What was the Enlightenment?
Between the years 1600 and 1700, social and political philosophy in Europe went through a drastic change, known as the Enlightenment. The progressive thought associated with this movement came from the minds of Paris as philosophers strove to bring every subject known to man under the authority of reason. The Frenchman Voltaire was one of the most important figures of the Enlightenment period. Other notable figures included: Thomas Hobbes, a great political theorist of the time who declared that people’s base impulses must be restrained by a monarch; John Locke, an English philosopher and physician who believed that men were born with undeniable natural rights; and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a Swiss philosopher who asserted that the government should only rule so long as it ruled to the satisfaction of the people.
Just as northern Italy had been the center of the Renaissance, Paris became the major hub of progressive thought, which made it basically the hub for this period known as the Enlightenment. The philosophers who strived to bring every subject under the authority of reason consisted of both deists (those who believed in God) and atheists (those who did not). There were many philosophers and they were all trying to bring every subject they could come up under reason. They wanted to have a reason for these things and not just thoughts that came up out of their minds.
They wanted actual reason for them. These philosophers are both deists who believed in God and atheists who didn’t believe in God. No matter what their religious beliefs or their beliefs about God, they were all looking for reasons. The people who believed in God and the people who did not were still looking for reason behind their philosophies instead of just coming up with them and basing them on faith. The study known as political science first developed during this period.
Political science was whenever people started actually studying the ins and outs of politics and what worked best. Intellectuals began to question the divine right claimed by absolute monarchs in the past. The absolute monarchs ruled pretty much all on their own. Some had something to help them, like the estates general in France or parliament in England, but for the most part the monarch had absolute control. He/she had that because it was considered their divine right, something that God had given them.
Intellectuals started to question these claims by absolute monarchs, these claims that they had a divine right to rule, because they sought to determine which was the best form of government for all citizens of the country. They couldn’t prove that God wanted these people to be ruling, there wasn’t a reason to this theory or this idea. It was just that people said, “This person has the divine right to rule,” or the ruler would come up and say, “I have the divine right to rule. I’ve been chosen by God.
This right has been passed down to me.” if their parents had been monarchs before them. This wasn’t necessarily the best form of government and intellectuals began to question the reason behind this practice, then started to look for the best form of government. This was the beginning of political science. One of the most important figures of the Enlightenment period was the Frenchman Voltaire, who lived from 1694 to 1778.
He lived through a good chunk of the Enlightenment period. He was important, because he challenge the authority of the church. The church had already been challenged a lot at this point, but he was challenging the church declaring that people should tolerate the views of others and that no one person or group had a monopoly on absolute truth. He wasn’t saying, “I think the Catholic Church is wrong,” or “The Catholic Church is right,” or “The Protestant church is wrong or right.” He was saying, “None of the churches are 100% right.
No one has a monopoly on absolute truth. No one knows 100% what the truth is. Everyone is going to have their own beliefs and everyone should have their views tolerated no matter what they are. People have a right to believe what they want to believe and those views should be tolerated and not persecuted.” Voltaire became very important after he started challenging the church and giving out these kind of ideas.
Thomas Hobbes, who lived from 1598 to 1679, another big chunk of the Enlightenment period, was one of the most influential political theorists of this time. Once political science came about, people started coming up with their political theories. In his masterpiece, Leviathan, he declared that the basic impulses of people had to be restrained by a powerful and just monarch. He was still kind of leaning toward the old ways. He was saying, “You know what? People are going to have these base impulses.
Someone has to be there to control them and it needs to be a powerful and just monarch. There still needs to be a monarchy in place with absolute control.” Now, he did want a powerful one who could actually control instead of one who was weak. Of course, you are going to ask for a weak one, but he did point out that it needs to be a powerful monarch and a just monarch. You need one that’s fair. If you have a ruler who is very powerful but isn’t fair, then that’s not going to be a good government system either.
Thomas Hobbes was saying that the monarch system was still the way to go, but it needed to be a powerful and just monarch, because the base impulses that people had still needed to be restrained. You couldn’t just have everyone doing whatever they wanted, because that wasn’t going to work out either. John Locke, who lived from 1632 to 1704, another good chunk of the Enlightenment period, he kind of went against what Thomas Hobbes said and declared that men were born with natural rights, which could not be justly denied them.
If there was an absolute monarch, even if they were considered powerful and just, if they tried to deny people certain natural rights that they were born to, then that would not be justly denying them, because if they are naturally born with these rights and should every person should have them, no one can deny those rights and still consider it to be a just thing, a fair thing. Rousseau was a Swiss philosopher. He asserted that the government only ruled so long as it did so to the satisfaction of the general will of the people.
That a government only ruled or should only rule as long as it was actually ruling to the satisfaction of the general will of the people, that, in general, people were happy with the way the government was ruling. If the government was not doing a good job, if people were unhappy with it, the government shouldn’t rule anymore. Really, if people stop respecting their ruler or their government, then they weren’t going to be following the rules as well anyway.
The government wouldn’t really be ruling as well as it could be if it was well-respected and was doing a good job in satisfying what the people wanted. The Enlightenment period was a big period for social and political change. A lot of political theorists came out at this time. Political science became a study that people were actively looking at and trying to come up with new theories for, trying to come up with the best way to run governments, and it was centered around Paris from the year 1600 to 1770.
The important thing to remember with the Enlightenment period is that it was a big period of political and social change, where other periods, such as the scientific revolution, centered around science and renewed interest in learning and a growth in learning. The Enlightenment was all about political and social change. It was more about how the countries were being run and the social and political interactions there than anything else.