In the wake of the Scientific Revolution, and the new ways of thinking that it prompted, scholars and philosophers began to reevaluate old notions about other aspects of society.
Philosophers admired Newton because he had used reason to explain the laws governing nature. People began to look for laws governing human behavior as well.
They hoped to apply reason and the scientific method to all aspects of society – government, economics, religion and education. Their efforts began the Enlightenment, a new intellectual movement that stressed reason and thought and the power of individuals to solve problems. Known also as the Age of Reason, the movement reached its height in the mid- 1700s and brought great change to many aspects of Western civilization.
The legacy of Locke and Hobbes: Two views on government
The Enlightenment started from some key ideas put forth by two English political thinkers of the 1600s, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Both men experienced the political turmoil of England early in that century. However, they came to very different conclusions about government and nature.
Hobbes´ Social Contract. Thomas Hobbes expressed his views in a book called the Leviathan (1651). The horrors of the English Civil War convinced him that all humans were naturally selfish and wicked. Without governments to keep order, Hobbes said, there would be “war… of every man against every man” and life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.
Hobbes argued that to escape such a bleak life, people had to hand over their rights to a strong ruler. In exchange, they gained law and order. Hobbes called this agreement by which people created a government the social contract. Because people acted in their own self- interest, Hobbes said, the ruler needed total power to keep citizens under control. The best government was one that had the awesome power of a Leviathan (sea monster). In Hobbes view, such a government was an absolute monarchy, which could impose order and demand obedience.
Locke´s Natural rights. The philosopher John Locke held a different, more positive view of human nature. He believed that people could learn from experience and improve themselves. As reasonable beings, they had the natural ability to govern their own affairs and to look after the welfare of society. Locke criticized absolute monarchy and favored the idea of self government.
According to Locke, all people are born free and equal, with three natural rights – life, liberty and property. The purpose of government, said Locke, is to protect these rights. If a government fails to do so, citizens have the right to overthrow it.
Lockes’ theory had a deep influence on modern political thinking. His belief that a government’s power comes from the consent of the people is the foundation of modern democracy. The ideas of government by popular consent and the right to rebel against unjust rulers inspired struggles for liberty in Europe and the Americas.
The Enlightenment reached its height in France in the mid- 1700s. paris became the meeting place for the greatest thinkers of the day. The social critics of this period in France were known as philosophes, the French word for philosophers.
The philosophes tried to apply reason to all aspects of life. They felt that if accepted ways of doing things did not make sense, those ways should be changed. The philosophes particularly opposed the traditions of absolute monarchy and divine right. They also objected to the special privileges enjoyed by the nobility and clergy. These two groups owned most of France’s wealth, yet paid little or nothing in taxes.
Most of the philosophes turned away from traditional religious beliefs. They placed their faith in reason rather than in the Church. Some philosophes were atheists – people who deny the existence of God. Most, however, were deists. That is, they believed in God as the creator of the universe, but they rejected Church rituals and the authority of the clergy. Deists accepted only those teachings that fit with scientific understanding. For example, they looked upon Jesus as a great moral teacher rather than as the son of God.
Voltaire fights Intolerance. Probably the most brilliant and influential of the philosophes was Francois Marie Arouet (1694- 1778). Using the pen name of Voltaire, he published more than 70 books of political essays, philosophy, history and drama.
Voltaire often used humor against his opponents. He made frequent targets of the clergy, the aristocracy, and the government. Though he was sent to prison twice for insulting nobles, Voltaire never stopped fighting for tolerance, reason and limited government. He also championed free speech and is remembered for the famous line, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.
Montesquieu and the Separation of Powers. Like Voltaire, the Baron de Montesquieu, a lawyer and aristocrat, admired the English system of government. After studying the English model, Montesquieu outlined practices that he believed would protect people’s rights and lead to a good government.
In The Spirit of the Laws ( 1748 ) Montesquieu urged separation of powers – the division of authority among different branches of government. One branch, the legislative, would make laws. A second branch, the executive, would see that the laws were carried out. The third branch, the judicial, would interpret the laws. Separation of powers, Montesquieu believed, would keep any individual or group from gaining total control of the government. This would, he said, safeguard the liberty of people against corrupt leaders.
Rousseau: Champion of freedom. One of the greatest of the philosophes was Jean Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau violently disagreed with other Enlightenment thinkers on many matters. One of them was that, while most philosophes believed that progress in the arts and sciences would improve life for all people. Rousseau, however, argued that arts and sciences corrupted people’s natural goodness. “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains”, he wrote.
Rousseau drew a sharp distinction between “civilized people” and what he called “natural man” or the “noble savage”. People who live in a civilized society, said Rousseau, are unhappy, insecure, and selfish. He argued that if people lived outdoors, in harmony with nature, they would be better off.
In 1762 Rousseau explained his political philosophy in a book called The Social Contract. He proposed an ideal society based on a new kind of social contract. Under this contract, the people would not give a ruler or representative the power to make laws for them. Instead, they would have a form of direct democracy. Each member of the community would vote on issues, and the will of the majority would become law.
The key thinkers of the Enlightenment had very definite views on the ideal government. They all admired the English system, with its limitations on royal power. However, only a few of them – notably Locke and Rousseau – believed that people could govern themselves.
For this reason, most of the philosophes opposed democracy. “Once the common people begin to reason”, Voltaire wrote, “then everything is lost. I hate the idea of government by the masses”. According to Voltaire, the best form of government was a monarchy in which the ruler shared the ideas of the philosophes and respected the people’s rights Such an “enlightened monarch” would rule justly and introduce reforms.
Although the philosophes were a small group, they had great influence. In the late 1700’s several monarchs – Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II of Austria, Frederick II of Prussia, and Catherine the Great of Russia – made reforms that reflected the Enlightenment spirit. These leaders became known as enlightened despots.
The enlightened despots supported the philosophes’ ideas but had no intention of giving up any power. At times the monarchs allowed religious toleration and cut down on censorship. They also discouraged serfdom, simplified laws, and tried to improve education. However, their motivation for undertaking such changes was always to make their countries stronger and their own rule accordingly more effective.
Women and the Enlightenment
The philosophes challenged many assumptions about government and society. But they often took a traditional view towards women. Rousseau, for example, developed many progressive ideas about education. However, he believed a girl’s education should mainly teach her how to be a helpful wife and a mother. Other male social critics scolded women for reading novels because they thought it encouraged idleness and wickedness. Still, some male writers argued for more education for women and for women’s equality in marriage.
Women writers also tried to improve the status of women. In 1694, the English wirter Mary Astell published A Serious Proposal to the Ladies. Her book addressed the lack of opportunities for women. In later writings, she used Enlightenment arguments about government to criticize the unequal relationship between men and women in marriage. She wrote “If absolute sovereignity be not necessary in a state, how comes it be so in a family?… If all men are born free, how is it that all women are born slaves?”.
During the 1700s, other women picked up these themes. Among the most persuasive was Mary Wollstonecraft, who published an essay called A Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792. In the essay, she disagreed with Rousseau that women’s education should be secondary to men’s. Rather, she argued that women, like men, need education to become virtuous and useful. Wollstonecraft also urged women to enter the male- dominated fields of medicine and politics.
LEGACY OF THE ENLIGHTENMENT
Over a span of a few decades, Enlightenment writers challenged long- held ideas about society. They examined such principles as the divine right of monarchs, the union of church and state, and the existence of unequal social classes. They held these beliefs up to the light of reason and found them in need of reform.
The philosophes mainly lived in the world of ideas. They formed and popularized new theories. Although they encouraged reform, they were not active revolutionaries. However, their ideas eventually inspired the American and French revolutions and other revolutionary movements in the 1800s. Enlightenment thinkers produced other long- term effects that helped shape Western civilization.
Picture of the execution of Louis XVI, king of France
Belief in progress. The first effect was a belief in progress. Pioneers such as Galileo and Newton had discovered the key for understanding the mysteries of nature in the 1500s and 1600s. With the door thus opened, the growth of scientific knowledge seemed to quicken in the 1700s. Scientists made key new discoveries in chemistry, physics, and mechanics. The successes of the Scientific Revolution gave people the confidence that human reason could solve social problems. Philosophes and reformer surged an end to the practice of slavery and argued for greater social equality, as well as a more democratic form of government.
A more secular outlook. A second outcome was the rise of a more secular, or nonreligious, outlook. During the Enlightenment, people began to question openly their religious beliefs and the teachings of the Church. Before the Scientific revolution, people accepted the mysteries of the universe as the workings of God. One by one, scientists discovered that these mysteries could be explained mathematically. Newton himself was a deeply religious man, and he sought to reveal God’s majesty through his work. However, his findings often caused people to change the way they thought about God.
Importance of the Individual. Faith in science and in progress produced a third outcome, the rise of individualism. As people began to turn away from the church and royalty for guidance, they looked to themselves instead.
The philosophes encouraged people to use their own ability to reason in order to judge what was right or wrong. They also emphasized the importance of the individual in society. Government, they argued, was formed by individuals to promote their welfare. The British thinker Adam Smith extended the emphasis on the individual to economic thinking. He believed that individuals acting in their own self- interest created economic progress.