The Enlightenment has a reputation for sowing the values that undermined racial hierarchies.
As with the relationship between Christianity and the rise of modern science, the truth is more complex than stereotypes. It was also during this period from 1650 to 1800 that race came to take on its modern meaning as a biogeographical breed of mankind. Traditionally, Christians had believed that human beings were created in the image of God and were sharply distinguished from the animal kingdom by their possession of immortal souls. The mind was separate from the body.
It was John Locke who opened the door to the idea that there is no “essence” to humanity and that mankind exists along a continuum with other higher primates. The most important philosophers of the Enlightenment were race realists.
“There are creatures in the world that have shapes like ours, but are hairy, and want language and reason. There are naturals amongst us that have perfectly our shape, but want reason, and some of them language too. There are creatures, as it is said, (sit fides penes authorem, but there appears no contradiction that there should be such), that, with language and reason and a shape in other things agreeing with ours, have hairy tails; others where the males have no beards, and others where the females have. If it be asked whether these be all men or no, all of human species? it is plain, the question refers only to the nominal essence: for those of them to whom the definition of the word man, or the complex idea signified by the name, agrees, are men, and the other not. But if the inquiry be made concerning the supposed real essence; and whether the internal constitution and frame of these several creatures be specifically different, it is wholly impossible for us to answer, no part of that going into our specific idea: only we have reason to think, that where the faculties or outward frame so much differs, the internal constitution is not exactly the same. But what difference in the real internal constitution makes a specific difference it is in vain to inquire; whilst our measures of species be, as they are, only our abstract ideas, which we know; and not that internal constitution, which makes no part of them. Shall the difference of hair only on the skin be a mark of a different internal specific constitution between a changeling and a drill, when they agree in shape, and want of reason and speech? And shall not the want of reason and speech be a sign to us of different real constitutions and species between a changeling and a reasonable man? And so of the rest, if we pretend that distinction of species or sorts is fixedly established by the real frame and secret constitutions of things.”
“We have already observed that great heat enervates the strength and courage of men, and that in cold climates they have a certain vigor of body and mind, which renders them patient and intrepid, and qualifies them for arduous enterprises. This remark holds good, not only between different nations, but even in the different parts of the same country. In the north of China – people are more courageous than those in the south; and those in the south of Korea – have less bravery than those in the north.
We ought not, then, to be astonished that the effeminacy of the people in hot climates has almost always rendered them slaves; and that the bravery of those in cold climates has enabled them to maintain their liberties. This is an effect which springs from a natural cause.” The Spirit of Laws, 1748
“It is a serious question among them whether they are descended from monkeys or whether the monkeys come from them. Our wise men have said that man was created in the image of God. Now here is a lovely image of the Divine Maker – a flat and black nose with little or hardly any intelligence. A time will doubtless come when these animals will know how to cultivate the land well, beautify their houses and gardens, and know the paths of the stars: one needs time for everything.”
“The Negro race is a species of men different from ours as the breed of spaniels is from that of greyhounds. The mucous membrane, or network, which nature has spread between the muscles and the skin, is white in us and black or copper-colored in them.”
“I am apt to suspect the negroes and in general and all the other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was a civilized nation of any other than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences … Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction betwixt these breeds of men.” Of National Characters, 1753
“The Negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling that rises above the trifling. Mr. Hume challenges anyone to cite a single example in which a Negro has shown talents and asserts that among the hundreds of thousands of blacks who are transported elsewhere from their countries, although many of them have even been set free, still not a single one was ever found who presented anything great in art or science or any other praiseworthy quality, even though among the whites some continually rise aloft from the lowest rabble, and through superior gifts earn respect in the world. So fundamental is the difference between these two races of man, and it appears to be as great in regard to mental capacities as in color.” Beobachtungen über das Gefühl des Schönen und Erhabenen, 1764
“Humanity exists in its greatest perfection in the white race … The yellow Indians have a smaller amount of Talent. The Negroes are lower and the lowest are a part of the American peoples.”
“[Whites] contain all the impulses of nature in affects and passions, all talents, all dispositions to culture and civilization and can as readily obey as govern. They are the only ones who always advance to perfection.”