The Enlightenment of the eighteenth century helped usher in a new era of intellectual thought. In the beginning, it was a period of time when the church had great influence on what people believed and very few dared to question the church and think for themselves. However, over time people began to question the beliefs of tradition. This resulted in a rise in rationalism and skepticism. This increase in classical thought led to revolutions all over the western world and set the stage intellectually for the world we see today. This era was rooted in the Scientific Revolution of the sixteenth century which led to the birth of modern science and mathematics. A new approach, called the scientific method, was created by Francis Bacon as a means of learning about nature. The scientific method stressed the importance of forming a hypothesis to a question, testing it, forming a conclusion, and defining what had been learned. The rise of this new approach to acquiring knowledge led many to question the conventional religious views of the universe. The revelations learned from the scientific method motivated great philosophers who would profoundly influence on the ideologies for the future world.
Thomas Hobbes was the philosopher that kicked off The Enlightenment. In 1651, Hobbes published his book Leviathan. Hobbes was a man who hated violence and stressed the importance of obeying government authority. He lived during the English Civil War of 1642-1644. The civil war brought many radical political and religious ideals to Britain. Leviathan was written as a response to the bloodshed of the civil war and the radical ideas that had emerged out of it (Williams, “Thomas Hobbes: Moral and Political Philosophy”). Hobbes believed human nature was inherently evil and should be conquered by strong authority.
In Leviathan, Hobbes laid out his reasons why people should obey their rulers and not overthrow them. He argued that peace and stability could only be achieved through the social contract. The social contract was based on the theory that political authority came from an individual unspoken agreement made in the region where one lived. According to this theory, man wass bound to the contract of the place he was born (Friend, “Social Contract Theory”). Hobbes used the social contract as a reason for those of authority to govern man. As Hobbes puts it in Leviathan, “in the state of nature, the life of man is solitary, brutus, and short” (Williams, “Thomas Hobbes: Moral and Political Philosophy”). In essence, Hobbes was an authoritarian who strongly advocated for an absolute ruler so that the animal we called man would not turn on one another leading to bloodshed.
Hobbes provided a thesis on government and, as a result of his work, an antithesis thinker emerged, John Locke. Sixteen years after Hobbes death, in 1690, John Locke published Two Treatises on Government which presented Locke’s own perspective on rulers and the state. While Locke did live during the English Civil War, he did not share the same perspective as Hobbes. His father was a lawyer and, thanks to his father’s connections, Locke received a great education. Eventually, Locke was accepted to Christ Church which was the most prestigious school in Oxford at the time. While living in Oxford he extensively studied philosophy (“John Locke”). Locke began to favor empiricism, the idea that knowledge is derived from experience or as he put it “man is a blank slate on which was imprinted mores of his upbringing” (Uzgalis, “John Locke”) Locke believed that ethics were act based and that human nature should not be rejected but rather improved upon. Eventually, his exploration of philosophy led Locke to write Two Treatises on Government.
Locke was a man that had a great passion for freedom. The key question for him was, when is rebellion justified (Tuckness, “Locke’s Political Philosophy”)? He advocated for the right of citizens to abolish and replace the government if it violates their natural rights. He believed that the government must have the consent of the governed and that all citizens are born with the inalienable right to life, liberty, and property. His perfect idea of government was a constitutional one that had a great limit on authority. There is also an emphasis on dividing up power thus making it difficult for any individual man or party to gain absolute power. Locke believed a good citizen exercised their natural rights while respecting the natural rights of others. In his ideal world, government should only arise in conflicts of natural rights (Tuckness, “Locke’s Political Philosophy”). Locke’s ideas later inspired revolutionaries opposing the British Empire within the United States. His philosophy formed the basis on which the American government was created. The ideas presented by Locke eventually also became the basis for modern European Liberalism and American Libertarianism.
Years after Locke, a similar liberal minded thinker emerged. The man, known as Montesquieu, further elaborated on Locke’s idea of the division of government powers. Born in France, Montesquieu had a great influence through his works Persian Letters and The Spirit of Laws. Montesquieu was raised by a military family. He was not a part of the upper class like Locke; however, he also was not one of the lower peasant classes either. Much of Montesquieu's early life was spent receiving an education at home and in his local village. However when he was eleven, Montesquieu was sent to study at Collège de Juilly outside of Paris (Shackleton, “Montesquieu”). It was at this school that Montesquieu was first introduced to enlightenment ideas.
Much like Locke, Montesquieu shared a distrust of absolute authority. He believed that a good government would have to have checks and balances in place to prevent anyone from gaining too much power. Montesquieu's solution was to divide powers up into three branches of government. He proposed that the ideal government should have an executive, legislative, and judiciary branch. The executive branch would handle the military, the legislative branch would handle laws and civil affairs, while the judicial branch would ensure justice in court. He believed that when all three powers were in the control of the same person or a group of individuals, it was impossible for liberty to exist (“Online Library of Liberty”). The ideas formulated by Montesquieu became the model of the three branch government system used in the United States today.
In France, around the same time as Montesquieu, there was another great thinker who went by the pen name of Voltaire. Born in Paris France as François Marie Arouet, Voltaire grew up as the youngest of five siblings. His mother tragically died when he was seven. After her passing, Voltaire found a hero in his godfather who became a great philosophical influence on him. Voltaire went to school at Collége Louis-le-Grand in Paris. Where he received a classical education and showed great potential as a writer. He went on to have several poems, plays, historical, and philosophical works published. As a result of his success Voltaire became increasingly more outspoken against the French government and organized religion. This resulted in multiple imprisonments and exiles throughout his life. It was during his exile to Britain that he discovered the work of John Locke. Upon returning to France, Voltaire published Philosophical Letters praising the British parliamentary system (“Voltaire”). He was exiled once more shortly after.
Voltaire was known for having an enthusiasm for liberty. He supported Locke and Montesquieu's ideas of limited government; however, Voltaire also stressed the importance of separation of church and state. Voltaire was in favor of religious freedom unlike most people at the time. He renounced organized religion and the existence of any divine miracles. Voltaire believed that the best thing about religion came from the essence of its morality. These views were extremely controversial for his time. They played a direct role in Voltaire being imprisoned and exiled on several occasions (“Voltaire”). Eventually, Voltaire’s idea of separating church and state were implemented in the government of the United States after the revolution.
Many thinkers followed Locke’s line of reasoning; however, there was another who expanded upon Hobbes authoritarian reasoning and had great influence as a result. Jean Jacques Rousseau took the idea of the social contract and built upon it. Rousseau was born in Geneva. Sadly his mother died during childbirth, so he was raised by his father who taught him to believe that the city of his birth was as glorious as Rome at the height of its power. Eventually Rousseau’s father got remarried to a watchmaker. Unfortunately, his father eventually found himself in trouble with authorities which led him fleeing Geneva. This left Rousseau to be raised by his new mother. For six years Rousseau lived with his step mother’s family which treated him as a social outcast. When he was sixteen, he left Geneva and explored the kingdoms of Sardinia and France. Finally, Rousseau found himself in Sevoy where a woman provided him a home and work (Cranston, “Jean-Jacques Rousseau”). Before meeting this woman, Rousseau had no formal education, but under her guidance he was able to broaden his philosophical horizon.
Rousseau’s philosophy reinforced the importance of the social contract. To Rousseau the social contract was a necessity to maintaining social order. Unlike Hobbes, Rousseau believed in direct democracy as opposed to an all powerful ruler. However, in order to preserve peace he believed all individuals must surrender their rights to the community. All must submit to the state’s authority or be put down like the animals he viewed them as. Rousseau also had a great dislike of the French government. In Disclosure on the Origin of Inequality Rousseau explained the difference between natural and artificial inequality. Natural equality came from things like strength and intelligence while artificial inequality is created by those who control government (Cranston, “Jean-Jacques Rousseau”). Rousseau saw the French government as a force perpetuating artificial inequality. Rousseau’s ideas would not only influence the founders of the United States, but also those who partook in the French Revolution and opposed the crown.
Many of the enlightenment thinkers focused on political philosophy; however, there was one who was a great contributor in the field of economics. Adam Smith is considered to be one of the most influential economists in history. The exact date of his birth is not known, but he was raised in Scotland. Smith spent his early years studying Latin, mathematics, history, and writing. When he was only fourteen, Smith went to study at the University of Glasgow in Oxford. After eight years in school, he began giving lectures at the University of Edinburgh. It was at one of these lectures that Smith met fellow Scottish philosopher David Hume. The two became lifelong friends. In the years following, Smith wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith gained a great academic reputation because of this book. After the success of the book, Smith became the tutor of the man that would one day become the Duke of Buccleuch. His tutoring job eventually led to him traveling to France where he met Benjamin Franklin. Throughout this time Smith was working on his magnum opus. In 1776, he published An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations which became his most influential work (“Adam Smith”). This book eventually became an essential read in the study of economics.
It is often said that An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations is the first great study in political economics. Smith’s economic philosophy was based on the idea of laissez faire. In short, government should not interfere in the markets and let free people trade voluntarily among one another. He believed that government intervention in the market only halted progress within the market and that, in the long run, government interference would only hurt the state. The conventional idea of measuring the wealth of a nation came from how much gold and silver the nation had stored. Smith rejected this idea and argued that a nation's wealth comes from production and commerce. In his work, he also laid out the concept of the division of labor; an idea which explained that by dividing up labor for a product among individuals who specialize in different production steps a much higher quality product (“Adam Smith”). This idea and other Adam Smith theories would eventually lead to The Industrial Revolution and the advancement of technology at an astounding rate.
There was one enlightenment thinker who has not been given as much attention over time. William Godwin, the intellectual father of philosophical anarchism, helped lay the groundwork for modern day skepticism of the government. Born in Cambridgeshire, England, Godwin was the seventh born out of thirteen. Growing up the son of a minister, he knew much about the old and new testaments of The Bible. Over time Godwin would adopt the idea of absolute sovereignty of the individual. He began preaching the most idealistic form of liberalism seen during The Enlightenment. In 1793, Godwin would publish his most influential work An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness. Five years later, he would married and had a daughter named Mary Shelley whom would grow up to become the author of Frankenstein (“William Godwin”). Years after his time, the book written by Godwin would influence anarchist and classical liberal thinkers all over the world.
William Godwin is a philosopher who preached radical individualism. Godwin rejected all forms of conventional government. In place of centralized power, Godwin was in favor of small communities governing themselves. He believed in the sovereignty of all individuals and that utilizing reason would always lead small communities to make the right choices. Godwin believed that individual property was important and that there is a sacred trust between individuals not to violate the property rights of another person (“William Godwin”). The ideas of Godwin reflect his great love of freedom. It is no wonder that so many intellectuals use his line of reasoning as a basis for skepticism of centralized government.
The great thinkers that lived during the enlightenment faced much hostility to their ideas. Despotism was dying and the ideas of liberty were beginning to become popular in the minds of those who seeked something other than the corruption of an absolute ruler. Many of these great thinkers broke from Christianity, but kept the best elements of Christian morality. This resulted in new philosophical perspectives on God into a world that did not involve centralized religion. Church powers of the time felt very threatened by this. Many were sadly killed by those who felt threatened by their ideas. Those who lived referred to such violent acts as one of humanity's most depraved offenses against reason (Bristow, “Enlightenment”). Very few had the courage to break from traditional systems of belief; however, those who did have had a profound influence on times ahead of them.
In the modern world we cannot view anything regarding religion or politics without echoing of one of these great enlightenment thinkers. The entire basis for the modern American government comes from the works of John Locke and Montesquieu. The ideas of Hobbes and Rousseau are echoed through the social contract which is still used as the base theory for governing in most of the world. Adam Smith’s laissez faire perspective on markets helped build the industrial world we live in today and continues to be preached by those in the libertarian party within the United States. The works of William Godwin have been carried on through those who hold great skepticism of government. The modern world would be a very different place if these ideas had not been formulated and spread throughout the world. One can only wonder what the world would be like today if it was not for the works of the philosophical thinkers that formed The Enlightenment.
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