Note: I don’t have a good reason for choosing this featured image. I was just tired of paintings of rich white dudes.
As you may be able to guess (because it’s history and history is just one big circle of life), the Age of Enlightenment was very much connected to the Scientific Revolution. The ideas generated by scientists and thinkers in the 1600s directly influenced philosophers in the next century. For one thing, Enlightenment thinkers were obsessed with reason to the point that they thought the scientific method could be used to come to conclusions about every aspect of life. And it could be used to make the world a better place.
There was a super cool name for these thinkers – philosophes – which is French for philosopher (even though some of them weren’t French and not all of them were technically philosophers). Philosophes at the time included writers, professors, journalists, economists, and social activists.
The philosophes’ way of thinking revolved around a few main ideas.
- Reason – “the absence of intolerance, bigotry, or prejudice in one’s thinking” which allowed thinkers to understand the world on their own, using the scientific method to come to conclusions about every aspect of life (and to challenge what was previously accepted – like the idea of the earth being the center of the universe)
- Natural Laws – The idea was that if Newton could discover that nature was governed by universal laws like gravity, then there were probably universal laws that governed things like politics and economics.
- Progress – They could use reason and natural laws to improve society and make the world a better place, instead of being satisfied with the way things had always been.
- Liberty – None of the other ideas had any value if people weren’t free to explore them or discuss them (freedom of speech). For example, during the Scientific Revolution, Galileo wasn’t free to express his findings about the nature of planets and the solar system or the idea that the earth wasn’t the center of the universe because the Catholic Church disagreed with him.
- Toleration – Having seen the damage of religious discrimination and religious wars, they demanded religious tolerance and freedom for religious minorities.
Before we get into the French philosophes who dominated the Enlightenment, we should probably review John Locke since he was a major influence on these thinkers. In chapter 18, we talked about his perspective. He said that humans are born with universal rights of life, liberty, and property, but these rights don’t mean anything if there’s no structure. So people agree to a social contract which gives authority to a person or group to help govern and enforce these rights. However, if this person or group misuses their authority, that means they’ve broken the social contract (unlike the unbreakable contract suggested by Hobbes). In that case, the people can resist and even overthrow the government, if necessary. As you can hopefully tell, this is basically the complete opposite of the idea of the divine right of kings.
So what would this look like in real life? Great question. John Locke would love to show you. Remember when James II was kicked out of England and William and Mary came from the Netherlands to take over for him? Well, John Locke was involved in that. And he worked with William of Orange to negotiate the Bill of Rights, which gave more power to Parliament (the elected branch of England’s government) and also guaranteed certain rights for citizens.
Locke also suggested that when people were born, they were like a blank slate. Enlightenment thinkers wanted to make an effort to influence these blank slates for good and to improve society.
For fans of the United States constitution, it could be said that Montesquieu was a True American Hero since he wrote about the concept of the separation of powers in government in his book On the Spirit of Laws. Montesquieu actually visited England 20 years before writing his book, which is where he observed the three branches of government: executive (king/monarch), legislative (Parliament), and judicial (courts).* This should sound pretty familiar since the US constitution was, you know, based on it. The point is that no one branch can have more power than the others in order to avoid a real Louis XIV or Peter the Great (absolutist) type situation, because it turns out that sometimes people let a little power go to their heads. As Montesquieu said in his book On the Spirit of Laws, “When the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person…there can be no liberty.” This idea that power corrupts individuals and that a balance of power is necessary to guarantee freedom could be considered a natural law of politics that was discovered by Montesquieu during the Enlightenment.
*The Glorious Revolution (balancing out power between the king and Parliament) happened a year before Montesquieu was born in 1689. Timing is everything. Also, it should be noted that the separation of powers wasn’t working flawlessly IRL, but it was still the best option out there at the time.
Montesquieu was a big deal, but Voltaire was the biggest deal during the Enlightenment. He was born in France in 1694, about 10 years after Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes. Think back to chapter 18…Revoking the Edict of Nantes was Louis XIV’s big mistake because it eliminated religious protection and discriminated against Huguenots (French Protestants), causing them to flee the country and take their economic contributions elsewhere. Little Voltaire grew into an adult man who was not a huge fan of the Christian Church and who fought for religious toleration in France. His thoughts on God and faith were obviously based on reason and natural law (it was the Enlightenment, after all) and were specifically called deism. Voltaire believed that God created the universe along with natural laws. And those natural laws were sufficient to run the universe without God, so He left it alone to do its thing. Since Voltaire believed God was not involved in the day-to-day business of the universe, he thought the ritual (prayers, candles, etc) of church was just a waste of time and that church leaders (priests, popes, bishops, etc) were just using religion as a way to benefit themselves (by getting money or power). Voltaire wrote about this in A Portable Philosophic Dictionary (kind of like a blog) and it was witty, easy to read, simple, and full of common sense (much like these notes, right?) so it didn’t feel like he was attacking religion. In fact, his point was that basically all people are in awe of the creator and share universal morals (standards of behavior or beliefs concerning what is and is not acceptable for them to do), so there’s no reason to fight about religion.
Voltaire also had issues with the government. He could see the ways that Louis XIV’s religious intolerance had damaged France. At one point, Voltaire offended a noble lord and challenged him to a duel, which landed him in the Bastille (French prison) and he was eventually exiled to England. But in England, Voltaire could see a powerful example of religious toleration. It’s not that all English citizens practiced the exact same faith but that, despite many variations of Protestantism, there was no need to fight. Seeing this example in England prompted him to write Letters on the English which made him hugely successful and influential. He wrote about freedom of speech and religious toleration in such a brilliant and clever way that he was able sway public opinion which eventually brought about change. And that was exactly his goal. He wanted his writings to change the way people thought and behaved.
You might say that Diderot created the pre-internet. Not in a technical sense, but in an informational sense. Because Diderot created the first Encyclopedia. And nothing like this had ever been done before! His set of books put together the best and brightest thoughts on technology, science, math, music, art, medicine, government, law, geography, and more. I mean, think about it, where did people get information at the time? Yes, they could read basic books, but those would be limited and specific in subject matter. Or they could read newspapers, but even newspapers were fairly new and information would change from day to day. Diderot’s idea was to publish a cross between a set of reference articles and a giant pamphlet. This was pretty ambitious and he definitely didn’t have the money to make it happen. So he decided to publish in a very kickstarter-y way — between 3,000 and 4,000 subscribers paid to get each volume before it became available. It took Diderot 20 years to complete his full set! Can you imagine waiting that long for anything? He faced lots of opposition along the way since his articles clearly had an agenda (promoting Enlightenment ideals). At one point, his publisher was jailed and had his license cancelled. So when he was finally done with 28 volumes in 1772, many of the articles he had written or collected had been censored by the publisher to avoid controversy and retaliation from the government.
Coming in with the most basic name as well as the discovery of other natural laws was Adam Smith. His focus was on economic natural laws. Adam Smith just so happened to have access to one of Diderot’s Encyclopedias, where he read about the physiocrats – a group of French economic theorists. That’s really just a fancy way of saying Adam Smith read about economic ideas written by some French guys. Remember our dearly departed friend Jean-Baptiste Colbert who improved the French economy for Louis XIV? He used the idea of mercantilism to generate wealth in France. Well, these physiocrats were saying that mercantilism didn’t work. (Cue Colbert rolling over in his grave.) They believed it didn’t help to regulate things like taxes on imported goods. Instead, they promoted free trade (in other words, no government intervention in the economy). This idea that “the economy would prosper by itself if the government left it alone” was called laissez faire (French for “leave alone”). Adam Smith read about this in Diderot’s Encyclopedia and wrote a whole book about the concept, as well as his three “natural laws of economics”:
- The law of self-interest: People are selfish and bakers aren’t out here selling bread to bless the people, but to make money of course.
- The law of competition: Selfish bakers have to compete with each other to get the business of the people they aren’t trying to bless. In order to get that business, they have to make better and cheaper breads. Therefore competition leads to better products.
- The law of supply and demand: If selfish bakers bake too many loaves of bread for the number of people buying them, they will have to lower the price to get those loaves to sell. Some selfish bakers will end up going out of business, but that will mean fewer loaves of bread for the number of people buying them, so the remaining selfish bakers can raise their prices again.
Old professor Smith said that instead of telling selfish bakers how to do their jobs or adding taxes to foreign loaves of bread, the government should do three things. First, the army should protect the selfish bakers (aka society) from invasion. Second, the police should defend selfish bakers (aka citizens) from injustice. And third, the government should maintain infrastructure (things like roads and canals) so that the people can get to the selfish bakers to buy their bread.
Ok, here are some paintings of white dudes for you…
Anyway, so there was a lot of intense thought and debate going on with the philosophes, but the rest of society was changing too. For one thing, publishing was growing (thanks again, printing press!) and so was the popularity of reading. In the past, books were written for small audiences of the educated elite, but now they were also written for the middle class. Books were even marketed to women because they could read too, thank you very much! Magazines and newspapers were also becoming a thing. The first newspaper to be published on a daily basis was printed in London, beginning in 1702. Newspapers were inexpensive (they didn’t have to compete with the internet and TV and Kindles) and could sometimes be found for free in coffeehouses. Some things weren’t that different back then, including these coffeehouses. They weren’t exactly like Starbucks, but they provided a place for people to gather and drink coffee and discuss the news and local issues. People also gathered at salons – a fancier version of a coffeehouse. Salons were gatherings hosted by wealthy upper class women in their homes. The women would invite guests such as writers, artists, aristocrats, government officials, and wealthy middle-class people to discuss the latest ideas from the philosophes. In this way, women were able to actively participate in the spread of Enlightenment ideas. Let’s hear it for the ladies!
While it may not seem like a big deal, the Age of Enlightenment was a major change that didn’t come easily (change is hard, as we all know). Think about it. For hundreds and hundreds of years, religion had been the foundation of society. It provided structure and stability. People knew to look to the Church in times of confusion, to know what was right or wrong, to understand why some years were plentiful and some resulted in famines, why natural disasters occurred, why plagues spread, etc etc. The Church was where they learned how to think and what to believe about the world around them. Before the Reformation, they couldn’t even read the Bible for themselves, so they had to attend a church to hear this information. And church leadership was also community/town/regional leadership. As we can see in this section, the new ways of thinking threatened this old way of life. The Church and the governments felt threatened that they might lose their power because new ideas suggested that these institutions were harmful or unnecessary. But the majority of “regular people” probably also felt threatened because the new ideas were trying to change life as the people understood it. So in terms of changes happening across society, it was the “Age of Enlightenment” but for most people it probably felt like the “Age of Confusion and Instability.”