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Examining Some Key Thinkers of the Enlightenment

Historians often date modern history from the 18th century, not just because this period saw the American and French Revolutions, but because at this time a fundamental change took place in the way people thought. Writers of the moment felt that they were emerging from a period of darkness and ignorance into the light of knowledge and reason. The Enlightenment was to have huge consequences, not just for philosophy and science but for politics and the way people were governed — both then and now.

The roots of Enlightenment thinking go back long before the 18th century. The humanist scholars of the Renaissance had insisted on going back to the original texts of the ancients rather than simply accepting traditional teachings. By the 17th century, this habit of looking and thinking for oneself had spread to observational science.

The 16th-century Polish scientist Nicholas Copernicus had noted that the earth appeared to go around the sun and not vice versa, and a hundred years later, the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei was able to demonstrate from his own observations and from mathematical calculation that Copernicus had been right. This discovery was not welcome news to the Church. Even though Galileo got into trouble with the Inquisition, the Church couldn't reverse the way scientific thinking was going; close observation and deduction with precise mathematical calculation were rapidly replacing faith in the classical authors. Might they even replace faith in God?

The Enlightenment in France

France produced three thinkers who had a particularly profound impact on European thought:

  • Michel de Montaigne, 1533–1592. Montaigne pointed out that people in other lands had developed perfectly good codes of morality and ethics. Who was to say which set of values was better than any other? And why should anyone impose their values on other people?
  • René Descartes, 1596–1650. Descartes, a philosopher and mathematician, argued that, if you start from the basic point that you know you exist, or, as he put it, 'I think, therefore I am,' you can actually prove the existence of God by applying reason and mathematics. Descartes's ideas (known as Cartesian philosophy) lasted well into the 18th century and formed the basis for the Enlightenment cult of Reason.
  • Blaise Pascal, 1623–1662. The mathematician Pascal agreed with Descartes on the importance of mathematics, but didn't think that you could apply reason and logic to areas of faith and emotion. "The heart has its reasons," he said, "which Reason knows not."

The Enlightenment in England

This French thinking was all very fine and theoretical, but over the Channel, the English were up against hard practicality. When English politics slid into civil war in the middle of the 17th century, two philosophers in particular tried to work out what the situation might mean:

  • Thomas Hobbes, 1588–1679. Hobbes reckoned that people are pretty brutish, and you need a good strong state, possibly a single ruler with absolute power, to keep them in order.
  • John Locke, 1632–1704. Locke took a rather more optimistic view of human nature and reckoned that people are born equal, with no built-in sense of right and wrong. We are the result of what we observe and experience as we go through life; no one is 'naturally' any better than anyone else.

These philosophers' thoughts ran counter to commonly accepted attitudes of 17th-century Europe, when people were born into "better" or "lower" families every day. If Locke and Montaigne were right, then by what right did nobles claim to be of higher birth than peasants? And by what right did they hold their lands and wealth while others, just as well-born as they were, had nothing? The implications of Locke's thinking in particular were enormous and revolutionary.

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