Print this pageHistorical Text Archive © 1990 - 2016
In this assignment you should learn to define and discuss the following terms:
You should also learn to discuss the following topics:
We have viewed the Scientific Revolution as a movement involving a great number of people over a relatively long period of time, but such movements do not occur unless there is a consensus, a view shared by the majority of people of the time. The view that was shared by many Europeans, although certainly not all, during the period from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries was that the universe was governed by natural law, a set of physical laws that could be discovered by the use of reason even if those laws could not be changed. With every new discovery, the number of people sharing that view increased and their desire to learn even more about the physical world grew. Moreover, many people concluded that natural laws governed human affairs and, if humans could discover those laws, they could act in accordance with them and create an orderly, equitable, and prosperous society. The period during which these ideas dominated European thought is usually called The Age of Enlightenment or, using a term made famous by Tom Paine, The Age of Reason". From the point of view that we have been stressing in these essays, it was an era in which the Realist point of view prevailed, although those people who shared this view are called Rationalists rather than Realists.
Naturally enough, organized religion opposed this viewpoint and upheld the traditional Christian belief that the universe and everything that happened in it was an expression of God's will. When ecclesiastical power was strong enough, the speculations of the natural philosophers were limited by force, and prominent advocates of the use of reason such as Roger Bacon, Galileo, Rousseau, and Voltaire often failed prison, exile, or even the possibility of death for publishing their beliefs. By 1525, however, the universal Church of the Middle Ages had disintegrated in the Protestant Reformation, and there was no unified Christian authority the curb the rationalists. It was perhaps only natural that the rationalists came to view established religion as an opponent of free speech, free inquiry, and free thought. Moreover, they rejected the contention of the varieties of religion of the time to be the possessors of knowledge that could not be known by reason but only because it had been revealed to humanity by God. Many of the natural philosophers increasingly became convinced that the entire universe and its workings could be explained by natural law and that natural law could be discovered through reason. Some of the artists and philosophers of the time portrayed the universe as operating like the works of a perfect clock, and some historians have called this view The Clockwork Universe. While they were willing to believe that some creator had to have constructed the clock and set it working, they believed that it now ran without the intervention or tinkering of its creator. In short, they may have believed in God, but did not believe that God intervened in human affairs, punished the wicked, answered prayers, protected the innocent or did any of the other things that traditional Christianity taught that the Deity did. Such people were called deists, and Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and many other eminent men and women of the time shared this view of things.
Turning to matters of politics, the rationalists denied the prevailing view that the forms of government had somehow been instituted among men by God and its was the Christian's duty "to render unto Caesar what is Caesar's...." The historians among them noted that, throughout history, governments supposedly instituted by God or the gods had always worked for the benefit of the powerful few at the expense of the obedient many. Meanwhile, the travellers among them reported that, despite the great differences among the peoples of the Earth, their basic principles of justice and equity were quite similar regardless of their religion. Based upon these and other considerations, they deduced that the natural laws governing human communities were that the power of the law and the legitimacy of the government was derived only from the consent of the community as a whole. In addition, they held that the proper function of government was to interfere with the individual as little as possible while still protecting his natural rights to life and liberty.
Moreover, they concluded that every individual had the natural right to try to acquire property, meaning by this that every individual had the right to attempt to gain ownership of some means of production, whether it be a farm, factory, or the tools of a trade. In the American Declaration of Independence of 1776, Thomas Jefferson carried these natural rights to their logical conclusion by saying that the people should rebel against any government that failed to act in accordance with those principles. The economic significance of that position was obvious. Any government that tried to protect the property of a favored class at the expense of others had no right to continued existence. That view was expressed in greater detail by Adam Smith. In The Wealth of Nations, Smith argued that, if left alone, people would behave rationally and try to acquire property. The only was of acquiring property, Smith held, were by making it or taking it from someone else. Since no one could be satisfied simply by taking from each other, men would naturally turn to the creation of property. This, in turn, would increase the total production of goods to the benefit of all.
The idea that human beings were governed by the same laws as governed the course of the stars and planets, and that by observing those same laws human communities could move with the same order and regularity as the heavens was a beguiling one. And so the era was one of governmental reform. On the Continent, the rationalists believed that the best form of government was that governed by a powerful but "enlightened" monarch; in England, the tendency was to create a body of principles, a constitution (Great Britain has no written constitution), embodying those expressions of natural law that the monarch was to follow; and the British colonists in North America formed a representative democracy in which the representatives of the people were limited by a written body of principles.
The idea that humans could use their reason to discover and institute perfect societies was, as we noted, beguiling. So beguiling, in fact, that people continued through three centuries of increasingly savage and destructive wars to believe that they were making progress. Many of the societies that they established or influenced were not much different than those of the past. The privileged and powerful still ruled and the masses still had little chance to better themselves. Perhaps they were, in a way, ever more repressive than those of earlier days. Dissidents, eccentrics, and anyone else who opposed the existing order could be, and were, considered as behaving irrationally and a threat to "public order". The Protestant churches, wherever they managed to establish themselves, proved to be just as repressive as the old universal Church had been, and both Catholic and Protestant Churches were led by the threat of each other to adopt even more restrictive policies than had hitherto been the case.
It is interesting to the historian how often ridicule will awaken people to their self-delusions. One might remember the long fear of nuclear holocaust that oppressed the American public and found expression in such novels and motion pictures as "On the Beach" and "Fail Safe". This sense of the inevitability of annihilation was finally dissipated by the motion picture "Dr. Strangelove", a painstakingly hilarious parody of "Fail Safe". One could make a very good case that the Age of Enlightenment began to end with the great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755. Certainly there had been such disasters before, but this one was so sudden and destructive that it made dramatic news throughout Europe and caused many people to begin to wonder about natural law that could govern the planets is their steady and mathematical course and could also include sudden and unexplainable calamities. It began to see as if natural law provided no assurance of order or of permanence.
The effect of this event has been memorialized in Oliver Wendell Holmes's (1809- 1894) poem entitled "The Deacon's Masterpiece", but better known as The Wonderful One-Hoss Shay. In this poem, Holmes describes a seventeenth- century deacon who set out to make a perfect one-horse carriage. He chose every piece with the utmost care and had the carriage built so that there was no weak point anywhere in its design. He did his work so well that the carriage outlasted him by many years. Exactly one hundred years later, the owner was riding in this carriage when it suddenly fell apart into a pile of dust. No single part of it had been weak, and so it had all broken at the same time. The day that this happened was, of course, 1 November 1755 -- the day of the Lisbon Earthquake. Holmes concluded the poem with the lines "End of the wonderful one-hoss shay/ Logic is logic. That's all I say". The point was that a perfect rational argument is like a balloon. If any one point fails, the entire argument fails, and many people believe that the Lisbon Earthquake was the point at which the argument upon which the Age of Reason was constructed failed.
This was much after the fact, however. The short novel Candide by Voltaire (1694-1778), published in 1759, perhaps had more influence at the time. The protagonist of the novel, Candide, is a naive young man who is thrown out into the world and wanders through all of its savagery, often in the company of his old tutor, Doctor Pangloss, who has convinced himself by rational demonstration that "All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds." Candide comes to believe that "Optimism is a mania for maintaining that all is well when things are going badly." After a long series of encounters with cruelty hypocrisy, stupidity, and every other form of human viciousness, Candide retires to a small plot of land to cultivate and on which to stay as far from idealists as possible. [Incidentally, Leonard Bernstein composed a delightful opera on the theme of Candide that you should hear if you get the opportunity.]
Candide pointed unerringly to the great defect in the idealism of The Age of Enlightenment. Even if the universe were governed by natural law on the basis of which humans might live in perfect peace and harmony, the fact of the matter is that human beings do not always behave rationally. It would seem that, in many if not most human beings, passions, personal desires, and just downright silliness often prevail over the exercise of reason. We are quite capable of thinking one way and then acting in quite a different, and often irrational, way.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) was one of the outstanding figures of the Enlightenment and a quite despicable man. He extolled the virtues of family life but slept with his servant girl for some twenty-three years before getting around to marrying her. His novel Emile set forth most of the principles of child-rearing that we observe today -- that parents should teach by example rather than through punishment, that children pass through stages of development and should not be forced to behave in manners of which they are not capable, that children should be given time in the sun to laugh and play, that children should be loved. Every time his girl had one of his children, however, he had her leave it at a foundling home but continue to draw the charity milk and bread given to new mothers. He enjoyed a nice bowl of bread and milk. Even though his actions were reprehensible, we should admire his ideals since they were the ideals upon which Thomas Jefferson drew in penning the Declaration of Independence.
Then, too, there was a spirit of rebellion in the air. People, especially young people, were less willing to accept the conformity and repression of individuality that Enlightenment society required of its members, colonists were less willing to accept their continual exploitation in the interests of the mother country, ethnic minorities were less willing to subject themselves to attempts to absorb them into the majority culture, workers and peasants were less willing to admit the superiority of groups claiming special rights by the laws of nature, travellers were less impressed by the accuracy and symmetry of gardens such as those at Versailles, composers were less willing to construct intricate works on the basis of the mathematical models that had guided Bach and Mozart, and people in general were less willing to accept an ideal of society that seem to value mediocrity. By the close of the eighteenth century, Europe was entering a new era. In literature and music, it is called The Age of Romanticism and was ushered in by Goethe and Beethoven; in government, it is called The Age of Revolution, and witnessed a wave of colonial rebellions that swept away the old sea-borne empires; and in politics generally, it is called The Age of Liberalism, and gave rise to the French Revolution and the twelve years in which Napoleon Bonaparte dominated Europe and swept away many of the last remnants of the old and discredited regimes of the Enlightenment.
Another survey site, The Enlightenment, is worth your attention, and some of you may enjoy the life of the famous Catherine the Great. Chinese Ideas in the West focuses on an aspect of the Enlightenment not often considered, but particularly interesting from the point of bview of World History.
This text was produced by
Lynn H. Nelson,
Department of History,
University of Kansas.
12 January 1998