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Western Civilization since 1650

Week III Lecture Outline


The Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment


Part One:  The Scientific Revolution


A)    New discoveries and new ideas about nature during 1500s and 1600s result in major changes in thinking about nature and about how we gain knowledge.


 B) New discoveries and ideas alter conceptions of God's role in nature and assert that nature works according to laws that man can come to understand

C) New metaphors to explain the world and new communities to share ideas

D) Newton and the convergence of trends in the Scientific Revolution

E) Link to the Enlightenment


Part Two:  Enlightenments


A) Common features of the Enlightenment in different countries

B) Some other things to keep in mind about Enlightenment thinkers

C) Most basic argument of Enlightenment thinkers regarding human institutions

Examples:  Kant (Enlightenment as reaching intellectual and spiritual maturity--"dare to know!")

                    Diderot:  Only knowledge, truth, and rationality can defeat ignorance, corruption, superstition, and tyranny.


D) Religion, Deism, and Atheism

E) Power and Liberty:  Enlightenment thinkers and the critique of Absolutism

Examples:  Locke argued that in "the state of nature," man was absolutely free.  Men have liberty and certain rights on the basis of natural law.  But men, joined together as society, willing gave up a very small share of their freedom (liberty) by creating government.  The purpose of government was to protect man's liberty and property.  Government exists as a contract between society (individuals joined together) and the government: men recognize government's (limited) authority (which means that men give up a little freedom); in return, government protects and defends men's liberty and property.  To ensure that government follows the law and defends liberty, governments must follow constitutions that limit the government's powers.


Montesquieu accepted the idea that government was a contract between the governed and the government with the goal of protecting liberty.  He argued that man has liberty in accord with natural law, and that history shows us what forms of governments best preserve and protect liberty.  The best way to preserve liberty was to limit the powers of government through a constitution, and to divide the powers of government between different institutions.   Dividing government into three separate branches based upon function--legislative, executive, and judicial--and creating "checks and balances" between these branches would prevent any one institution from combining all three powers.  Montesquieu argued that whenever one institution  (e.g., the executive) combined all three functions, the result was despotism and the loss of liberty.  Absolutism, therefore, was a form of despotism.


Rousseau also criticized Absolutism, but came to very different conclusions than Locke or Montesquieu.  Rousseau believed that man in nature was free, but that government was tool of those who had been corrupted by property and by reason.  To put man back into the state of nature, to return to freedom and to morality, individuals had to surrender their rights to the community as a whole and agree to follow the "general will."  For Rousseau, the social contract required that individuals subordinate their own interests to the public good, which was the only "true" path to morality and freedom.


Note:  Voltaire, unlike most French enlightenment thinkers, believed that only enlightened absolutist monarchs could guide men towards improvement.)


F) Economic Thought:  Enlightenment thinkers argued that economic life also follows natural laws, which can be studied and understood.


G) Point.  Enlightenment thinkers believed that if human institutions were reformed according to natural law, the result would be progress.