The Enlightenment was first a philosophical movement, the roots of which stretch back to ancient Greece, where most Western philosophy begins. The late 20th Century French intellectuals, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, say in their book What is Philosophy? that it was the ancient Greeks who dispensed with the sage and replaced him with the philosopher. Most of the rest of the world, particularly in Asia—India, China, Japan, Tibet, Persia and points in between—acknowledged and honored the sage. In cultures that had a less developed civilization and were closer to wild nature, the sage has been present in the guise of the shaman.
The distinction between the sage and the philosopher is that, while the philosopher uses reason and observation to try to arrive at an understanding of the truth about reality, the sage’s effort is to go beyond reason and understand truth with his entire being. The former is entirely speculative and intellectual, while the latter seeks direct insight and is spiritual. If you compare the teachings of the great sages, they are essentially identical. There is only one truth—the way things really are. But the various philosophers are in wide disagreement. The books I’ve read about the history of Western philosophy regard these divergent views as its glory, a sign of Western philosophy’s ceaseless vigor. They maintain that the understanding of truth is a gradual and demanding intellectual process that continues on through the generations. Many cultures with a wisdom tradition have produced collections of stories about encounters between the sage and the scholar. The scholar invariably comes off as a fool whom the sage rebukes mildly, but in good humor. In the West, it’s reversed and a little meaner. Contemporary scholars, when writing about an ancient text of a sage’s teachings, usually question whether the sage ever really existed. Sages are treated as mythological figures and the books as collections of old folk sayings.
The Western philosophical tradition was interrupted by the Roman Empire’s adoption of Christianity as the official state religion in 380 AD, but would be taken back up in a serious way in the late 17th Century by the Enlightenment philosophers. I’ll start dealing with Christianity in the next post.