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.

The Enlightenment throughout Europe

John Locke




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The Age of Enlightenment

The European Dream Of Progress And Enlightenment

Author:     Lewis, Hackett

Date:        1992


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.


Idealistic Philosophy


     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:

Collier, 1902.)]


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.


Political Patterns


     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.


Enlightenment Thought


     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

traditional styles.


     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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