The 18th Century proudly referred to itself as the "Age of Enlightenment" and rightfully so, for Europe had dwelled in the dim glow of the Middle Ages when suddenly the lights began to come on in men's minds and humankind moved forward.
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The Age of Enlightenment
The European Dream Of Progress And Enlightenment
Author: Lewis, Hackett
To understand the natural world and humankind's place in it solely on the basis of reason and without turning to religious belief was the goal of the wide-ranging intellectual movement called the Enlightenment. The movement claimed the allegiance of a majority of thinkers during the 17th and 18th centuries, a period that Thomas Paine called the Age of Reason. At its heart it became a conflict between religion and the inquiring mind that wanted to know and understand through reason based on evidence and proof.
Reflections Of The Age In Cultural Expression
The eighteenth century, when Newtonian science exerted its greatest
impact, was exceptionally noteworthy for European cultural expression. This
was most evident in philosophy, which sought to find in human affairs natural
laws similar to those science had discovered in the physical universe. This
approach, with its optimistic utopianism, found some expression in literature,
but it was much more obscured in the visual arts and barely noticeable in
music. Because they were largely affected by tradition, individual feeling,
and patronage, the arts were less responsive to scientific influence. They
were, nevertheless, quite rich and varied, reflecting the increasing wealth,
widening perspectives, and rising technical proficiency of European life.
Developments In The Arts
The quantity and diversity of artistic works during the period do not fit
easily into categories for interpretation, but some loose generalizations may
be drawn. At the opening of the century, baroque forms were still popular, as
they would be at the end. They were partially supplanted, however, by a
general lightening in the rococo motifs of the early 1700s. This was followed,
after the middle of the century, by the formalism and balance of
neoclassicism, with its resurrection of Greek and Roman models. Although the
end of the century saw a slight romantic turn, the era's characteristic accent
on reason found its best expression in neoclassicism.
In painting, rococo emphasized the airy grace and refined pleasures of
the salon and the boudoir, of delicate jewelry and porcelains, of wooded
scenes, artful dances, and women, particularly women in the nude. Rococo
painters also specialized in portraiture, showing aristocratic subjects in
their finery, idealized and beautified on canvas. The rococo painting of
Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) blended fantasy with acute observations of nature,
conveying the ease and luxury of French court life. Watteau's successors in
France included Francois Boucher (1703-1770) and Jean Fragonard (1732-1806).
Italian painters, such a Giovanni Tiepolo (1696-1730), also displayed rococo
influences. English painting lacked the characteristic rococo frivolity, but
the style affected works by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) and Thomas
Gainsborough (1727-1788), whose portraits tended to flatter their aristocratic
Eighteenth-century neoclassicism in painting is difficult to separate
from some works in the era of Louis XIV. Both Charles Le Brun (1619-1690) and
Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) had earlier projected order and balance, often in
grandiose scenes from antiquity or mythology. Jean Chardin (1699-1779) carried
some of this over into the 1700s. The neoclassic approach, however, often
expressed powerful dissatisfaction and criticism of the existing order,
sometimes in stark realism and sometimes in colossal allegory. The most
typical representative of this approach was Jacques Louis David (1748-1825),
whose most famous work, Death of Socrates illustrates his respect for
Greco-Roman tradition. His sketch of Marie Antoinette enroute to the
guillotine clearly represents his revolutionary sympathies. The best examples
of pure realism and social criticism are the London street scenes by the
English painter William Hogarth (1697-1764) and the Spanish court portraits of
Francisco Goya (1746-1828).
The number of women painters increased during the eighteenth century, but
they were so limited by traditions and so dependent upon public favor that
they could hardly maintain consistent styles. Very few were admitted to
academies, where their work might be shown; in France, they were not permitted
to work with nude models. The result was their practical restriction to
still-life and portraiture. Among rococo painters, the two best-known were
Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750), a court painter of flowers in Dusseldorf, and
Rosalba Carriera (1675-1757), a follower of Watteau, who was admitted to the
French Academy in 1720. Two very famous French portrait painters and members
of the Academy, were Vigee Le Brun (1755-1842) and Adelaide Labille-Guiard
(1749-1803). If possible, they were overshadowed by Angelica Kaufmann
(1741-1807), a Swiss-born artist who painted in England and Italy. All three
were celebrated intheir time. Each produced grand scenes in the neoclassical
style, but their market limited them to flattering portraits, at which they
Neoclassicism also found expression in architecture and sculpture.
Architecture was marked by a return to the intrinsic dignity of what a
contemporary called "the noble simplicity and tranquil loftiness of the
ancients." The Madeleine of Paris is a faithful copy of a still-standing Roman
temple, and the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin was modeled after the monumental
entrance to the Acropolis in Athens. In England, where the classical style had
resisted baroque influences, the great country houses of the nobility now
exhibited a purity of design, which often included a portico with Corinthian
columns. Mount Vernon is an outstanding example of neoclassicism in colonial
America. The trend in sculpture often revived classical themes from Greek and
Roman mythology; statues of Venus became increasingly popular. Claude Michel
(1738-1814) and Jean Houdon (1741-1828) were two French neoclassical sculptors
who also achieved notable success with contemporary portraits. Houdon's
Portrait of Voltaire is a well-known example.
At the opening of the eighteenth century, music demonstrated typical
baroque characteristics. These were evident in instrumental music, especially
that of the organ and the strings. The most typical baroque medium was opera,
with its opulence and highly emotional content. The era culminated in the
sumptuous religious music of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), a prolific
German organ master and choir director. Bach's equally great contemporary, the
German-born naturalized Englishman, George Frideric Handel (1685-1759), is
known for his grand and dramatic operas, oratorios, and cantatas; he is best
known today for his religious oratorio, Messiah (1742).
Composers of the late eighteenth century turned from the heavy and
complex baroque styles to classical music of greater clarity, simpler
structures, and more formal models. Plain, often folklike melodies also became
common. With the appearance of symphonies, sonatas, concertos, and chamber
music, less interest was shown in mere accompaniment for religious services or
operatic performances. The general emphasis on technical perfection, melody,
and orchestration is summed up in the work of the Austrian composers Franz
Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791). Haydn wrote
over 100 symphonies, along with numerous other works. Mozart wrote more than
600 works, including 41 symphonies, 22 operas, and 23 string quartets,
climaxing his career with his three most famous operas: The Marriage of Figaro
(1786) Don Giovanni (1787), and The Magic Flute (1791).
Musical expression at the turn of the century was touched by the genius
of the immortal German composer Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). The passion
of his sonatas and symphonies expressed a revolutionary romanticism, which
challenged the sedate classicism of his time.
Reflections Of The Age In Literature
More than in art, neoclassicism in literature came closer to voicing the
eighteenth century's fascination with reason and scientific law. Indeed, the
verbal media of poetry, drama, prose, and exposition were commonly used to
convey the new philosophic principles.
A typical poetic voice of the Age of Reason in England was Alexander Pope
(1688-1744). In his most famous work, An Essay on Man (1733), Pope expressed
the optimism and respect for reason that marked the era. He described a
Newtonian universe in the following often quoted lines:
All are but parts of one stupendous whole,
Whose body nature is, and God the soul ...
All nature is but art, unknown to thee;
All chance, direction, which thou cannot see.
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good
And, spite of pride, in erring reason's spite,
One truth is clear: Whatever is, is right. ^5
[Footnote 5: Quoted in G. K. Anderson and W. E. Buckler, eds., The Literature
of England, 2 vols. (Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman, 1958), vol. 1, p. 1568.]
Two other poetic voices deserve mention here. One belonged to the English
Countess of Winchelsea (1661-1720), who extolled reason and feminine equality
in her verse. The other was that of a Massachusetts slave girl, Phyllis
Wheatley (1753-1784), whose rhyming couplets, in the style of Pope, pleaded
the cause of freedom for the American colonies and for her race.
Reflecting the common disdain for irrational customs and outworn
institutions were such masterpieces of satire as Candide (1759), by the French
man of letters, Francois-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire (1694-1778).
Another famous satirist, England's Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), ridiculed the
pettiness of human concerns in Gulliver's Travels (1726), wherein Captain
Gulliver, in visiting the fictitious land of Lilliput, found two opposing
factions: the Big-endians, who passionately advocated opening eggs at the big
end, and the Little-endians, who vehemently proposed an opposite procedure.
The novel became a major literary vehicle in this period. It caught on
first in France during the preceding century and was then popularized in
England. Robinson Crusoe (1719), by Daniel Defoe (1659-1731), is often called
the first modern English novel. The straight prose of the novel satisfied a
prevailing demand for clarity and simplicity; but the tendency in this period
to focus on middle-class values, heroic struggle, and sentimental love
foreshadowed the coming romantic movement. Writing along these lines Samuel
Richardson (1689-1761) produced Pamela (1740-1741), the story of a virtuous
servant-girl, and Henry Fielding (1707-1754) wrote the equally famous Tom
Jones (1749), the rollicking tale of a young man's deep pleasures and
superficial regrets. Each novel, in its own way, defined a natural human
In both France and England women found a uniquely promising outlet for
their long-ignored talents in the romantic novel, with its accent on personal
feminine concerns and domestic problems. Two among the multitude of able
French women novelists were Madame de Graffigny (1695-1758), whose Lettres
D'Une Peruvienne (1730) became a best-seller, and Madame de Tencin
(1682-1749), who wrote The Siege of Calais, a historical novel of love and
danger. In England, Fanny Burney (1753-1840) was universally acclaimed after
publication of her first novel, Eveline (1778), about "a young lady's entrance
into the world." Aphra Behn (1640-1689) was an early playwright whose novel,
Oroonoko (1688), was a plea for the natural person, long before the works of
Defoe and Rousseau.
The Enlightenment And The Age Of Reason In Philosophy
Western Europe's worship of reason, reflected only vaguely in art and
literature, was precisely expressed in a set of philosophic ideas known
collectively as the Enlightenment. It was not originally a popular movement.
Catching on first among scientists, philosophers, and some theologians, it was
then taken up by literary figures, who spread its message among the middle
classes. Ultimately, it reached the common people in simplified terms
associated with popular grievances.
The most fundamental concept of the Enlightenment were faith in nature
and belief in human progress. Nature was seen as a complex of interacting laws
governing the universe. The individual human being, as part of that system,
was designed to act rationally. If free to exercise their reason, people were
naturally good and would act to further the happiness of others. Accordingly,
both human righteousness and happiness required freedom from needless
restraints, such as many of those imposed by the state or the church. The
Enlightenment's uncompromising hostility towards organized religion and
established monarchy reflected a disdain for the past and an inclination to
favor utopian reform schemes. Most of its thinkers believed passionately in
human progress through education. They thought society would become perfect if
people were free to use their reason.
Before the eighteenth century, the Enlightenment was confined to Holland
and England. Its earlier Dutch spokesmen were religious refugees, like the
French Huguenot Pierre Bayle (1674-1706), whose skepticism and pleas for
religious toleration were widely known in France. Baruch Spinoza (1632-1687),
a Jewish intellectual and Holland's greatest philosopher, was a spokesman for
pantheism, the belief that God exists in all of nature. Spinoza's influence,
along with Newton's, profoundly affected English thinkers. Mary Astell
(1666-1731), perhaps the earliest influential English feminist, lauded
rational thinking and cited Newton as proof of an ordered universe. Such ideas
were given more credibility by John Locke (1632-1704), the famous English
philosopher. Back home from exile in Holland after the Glorious Revolution of
the 1680s, Locke applied Newton's recently published principles to psychology,
economics, and political theory. With Locke, the Enlightenment came to
maturity and began to spread abroad.
After the Peace of Utrecht (1713), the Enlightenment was largely a French
Phenomenon. Its leading proponents were known as the philosophes, although the
term cannot in this instance be translated literally as "philosophers." The
philosophes were mostly writers and intellectuals who analyzed the evils of
society and sought reforms in accord with the principles of reason. Their most
supportive allies were the salonnieres, that is, the socially conscious and
sometimes learned women who regularly entertained them, at the same time
sponsoring their discussion of literary works, artistic creations, and new
political ideas. By 1750, the salonnieres, their salons, and the philosophes
had made France once again the intellectual center of Europe.
A leading light among the philosophes was the Marquis de Montesquieu
(1688-1755), a judicial official as well as a titled nobleman. He was among
the earliest critics of absolute monarchy. From his extensive foreign travel
and wide reading he developed a great respect for English liberty and a sense
of objectivity in viewing European institutions, particularly those of France.
Montesquieu's Persian Letters (1721), which purported to contain reports of an
Oriental traveler in Europe, describing the irrational behavior and ridiculous
customs of Europeans, delighted a large reading audience. His other great
work, The Spirit of Laws (1748), expressed his main political principles. It
is noted for its practical common sense, its objective recognition of
geographic influences on political systems, its advocacy of checks and
balances in government, and its uncompromising defense of liberty against
More than any of the philosophes, Voltaire personified the skepticism of
his century toward traditional religion and the injustices of the Old Regimes.
His caustic pen brought him two imprisonments in the Bastille and even
banishment to England for three years. On returning to France, Voltaire
continued to champion toleration. He popularized Newtonian science, fought for
freedom of the press, and actively crusaded against the church. In such
endeavors, he turned out hundreds of histories, plays, pamphlets, essays, and
novels. His estimated correspondence of 10,000 letters, including many to
Frederick the Great and Catherine the Great, employed his wry wit in spreading
the gospel of rationalism and reform of abuses. Even in his own time, his
reputation became a legend, among kings as well as literate commoners.
Voltaire had many disciples and imitators, but his only rival in
spreading the Enlightenment was a set of books - the famous French
Encyclopedie, edited by Denis Diderot (1713-1784). The Encyclopedie, the chief
monument of the philosophes, declared the supremacy of the new science,
denounced superstition, and expounded the merits of human freedom. Its pages
contained critical articles, by tradesmen as well as scientists, on unfair
taxes, the evils of the slave trade, and the cruelty of criminal laws.
More than has been widely understood, the Encyclopedie, and many other
achievements of the philosophes were joint efforts with their female
colleagues among the salonnieres. Madame de Geoffrin (1699-1777) contributed
200,000 livres (roughly $280,000 equivalent) to the Encyclopedie and made her
salon the headquarters for planning and managing it. Mademoiselle de
Lespinasse (1732-1776), the friend and confidential advisor of Jean d'Alembert
(1717-1783), who assisted Diderot in editing the work, turned her salon into a
forum for criticizing prospective articles. Most of the philosophes relied
upon such assistance. Voltaire was coached in science by Madame du Chatelet;
and the Marquis de Condorcet (1742-1794), the prophet of progress and women's
rights among the philosophes, was intellectually partnered by his wife, Sophie
(1764-1812), who popularized their ideas in her own salon. Even Madame de
Pompadour aided the philosophes in 1759, when she presuaded Louis XV to allow
sale of the Encyclopedie.
Perhaps the best-known of all the philosophes was that eccentric
Swiss-born proponent of romantic rationalism, Jean-Jacques Rousseau
(1712-1778). Although believing in the general objectives of the
Enlightenment, Rousseau distrusted reason and science. He gloried in human
impulse and intuition, trusting emotions rather than thought, the heart rather
than the mind. His early rebuffs from polite society encouraged his hatred for
the Old Regime. He also professed admiration for "noble savages," who lived
completely free of law, courts, priests, and officials. In his numerous
writings, he spoke as a rebel against all established institutions. The most
famous of these works, The Social Contract (1762), was Rousseau's indictment
of absolute monarchy. It began with the stirring manifesto: "Man is born free,
but today he is everywhere in chains." ^6
[Footnote 6: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, trans. by W. Kendall,
(Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1954), p. 2.]
The French Enlightenment exerted a powerful influence on English thought.
Many young upper-class Englishmen visited France to complete their education.
Among them were three leading English thinkers: Adam Smith (1723-1790), the
Scottish father of modern economics; David Hume (1711-1766), the best-known
English skeptic; and Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), the founder of utilitarian
philosophy. Another famous English rationalist was the historian, Edward
Gibbon (1737-1794), whose Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire markedly
criticized early Christianity. Among English political radicals after 1770,
Joseph Priestley, Richard Price (1723-1791) and Thomas Paine (1737-1809) were
also very much affected by French thought. Paine, who figured prominently in
the American and French revolutions, was also a leader in English radical
The Enlightenment also affected English women. Hannah Moore and a coterie
of lady intellectuals, known as "bluestockings," maintained a conservative
imitation of the French salons after the 1770s. One atypical "bluestocking"
was Catherine Macaulay (1731-1791), a leading historian who published eight
widely acclaimed volumes on the Stuart period. A republican defender of the
American and French Revolutions, Macaulay exerted a decided influence on Mary
Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), whose life symbolized the Enlightenment and the
emerging English feminist movement. Born in poverty and burdened by a
dependent family, Wollstonecraft became a teacher and a successful
professional writer. She was personally acquainted with leading English
radicals, including Richard Price, Thomas Paine, and William Godwin
(1756-1836), whom she later married. Her Vindication of the Rights of Man
(1790) was the first serious answer to Edmund Burke's diatribe against the
French Revolution, which Wollstonecraft personally observed and ardently
The reforming rationalism of the Enlightenment spread over Europe and
also reached the New World. A leading spokesman in Germany was Moses
Mendelssohn (1729-1786), who wrote against dogmatism and in favor of natural
religion. In Italy, the Marquis of Beccaria (1738-1794) pleaded for
humanitarian legal reforms. The Enlightenment was popular among the upper
classes in such absolutist strong-holds as Prussia, Russia, Austria, Portugal,
and Spain. French ideas were read widely in Spanish America and Portuguese
Brazil. In the English colonies, Locke and the philosophes influenced such
leading thinkers as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), Mercy
Otis Warren (1728-1814), and Abigail Adams (1744-1818).
The Reaction Against Reason
The eighteenth century was primarily an "Age of Reason," but in the
latter decades there was a general reaction against rationalism. One form of
the reaction came in philosophy with a new idealism, in opposition to the
materialism of the early Enlightenment. Another form was an emotional
religious revival, which won back many wavering Protestants and Catholics. A
third form of reaction replaced reason with religion as the justification for
humanitarian reforms. These movements stressed emotion over reason but
continued the Enlightenment's accent upon individual liberty.
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), a kindly and contemplative professor of
philosophy at the German University of Konigsberg, was thoroughly aroused by
the skeptical and materialistic extremes of the Enlightenment. While
appreciating science and dedicated to reason, he determined to shift
philosophy back to a more sensible position without giving up much of its
newly discovered "rational" basis. His ideas, contained primarily in the
Critique of Pure Reason (1781), ushered in a new age of philosophic idealism.
Kant agreed with Locke on the role of the senses in acquiring knowledge
but insisted that sensory experience had to be interpreted by the mind's
internal patterns. This meant that certain ideas - the mind's categories for
sorting and recording experience - were "a priori", that is, they existed
before the sensory experience occurred. Typical innate ideas of this sort were
width, depth, beauty, cause, and God; all were understood yet none were
learned directly through the senses. Kant concluded, as had Descartes, that
some truths were not derived from material objects through scientific study.
Beyond the material world was a realm unapproachable by science. Moral and
religious truths, such as God's existence, could not be proved by science yet
were known to human beings as rational creatures. Reason, according to Kant,
went beyond the mere interpretation of physical realities.
In Kant's philosophic system, pure reason, the highest form of human
endeavor, was as close to intuition as it was to sensory experience. It
proceeded from certain subjective senses, built into human nature. The idea of
God was derived logically from the mind's penchant for harmony. The human
conscience, according to Kant, might be developed or be crippled by
experience, but it originated in the person's thinking nature. Abstract
reason, apart from science and its laws, was a valid source of moral judgment
and religious interpretation. Thus Kant used reason to give a philosophic base
back to mystical religion. ^10
[Footnote 10: See Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason (New York:
The Religious Reaction
Religious rationalism, despite its appeal to intellectuals, provoked
considerable religious reaction. Part of this came from theologians such as
Bishop Joseph Butler (1692-1752) and William Paley (1743-1805) in England,
both of whom defended Christianity and challenged deism on its own rational
grounds. Even more significant was a widespread emotional revival, stressing
religion of the heart rather than the mind.
The new movement, known as pietism, began in England after 1738, when the
brothers John (1703-1791) and Charles (1708-1788) Wesley began a crusade of
popular preaching in the Church of England. The Anglican pietists discarded
traditional formalism and stilted sermons in favor of a glowing religious
fervor, producing a vast upsurge of emotional faith among the English lower
classes. "Methodist," at first a term of derision, came to be the respected
and official name for the new movement. After John Wesley's death in 1791, the
Methodists officially left the Anglican church to become a most important
independent religious force in England.
On the continent, Lutheran pietism, led by Philipp J. Spener (1635-1705)
and Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), followed a pattern similar to Methodism.
Swedenborg's movement in Sweden began as an effort to reconcile science and
revelation; after Swedenborg's death it became increasingly emotional and
mystical. Spener, in Germany, stressed Bible study, hymn singing, and powerful
preaching. The Moravian movement sprang from his background. Under the
sponsorship of Count Nicholaus von Zinzendorf (1700-1760), it spread to the
frontiers of Europe and to the English colonies in America.
The "Great Awakening," a tremendous emotional revival sustained by
Moravians, Methodsts, Baptists, and Quakers, swept the colonial frontier areas
from Georgia to New England in the late eighteenth century. Women played
prominent roles in this activity, organizing meetings and providing auxiliary
services, such as charities and religious instruction. Among the Quakers,
women were often ministers and itinerant preachers. One was Jemima Wilkinson
(1752-1819), leader of the Universal Friends; another was Ann Lee (1736-1784),
who founded Shaker colonies in New York and New England.
By the 1780s, religious rationalism and pietism stood in opposition to
each other. Proponents of each disagreed passionately on religious principles
though they agreed on the issue of religious freedom. Both rationalists and
pietists were outside the state churches, both feared persecution, and both
recognized the flagrant abuses of religious establishments. The two movements
were therefore almost equally threatening to state churches and the old
The New Humanitarianism
One dominant characteristic of the early Enlightenment - the concern for
individual human worth - received new impetus from religion in the reaction
against reason. The demand for reform and the belief in human progress were
now equated with traditional Christian principles, such as human communality
and God's concern for all people. Religious humanitarianism shunned radical
politics and ignored the issue of women's rights, despite the movement's
strong support among women. It did, however, seek actively to relieve human
suffering and ignorance among children, the urban poor, prisoners, and slaves.
This combination of humanitarian objectives and Christian faith was similar in
some ways to the Enlightenment but markedly different in its emotional tone
and religious justifications.
Notable among manifestations of the new humanitarianism was the
antislavery movement in England. A court case in 1774 ended slavery within the
country. From then until 1807, a determined movement sought abolition of the
slave trade. It was led by William Wilberforce (1759-1833), aided by Hannah
Moore and other Anglican Evangelicals, along with many Methodists and Quakers.
Wilberforce repeatedly introduced bills into the House of Commons that would
have eliminated the traffic in humans. His efforts were rewarded in 1807 when
the trade was ended, although he and his allies had to continue to struggle
for twenty-six more years, before they could achieve abolition in the British
Religious humanitarians enforced other movements that originated in the
Enlightenment. For example, the movements for legal reform and prison reform
were both supported by religious groups before 1800. Education, extolled by
rationalist thinkers, also aroused interest among the denominations. The
Sunday School movement, particularly in England, was a forerunner of many
private and quasi-public church schools. Finally, concern for the plight of
slaves, coupled with rising missionary zeal, brought popular efforts to
improve conditions for native peoples in European possessions overseas.
While it was not as openly political as other aspects of the
Enlightenment, the new humanitarianism played a significant part in weakening
absolutism. In general, it contributed to a spirit of restlessness and
discontent and encouraged independent thought, particularly as it improved
education. Its successful campaign against the slave trade also struck a
direct blow at the old mercantilist economies, which depended heavily on
plantation agriculture overseas. In time, the missionaries would also prove to
be the most consistent enemies of colonialism.
The West By 1750
The three great currents of change - commercialization, cultural
reorientation, and the rise of the nation-state - continued to operate in the
West after 1700, along with the growing international influence of the West.
Each strand, in fact, produced new ramifications that furthered the overall
transformation of the West.
On the whole, during the middle decades of the 18th century political
changes seemed least significant. During much of the century English politics
settled into a rather turgid parliamentary routine, in which key political
groups competed for influence without major policy differences. Some popular
concern for greater representation surfaced in the 1760s, as a movement for
democracy surged briefly, but there was as yet no consistent reform current.
Absolute monarchy in France changed little institutionally, but it became
progressively less effective. It was unable to force changes in the tax
structure that would give it more solid financial footing, because aristocrats
refused to surrender their traditional exemptions.
Political developments were far livelier in central Europe. In Prussia
Frederick the Great, building on the military and bureaucratic organization of
his predecessors, introduced greater freedom of religion while expanding the
economic functions of the state. His government actively encouraged better
agricultural methods, as in promoting use of the potato as a staple crop. It
also codified its laws toward greater commercial coordination and greater
equity; harsh traditional punishments were cut back. Later in the 18th century
an Austrian emperor, Joseph II, tried a similar program of state-sponsored
improvements, including a major effort to roll back the power of the Catholic
church. Rulers of this sort claimed to be enlightened despots, wielding great
authority but for the good of society at large.
Enlightened or not, the policies of the major Western nation-states
produced recurrent warfare. France and Britain squared off in the 1740s and
again in the Seven Years' War (1756-1763); their conflicts focused on battles
for colonial empire. Austria and Prussia also fought, with Prussia gaining new
land. Wars in the 18th century were carefully modulated, without devastating
effects, but they demonstrated the continued linkage between statecraft and
war characteristic of the West.
In culture, the aftermath of the scientific revolution spilled over into
a new movement known as the Enlightenment, centered particularly in France but
with adherents throughout the Western world. Enlightenment thinkers continued
to support scientific advance. While there were no Newton-like breakthroughs,
chemists gained new understanding of major elements and biologists developed a
vital new classification system for the natural species.
The Enlightenment also pioneered in applying scientific methods to the
study of human society, sketching the modern social sciences. The basic idea
here was that rational laws could describe social as well as physical
behavior, and that knowledge could be used to improve policy. Thus
criminologists wrote about how brutal punishments failed to deter crime,
whereas a decent society would be able to rehabilitate criminals through
education. Political theorists wrote about the importance of carefully planned
constitutions and controls over privilege, though they disagreed about what
political form was best. A new school of economists developed. The Scottish
philosopher Adam Smith set forth a number of invariable principles of economic
behavior, based on the belief that people act according to their self-interest
but, through competition, work to promote general economic advance. Government
should avoid regulation in favor of the operation of individual initiative and
market forces. Here was an important specific statement of economic policy and
an illustration of the growing belief that general models of human behavior
could be derived from rational thought.
More generally still, the Enlightenment produced a set of basic
principles about human affairs. Human beings are naturally good and can be
educated to be better. Reason was the key to truth, and religions that relied
on blind faith or refused to tolerate diversity were wrong. Enlightenment
thinkers attacked the Catholic church with particular vigor. Progress was
possible, even inevitable, if people could be set free. Society's goals should
center on improvements in material and social life.
Enlightenment thinkers showed great interest in technological change, for
greater prosperity was a valid and achievable goal. Coercion and cruelty could
be corrected, for the Enlightenment encouraged a humanitarian outlook that was
applied in condemnations of slavery and war.
Though not typical of the Enlightenment's main thrust, a few thinkers
applied the general principles to other areas. A handful of socialists argued
that economic equality and the abolition of private property must become
important goals. A few feminist thinkers, such as Mary Wollstonecraft in
England, argued that new political rights and freedoms should extend to women,
against the general male-centered views of most Enlightenment thinkers.
The Enlightenment, summing up and extending earlier intellectual changes,
became an important force for political and social reform. It did not rule
unchallenged. Important popular religious movements, such as Methodism in
England, showed the continued power of spiritual faith. Many writers,
particularly those experimenting with the novel as a new literary form in the
West, rebelled against Enlightenment rationality to urge the importance of
sentimentality and emotion. These approaches, too, encouraged rethinking of
The popularization of new ideas encouraged further changes in the habits
and beliefs of many ordinary people. Reading clubs and coffeehouses allowed
many urban artisans and businessmen to discuss the latest reform ideas.
Leading writers and compilations of scientific and philosophical findings,
such as the Encyclopaedia Britannica, won a wide audience and, in a few cases,
a substantial fortune due to the sale of books. Groups and individuals formed
to promote better agricultural or industrial methods, or bent on winning new
political rights, referred directly to Enlightenment thinking. Some groups of
artisans and peasants also turned against established churches and even
withdrew from religious belief, as secular values gained ground.
Other changes in popular outlook paralleled the new intellectual
currents, though they had deeper sources than philosophy alone. Attitudes
toward children began to shift in many social groups. Older methods of
physical discipline were criticized, in favor of more restrained behavior that
would respect the goodness and innocence of children. Swaddling began to
decline, as parents were interested in freer movement and greater interaction
for young children; no longer were infants tightly wrapped during their first
months. Among wealthy families, educational toys and books for children
reflected the idea that childhood should be a stage for learning and growth.
At the most basic level, parents became increasingly likely to give young
children names at birth and to select names different from those of older
relatives - a sign of a new affection for children and new belief in their
individuality. These changes were gradual, and they involved more adult
control of children as well as a more humane outlook. The idea of shaping
children and instilling guilt-stimulated consciences gained ground.
Unquestionably, the net effect was to alter parent-child relations and also to
produce novel personality ideals for adults themselves.
Family life generally was altered by a growing sense that old hierarchies
needed to be rethought, toward somewhat greater equality in the treatment of
women and children within the home. Love among family members gained new
respect, and an emotional bond in marriage became more widely sought. Parents,
for example, grew more reluctant to force a match on a son or daughter if the
emotional vibrations were not right. Here was a link not only with
Enlightenment ideas of proper family relations but with the novels that poured
out a sentimental view of life.
Ongoing economic change, finally, paralleled the ferment in popular
culture and intellectual life. Commerce continued its spread. Ordinary
Westerners began to buy processed products, such as refined sugar and coffee
or tea obtained from Indonesia and the West Indies, for daily use. Here was a
sign of the growing importance of Europe's new colonies for ordinary life and
of the beginnings of mass consumerism in Western society. Another sign of
change was the growing use of paid, professional entertainment as part of
popular leisure even in rural festivals. Not accidentally, circuses, first
introduced in France in the 1670s, began to redefine leisure to include
spectatorship and a taste for the bizarre.
Agriculture began to change. Until the later 17th century Western Europe
had continued to rely largely on the methods and techniques characteristic of
the Middle Ages - a severe economic constraint in a still agricultural
society. Now, first in the Netherlands and then elsewhere, new procedures for
draining swamps added available land. Nitrogen-fixing crops were introduced to
reduce the need to leave land fallow. Stockbreeding improved, and new
techniques like seed-drills or simply the use of scythes instead of sickles
for harvesting heightened productivity. Some changes spread particularly fast
on large estates, which was one reason that in England more and more land was
enclosed, with ordinary farmers serving as tenants or laborers rather than
owners. Other changes affected ordinary peasants as well. Particularly vital
in this category was the spread of the potato from the late 17th century
onward. A New World crop, the potato had long been shunned because it was not
mentioned in the Bible and was held to be the cause of plagues. Enlightened
government leaders and peasant desire to win greater economic security and
better nutrition led to widespread adoption of this efficient crop. The West,
in sum, improved its food supply and also its agricultural efficiency, leaving
more labor available for other pursuits.
These changes, along with the steady growth of colonial trade and
internal commerce, spurred increased manufacturing. The 18th century witnessed
a rapid spread of household production of textiles and metal products, mostly
by rural workers who alternated manufacturing with some agriculture. Hundreds
of thousands of people were drawn into this domestic system in which
capitalist merchants distributed supplies and orders and workers ran the
production process for pay. While manufacturing tools were still hand
operated, the spread of domestic manufacturing spurred important technical
innovations designed to improve efficiency. In 1733 James Kay in England
introduced the flying shuttle, which permitted automatic crossing of threads
on looms; with this, an individual weaver could do the work of two.
Improvements in spinning soon followed, as the Western economy began to
escalate toward a full-fledged Industrial Revolution.
Finally, agricultural changes, commercialism, and manufacturing combined,
particularly after about 1730, to produce a rapidly growing population in the
West. With better food supplies, more people survived - the potato was a
crucial ingredient here. More commercial motives helped prompt landlords and
some ambitious peasants to acquire more land and to push unneeded labor off,
heightening proletarianization but also reducing the restraints some parents
could impose over the sexual behavior of their children: In essence, as some
groups grew unsure of inheritance, they sought more immediate pleasures and
also hoped to use the labor of the resultant children. Finally, new
manufacturing jobs helped landless people support themselves, promoting in
some cases earlier marriage and sexual liaisons. Growing population, in turn,
promoted further economic change, heightening competition and producing a more
manipulable labor force. The West's great population revolution, which would
continue into the 19th century, both caused and reflected the civilization's
dynamism, though it also produced great strain and confusion.
Western society was still essentially agricultural by the mid-18th
century. Decisive new political forms had yet to be introduced, and in many
ways government policies failed to keep pace with cultural and economic change
after 1700. Established churches were forces to be reckoned with still. Even
new developments, such as the spread of domestic manufacturing, functioned
because they allowed so many traditional habits to persist. Thus while new
market relationships described this growing system, the location and many of
the methods of work as well as the association of family with production were
not altered. Western society hovered between older values and institutions and
the full flowering of change. Decades of outright political and economic
revolution, which would build on these tensions and cause a fuller
transformation, were yet to come.
The Enlightenment brought a new vision of the future, which forecast the
end of absolute monarchy. Philosophers of the Enlightenment thought they had
discovered a simple formula for perpetual human happiness. They sought to
deliver individuals from restraints so that they could act freely in
accordance with their natures. On the one hand, the formula promised that
pursuit of self-interest would benefit society; on the other, it promised that
a free human reason would produce sound moral judgments. In other words,
individual freedom permitted the operation of natural laws. Believing they had
learned these laws, eighteenth-century rationalists thought they had found the
secret of never-ending progress.
Rational philosophy undermined absolutism in all of its phases. Deism
questioned the necessity of state churches and clergies. The physiocrats, Adam
Smith, and other early economic liberals demonstrated the futility of
mercantilism. Political theory in the Enlightenment substituted the social
contract for divine right and emphasized natural human rights of political
freedom and justice. Each of these ideas denied the absolute authority of
Respect for rational philosophy was largely derived from the successes
and popularity of science. The surprising discoveries of astronomers produced
a new view of the individual's place in the universe; in his law of
gravitation, Newton supplied mathematical evidence for their perspective. His
laws, along with the other laws of science, suggested that human reason
operated effectively only when it was interpreting sensory experience.
Material reality was accepted as the only reality. Therefore, the natural laws
affecting human society were also considered as basically materialistic.
Toward the end of the eighteenth century, a reaction against reason
countered this materialism without affecting the fundamental objectives of the
Enlightenment. Idealistic philosophy and pietism both challenged the
scientific view of the individual, emphasizing that intuition and faith are
human qualities as essential as reason. These new movements merged with the
humane concerns of rational philosophy to produce a new humanitarianism, which
accented both reason and sentimentality but also continued the
eighteenth-century concern for human freedom. Together with the rationalism of
the Enlightenment, the reaction against reason before 1800 also challenged
absolutism's domination of the human body, mind, and spirit.
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