The Flow of Ideas in the Enlightenment

September 24, 2012 2:55 pm

Introduction. Although the Enlightenment spawned ideas on a wide range of subjects from the sciences to religion and the state, it is important to see how all these ideas occurred in something of a sequence that fit together in a fairly unified way.  This is especially crucial for us today, since we largely isolate the various academic disciplines from one another rather than see how they relate to one another.  Perhaps the twenty-first century will see such a synthesis take place.

Starting with the scientific revolution, we need to go back to the Renaissance with new findings in astronomy and physiology that seemed to contradict old theories, especially those of Aristotle.  At first these led to explanations that were still framed in the context of old theories, especially if another ancient authority, such as Plato or Pythagoras, could be used to back it up.  However, these natural philosophers, as they were called, kept finding more and more evidence that seemed to contradict the old theories until they had to come up with new syntheses and theories of their own.  We have looked at two of these processes in particular: Newton’s synthesis in physics and astronomy, and Harvey’s synthesis concerning the circulatory system.

In addition to creating the scientific basis for the industrial revolution in the 1800s, they also opened the way for new ideas outside of science.  Key to this was the fact that the scientific revolution had discredited the Church and raised the belief in humanity’s ability to reason.  For some, this led to the philosophy of Deism, the belief that God exists but is not actively involved with this world, leading to the conclusion that humans can and must solve their own social, economic, and political problems.  Out of this came a new branch of study, the social sciences.

In the realm of political science, a whole new body of ideas emerged concerning the state and our relationship to it: the belief in civil liberties for everyone (or at least all men), democracy, and the separation of powers within a government.  Central to all of these was the idea that the state, instead of being a divinely ordained absolute monarchy, is an implied contract between ruler and subjects, each with mutual rights and obligations. In economics, the prevailing idea, as expressed in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, was free trade capitalism.  In psychology there was the Blank Slate theory that our characters are purely the result of our environment and experiences.  This would spark a nature versus nurture debate that still goes on.

The new theories about the state had a very real impact on many Enlightenment rulers, such as Frederick the Great of Prussia and Joseph II of Austria, who were increasingly aware of the impact of their administrative, economic, and political policies on their own power.  Therefore, following the prevailing philosophy of mercantilism, they started establishing better civil services by choosing more o f their officials based on merit, sometimes determined by civil service exams.  They also created more public works (roads, bridges, canals, etc.) to improve the economy and their tax base.  Sometimes these mercantilist policies were too heavy-handed in how they were carried out, but in many cases they benefited society.  Unfortunately, at this time, trying to impose these reforms on a society that still had many feudal features also impeded progress: such things as tax exempt nobles, hereditary offices (including the monarchy), and extra feudal dues burdening the peasants.

Of course, these reforms were done in most cases for the benefit of the king, but they also often benefited society as a whole, giving rise to the idea that the state was working for the benefit of the people instead of the other way around.  Out of that idea came rising expectations for more benefits from the state.  People even started feeling that when those expectations were not met, they had the right to rebel. That is exactly what would happen in France in 1789.

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