all kinds of economic, political, and supernatural craziness, including creationists, who dream of their glory days when they were the First Estate and literally wielded the power of life and death.

So why do we bother discussing these shadowy concepts today? It’s because we humbly suggest the existence of what could be described as a Sixth Estate — the only one that really matters. And what would that be? Isn’t it obvious? It’s science — recognized and liberated by the Enlightenment, which doomed the traditional estates to utter insignificance. What we’re describing isn’t really an “estate” in the traditional sense, because those who comprise it wield no actual power — except over their own minds.

The Enlightenment has been a constant theme of this humble blog since its earliest days — see, for example: Discovery Institute: Enemies of the Enlightenment. As we said there:

The Scottish Enlightenment achieved advances in numerous fields, including, e.g., philosophy (David Hume, one of the greatest philosophers, an empiricist, skeptic, and advocate of separation of powers and decentralized government), economics (Adam Smith, intellectual founding father of the free enterprise system), and geology (James Hutton, father of modern geology, and discoverer of “deep time” which contradicts the brief Genesis chronology of creation). Almost a century later, that continuing outburst of rationality resulted in Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Additionally, due to trans-Atlantic travel and correspondence (Benjamin Franklin knew David Hume, for example) the Scottish Enlightenment inspired the American Revolution, Constitution, and Bill of Rights. It created an intellectual climate of reason and progress that powers our civilization to this day.

Reason, liberty, science, free enterprise — splendid results for an intellectual movement. Not even Athens at the height of its glory enjoyed such a philosophical foundation. We experience more freedom, health, and prosperity than any age ever dreamed of, and we have more knowledge of the universe than was ever believed possible. But not everyone is delighted with those magnificent accomplishments. Would-be tyrants, theocrats, Grand Inquisitors, Marxists, fascists, and other assorted despots are nostalgic for the pre-Enlightenment days when men lived in ignorance and unthinkingly obeyed authority. They hope for a restoration of those sordid centuries, imagining that in such a nightmare world they would be our masters.

Okay, now how can we bring this rambling discussion to a close? We suggest that it’s of vital importance to recognize — and teach! — what drives the age in which we live, and what lurks in the darkness that would bring our civilization to an end. It’s not enough to enjoy the life that we have. We need to know how it happened, what a difficult struggle it was — and how important it is to defend what we have against those who want to drag us backward.

So there you are, dear reader. Make of it what you will, but we think this is one of our best posts ever.

Copyright © 2018. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

add to del.icio.usAdd to Blinkslistadd to furlDigg itadd to ma.gnoliaStumble It!add to simpyseed the vineTailRankpost to facebook

. AddThis Social Bookmark Button . Permalink for this article

12 responses to “The Enlightenment as the Sixth Estate

  1. Michael Fugate

    It is interesting that the Scottish Enlightenment was strongly Christian – Hume being the exception (he never could get a university position) – unlike the non-Christian continental Enlightenment. I think it shows some of the differences between the Protestant and Catholic traditions.

  2. “what lurks in the darkness that would bring our civilization to an end.”
    It doesn’t. It’s in open daylight.

    Apparently at the latest presidential elections you had closed your eyes (hence said darkness), because you prefer to cling to the illusion that the USA is a free country.

  3. Dave Luckett

    The Ancien Regime was partly a caste system, that is, one that determined one’s permanent class at birth. But there was a door ajar. Extraordinary talent and effort could see even the son of a peasant achieve an education and ordination, to become a member of the First Estate, the clergy, whereas practically nobody could be accounted a gentle unless they started out that way. In France and most of the continent, anyway.

    Part and parcel of the Enlightenment was the mobility of the classes. Or was it? Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Did mobility between the classes – or perhaps the existence of a class defined by assets and manners, rather than strictly by ancestry – give fertile ground for the Enlightenment, or did the Enlightenment cause social mobility, as it took hold?

    Personally, I incline to the former. Of course I could take refuge in the truism that they were both effects and both causes, emergent from each other, a virtuous feedback loop. But how did the loop begin? Of such questions is history made.

    But if I might be permitted an observation: PROVIDED that there is equality of opportunity and that mobility between the classes is unexceptional and expected, a class system provides an incentive towards achievement, which is lacking in a “classless society”. Since such a society is the self-stated goal of Marxism, this effect may be one cause explaining why the many attempts at Marxist societies have been uniformly so dysfunctional.

  4. Ow! My poor brain.

    Anything this abstruse I have to set aside, and re-read later starting with the last paragraph and working my way backwards.

    (I’ve never known anyone so fond of quoting themself.)

    I concur with your ultimate appraisal of the post. (Though I’m sure you’ll continue to hone and refine it over the next several years.)

    SC: “We suggest that it’s of vital importance to recognize — and teach! — what drives the age in which we live, and what lurks in the darkness that would bring our civilization to an end. . . . We need to know . . . how important it is to defend what we have against those who want to drag us backward.”

    Thank you for doing so much more than your part!

  5. Random: “Though I’m sure you’ll continue to hone and refine it over the next several years.”

    For example, you could drop the second paragraph of the Wikipedia quote (“Scandinavia and Russia”) — it seems superfluous, leading nowhere really (unless I have missed something), and serves to confuse the enumeration of Estates.

    I think your own second paragraph would have more impact with the omission of the second Wikipedia paragraph.

    Also, I don’t see what Oscar Wilde adds to your argument — his quote seems completely off-point.

  6. You’re right, Random. In each case, I don’t need those second paragraphs. I thought I should show that the Three Estates weren’t established precisely like that everywhere in Europe, and also that the idea of a Fourth Estate wasn’t universally applauded (although Oscar Wilde’s attitude is no surprise). But anyone wanting more information can get it from Wikipedia and elsewhere, so I may go back and delete those unnecessary paragraphs.

  7. Conspiracy theorists know about a secret powerfu estate.

  8. bewilderbeast

    Best post? I agree. I would add we have enjoyed the best century of this happy confluence of “Reason, Liberty, Science, Free Enterprise” – and we owe it to our children and grandchildren to keep it alive. If we lose what we had in a backsliding to darker days, that’s one very sad thing. But if we lose it without a fight, then they can rightly blame us of gross negligence and cowardice.

  9. bewilderbeast

    @Michael Fugate. IMHO the oft-used reference to periods being “Christian” are usually wrong, in that Christianity per se didn’t inform or advance the progress. There happened to be a strong, unchallenged christian dominance at the time and it wasn’t necessary to challenge that for the progress to be made, so the “christianity” was simply ignored (not challenged – challenging it may have slowed progress).
    Its like saying progress in Dubai is somehow BECAUSE it’s a Muslim country (i.e giving the religion credit for the progress), yet what has actually happened is that parts of Dubai have modernised and computerised and advanced, and the fact that the dominant religion happens to be Islam is largely irrelevant.
    I see “christianity” in Scotland at the time in a similar light. Sure, the l4eaders were “strongly Christian”. They had to be. When a new skyscraper and indoor skislope and ultra-modern racetrack is opened in Dubai there will be a strongly Muslim person cutting the ribbon. It’s co-incidental, not causal. IMHO.

  10. If a majority in a democracy wants something other than a democracy, what is to be done to preserve democracy?

  11. Our Generous Curmudgeon

    Well meant and freely given — thanks for your consideration.

    I’m kinda crestfallen, though, that you seem not to recognize the irony of me quoting myself immediately after gently tweaking you for the same foible.