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Week 3 Lecture Notes

The Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment

Part One:  The Scientific Revolution

New thinking about science (“natural philosophy”) slightly anticipated the rise of the new ideas in statecraft that were the focus of previous lectures (Mercantilist, “politique” and Absolutist concepts).  And these new modes of scientific reasoning had an important influence on thinking about the power of kings and the State. 

But new ways of looking at science also influenced the social and political theorists of the Enlightenment, whose arguments would challenge and help to undermine the power claims of Europe’s Kings.


Historians generally identify 3 major changes associated with the Scientific Revolution of the 1500s and 1600s: 

1)      the shift to seeing the Sun (and not the Earth) as the center of the universe;

2)      the development of a mathematically-based physics to explain how this re-conceptualized universe works;

3)      and the working out of a “scientific method” that could be used both to describe and to predict the behavior of the natural world.


I also want to stress that these developments helped shift the “center” of attention of European thought away from religion:  the Earth was pushed from the center of Universe, and with it, God was pushed from the center of thinking about nature. 

That is not the same thing as saying that the scientific revolution was “atheistic,” nor even principally “secular”—Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton and other major figures in the new science were deeply religious people who believed that they were describing God’s grand plan. 

But by exposing the workings of nature as following rules—“laws”—that people can figure out and understand, the new science helped to re-imagine God as (to use Newton’s metaphor) a great clock maker, who made the clock (the universe) so that it would work according to certain rules, then set the clock running and stood back to watch it run.

Also, one of the principles of the new science was that understanding the laws that govern nature can help you understand how to manipulate and transform the natural world more effectively (here is the link between science and technology).


Two things to keep in mind:

A) The “big” steps in the scientific revolution did not “just happen”--it had roots; also, it did not happen all at once—it was a long, drawn out series of many accumulated discoveries and theories.

B) Scientific thinking did not (and has not) completely replaced magically thinking and other forms of non-scientific “reasoning.”

Again, we need to understand that the “scientific revolution” is related to ideas we have talked about already and ideas we will discuss next:


Link to mercantilism and absolutism:  Once the basic “method” of scientific thinking began to establish itself among the educated elite and wielders of power in Europe, it helped promote the “rationalist”  “reason of state” ideas that we discussed earlier. 

Link to the Enlightenment:  New science thinking also led to the idea that human society, like nature, followed laws that could be observed, defined, and explained.  Enlightenment thinkers, building from the scientific approach, concluded that if you can use knowledge of nature to improve on nature, then you could also use knowledge of mankind to improve society.

Background:  The scientific revolution did not “come out of nowhere”

According to medieval thinkers who combined Classical and Christian ideas, the universe was hierarchical (like the society of the era):  they often described it as a giant ladder from Hell, to Earth, to Heaven.  They believed that Earth stood motionless at the center of the universe; seven planets (counting the Moon and the Sun) revolved around the Earth in perfect circular orbits and at uniform speeds, each on its own crystal sphere; the stars moved around the Earth on an 8th crystal sphere; a 9th Heavenly sphere lay beyond the stars; an outermost 10th sphere, the Empyrean, surrounded everything else and was the location of God and the angels. 

In this conception of nature, everything on Earth was made of 4 elements that constantly mixed together and changed:  earth, water, air, and fire; everything in the other, heavenly spheres was made of “ether”—a perfect, pure, incorruptible and unchanging element that could not be found on earth.  This conception of nature fit both with the ancient teachings of Aristotle and with the theology of the Church.

Early examples of “new” thinking:  As early as the 1300s, some European philosophers began to argue that there was a difference between the study of nature and the study of theology—that humans could not know the mind of God (although “reveled” truth and faith could bring man closer to God), but man could learn the laws that govern nature.


In the late 1300s and early 1400s, Renaissance scholars studying the Classical world helped to revive interest in the mathematical (especially geometric) works of the Egyptian Hermes and the Greeks Archimedes, Pythagoras and Ptolemy (who had used math to explain why the “odd” orbits of the planets did not behave as Aristotle had said they should). 

Along with this new interest in mathematics, Renaissance craftsmen began applying mathematics to new technologies, such as lens grinding (for optics), which made possible the new science of Astronomy. It was in the new study of Astronomy that science had its most significant early breakthroughs—although few of them had immediate impact. 

The Science that led the way:  new ideas about Astronomy in the 1500s and early 1600s:

At the dawn of the 1500s, Nicholas Copernicus used mathematics to determine that the Sun was not a planet and that the Earth was a planet—and that the earth and the planets orbited around the Sun.  He did not publish his conclusions until the 1540s.  The implications of the idea that the Earth revolved around the sun (which is where we get the word “Revolution”), were huge:  it implied that God had not put MAN at the center of the universe, either. 

In the three generations after Copernicus, other astronomers punched more holes in Aristotle’s universe, observing new stars (which meant that the heavens were NOT unchanging), determining that planets orbited in ellipses (not perfect circles) each at its own speed (not at a fixed speed). 

Most famously, in the early 1600s Galileo Galilei combined the use of a telescope to collect new observational data with the use of mathematics to explain that data:  with these methods, he documented craters on the moon and other evidence that the heavens were not made of perfectly smooth, unchanging, un-corruptible ether; moons orbiting Jupiter, which further “de-throned” the Earth as the only center of the universe; his observations and calculations supported Copernicus—the earth moved around the sun and not visa versa.

Added together on top of previous new findings (of Copernicus, Brahe, and Keppler), Galileo’s claims constituted an attack at the very basis of the Catholic Church’s established Aristotle-based conception of nature.  As we all know, this brought Galileo into conflict with the Church, and he eventually “recanted.” 

But by combining observation (data gathering), the use of mathematics to develop a theory to explain the data, and experimentation to test his theories, Galileo had not only helped to shatter the old conjunction of “religious truth” and “science”—he had helped to create the modern Scientific Method. 


Science and Epistemology:  Bacon and Descartes

What we call “Science” was understood in the Early Modern era to be a branch of Philosophy—natural philosophy.  But new scientific discoveries also led to much rethinking in the branch of Philosophy known as “Epistemology”—the study of how we know what we know.

Two major schools of thinking about the methods of Natural Philosophy (science) and Epistemology emerged in the 1600s.  One of these is generally associated with England, and is often called as “Empiricism” or inductive method; the other, which held more sway on the continent, is often called “Cartesian” or deductive method.

As Coffin explains, in the early 1600s English philosopher Sir Frances Bacon argued that humans learn of the world by collecting information through their senses (by observation).  They then use their intellect to draw logical conclusions to explain the “data” that they gather through observation. 

This is called “Empiricism” because it holds that uncovering truth requires the collection of “empirical” evidence (rather than pure reason or pure logic); the method of “lining up the physical facts” to reach a conclusion is called “induction” or inductive reasoning.

Bacon and his followers argued that such a method would lead to the discovery of “useful” and “practical” knowledge that would help humans control and shape their environment. 

Bacon’s views were elaborated by a series of other British philosophers:  in regard to Epistemology, the most important was John Locke, who we most often think of as a political philosopher (e.g., his “contract theory” of government).  In 1690, in his “Essay on Human Understanding,” Locke argued that human beings are born “blank slates,” with no “innate” ideas; all we know, all we learn, is derived from experience, from the senses.  This view of knowledge, which was closely tied to an approach to answering scientific questions, would also prove extremely influential to new thinking about “social science.”

In contrast to the approach of Bacon and the Empiricists was the view of French philosopher René Descartes, who also lived and wrote in the early 1600s.  Descartes argued that our understanding of the world came through application of reason—pure logic.

In his essay “A Discourse on Method” (1637), Descartes argued that all ideas must be subjected to critical examination (instead of taking any idea as a “given”), that this examination must be based upon reason, and that it required establishing a “first principle”—a thing that he could know with certainty—from which other arguments could be built.  Descartes’ first principle was that he himself existed.  As Descartes put it, “I think, therefore I am.” 


From that starting point, he argued, one could “reason outward” to determine other principles on the basis of pure logic and mathematics.  For Descartes, this meant that science could be freed from other philosophical concerns, such as morality:  instead, it would be the realm of things that can be calculated.  Descartes approach to problem solving is often described as “deductive reasoning.”

The difference between the Cartesian and Empiricist method can be put simply:

The Cartesians argued that truths could be established through mathematics/logical calculations, and that the observed world would behave in the ways described by the math—their aim was to find the logical laws that governed systems;

    The Baconians/Empiricists argued that you must begin with observations of reality (observational and experimental data), then use reason and math to describe and explain what had been observed—their aim was describing and explaining that which was observed.

A New Metaphor and a New Scientific Community

One of the many things that the Cartesians and the Empiricists had in common is that most used a new metaphor to describe nature:  the machine.

The metaphors that philosophers used to describe man, nature, and society previous to the scientific revolution tended to be hierarchical and  “organic”—society, for instance, was described in terms of patriarchal family relations (the state as a family), and the universe was described in a similar fashion.

In the mid-to-late 1600s, the metaphor became the machine—each element of nature, according to many “natural philosophers” could be understood as a machine with particular functions, and all these machines behaved according to (followed) the same fundamental laws of nature.  Descartes, for instance, saw humans as “machines with reason.”  Robert Hooke described the orbits of the planets as “machine like.”  William Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of blood, for instance, was based upon the idea that the heart works like a machine—a pump.

According to the most important scientist of the period, Isaac Newton, described God as a great and mysterious machine builder, who for reasons beyond the grasp of man had designed the universe to work according to certain “laws” then set the machine in motion.  And language used to describe the State had also became “mechanistic” by the early 1700s.

The new natural philosophers also had in common a new kind of scientific community.  Scientists shared their discoveries through the meetings and publications of various “scientific academies,” like the Royal Society in England created in the 1660s, the French Royal Academy of Sciences, and similar societies in Prussia, in northern Italy, and in Russia (Peter the Great’s Russian Imperial Academy of Sciences was founded in 1725). 

These academies had several important functions that changed the nature of science. 

      First, they established a strong link between the State and new science, since the State was often the sponsor of their research activities and publications.  (In a sense, they were early examples of the modern research “think tank.”)

     Second, they provided a new process for judging the quality of research—scientists who presented their research to the academies for discussion and publication had to produce their “proof”—their evidence and their calculations—which would be reviewed by other experts on the topic.  This is the way that modern scholarship is evaluated.

     Third, their publications and meetings became venues for the popularization of scientific discoveries to a broader audience.

     And finally, they created interlocking “communities” of scientists, who shared discoveries across national borders (which is crucial if science is going to thrive).

In some regards these scientific societies were the grandfathers of the “Salons” of the 1700s, the gathering places where educated people met to discuss the ideas of the Enlightenment—certainly the communities of scientists can be seen as part of the expanding “public sphere” of the early modern era.

 Putting all the bits of the New Science together—Newton

Coffin’s excellent summary of the life and work of Isaac Newton explains that Newton fused the Empiricists' concern for observation and experimentation with the Cartesians' mastery of pure mathematics.  Perhaps the best example of Newton’s method of using reason and mathematics to explain the laws that govern observed phenomenon was his invention of Calculus, so that he would have a form of mathematics that allowed him to work on the problem of explaining the planets’ irregular elliptical orbits (his results finally killed off any idea that the Earth was the center of the universe).

Newton published crucial research on topics ranging from Optics to Astronomy.  (And spent most of his time studying topics that we now consider un-scientific, like alchemy and theology.)  But his most important “discoveries” concerned the laws that govern motion and gravity.

Newton’s three laws regarding motion are fundamental to the way that we understand the physical world:

1)      Inertia:  a body at rest will remain at rest unless acted upon by a force; a body in rectilinear motion will remain in motion along the same path and the same velocity unless acted upon by a force.

2)      A given force produces a measurable change in a body’s velocity, and any change in a body’s velocity is proportional to the force acting upon it.

3)      For every action or force there is an equal and opposite reaction or force.

These three laws, Newton argued, explain how gravity works—every particle of mater in the universe, regardless of how small or large exerts an attractive force on every other particle in the universe.  The strength of that force is inverse to (increases or decrease based upon) the square of the distance between the two particle (the distance multiplied by itself), and proportional to their masses. 

(Here is an example:  Jupiter has a much greater mass than the Earth, and therefore has much “greater” gravitational pull.  But because our Moon is so close to the Earth and so far from Jupiter, the force on the Moon of Earth’s gravity is greater than is the force of Jupiter’s gravity.  That’s why our mood orbits the Earth, and does not orbit Jupiter....)

Newton argued—and provided both mathematical and observational proof—that these laws applied to everything in the universe.  Why does an apple that fall to the ground?

Gravity means that the apple, which has a small mass, is pulled toward the earth, which has a large mass [the earth is pulled to the apple, too, but because of the proportions of the two masses, the pull exerted by the apple is so small as to be un-noticed].  Why do the Earth and other planets orbit the Sun?  Because of gravity. 

Again, Newton’s universe was a giant complex machine with all of the components working according to the same laws of motion and gravity, which could be explained by mathematics.


New thinking about science had dramatic applications and implications that helped change European (and world) life.

Perhaps the most obvious implications were “practical”—the new science gave humans new tools for understanding how nature works and for creating technologies that allow us to alter or control nature.  As Coffin points out, Newton’s laws helped engineers design machines (bridges, buildings, etc.), helped predict tides, draw maps, etc.

But there is another, less obvious impact:  it introduced a method of solving problems that has changed the way that we think about society as well as nature.  The new scientific method combined the collection of evidence with the application of reason to solve problems—you collect data, propose an argument that explains that data, construct a mathematical or logical proof of that argument and expose the explanation to experimental tests for verification.  A successful theory (scientists call them Laws) will allow you to predict how a phenomenon will behave.   From this Scientific Revolution—this revolution in thinking—it was not such a great leap to wondering—can we establish the laws that govern how human societies behave (can we understand social sciences), and if we can reveal these laws, can we then use them to make human life better?  This was the question posed by the Enlightenment.

PART TWO:  The Enlightenment

In the 1700s, many of Europe’s major social thinkers were strongly influenced by a body of ideas described as “the Enlightenment.”


Enlightenment thinkers had in common, first of all, belief in “systematic doubt”—that everything must be subjected to the critical light of reason, and that no ideas or opinions or traditions should be accepted without first proving their accuracy and worth.

Second, they took science as the correct method of reasoning and saw the natural world as the model for human behavior.  They judged human behaviors and institutions by whether or not they accorded with “natural law” (and not whether they fit with the teachings of the classical world or with the doctrines of the Church).

Third, many rejected Christian doctrine and believed that reason was the path to Truth, which could not be reached by theology (or divine revelation, or the guidance of priests). 

Fourth, they rejected the Christian view that people were inherently depraved.  They claimed that humans have reason and human behavior follows laws, just as other aspects of nature follow laws. 

Fifth, they saw physical science, social science, and the humanities as connected, and believed that by applying the “scientific method” people could determine and understand all aspects of nature, society, and the individual.

Sixth, they were “on a mission,” to liberate humanity from darkness and ignorance through the application of science, reason, tolerance, and humanitarianism.  They believed in the possibility of Progress through rationality used their writings to influence  a “broad” audience—the “reading public.”  They were not writing for “other philosophers.”  (See the section in Coffin chapter 19 on Enlightenment culture, the “reading public,” and the “public sphere”—pages 668-72)

Seventh, they often criticized the principles of Absolutism and monarchical rule and the entire social system of the “old order,” including the economic principles of mercantilism.  Their ideas regarding government and the economy were closely linked to new movements for representative government, constitutions, and laissez-faire free market capitalism.


Some things that we must bear in mind before going further:

1.Not all Enlightenment thinkers were “democratic,” and in fact Enlightenment political thought could be carried in a number of different directions—some Enlightenment thinkers were supporters of Absolutism.  Many rejected the idea of equal rights for women or for non-Europeans.

2. Not all Enlightenment thinkers saw a connection between “rationality/progress” and the emergence of a capitalist economy and society—some felt that private property corrupted society.

3. While Enlightenment ideas did not stop when they reached national borders, there were important “national” variations on the Enlightenment—the Anglo-Scottish Enlightenment, for instance, placed greater emphasis on “political economy” than did the French Enlightenment; the French and the English placed greater emphasis on political liberty than did the German Enlightenment (etc).


“Dare to Know!”

Enlightenment thinkers believed that nature followed rational rules—that life consistently abided by a set of logical principles.  They contrasted this to the way mankind had allowed itself to become organized according to “irrational” and “unnatural” principles.  To the philosophes (Enlightenment thinkers) poverty, injustice, ignorance, etc., were the consequence of humans’ failure to live according to “natural” rational principles. 

If the scientific method were applied to studying society, they believed, then we could discern the “natural laws” that govern the economy, law, government, morality, etc.  All human institutions, therefore, should be judged on the basis of their accordance with these “natural laws”: those that followed natural laws, that were “rational,” would promote progress and well-being for the individual and the society; those that did not measure up—that failed to follow “rational principles” of “natural law”--had to be replaced.  Mostly, their model of science was that of Bacon and the Empiricists—which stressed the importance of analyzing observational data instead of Cartesian “pure logic” and “system building.”

Implicit in the Enlightenment emphasis on science and natural law was man’s ability to reason, to think, to reflect upon experience.  The German philosopher Immanuel Kant described Enlightenment as “reaching maturity”:  the failure to think for yourself did not come from a lack of intelligence, but from immaturity—the desire to have someone else make your decisions for you, like a child—and from a lack of courage to use your own intelligence.  Kant’s motto for the Enlightenment was “Dare to know!” 

Diderot, a leading figure in the French Enlightenment, said that every issue, every idea had to be examined critically without concern for breaking taboos or hurting feelings.  Only by “daring” to think this way could the world be made better.  Knowledge, truth, rationality would defeat ignorance, corruption, superstition, and tyranny. 

As one writer put in at the time, “Ignorance and servitude are calculated to make men wicked and unhappy.  Knowledge, reason, and Liberty alone can reform them and make them happier.  ....  Men are unhappy only because they are ignorant, and they are ignorant only because everything conspires to prevent them from being enlightened...they are wicked only because their reason is not fully developed.”


Religion, Deism, Skepticism and Atheism

Enlightenment thinkers saw themselves as living in an age of Enlightenment, an Age of Reason (to use a phrase made famous by Thomas Paine), which they viewed as the rejection of the previous “Age of Faith.” 

They blamed the institutions and teachings of Christianity for promoting superstition instead of reason; for keeping people in a state of moral childhood by telling them that God and Church would provide them with all they need to know; for teaching that humans by nature were wicked and sinful, and that happiness can be found only in heaven.. so as to keep people from trying to improve the world in which they live; for stoking the fires of fanaticism and hatred against those of other faiths, which led to the Crusades, the Inquisition, and wars of religion; and for frightening people into submission, so that they would obey tyrants instead of seeking liberty. 

Enlightenment thinkers criticized the Bible for its logical contradictions and condemned faith in miracles and the supernatural as irrational.  The Scottish Enlightenment thinker David Hume, for instance, argued that a “miracle” was by definition a violation of natural law; any phenomenon occurring in nature, Hume argued, can be examined and eventually explained by science, and therefore is not “miraculous.”  

The French Enlightenment thinker Voltaire (Francois-Marie Arouet) described theology as “madness” and questioned the morality of any religion that would treat knowledge as sinful (i.e., Genesis, eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge causes the expulsion from Eden).  He reasoned that the Judaic-Christian God wanted man to remain “a dunce” (and that the serpent urging man on to eat the fruit of knowledge made a lot more sense to him than did God....).

Voltaire condemned the institutions of Christianity as hypocritical for claiming to preach love while in fact teaching hatred—for encouraging slaughter after slaughter of non-believers and of those who practice a different form of Christianity than one’s own.   But Voltaire was not an atheist—he did believe in a “righteous God,” and he did believe in the importance of following God’s “moral commandments.”  

Voltaire and most Enlightenment thinkers were “deists.”  Building off of the ideas of 17th century “free-thinkers” like Pierre Bayle (in France) and Matthew Tindal (in England), they condemned the immoral behavior of clergymen and attacked religious dogmas.  But at the same time they saw fundamental truth in the idea of a wise and just God.  Rituals, dogma, most teachings of Christianity, the deists believed, had little or nothing to do with God’s few simple truths.  As Tindel put it, true religion—God’s original moral law--meant doing as much good as we can.  This was the essence of religion for deists—it was a moral code, based upon principles of justice and humane behavior.


The deists also believed that God was logically necessary as a “first cause” of the universe—that something as perfect as nature could not have been accidental, and must have been designed by an intelligent creator.  The deists viewed God the designer of the universe, an all-knowing creator who built the clock to followed simple rules.  Unlike Newton, who believed in the active presence of God in man’s affairs through the intercession of angels (etc), the deists believed that God let nature run on its own. 

Most deists, like Voltaire, argued that belief in God was necessary to give people a “moral compass”—to keep people behaving properly.  Voltaire wrote that “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.”  But God also had given man the ability to reason, to study, reflect, and understand the moral and scientific laws that govern the universe. 

Not all Enlightenment thinkers agreed with the principles of Deism; David Hume, for instance, did not see any logical necessity for a “Creator”—just because the world behave according to “laws,” Hume argued, does not necessarily infer that there was some “cosmic watchmaker.”  Among those who rejected the conclusion of the deists also were atheists like Paul-Henri Tiray (Baron d’Holbach), who argued that all religion was a product of child-like fear of the unknown, and that the idea of God itself was the result of fear and ignorance.


Power and Liberty

The “philosophes” considered tyranny and “despotism” to be the other source of human ignorance and unhappiness (together with established religion).  They hoped not only for an age of Reason, but also for an Age of Liberty. 

One of the key political concepts for Enlightenment thinkers was the “contract theory” of government, the two best known versions of which are associated with John Locke and Jean–Jacques Rousseau.

Locke—like Thomas Hobbes before him--argued that man had originally lived in a “state of nature.” But whereas for Hobbes, the state of nature was a constant, violent, selfish struggle for survival, Locke described it as a state of “absolute freedom” and liberty—which for Locke meant the freedom to do whatever one wanted with oneself and one’s property. 

Both Locke and Hobbes agreed that mankind could not sustain itself in the “state of nature”—that many individuals seeking to protect their own interests created chaos and insecurity—and so mankind agreed to give up the state of nature and establish “civil society,” and to create a government that would function as the mediator of disputes. 

What was significant about Locke’s version of this idea of man inventing government to protect himself from other men who might take away his liberty was that he saw it as being based upon a contract.  According to Locke, men “contracted” with government, which was supposed to make sure that the “laws of nature” were followed. 

The function of government was to protect the “rule of law,” which meant to preserve the fundamental rights of individuals.  Most critical of these laws, according to Locke, were that all men had the rights of life (meaning that you can’t just up an kill me), liberty (the freedom to do anything that does not cause harm to others), and private property (that I can use or dispose of my private property in whatever way that I see fit).

Locke’s vision of government gave it very limited powers—any powers that the “contract” did not explicitly give to the state were powers reserved for the individual; state power, being contractual, could be “revoked” by the people, particularly if the state acted in such a way as to deprive the people of their liberty and rights.

Like Locke, most Enlightenment thinkers argued that the best way to ensure that government acted to protect the rule of law and the best way to limit the power of government was through a constitution—a law that defines the limits of the state’s powers.

Although he came from a very different starting point than did Locke, the French thinker Charles Louis de Secondat (Baron de Montesquieu) agreed on the importance of limiting government power.  Montesquieu argued that different historical and cultural conditions had led to the emergence of different forms of government in different lands, but that there were “universal norms” that applied to all peoples—natural laws. 

In his work “The Sprit of the Laws,” he tried to balance belief in the evolutionary differences between the different countries’ laws and governments with the idea that there were “absolute standards” of natural law; all laws, he concluded, must conform with natural law, while at the same time reflecting the specific “spirit” of the nation.  He concluded that there were three basic forms of government:

1) the republic, in which the people have supreme power. If power in the republic lay with the entire people, it is a democracy; if only a part of the people have power, according to Montesquieu, it is an aristocracy  

2) the monarchy, in which a king (etc) governs according to established laws and traditions

3) despotism, in which a tyrant rules arbitrarily without any regard for law.

To protect liberty and prevent government from sliding into despotism, he argued, government must be divided into three main components—legislative, executive, and judicial.  Also, means must be implemented to ensure checks and balances between the powers so that no one branch of government can monopolize power.  Whenever one person or body acts as legislator, executive, and judge, he concluded, the result is despotism and tyranny.

Not all philosophes agreed with Locke or Montesquieu.  Voltaire had little faith in the ability of ordinary people to rise above base superstitions and favored “Enlightened Absolutism”—he believed that the best path to progress was to trust reform-minded absolute monarchs (like Fredrick II of Prussia or Catherine II of Russia), who would make progressive changes for their subjects.  Voltaire considered the aristocracy—the nobles—to be in alliance with the Church against all progress; the only force capable of overriding the church and the nobility, he concluded, was the Monarch, and therefore he favored Absolutism.


Jean-Jaques Rousseau’s conception of politics also differed radically from that of Locke.   Rousseau in some ways is a precursor of Romanticism more than a champion of the Enlightenment—he felt, for instance, that gaining knowledge had corrupted people and he was suspicious of the philosophes “glorification of reason.”  Science and philosophy, he argued, give people a better understanding of the world but lead to moral decay.  He argued that man in the “state of nature”—the “savage man”--was morally superior to the “civilized man” of civil society, who lives in an “artificial,” “unnatural” world.  We are all innately good, he insisted, but society perverts us.

Rousseau argued that private property did not exist in the “state of nature” and that the birth of private property had destroyed equality and led to the creation of civil society and the state, which were tools by which the rich and clever dominate the rest of society.  Bad government had increased the corruption of man’s morality. The only path back to freedom and morality, Rousseau argued, was to find a means of balancing the interests of individuals with that of society as a whole.

His “solution” to this problem, laid out in his essay “The Social Contract,” was for each individual to unconditionally surrender all rights to the community as a whole and submit entirely to the community’s authority.  That would ensure that the good of the whole community was asserted—Rousseau referred to this as the “general will.”  He did not mean “majority rule” or “unanimous consent.”  Instead, he insisted, the “plain truth” would come out in public discussion by “listening to our hearts.”  The general will, he claimed, is always right, and should be the only principle on which society is governed—freedom is assured when citizens all obey the laws and devote themselves fully to the welfare of the community.  This, he claimed, would transform the individual, so that all cared primarily for the  happiness of others and not their own selfish concerns. 

While Hobbes had endorsed the idea of the hereditary monarch, Voltaire “Enlightened Absolutism,” and Locke parliamentary government, Roussseau called for direct democracy—sovereign state power would be composed of the collective body of all citizens, who because they all jointly “made” the law would voluntarily follow the law. 

Many historians and political scientists see in Rousseau’s ideas a foreshadowing of later forms of political dictatorship, in which leaders who claim to understand the general will and to be acting on the basis the public good rule by a reign of terror against those who they identify as outside the community or defying the  general will.  (e.g., Robespierre in the French Revolution).  What I want to stress is that already in the range of Enlightenment thought we see sharply divergent ideas about the nature of liberty and rights. 


For instance, Locke, the most fundamental natural right, the right that ensured all others, was the right of private property—so long as the individual controlled property, Locke argued, no other man could make him a slave.  In contrast, Rousseau considered private property a force that corrupted nature law and led to the loss of rights and liberty.

Similarly, we have seen differences among the philosophes over the best means of organizing government to promote progress and liberty—from supporters of absolutism to supporters of parliamentary monarchy to supporters of direct democracy.

Enlightenment thinkers also differed in their views on women’s rights.  Some—perhaps most—agreed with Rousseau and Thomas Paine that women were fundamentally different from men, that they were not equals to men and were in fact incapable of the sort of mature enlightenment as men, and their ultimate function was to be useful to men.  The most significant advocate of women’s equality in the late 1700s was the Englishwomen Mary Wollstonecraft, who argued that men could not be free and live in liberty as long as women were considered and treated as inferiors.  She outright rejected all arguments that women were incapable of advanced thought and condemned the idea that women should be weak and childish.  Wollstonecraft cleverly turned around the prejudices of her time:  since women were the main force in nurturing male children, she argued, the failure to promote women’s education, women’s rights, and women’s equality was dooming the cause of liberty and enlightenment among young men—to raise men who respected freedom required nurturing by educated, free, morally strong women. 

And they were inconsistent and often self-contradictory on matters of race—while many condemned enslavement of Africans, others turned a blind eye to it; Voltaire, for instance, considered European enslavement of Africans to be hypocrisy, yet considered Africans and Jews alike to be racial inferiors.  Ultimately, for most Enlightenment thinkers, natural law applied primarily to European men of the educated classes.


Laissez-faire economic thought

We have seen how Enlightenment thought attacked principles of organized religion and could be used to criticize Absolutist government; what about the relationship between Enlightenment ideas and Mercantilism?

A school of French economic thinkers, the “Physiocrats,” argued that mercantilist obsession with foreign trade and the accumulation of gold and silver was based upon a wrong-headed concept of national wealth and power.  Instead, they argued, the real source of the country’s wealth came from agriculture.  Trade policies that supported manufacturing at the expense of agriculture would weaken and not strengthen France, they argued.  One of the physiocrats’ arguments was that France should simplify its system of taxes and tariffs and free up the buying and selling of goods without government restrictions.  They called this “laissez-faire” (“let it alone”—meaning let things work themselves out according to natural law).

But the most important champions of laissez-faire economic thought were not French—they were British.  Among the most important principles to come out of the Anglo-English enlightenment were key laissez-faire “political-economic concepts”—the idea that control over one’s property was a fundamental natural right (which we have already discussed), and the “labor theory of value.”  A broad range of British thinkers, including Locke and Adam Smith, accepted the idea that objects in nature had no intrinsic value until human beings did something to them—that it was human labor that gave them value.  The value of an apple, for instance, is the sum of the labor put into planting and tending the tree, picking the apple, etc.; the value of an article of cloth is the sum total of all the human labor that went into it, etc. 

The single most important “political economist” of the Enlightenment has already mentioned several times in earlier lectures, Adam Smith.  Smith applied the scientific method to the economy—he close observed the workings of the growing market (capitalist) economy around him in an effort to discover the “natural laws” that govern economic activity. 

For Smith, private property was a fundamental natural right and people were motivated by the desire to use their private property to their own economic advantage.  Allowing people to do so, he insisted, would serve the public good.  The “invisible hand”—the underlying natural law moral principle governing the economy—would turn the activities of self-serving individuals towards the pubic welfare.

But to ensure that people can use their property as they see fit, the state must not interfere in the free contract between individuals in the market place—no state endorsed monopolies, no guilds, no legal restraints on trade could be permitted.  (In other words, mercantilism was out the window.)  Free competition in the market place would produce the best goods and the lowest prices and promote the public good while rewarding the businessman.

The market, Smith argued, had a clear logic of its own.  One of the laws that govern the market, for instance, was the law of supply and demand.  Another was the principle that the division of labor into discrete stages, each done by a different worker, would increase profit in two ways--by increasing productivity (the number of goods produced per labor hour), and by reducing the amount of skill necessary to production and therefore lowering the wages demanded by the worker.  Smith explained this system of production for the market motivated by the pursuit of individual profit as “capitalism.”


Conclusion:  The ideas of the Enlightenment still shape the ways we think today—our continued faith in progress, for instance, is an artifact of the Enlightenment.  We still live in a world dominated by the economic ideas of Smith—the ideas of laissez-faire capitalism—and by the political ideas of John Locke, Montesquieu, etc.  But Enlightenment ideas could be taken in many directions.  And these ideas were not without their critics, either in the late 1700s, or in the early 1800s, or since.  In many regards, the history we will be discussing for the rest of the semester can be seen as a product of and reactions against the legacies of the Enlightenment.