The Enlightenment



  • What was the Scientific Revolution and what was its impact?
  • What was the Enlightenment and what was its impact?
  • What were the key idea and concepts of the Enlightenment?

The Enlightenment, or the Age of Reason, is the period in the 1700-1800’s in which European political philosophers developed ideas about how government should work.  The ideas were inspired by the discoveries of the Scientific Revolution.

The Scientific Revolution began in the mid-1500’s when scientists began discovering natural laws about the universe. Before it, people’s understanding of the way the universe worked was told to them by the Roman Catholic Church (most of the population was Roman Catholic).

The most famous example of this change involved the understanding of the universe. The Church taught that the Earth was the center of the universe, which was called the geocentric theory. In 1543, after his death, Polish astronomer Copernicus’ book was published that challenged the Church’s teaching. He observed that the Sun was the center of the universe, which is called heliocentric theory.

In 1609, Italian scientist Galileo Galilei built a telescope and confirmed Copernicus’ theory. He also published his finding and got in trouble with the Pope. As a result, he was put on trial in front of the Church, which is called an Inquisition. Under the pressure, Galileo recanted and publicly said that the Church was right, though he didn’t believe it.

In short, the Scientific Revolution was when people started making discoveries based on observations that were in conflict with traditional beliefs. Of course, these discoveries also coincided with the declining power of the Church as a result of the Protestant Reformation.

During this time, the scientific method was developed, where scientists used observations to test hypotheses and learn more about the natural world. Many other thinkers are part of this movement, including Sir Isaac Newton, the father of physics, and Renee Descartes, who compiled many of the age’s new findings in a set of encyclopedias.

The philosophes were explaining history and trying to discover natural laws that governed society.  These thinkers identified several things that they believed to be natural laws that applied to people and society.  One of the most important was the idea of Natural Rights.  Enlightenment philosophers believed that everyone was entitled to three basic rights, no matter what.  The natural rights are:  Life, Liberty and Property.

Enlightenment thinkers came up with the Social Contract Theory of Government.  This concept, developed by Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, stated that government was an agreement between the people in power and the people who lived under their rule.  In this deal, the individuals give up a portion of their natural rights in exchange for the security and safety provided by the government.  If either side doesn’t meet the agreement, the contract is void.

Another key belief of the Enlightenment was popular sovereignty, which is the belief that the people are the true and only source of government’s power.  So power comes from the people, not from God as believed in the period before (as in the era of absolutism and the Divine Right of Kings).

The Enlightenment was also a secular movement.  Secular means “worldly rather than spiritual,” or, in other words, non-religious.  Enlightenment thinkers rejected the idea of Divine Right, which absolute monarchs used to justify their abuses of power.

Another key idea designed to stop the abuse of power of absolute monarchs was separation of powers.  Dividing the government into different parts makes it so one part doesn’t get too powerful and abuse its power.  This also leads to checks and balances, the idea that these different parts “check” the power of the others.

Some absolute monarchs heard the ideas of the Enlightenment and changed the way they rule (well… a little at least).  They are called Enlightened despots.  The best example is Catherine the Great of Russia.  Most weren’t smart enough to makes changes and the people would eventually revolt and overthrow them.  Usually they executed the ruler too.

There were several key Enlightenment thinkers, mostly from England and France.

Thomas Hobbes was from England.  He was the author of Leviathan (1651), an allegory about the overthrow and beheading of the English King Charles I.  Hobbes believed that men were “simple and brutish” and needed a strong government to keep order in society.  Unlike other Enlightenment Thinkers, he advocated a strong government like absolute monarchs.  However, his ideas started the discussion of how government should work, leading to different ideas.

John Locke was also from England.  He is probably the most important thinker of the Enlightenment.  He wrote Two Treatises of Government, which stressed Natural Rights and introduced the idea of the Social Contract Theory of Government.  This ideas said that government should protect the natural rights of people or be overthrown, thus justifying revolution.

Voltaire was from France.  He believed an enlightened monarchy (enlightened despot)—a ruler familiar with the philosophy of the Enlightenment—was the best form of government.  He also expanded the ideas of Locke’s Social Contract and Natural Rights.

Jean Jacques Rousseau, of France, wrote a book called The Social Contract.  He is famous for saying that “Man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains… ”  Rousseau stressed that power came from the people, not from God.

Montesquieu was another Frenchmen.  He was a baron and landed aristocrat who wrote The Spirit of Laws.  He proposed governmental powers be separated among three branches: legislative, executive and judicial to prevent abuse of power. Each branch would check on the other.

The Enlightenment and its ideas helped cause the American and French Revolutions.  In fact, it has been a cause of every revolution ever since.  Modern democracies are based on the ideas the Enlightenment thinkers talked about.


Practice Multiple-Choice Questions on the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment

BEFORE:  Evolution of Parliamentary Democracy in England     *     AFTER:  The French Revolution

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