MAJOR IDEAS OF ENLIGHTENMENT (PART 4)
Developments in Economics, Laws, Industrialization, Music, Women Rights:
- The Enlightenment was not limited to innovations in philosophy, literature, mathematics, and science; in countries throughout Europe, it encompassed new thought and developments in a variety of other academic, artistic, and social fields. Most notable among these achievements were developments in economics, law, industrial technology, women’s rights, humanitarianism, and music.
- A common complaint among intellectuals in eighteenth-century Europe was that politics was too closely tied to economics. For one, serfdom, which kept peasants bound to disadvantageous feudal contracts, was still prevalent, as was the use of tradition and class hierarchy for deciding occupations.
- Probably the most disadvantageous development was that of mercantilism, a much-touted economic system that encouraged governments to closely monitor their import-to-export ratio so as to maintain a favorable balance of trade. Under mercantilism, domineering governments exercised an extraordinary degree of control over their respective economies.
- The impetus for change arrived when French economist François Quesnay (1694–1774) explained in his Tableau Economique (1758) that a natural order of trade, with limited government intervention, would be much more beneficial to both society and the individual.He became the centre of a group of scholars and publicists who styled themselves the economists and are known as Physiocrats.
- Laissez-faire (“hands-off”) became the slogan of the new economic liberty espoused by Quesnay and his disciples.
- This idea was subsequently elaborated upon and popularized by Scottish economist Adam Smith (1723–1790) in his landmark Wealth of Nations (1776), which established the nature of economics in three laws:
- People work more productively when they have self-interest;
- Competition leads to a balanced marketplace;
- True supply and demand are a product of free trade.
- Smith’s advocacy of this laissez-faire (“hands-off”) economics, as it came to be called, was revolutionary at the time. Simply put, Smith insisted that it is when individuals are most unburdened by trade regulation that they will be most prosperous, because a free system will allow the “invisible hand” of the economy to operate. Smith’s ideas in Wealth of Nations had enormous influence on the Western world and established economics as a science. Numerous modern nations, most notably the United States, implemented Smith’s policies and benefited from considerable economic growth.
- The state of European law in the eighteenth century was chaotic, as laws were not always written down and court rulings and sentences were often arbitrary and unfair. Aristocratic privilege and religious affiliation provided safeguards against prosecution, while speaking out against either of those institutions was a sure way to invite prosecution.
- During the Enlightenment, however, Italian scholar Cesare Beccaria (1738–1794) became a prominent voice in legal reform, questioning in the treatise On Crimes and Punishments (1764) how, in such an enlightened age, such atrocious legal unfairness and cruelty could go overlooked. Beccaria demanded that firm legal codes be established based on reason rather than arbitrary decisions and that trials should be open to the public to ensure fairness. In cases of guilt, punishments should be standardized and never involve torture. Beccaria’s work was highly influential, and he lived to see a number of European countries adopt his ideas.
- The French satirist Voltaire also contributed to the fight for legal reform, albeit using a caustic rather than scholarly voice to point out injustices.
- The Industrial Revolution in the Western world in the late 1800s had its roots in Enlightenment-era Europe. Beginning in the mid-1700s, industrialization truly exploded in 1769 when Scottish inventor James Watt (1736–1819) substantially improved the steam engine, which enabled the development of a primitive factory system.
- Afterward, Europe saw the number of industry-related patents increase tenfold before 1800. The industrial boom had a number of positive effects: it attracted capitalist investors, who in turn precipitated more growth; it created jobs that provided more stability for families; and, as a result, it prompted population growth.
- Industrialization was not without its downsides, however. When factories first opened, there was no industrial regulation in place. Factory smokestacks polluted the European landscape so severely that some regions have yet to recover. Poor, willing workers quickly found themselves working grueling eighteen-hour workdays, receiving unfair wages, and facing brutal disciplinary measures. Moreover, without age restrictions on work, it was frequently young children who had to endure such conditions. When workers tried to band together to form early labor unions, they were dissuaded with death threats and other forms of intimidation. Until labor unions finally grew large and well organized enough to command respect, workers had to tolerate the mistreatment.
- The progressive thought of the Enlightenment also brought calls for increased women’s rights and equality. Olympe de Gouges, a writer and feminist activist in late-eighteenth-century France, solidified the movement with her 1791 Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen . An obvious stab at the French Revolution’s 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, Gouge’s declaration called for equal rights and liberty for women, including more control over marriage.
- The push for women’s rights was emblematic of the changes that were taking place in European society during the Enlightenment. Beyond heightened respect for women, the era also marked the beginning of the end for such atrocious practices as slavery and witch burning. Children, who had previously been treated essentially as miniature adults, began to enjoy more contact and affection with their parents—a shift that owed much to Rousseau’s Emile and his other Romantic writings. Jews, who had long been ignored or vilified, started to receive a warmer welcome throughout Europe as well.
- Given that the Enlightenment had already reinvented pretty much every other field in existence, it’s little surprise the era also produced some of Western music’s most revered composers. Working during the early Classical period of the late 1700s, these composers synthesized styles and influences in a wide range of genres of both sacred and secular music.
- Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) of Germany quickly built a reputation as a master organist but was also was an enormously prolific composer—a fact that was not entirely appreciated until after his death. His major works include both for the Church and for secular purposes.
- Frideric Handel (1685–1759), conversely, found enormous fame as a composer during his life. Born in Germany but working primarily in England, Handel was a celebrated court composer who won numerous commissions and wrote enormously popular operas.
- The major figure in music at the tail end of the Enlightenment was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791), who ushered in the Classical era. A child prodigy of nearly unfathomable gifts, Mozart was composing music by age six, touring Europe by eight, and writing full-length operas by twelve.
Legacy of Enlightenment:
- In the later years of the Enlightenment, absolute monarchs in several European countries adopted some of the ideas of Enlightenment political philosophers. However, although some changes and reforms were implemented, most of these rulers did not fundamentally change absolutist rule.
- Enlightened absolutism (also called benevolent despotism or enlightened despotism) is a form of absolute monarchy or despotism inspired by the Enlightenment. Enlightened monarchs especially embraced its emphasis upon rationality. They tended to allow religious toleration, freedom of speech and the press, and the right to hold private property. Most fostered the arts, sciences, and education.
- In Russia, empress Catherine the Great, a subscriber to the ideas of Beccaria and de Gouges, decried torture while greatly improving education, health care, and women’s rights, as well as clarifying the rights of the nobility. She also insisted that the Russian Orthodox Church become more tolerant of outsiders. However, she continued to imprison many of her opponents and maintained censorship and serfdom.
- In Austria, monarchs Maria-Theresa and Joseph II worked to end mistreatment of peasants by abolishing serfdom and also promoted individual rights, education, and religious tolerance. Joseph was over-enthusiastic, announcing so many reforms that had so little support, that and his regime became a comedy of errors and revolts broke out and all his programs were reversed.
- An admirer of Voltaire, Frederick the Great, the king of Prussia, supported the arts and education, reformed the justice system, improved agriculture, and created a written legal code. However, although these reforms strengthened and streamlined the Prussian state, the tax burden continued to fall on peasants and commoners.
- There was difference between the “enlightenment” of the ruler personally, versus that of his or her regime. For example, Frederick the Great who ruled Prussia from 1740 to 1786, was tutored in the ideas of the French Enlightenment in his youth, and maintained those ideas in his private life as an adult, but in many ways was unable or unwilling to effect enlightened reforms in practice. Enlightened absolutism is the theme of an essay by Frederick the Great defending this system of government.
- Frederick the Great, was an enthusiast for French ideas (he ridiculed German culture and was unaware of the remarkable advances it was undergoing). Voltaire, a French writer, who had been imprisoned and maltreated by the French government, was eager to accept Frederick’s invitation to live at his palace.Voltaire felt enlightened monarchy was the only real way for society to advance. Frederick explained, “My principal occupation is to combat ignorance and prejudice … to enlighten minds, cultivate morality, and to make people as happy as it suits human nature, and as the means at my disposal permit”.
- Others rulers like the Marquis of Pombal, prime minister of Portugal, used the enlightenment not only to achieve reforms but also to enhance autocracy, crush opposition, suppress criticism, further colonial economic exploitation, and consolidate personal control and profit.
- Spain had a great deal of censorship in place during the early Enlightenment, but when Charles III ascended the throne in 1759, he implemented a number of reforms. During his tenure, Charles III weakened the influence of the Church, enabled land ownership for the poor, and vastly improved transportation routes.
- Not all the aftereffects of the Enlightenment were productive. Despite the advances in literacy, thought, and intellectual discussion that accompanied the Enlightenment, middle- and upper-class citizens often mistakenly carried this open-mindedness to an excessive degree. In many cases, this open-mindedness manifested itself in pure gullibility, as supposedly well-educated Europeans fell prey to “intellectual” schemes and frauds based on nothing more than superstition and clever speech.
- For instance, during the eighteenth century, people who called themselves phrenologists convinced many Europeans that a person’s character could be analyzed through the study of the contours of the skull. Likewise, the quack field of physiognomy claimed to be able to predict psychological characteristics, such as a predisposition to violence, by analyzing facial features or body structure. Similar medical hoaxes were common throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
- Although many of these misguided Enlightenment scientists believed that their methods could work, many were charlatans who knew exactly what they were doing. The world was wide-eyed and eager for new knowledge and, as of yet, lacked the fact-checking capabilities to separate real discoveries from pure deception.
The American Revolution
- Across the Atlantic, the Enlightenment had a profound impact on the English colonies in America and ultimately on the infant nation of the United States.
- The colonial city of Philadelphia emerged as a chic, intellectual hub of American life, strongly influenced by European thought. Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) was the consummate philosophe: a brilliant diplomat, journalist, and scientist who traveled back and forth between Europe and America, acting as a conduit of ideas between them. He played a pivotal role in the American Revolution, which began in 1775, and the subsequent establishment of a democratic government under the Thomas Jefferson–penned Declaration of Independence (1776).
- The political writer Thomas Paine (1737–1809) also brought Enlightenment ideas to bear on the American Revolution. An Englishman who immigrated to America, Paine was inspired by America and wrote the political pamphlet Common Sense (1776), which encouraged the secession of the colonies from England. Later in his life, Paine’s religious views and caustic demeanor alienated him from much of the public, and he died in somewhat ill repute.
- In many ways, the new United States was the Enlightenment, for its leaders could actually implement many of the ideas that European philosophers could only talk about. Americans were exposed to, and contributed to, the leading works of science, law, politics, and social order, yet lacked the traditions and conservatism that impeded the European countries from truly changing their ways.
- Indeed, the Declaration of Independence borrows heavily from Enlightenment themes—even taking passages from Locke and Rousseau—and the U.S. Constitution implements almost verbatim Locke and Montesquieu’s ideas of separation of power. America was founded as a deist country, giving credit to some manner of natural God yet allowing diverse religious expression, and also continued in the social and industrial veins that were begun in Europe.
The French Revolution
- Just a decade after the revolution in America, France followed suit, with the French Revolution, which began in 1789. Empowered by the political philosophies of the Enlightenment, the French citizenry overthrew the monarchy of Louis XVI and established a representative government that was directly inspired by Enlightenment thought.
- This harmonious arrangement, however, soon fell prey to internal dissent, and leadership changed hands throughout the years that followed. The instability reached a violent climax with the ascent of Maximilien Robespierre, an extremist who plunged the revolution into the so-called Reign of Terror of 1793–1794, beheading more than 15,000 suspected enemies and dissenters at the guillotine.
- Distraught Frenchmen and other Europeans reacted to the tyranny of the Reign of Terror, as well as subsequent oppressive governments in France, by blaming the Enlightenment. These critics claimed that the Enlightenment’s attacks on tradition and questioning of norms would always lead inevitably to instability. Moreover, many critics in the nobility saw the violence of the Reign of Terror as proof positive that the masses, however “enlightened,” could never be trusted to govern themselves in an orderly fashion.
- Indeed, most historians agree that the French Revolution effectively marked the end of the Enlightenment. France itself reacted against the violence of the revolution by reverting to a military dictatorship under Napoleon that lasted fifteen years.
- Despite the brutalities of the French Revolution and the lingering resentment toward many philosophes, the Enlightenment had an indisputably positive effect on the Western world. Scientific advances laid an indestructible foundation for modern thought, while political and other philosophies questioned and ultimately undermined oppressive, centuries-old traditions in Europe.
- After several transitional decades of instability in Europe, nearly everyone in Europe—along with an entire population in the United States—walked away from the Enlightenment in a better position. The movement resulted in greater freedom, greater opportunity, and generally more humane treatment for all individuals. Although the world still had a long way to go, and indeed still does, the Enlightenment arguably marked the first time that Western civilization truly started to become civilized.