The Enlightenment summary and notes




The Enlightenment summary and notes


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The Enlightenment summary and notes


A.P. European History Notes
Session 8: The Enlightenment

  1. Enlightenment
    1. Between 1750 and 1850, some extraordinary changes took shape in Western civilization which made an immense impact the world over.  No other civilizations escaped the influence of the European intellectual ferment and political turmoil of these years.  In fact, most of the political, economic, intellectual, and social characteristics associated with the modern world came about during his era as Europe exported the ideas and technologies that transformed every area of human experience. 
    2. Intellectually: the ideals of reform and challenge to traditional authority drew confidence from the scientific worldview that emerged during the 17th century. Its exponents posed serious historical and moral questions to the Catholic Church.   Adherents of the Enlightenment argued that laws of society and economics could be used to improve the human condition, so they embraced the idea of economic growth and development.  They championed political reform and demanded more efficient systems of government.


  1. Formative Influences on the Enlightenment
    1. Sir Isaac Newton:  Newton’s emphasis concrete experience became a keystone for Enlightenment thought.
      1. He discerned a pattern of rationality in natural physical phenomena.
      2. Due to Newton’s influence, during the 18th century the ancient idea of following nature morphed into the idea of following reason, and since nature was rational, it followed that society should also be organized in a rational manner.
    2. John Locke: was inspired by Newton’s scientific achievements and sought to find a human psychology based on experience.
      1. Locke believed that it was possible to improve the human condition and rejected the Christian view of mankind as creatures permanently flawed by sin.
      2. Humans need not wait for God’s grace to improve their lives; they could take charge of their own destiny.
      3. In his Second Treatise on Government, Locke argued that all men are Free, Equal, and have Natural Rights of life, liberty, and property; that men consent to be governed; that governments are obligated to protect men’s natural rights; and that when governments cease to protect those rights, citizens are free to alter or abolish those governments. 
    3. The example of British Toleration and Stability, post Revolution of 1688.
      1. Religious toleration to all creeds but Unitarianism and RCs.
      2. Relative freedom of speech and press; small army
      3. Limited monarchy; political sovereignty in Parliament
      4. Courts protected citizens from arbitrary gov’t action.
    4.  The Need for Reform in France
      1. Louis XIV’s power based on absolute monarchy, a large standing army, heavy taxation, and a religious unity requiring persecution.
      2. France had been defeated in war and its people were miserable. 
      3. Louis’ successors had not reformed France and critics of the monarchy were subject to arrest.
      4. There was no freedom of worship, no free press, and state regulations hampered economic growth.
      5. Since they needed reform the most, the French people supported the Philosophes and France became the major center for the Enlightenment.
    5. The Philosophes: writers and critics who championed change and reform and sought to apply the rules of reason and common sense to all major institutions and social practices (Voltaire, Montisquieu, Diderot, Rousseau, Hume, Gibbon, Smith, Bentham, Lessing, and Kant).
      1. A loosely knit group that often disagreed on many issues.
      2. Chief unity lay in their desire to reform thought, society, and government for the sake of human liberty.
      3. Message delivered through books, pamphlets, plays, novels, philosophical treatises, encyclopedias, newspapers, and magazines.
      4. The bulk of their readers were prosperous commercial and professional (urban) members of philosophical societies, Freemason lodges, and clubs.
      5. They worked to expose social and political abuses; argued that change was necessary and possible.
      6. They confronted vested interests, political oppression, and religious condemnation.
    6. Francois Marie Arouet’s (Voltaire) Agenda and Intellectual Reform
      1. The most influential of the Philosophes (he had offended the French and served jail time in the Bastille)
      2. Published Letters on the English in 1733; praised tolerance of English society and disparaged abuses of French society.
      3. Published Elements of the Philosophy of Newton** in 1738. 
      4. He lived in France and Geneva, where he wrote essays, history, plays, stories, and letters.  His most famous satire, Candide (1759) attacked war and religious persecution (He was a Deist who believed in a finite, limited God).
      5. Believed improvement was necessary and possible, but unsure if it could be permanent.
    7. The Encyclopedia (15,000 copies sold before 1789)
      1. Under the leadership of Denis Diderot and Jen Le Rond d’Alembert, the Encyclopedia appeared was published between 1751 – 1772. 
      2. The product of over 100 authors, it set forth the most advanced critical ideas in religion, government, and philosophy, often disguised in irony.
      3. Argued for freedom of expression; articles on manufacturing, canal building, ship construction, and agriculture.
      4. Theme: the future of mankind lay in harnessing the power and resources of the earth and in living at peace with one’s fellow man.  The good life was in the here and now, to be achieved through the application of reason to human relationships.
      5. The publication of the Encyclopedia diffused the ideas of the Enlightenment over the Continent; Enlightened ideas permeated German and Russian intellectual and political circles.
  2. Gotthold Lessing wrote plays advocating religious tolerance.
  3. Adam Smith attacked the mercantile system
  4. Cesare Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham called for penal and legal reforms.
  1. The Enlightenment and Religion: The hatred of the Philosophes for the Church and Christianity was echoed by Voltaire’s cry “Crush the Infamous Thing!”  Virtually all varieties of Christianity, but particularly Roman Catholicism, invited the criticism of the Philosophes.
    1. Original Sin - in either its Catholic or Protestant formulation, was seen by the Philosophes as an impediment to meaningful improvement in human nature.
    2. The Philosophes viewed churches as privileged and powerful bodies of the old regime.
            1. They owned large amounts of land and collected tithes from peasants before any other taxes were collected.
            2. Most clergy were tax exempt and relatives of aristocrats.
            3. Churchmen were actively involved in politics.
    3. Deism – the Philosophes believed that religion should be reasonable and should lead to moral behavior (Newtonian rationality)

a) Deists departed somewhat from the ideas of Newton and Locke, both of whom regarded themselves as distinctly Christian.
b) Deists regarded God as resembling a divine watchmaker who had set the mechanism of nature to work, then left the scene. 
c)  Deists believed in the existence of God and in life after death, in which rewards and punishments would be meted out according to the virtue of a person’s life.

    1. Criticism of Religion – The Philosophes did not rest merely advocating Deism; they also attacked the churches and clergy mercilessly.
            1. Voltaire repeatedly questioned the truthfulness of priests and the morality of the Bible.
            2. David Hume argued that divine miracles were not grounded in rational belief or empirical evidence.
            3. The Philosophes questioned the veracity of the Hebrew Scriptures as well, and they viewed Judaism as a more primitive religion than Christianity.
            4. Overall, their criticism of Christianity and Judaism reflected their harsh attitude toward traditional religion in general.
    2. Toleration – in 1763 Voltaire published Treatise on Tolerance, taking the lead in the Philosophes push for toleration not only of different Christian denominations but also of religious faiths other than Christianity.

a) The call for tolerance was more concerned with making secular values and considerations more important than religious ones.

  1. The Enlightenment and Society – Although the Philosophes wrote a great deal about religion, their central interest was improving the human condition through the application of social science.
    1. Cesare Beccaria and Criminal Reform
      1. In  1764, he published On Crimes and Punishments, in which he argued that the laws of monarchs and legislatures should conform with the rational laws of nature.
      2. He fervently attacked torture and capital punishment.
      3. He argued for speedy trials, and punishments intended to deter future crime.
      4. He felt that the purpose of laws was to impose God’s will or some other ideal of perfection to secure the greatest good for the greatest number of people (utilitarianism).
    2. Jeremy Bentham and Utilitarianism
      1. He sought to create codes of scientific law based on utility.*
      2. Argued that utility would overcome special interests of privileged groups and remove legal clutter that prevented justice from being served.
  2. The Physiocrats and Economic Freedom
    1. Adam Smith (The Wealth of Nations, 1776) The most important Enlightenment exposition of economics.
      1. Argued for the abolition of the mercantile system; to include the Navigation Acts, bounties, tariffs, trade monopolies.
      2. Wanted to end domestic regulation of labor and manufacture because these regulations interfered with economic liberty.
      3. Smith wanted to encourage economic group and a consumer oriented economy by unleashing the individual to pursue their own selfish economic interest.
      4. The father of laissez-faire capitalism, Smith believed in the free market economy and the exploitation of natural resources to improve the human condition.
      5. Smith also believed that the state should provide schools, armies, navies, and roads; and undertake commercial ventures that were too risky for the private sector (such as opening dangerous trade routes).


  1. Political Thought of the Philosophes – An appreciation of the complexity of society’s problems was never more apparent than in the Philosophes’ political thought.  Most Philosophes were unsatisfied with various political features in their countries, but particularly those in France.
    1. The Royal Court was corrupt, the bureaucracy was ineffective, the nation had struggled through a series of mid-century wars, and the French Philosophes were salty about the Church’s power.
    2. Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montisquieu
      1. The Persian Letters (1721)  satirized contemporary French institutions, as compared to Persian culture.
      2. The Spirit of the Laws (1748) touted the British constitution as the best means of curbing government power.
      3. Argued that there was no single set of political laws that applied to all peoples at all times and in all places; rather, the successful political leader understood how to manipulate the relationship between any number of political variables.
      4. One of his most influential ideas was the need for a division of power within any government.

a)  He admired the British model in which executive power rests with the king, legislative power in the Parliament, and judicial power in the courts.**

      1. Montisquieu argued that any two branches could check and balance the power of the other.
    1. Jean-Jacques Rousseau
      1. Felt that the process of civilization and enlightenment had corrupted human nature and blamed much of the evil in the world on the unequal distribution of property.
      2. He questioned material and intellectual progress** ; felt that the real purpose of society was to nurture better people.
      3. In The Social Contract, his most influential discussion of politics, Rousseau posits that “all men are born free, but everywhere they are in chains,” and proceeds to defend the need for restrictions on individual liberty – to protect the individual’s natural rights by forcing strict adherence to what is best for the larger community.
      4. Very critical of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations.**
      5. Rousseau was not appreciated in his own time, but later generations of thinkers returned to his ideas.

Miles Campbell, AP European History, (Research and Education Association :: Piscataway, 2000), p. 44.  It must be noted that although the authority of the Catholic Church was called into question by certain teachings of Enlightenment philosophy, science and religion were not in conflict in the 17th and 18th centuries.  In fact, scientists universally believed that they were studying and analyzing God’s creation, not an autonomous phenomena known as “Nature.”  There was no attempt to secularize science, as would occur later in the 19th and 20th centuries.  “Natural Law,” they believed, was created by God for man’s use.  A tension between the natural and the supernatural simply did not exist in their worldview.  The question of the extent of the Creator’s involvement directly or indirectly in his Creation was an issue of the 18th century but there was universal agreement among scientists and philosophers as to the supernatural origin of the universe.

Donald Kagan, The Western Heritage, Volume II.(McMillan Publishing Company :: New York, 1991), p. 622.


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