The European Enlightenment

Seventeenth Century Enlightenment Thought



   As a historical category, the term "Enlightenment" refers to a series of changes in European thought and letters. It is one of the few historical categories that was coined by the people who lived through the era (most historical categories, such as "Renaissance," "early modern," "Reformation," "Tokugawa Enlightenment," etc., are made up by historians after the fact). When the writers, philosophers and scientists of the eighteenth century referred to their activities as the "Enlightenment," they meant that they were breaking from the past and replacing the obscurity, darkness, and ignorance of European thought with the "light" of truth.

   Although the Enlightenment is one of the few self-named historical categories, determining the beginning of the Enlightenment is a difficult affair, as we noted earlier in this module. Not only can we not easily find a beginning to the Enlightenment, we can't really identify an end point either. For we still more or less live in an Enlightenment world; while philosophers and cultural historians have dubbed the late nineteenth and all of the twentieth century as "post-Enlightenment," we still walk around with a world view largely based on Enlightenment thought.

   So in the spirit of not dating the Enlightenment, we will simply refer to the changes in European thought in the seventeenth century as "Seventeenth Century Enlightenment Thought," with the understanding that our use of the term may invite criticism.

   The main components of Enlightenment thought are as follows:

The universe is fundamentally rational, that is, it can be understood through the use of reason alone;


Truth can be arrived at through empirical observation, the use of reason, and systematic doubt;


Human experience is the foundation of human understanding of truth; authority is not to be preferred over experience;


All human life, both social and individual, can be understood in the same way the natural world can be understood; once understood, human life, both social and individual, can be manipulated or engineered in the same way the natural world can be manipulated or engineered;


Human history is largely a history of progress;


Human beings can be improved through education and the development of their rational facilities;


Religious doctrines have no place in the understanding of the physical and human worlds;


   There are two distinct developments in Enlightenment thought: the scientific revolution which resulted in new systems of understanding the physical world (this is covered in a later chapter), and the redeployment of the human sciences that apply scientific thinking to what were normally interpretive sciences. In the first, the two great innovations were the development of empirical thought and the mechanistic world view. Empiricism is based on the notion that human observation is a reliable indicator of the nature of phenomena; repeated human observation can produce reasonable expectations about future natural events. In the second, the universe is regarded as a machine. It functions by natural and predictable rules; although God created the universe, he does not interfere in its day to day runnings. Once the world is understood as a machine, then it can be manipulated and engineered for the benefit of humanity in the same way as machines are.



The Human Sciences

   These ideas were steadily exported to the human sciences as well. In theories of personality, human development, and social mechanics, seventeenth century thinkers moved away from religious and moral explanations of human behavior and interactions and towards an empirical analysis and mechanistic explanation of the laws of human behavior and interaction.



Thomas Hobbes

   The first major thinker of the seventeenth century to apply new methods to the human sciences was Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) whose book Leviathan is one of the most revolutionary and influential works on political theory in European history. Hobbes was greatly interested in the new sciences; he spent some time in Italy with Galileo and eagerly read the work of William Harvey, who was applying the new physical science methods to human physiology. After the English Civil War, Hobbes determined that political philosophy had to be seriously revised. The old political philosophy, which relied on religion, ethics, and interpretation, had produced what he felt was a singular disaster in English history. He proposed that political philosophy should be based on the same methods of exposition and explanation as were being applied to the physical sciences.

   When he applied these explanatory principles to politics and states, he arrived at two radical and far-reaching conclusions:

  • All human law derives from natural law; when human law departed from natural law, disaster followed;
  • All monarchs ruled not by the consent of heaven, but by the consent of the people.

   These were radical ideas. In the first, Hobbes believed that human beings were material, physical objects that were ruled by material, physical laws. Everything that human beings feel, think, and judge, are simply physical reactions to external stimuli. Sensation produces feeling, and feeling produces decision, and decision produces action. We are all, then, machines. The fundamental motivation that spurs human beings on is selfishness: all human beings wish to maximize their pleasure and minimize their pain. As long as political philosophy is built on some other principle, such as morality, the human inclination to selfishness will always result in tragedy.

   Since all human beings are selfish, this means that no person is really safe from the predations of his or her fellow beings. In its natural state, humanity is at war with itself. Individuals battle other individuals in a perpetual struggle for advantage, power, and gain. Hobbes argued that the society was a group of selfish individuals that united into a single body in order to maximize their safety-- to protect themselves from one another. The primary purpose of society is to maximize the happiness of its individuals. At some early point, individuals gathered into a society and agreed to a "social contract" that stipulated the laws and rules they would all live by.


From the title page to Leviathan
The title page illustrates Hobbes's attitude towards authority and the dependence of the human community on that authority.



   Human beings, however, could not be trusted simply to live by their agreements. For this reason, authority was created in order to enforce the terms of the social contract. The creation of authority, by which Hobbes meant a monarch, transformed society into a state . For Hobbes, humanity is better off living under the circumscribed freedoms of a monarchy rather than the violent anarchy of a completely equal and free life.

   Using this reasoning, Hobbes argued for unquestioning obedience of authority. In a twist of fate, however, both his methods of inquiry and his basic assumptions would form the basis of arguments against absolute authority.



Baruch Spinoza

   Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) was a Jewish philosopher living in the Netherlands who applied the new sciences to questions of ethics and philosophy. His most famous work, the Ethics , attempts to use a system of demonstration first outlined by Francis Bacon and fully theorized by René Descartes that begins with certain definitions and draws from these consequent axioms and corollaries. His basic definition of good ("The highest good of the mind is knowledge of God and the highest virtue of the mind is to know God") formed the foundation of all of his ethical statements, including some highly controversial statements ("Pity is not a virtue"). The work was extraordinarily controversial, for from his base definitions he derived the notion that God and nature were essentially identical. He argued the same thing that the Greek philosopher Parmenides did almost two thousand years earlier: there is one and only one thing in the universe and that one thing is God. Everything else is simply a part of God. Any proposition concerning the physical is, then, a proposition about the nature of God. For Spinoza the new physical sciences were, by and large, coterminous with theology. This position would be reiterated by Isaac Newton and the deists, who argued that understanding the rational workings of the universe would also mean understanding the rational workings of its creator, God.

   Like Hobbes, Spinoza believed that human action was fundamentally mechanistic. Human actions resulted from two things: the external environment and internal passions. The relationship between the environment, passions, and human action was a mechanistic relationship; all human actions, then, could be explained in terms of laws. The fundamental drive that animates all human beings is the effort to preserve themselves and their own autonomy in relation to external things. However, the one area of human activity that is free from the influence of the external environment and human passions is rational thought; the more that thought is disengaged from the external world and human passsion, that is, the more abstract that thought is, the more free the individual. Human freedom, for Spinoza, existed only in abstract thinking.

   In political theory, Spinoza argued that human beings fundamentally act in accordance with natural law. Like Hobbes, Spinoza believed that human beings pursue their own self-preseveration. In a natural state, the only "wrong" that a human being can commit is an action that results in his or her destruction or downfall. Since human beings cannot preserve themselves in isolation, they form societies by which individual "right" is subsumed under "common right," a notion very similar to Hobbes' social contract. The means by which a society enforces its common right on the individual is "dominion" (in Latin, "imperium"). Dominion takes three forms: dominion by the multitude (democracy), by a select few (aristocracy), or by a single individual (monarchy). The concepts of right and wrong, justice and injustice are only established when the common right is articulated through dominion; that is, when a ruler asserts something as right or wrong, it is then right or wrong (in nature there is no right or wrong, justice or injustice). The relationship between the right (power) of the individual and the right of the dominion is an inverse relationship: the more power that accrues to individuals, the less is available to the dominion; the more power that accrues to authorities, the less is available to individuals. Surprisingly, Spinoza implies that democracy is the best way to balance individual and common right since it more closely guarantees that the beliefs of the multitude will correspond with the beliefs and actions of the dominion.



John Locke

   The last important philosopher, besides Pascal and Descartes, of human sciences in the seventeenth century was John Locke (1632-1704). Locke was steeped in the new physical sciences; he was an avid reader of Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton, and he was a close friend of Robert Boyle, one of the founders of modern chemistry. He also read Pascal and Descartes avidly. He wrote two far-reaching and massively influential works on human sciences, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) and Two Treatises on Government (1690).

   The Essay takes as its subject human psychology and cognition; it is, undoubtedly, the first European work on human cognition. Locke applied the new science to explaining the human mind itself and all its operations; he started with a radical definition of the human mind. For Locke, the human mind enters the world with no pre-formed ideas whatsoever. The human mind at birth is a blank, a tabula rasa (erased board). Human sensation: taste, touch, smell, hearing, and especially vision filled the empty mind with objects of sensation. From these sensations, humans eventually derive a sense of order and rationality. All human thought, then, and all human passion is ultimately derived from sensation and sensation alone. In Locke's view, the human mind is completely empirical. Not only is he arguing that the best knowledge is empirical knowledge, he was arguing that the only knowledge is empirical knowledge; there is no other kind.

   One of the consequences of this empirical view of humans means that every human being enters the world with all the same capacities. No one is by virtue of birth more moral or knowledgeable than anyone else. Since all moral behavior arises from one's empirical experiences, that means that immoral behavior is primarily a product of the environment rather than the individual. If you accept that line of reasoning, that means that you can change moral and intellectual outcomes in human development by changing the environment. Locke proposed that education above everything else was responsible for forging the moral and intellectual character of individuals; he proposed in part an extension of education to every member of society. This view of education still dominates Western culture to this day.

   In the Two Treatises , Locke argued that government and authority was based on natural law. Unlike Hobbes, Locke believed that natural law dictated that all human beings were fundamentally equal; he derived this argument from his theories of human development. Since every human being walked into the world with the same capacities as every other human being, that meant that inequality was an unnatural result of the environments that individuals are forced to live in, a belief that still underlies the Western notion of human development. Human beings have a natural inclination to preserve their equality and independence, since these are natural aspects of humanness. For Locke, humans enter into social contracts only to help adjudicate disputes between individuals or groups. Absolute power, then, is an unnatural development in human history.

   For Locke, the purpose of authority is to protect human equality and freedom; this is why social groups agree to a "social contract" that places an authority over them. When that authority ceases to care for the welfare, independence, and equality of individual humans, the social contract is broken and it is the duty of the members of society to overthrow that ruler. This work was published shortly after the Glorious Revolution and clearly reflects the political fallout from that event. It would also serve as one of the central influences in the formation of the American government.

Richard Hooker



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©1996, Richard Hooker

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Updated 6-6-1999