The Age of the Enlightenment

"Enlightenment" is an appropriate term for an historical period when people began to apply scientific principles to governments and economies. At the time it seemed, in some ways, like a new dawn for civilization, succeeding as it did the "dark ages". Even so, it followed logically, if not necessarily, from a process that began in those dark ages and proceeded through the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution.

Condorcet and the Goodness of Man

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The writers and scholars who drove the Enlightenment were called "Philosophes", implying they were French philosophers, and many of the most prominent were French. Condorcet was among the first rank of the philosophes. His book Progress of the Human Mind published in 1795 proposed that man is basically good, but has been corrupted by society. He proposed various methods to improve society. He was a proponent of equality for women and an especially vigorous proponent of the abolition of slavery.

John Locke and the Tabula Rasa

In the English-speaking world the most influential philosophe was John Locke. He wrote in the 1690s, proposing that there was a contract between governments and peoples. The government had the responsibility of providing good government, the people had the responsibility to obey the government. However, when the government no longer provided good leadership, the people were no longer obligated to subject themselves to the laws; rebellion was justified. This line of reasoning would inform the American Revolution. Locke's treatise came on the heels of England's own Glorious Revolution of 1688 and was largely a response to that bloodless event.

Drawing of John Locke

Locke developed the notion of the tabula rasa. He said that the mind is a blank slate and experience writes upon it. This was an important idea, because many political philosophers had hypothesized that human beings were born with the need to obey an authoritarian government. Locke believed that the divine right of kings was taught from such an early age that tyrannical government merely seemed like an instinctual need. Alternatively, men were endowed with specific rights, needs, and longings that any government was obliged to respect, and primary among these were, "life, liberty, and property". If these notions are familiar to students of American History, it is because Thomas Jefferson paraphrased them in the American Declaration of Independence.

Voltaire and Enlightened Despotism

While Locke was conjuring images of individual freedom, Voltaire (Francois Marie Arouet), another Frenchman, was going in another direction. Yes, he believed in the innate goodness of man, and that current social forms had corrupted the mass of humanity. He also believed in reform, but not in the form envisaged by Locke. He espoused the idea of the enlightened despot. He advocated absolute rulers impose reform from above. He did not believe that the recalcitrant nobility would give up its ancient rights, and that the stratification of society could only be broken by a strong leader.

During his career, Voltaire became a friend and advisor to Frederick II of Prussia. He took on voluminous correspondence with many of the great rulers and thinkers of the day. His writings took the form of plays, novels, and philosophical works. His most famous work is a short satirical novel called Candide. He was perhaps the most influential man of his day both inside and outside of France. Like many other philosophes, Voltaire was a deist, believing that an intelligent, god-like figure created the universe, and set it in motion, but left it ever after to its own devices.

Rousseau and the Social Contract

Rousseau popularized the notion that man without government was in his ideal state, virtuous, free, equal, and happy. He began his 1762 work, Le Contrat Social, with the famous line, "All men are born free, but everywhere they are in chains." He thought that the best rule of a state was by the will of the people. He believed that the aggregate of the opinions of all of society would come up with the most virtuous policies.

Montesquieu and the Spirit of the Laws

Of all of the philosophes, Montesquieu's work probably had the most practical long term application. He wrote a book in 1748 called The Spirit of the Laws. In this book he reviewed the basic types of government: tyranny, democracy, and oligarchy. Each, he thought, represented a different class of society, the king, the commoners, and the aristocracy. To create a stable government each of these classes had to have representation in a structure that balanced the powers of each. He suggested also that various branches of government composed of executive, legislative, and judicial also be constituted so that powers be divided between them. His recommendations were quite precisely followed by the framers of the U.S. Constitution where the executive president represented the autocratic tendency. The legislative comprised of the house of representatives represented the commoners, and the senate represented aristocracy. The judicial branch, appointed for life, was also a kind of aristocracy. Each branch was answerable to the other two.

Diderot and the Encyclopedia

In an effort to catalogue all of the useful knowledge of the age, Denis Diderot (another Frenchman) and several of his compatriots, known as encyclopedists, created an encyclopedia. It had a further purpose, to disseminate knowledge from the perspective of the enlightened philosophes. Encyclopedias proved influential and operated as a useful model until the internet age.

Cesare Beccaria

Cesare Beccaria's Essay on Crimes and Punishments appeared in 1764. He thought the laws governing justice should be brought into line with the principles of humanity. To this end he proposed that torture be ruled out as a punishment, and that the justice system focus on rehabilitation. Beccaria's ideas would influence the reformation efforts of altruistic social workers for the next two centuries.

Adam Smith and the Physiocrats

Drawing of Adam Smith

Economics as a social science has its roots in the Enlightenment. The French Physiocrats proposed that an economy left to itself would be better regulated than one in which there was government interference. Adam Smith, the Scot philosopher, and founder of capitalism wrote his seminal work, The Wealth of Nations, where he proposed that each individual, working for his own best interest, naturally worked for the betterment of all of society. He said that the economy, in general, worked like an invisible hand to create to greatest possible goods and services for the mass of society. He demonstrated that the role of government was to allow this process to proceed and only operate as a policeman to prevent illegal activities, and to protect the nation's economy from outside predators.

Test your comprehension of this page on the Enlightenment!

Destinations:

The Renaissance

Age of Exploration

The Reformation

The Scientific Revolution

Thirty Years War

The Development of the English Constitution under the Stuart Kings

French Absolutism and Louis XIV

Peter I and the Modernization of Russia

Rise of Prussia and Austria

The Enlightenment

The French Revolution

The Age of Napoleon

Concert of Europe

Romanticism

Industrial Revolution

Liberalism, Socialism, and Marxism

The Unification of Italy and The Unification of Germany

The Age of Imperialism

Causes of the First World War

World War I: the Great War

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