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The Age Enlightenment

The "Age of Enlightenment" commonly refers to an intellectual movement associated with doubt and science during the 18th century. Some describe it as having begun with Galileo in the early in the early 1600s. Some point to England's civil war. French historians describe the Enlightenment as beginning in 1715, the year that Louis XIV died. And there was the Scottish Enlightenment, the Swedish Enlightenment, and the American Enlightenment in the Thirteen Colonies beginning in 1714.

Some have viewed the Enlightenment with hostility. The Enlightenment included questioning religious orthodoxy or the god-given authority of monarchs — the powers of church and state.

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote an essay in 1784 titled "What is Enlightenment?" He wrote of the courage to use one's own intelligence. "Dare to know," he wrote. "Have the courage to use your own understanding." In other words, stop being a child. Grow up! Liberate your thinking from deference to some authority figure. For Kant, the Enlightenment was a greater freedom, freedom especially from monarchical authoritarianism. Kant was to be a supporter of the American and then French revolutions.

In France, the satirical polemicist Voltaire (1694-1778) put himself at risk by criticizing religious dogma and the French institutions of his day, despite the strict censorship laws of the time. For expressing his opinions he was twice sent to prison, and he was in exile in England from 1726 to 1729. Voltaire admired Britain's Tolerance Act of 1689 and its absence of censorship. Voltaire was influenced by Newton and Locke. He disliked theories not supported by observation and experiment, although he spun such theories himself. He saw benefit in variety, claiming that if England had but one religion it would still be despotic, that if England had just two faiths those faiths would be at each other's throat. But with thirty different religious groupings, he claimed, Britain lived as a happy land.

One of Scotland's Enlightenment thinkers was Adam Smith (1723-90). His belief in freedom extended to trade, free markets, and anti-slavery. He disliked the compulsory labor he found in France (the corvée). Regarding slavery, he pointed out that labor coerced by the threat of violence was not as productive or efficient as labor by choice.

Friendly with Smith and other Enlightenment luminaries was the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-76). He recognized the difference between matters of fact and matters of value. Moral judgments, he held, were matters of value because they were about sentiments and passions. He saw humanity as too inclined toward emotion rather than reason. He didn't support conclusions about the world not known through the senses.

The Americans Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson arrived in Europe contributed to the scientific and political debate, and the ideals of the Enlightenment were incorporated into the United States Declaration of Independence and their country's legal foundation, the Constitution.

There were the Encyclopedists. In 1751 the first part of a new encyclopedia was published, France. The two most responsible for the work were the writers Denis Diderot and Jean d'Alembert, the latter a respected scientist and mathematician. They believed that knowledge would bring people more happiness. The government banned the book, and the Church placed the book on its index of forbidden books and threatened excommunication on all who read or bought it. In 1765 the encyclopedia was completed. It was twenty-eight volumes with hundreds of thousands of articles by leading scientists and famous writers. And it included an article by Diderot against slavery and the slave trade.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), from Geneva Switzerland, has also been associated with the Enlightenment, while some others look upon him as a retrograde. He is best known for his poetic line about people being born free but finding themselves in chains — poetry sometimes serving demagoguery. Rousseau was brought up a Calvinist. In an essay, he claimed that people were good and innocent by nature and had been corrupted by the arts and sciences. Letters and the arts, he claimed, were the worst enemies of morals, for they created wants. Science and virtue, he wrote, were incompatible. Physics, he said, had risen from vain curiosity. He approved of virtue, but the study of ethics he described as having its source in human pride. He located the basis of ethics in emotions rather than reason. He was an anarchist: Liberty, he wrote, was not to be found in any existing form of government, it was in the hearts of free men."

Rousseau believed more in the emotions of the unlearned than in the reason of intellectuals. He clashed with Voltaire, who was anti-Romantic. Voltaire didn't trust emotions the way that Rousseau did.

By 1770 in Western Europe the upper and middle classes took to the Enlightenment as a part of their polite society and conversational manner — different from the society of military-oriented nobility. This included a greater respect for the role and dignity of women.

The Enlightenment impacted attitudes toward governing. There was Rousseau's attack on civilization and also his belief in democracy, which put him apart from people of refinement and education. The upper classes and some monarchs were supporting the Enlightenment believing in the need for change, but change stimulated from above rather than from the impassioned and unwashed masses.

Frederick the Great

Influenced by the Enlightenment was the King of Prussia from 1740 to 1786, Frederick the Great. When he became king he allowed Christian von Wolff to return from exile. Wolff had annoyed his fellow professors of the university at Halle by his attachment to intellectual currents from France. Wolff had opposed torture and prosecuting people for witchcraft. He had been a hero to students at Halle, and authorities at the university supported his being driven into exile. But now, Wolff returned to the university in triumph and with acclaim.

In a letter to Voltaire he wrote that he wanted to enlighten "my people, cultivate their manners and morals, and make them as happy as human beings can be, or as happy as the means at my disposal permit."

Frederick began doing what he could to make his city, Berlin, a center of research, learning, art and culture. He was corresponding with Voltaire, pursuing his interest in literature, and he kept his mind on matters political. He described his rule as a sort of contract with his subjects, with himself as first servant of the state, duty bound to promote well-being and security. And seeing the world filled with others eager to expand their power, he saw, as had his father, that a strong military was vital for security.

Frederick transformed the university at Halle into a showplace of Enlightenment — an enlightenment he controlled. Professors were state officials and dependent on the state financially. His realm had few of the wealthy patrons of the arts that allowed artists and writers independence from government control. Frederick's subjects were allowed some freedom of expression, in religion and some other areas. Some were to describe free speech in his kingdom as little more than permission to make anti-clerical jokes. Subversion was not tolerated.

Catherine the Great

A German princess named Sophia married into Russia's ruling Romanov family. She had read many books. After few months after her husband inherited the throne and she joined a revolt against him led by one of her lovers. Her husband, Emperor Peter III, conveniently died in prison in mid-July 1662, and in November Sophie was crowned in an elaborate ceremony in Moscow and became Catherine II.

She considered herself enlightened. She corresponded with learned men, including Voltaire. She wished to be a "defender of oppressed innocence," to spread education and to otherwise reform Russia. She exercised her authority over the Eastern Orthodox Church (which owned one-third of Russia's agricultural land and one-third of its serfs). Catherine confiscated much of the Church's land and left the Church's clergy as state paid functionaries. But she stopped wanting an "enlightened" constitution and political reforms. She decided she wanted to keep all of her power, and she joined others in believing that absolute monarchy was the best form of government. She needed support and for this she turned to the nobles. She released them from the obligation to serve the state that had been imposed on the nobility by Ivan the Terrible. She extended the nobility's power over those living on and working their lands. Under her rule, serfdom was extended to over a million people who had previously been freed. She turned against educating common people, believing that if the uneducated were educated they would stop obeying.

Maria Theresa

The Habsburg Empress in Austria, Maria Theresa, was an avid reader. She was a contemporary of the monarchs Frederick and Catherine the Great. She was to be excluded from those monarchs considered enlightened. She was a devout Roman Catholic, but after the Seven Years' War (1754-63) she instituted reforms that limited the papacy's influence in her realm. According to McKay, Hill, and Buckler, she "revamped the tax system" and she reduced "the power of lords over both their hereditary serfs and their partially free peasant tenants." She is described as having promoted commerce and as having reorganized Austria's "ramshackle" military. She put raising her family and being a good mother over the glories of being head-of-state. But she is described as having remained an absolutist politically and as not having outlawed torture, as refusing to allow religious pluralism and as superstitious.


CONTINUE READING: War of Austria Succession, 1740-48

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