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The Enlightenment in Europe came on the heels of the age of science. It dates from the end of the 17th century to the end of the 18th century. Beginning with John Locke, thinkers applied scientific reasoning to society, politics, and religion. The Enlightenment was especially strong in France, Scotland, and America. The Enlightenment may be said to culminate in the revolutions that occurred in America, France, and Latin America between 1775 and 1815. In attempting to justify England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688, Locke argued that man had inherent rights. Man, he posited, was a blank page who could be filled up with good progressive ideas. He laid the basis for people’s sovereignty. People voluntarily came together to form a government that would protect individual rights. Government, therefore, had a contract with the people. When the government violated people’s natural rights, it violated the social contract. Therefore, people had the right to withdraw their allegiance. Ironically, the rationale used to justify the triumph of Parliament over the Crown in England was used against Parliament and Britain nearly a century later in the American Revolution.
Influenced by Newtonian science that posited universal laws that governed the natural world, the Enlightenment emphasis was on human reason. According to major Enlightenment thinkers, both faith in nature and belief in progress were important to the human condition. The individual was subject to universal laws that governed the universe and formed nature. Using the gift of reason, people would seek to find happiness. Human virtue and happiness were best achieved by freedom from unnecessary restraints imposed by church and state. Not surprisingly, Enlightenment thinkers believed in education as an essential component in human improvement. They also tended to support freedom of conscience and checks in absolute government.
The early Enlightenment was centered in England and Holland. It was interpreted by conservative English figures to justify the limits on the Crown imposed by Parliament. The limited government supported by the Whigs who took over was spread abroad by the newly created Masonic movement. In Holland, which was the home of refugees from absolutist leaders such as refugees from England of the later Stuart monarchy and from France after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, and was nominally a republic, the earliest writings appeared. Its most famous philosopher, Spinoza, argued that God existed everywhere in nature, even society, meaning that it could rule itself. This philosophy applied to arguments against state churches and absolute monarchs.
Basic Enlightenment Ideas
The most famous figures of the 18th-century Enlightenment were Frenchmen, including Charles-Louis de Secondat Montesquieu, Voltaire, Denis Diderot, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Montesquieu in his greatest work, The Spirit of Laws, argued that checks and balances among executive, legislative, and judicial branches were the guarantors of liberty. Voltaire, the leading literary figure of the age, wrote histories, plays, pamphlets, essays, and novels, as well as correspondence with monarchs such as Catherine the Great of Russia and Frederick the Great of Prussia. In all of these works, he supported rationalism and advocated reform. Diderot edited an encyclopedia that included over 70,000 articles covering the superiority of science, the evils of superstition, the virtues of human freedom, the evils of the slave trade in Africa, and unfair taxes. Rousseau, however, was not a fan of science and reason. Rather, in the Social Contract, he spoke of the general will of the people as the basis of government. His ideas were to be cited by future revolutions from the French to the Russian.
Enlightenment thought spread throughout the globe and was especially forceful in Europe and the Americas. In Scotland, some ideas of the Enlightenment influenced the writings of David Hume, who became the best known of skeptics of religion, and Adam Smith, who argued that the invisible hand of the market should govern supply and demand and government economic controls should not exist. In America, deism (the belief that God is an impersonal force in the universe) and the moral embodiment of the Newtonian laws of the universe attracted Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine. On the political side, thinkers such as Thomas Hooker and John Mayhew spoke of government as a trustee that must earn the trust of its constituency and as a financial institution with a fiduciary duty to its depositors.
It was in the realms of politics, religion, philosophy, and humanitarian affairs that the Enlightenment had its greatest effect. The figures of the French Enlightenment opposed undue power as exemplified by absolute monarchy, aristocracy based on birth, state churches, and economic control by the state as exemplified by mercantilism. Enlightened thinkers saw the arbitrary policies of absolute monarchies as contradictory to the natural rights of man, according to the leaders of the American Revolution. The most fundamental part of their nature was human reason, the instrument by which people realized their potentials. The individual was a thinking and judging being who must have the highest of freedom in order to operate. The best government, like the best economy, was the government that governed least.
The Enlightenment in Politics
The Enlightenment extended to the political realm and was especially critical of monarchs who were more interested in their divine right than in the good of their people. Man was innately good; however, society could corrupt him. Anything that corrupted people, be it an absolutist government or brutal prison conditions, should be combated. Absolutist policies violated innate rights that were a necessary part of human nature. Ultimately, political freedom depended on the right social environment, which could be encouraged or hindered by government. Absolutism, for this reason, was the primary opponent of political freedom.
The progenitors of the political Enlightenment, John Locke and his successors, maintained that government should exist to protect property of subjects and citizens, defend against foreign enemies, secure order, and protect the natural rights of its people. These ideas found their way into the U.S. Declaration of Independence and Constitution. These documents asserted that every individual had “unalienable rights,” including rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Similarly, the preamble to the Constitution claimed that government existed to “promote the general welfare and provide of the common defense” in direct descent from Enlightenment thinkers.
The ideas of social contract and social compact did not originate with either Locke or Rousseau, but with Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes viewed the social contract as a way for government to restrain base human nature. Ultimately, Locke maintained that people came together in a voluntary manner to form a government for protection of their basic rights. Therefore, government was based on their voluntary consent. If their basic natural rights were violated, they could withdraw their consent. This theory had echoes in the arguments of leaders of the American Revolution who argued that their revolt against various tariffs and taxes such as the tea tax was taxation without representation. Social contract theory argued that individuals voluntarily cede their rights to government, including the responsibility to protect their own natural rights. Consequently, government’s authority derived from the governed.
To keep the potential for governmental abuse of power in check, Enlightenment figures argued for a separation of powers. Before Montesquieu made his specific suggestion in The Spirit of Laws, Locke had proposed that kings, judges, and magistrates should share power and thereby check one another. Spinoza also proposed the need for local autonomy, including a local militia to guard against power concentrated in the center including a standing army. These ideas found their way first into the Articles of Confederation, which gave almost excessive power to the various states. The U.S. Constitution specifically stated all powers not expressly given to the national government are reserved to the states and the people.
The emphasis of the political writers of the Enlightenment was on limited government rather than on direct democracy. Although their great enemy was arbitrary absolute central government, they were not enamored of the influence of the mob. Even though they saw the voting franchise as a check on overpowerful government, they limited the franchise to property owners. Male suffrage in America did not come into existence until the age of Jackson. The founders of the Constitution were anxious to include the electoral college as the final selecter of presidents. Direct election of senators did not occur until 1912–13, and it was not until, 1962, with Baker v. Carr and the principle of “one man, one vote,” that there were direct elections to all legislative bodies in the United States. Technically, the United States remains a representative, not a direct, democracy.
Even Rousseau, considered the advocate of direct democracy, felt that direct democracy was most suited to small states like his home city of Geneva rather than a large state like France. Along with Diderot, he advocated rule based on “general will.” However, both Rousseau and Diderot defined general will as representing the nature of the nation or community as opposed to the selfish needs of the individual. The law should secure each person’s freedom but only up to the point that it does not threaten others. In this way, they prefigured the utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham, which stressed the goal of human happiness as long as it did no harm to others.
Reactions Against Enlightenment
In the latter 18th century, there was a reaction against the overuse of reason and science in securing human potential. Religious, philosophical, and humanitarian movements put new emphasis on idealism and emotionalism when it came to religious, philosophical, and social reforms. Philosophically, the Newtonian vision of God as the great scientist in the sky and Locke’s equation of knowledge to the mind’s organization of sensory experiences along with the rise of atheism provoked a reaction.
The foremost philosopher of the later Enlightenment was Immanuel Kant, whose Critique of Pure Reason argued that innate ideas exist before sensory experiences. Taking a page from Plato, Kant argued that certain inner concepts such as depth, beauty, cause, and especially God existed independently of the senses. Some ideas were derived from reason, not the senses. Kant went beyond pure reason.
Reason was based on intuition as well as interpretation of sensory experiences. The conscious mind was integral to a person’s thinking nature. Therefore, abstract reason could have moral and religious overtones. This came to be called new idealism, as opposed to classical idealism.
Another reaction to this scientific perspective on religion was a movement in favor of a feeling, emotional deity everpresent in daily life. Known as Pietism in Europe and in America variously as evangelism and charismatic Christianity, the movement known as the Great Awakening swept the Americas and Europe in the 1740s and 1780s. Preachers such as George Whitefield and the Wesley brothers gave stirring sermons with overtones of fire and brimstone in response to excessive rationality in church doctrine. Their style of preaching appealed to the masses, whereas the intellectualized religion of the Enlightenment too often seemed like a creation for the educated upper classes. By the end of the century, the movement coalesced into the Methodist movement.
A new movement from Germany that stressed Bible study and hymn singing as well as preaching—the Moravians— earned a following in both Europe and America. Similar movements occurred among Lutherans and Catholics. The Great Awakening in the United States led to the formation of new individual-centered denominations such as the Unitarians and Universalists.
Both aspects of the religious side of the Enlightenment— rationalist and Pietist—were concerned with human worth. This desire for the improvement of human conditions led to humanitarian impulses. The antislavery movement gained momentum in the later 18th century. Other movements, such as the push for prison reform, universal elementary education, Sunday school, and church schools, were all evident by 1800. Whether rationalist or Christian evangelical, reformers supported these movements. Even absolute sovereigns such as Frederick the Great and Catherine the Great promoted reforms. Frederick abolished torture and established national compulsory education, while Catherine established orphanages for foundlings and founded hospitals. For reforms such as these, certainly not for their beliefs in human rights, they and other monarchs were termed enlightened despots.
Enlightenment thinkers sought human betterment and the movement took many forms. Political figures sought to deliver people from arbitrary use of power. Deists questioned the use of power by established churches. Economic thinkers argued for liberation from state control of the economy. All believed in an implicit social contract and national human rights whether political, economic, religious, or moral. Separate currents of rationalism, idealism, and Pietism all contributed to the humanitarian and revolutionary movements that emerged at the end of the period.
- Anchor, Robert. The Enlightenment Tradition. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987;
- Brewer, Daniel. The Discourse of Enlightenment in Eighteenth Century France. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993;
- Dowley, Tim. Through Wesley’s England. Abingdon, PA: Abingdon Press, 1988;
- Gay, Peter. Voltaire’s Politics. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988;
- Yolton, John. Philosophies, Religion, and Sciences in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 1990.
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