The Enlightenment

Between the years 1600 and 1770, social and political philosophy in Europe went through a drastic change, known collectively as the Enlightenment.

So, there was a lot of social and political change, there were a lot of philosophers and different theorists that promoted this change, and collectively, this time period where all the social and political change was happening became known as the Enlightenment.


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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.

So, 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 about of their minds. They wanted actual reason for them. And these philosophers are both deists who believed in God, and atheists who didn’t believe in God. So, no matter what their religious beliefs, or their beliefs about God, they were all looking for reason. So, the people who believed in God and the people who did not, were still looking for a 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, and political science was whenever people started actually studying the ins and outs of politics, and what worked best. So, intellectuals began to question the divine right claimed by absolute monarchs in the past. So, 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. And here, she had that because it was considered their divine right, something that God had given them.

So, intellectuals started to question these claims by absolute monarchs. These claimed that they had a divine right to rule, because they started 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 was no 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. And so, this wasn’t necessarily the best form of government, and intellectuals began to question the reason behind this practice, and then started to look for the best form of government, and 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. So, he lived through a good chunk of the Enlightenment Period. And he was important because he challenged the authority of the church. Now, the church has 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.

So, 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, and 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. So, 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. So, once political science came about, people started coming up with their political theories. And in his masterpiece, “Leviathan,” he declared that the base impulses of people  had to be restrained by a powerful and just monarch. So, 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 monarch 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’re not going to ask for a weak one, but he did point out that it needed 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. So, 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, and 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. And if there was an absolute monarch, even if they were considered powerful and just, if they try 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 every person should have them. No one can deny those rights and still consider it to be a just thing, a fair thing.

And then, Rousseau was a Swiss philosopher, and he asserted that the government only ruled so long as it did so to the satisfaction of the general will of the people. So, 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, then the government shouldn’t rule anymore. And really, if people stop respecting their ruler or their government, then they weren’t going to be following the rules as well anyway. So, 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.

So, 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, but the important thing to remember with the Enlightenment Period is that it was 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.