How Enlightened was the (Age of) Enlightenment?


Links: Political ideas A

Political ideas B


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Week 7 Billericay: political ideas in the Enlightenment:

Reform or Revolution.

Summary for students


A. Reform.

1. Introduction:

The spectrum of political views – from reform to revolution. The importance in the Enlightenment of ‘critique’ – freedom; the beginnings of ‘ideological’ conflict


2. Enlightened despotism/absolutism:

2.1 Kant – public opinion; limits to expressions of criticism; Kant’s liberalism, (and pacifism: ‘Perpetual Peace’ 1795)

- ‘two things move the mind with ever increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above and the moral law within.’ (Conclusion to the Critique on Practical Reason)


2.2 Other philosophes, and ‘enlightened depots’ – Voltaire. Catherine the Great Russia), Frederick the Great (Prussia), Joseph II (Austria) - “everything for the people, nothing by the people.”


3. The growth of liberalism:

3.1 Individual freedom and limited government. Role of traders and merchants; mercantilism (state to boost trade);


3.2 Criticisms of liberalism: freedom for a new elite, narrow definition of citizenship, ‘possessive individualism’


3.3 Locke and social contract; state as ‘mechanism’ that can be improved; Montesquieu: separation of powers. Adam Smith (influence of John Locke) natural rights, property.


3.4 A father of sociology: Montesquieu (1689 – 1755) – institutions, and culture – separation of powers (executive, legislative, judiciary), ‘spirit’ of a people. France: nobility, clergy, cities and parlements.



B. Revolution:


1. Jean-Jacques Rousseau: opposition to absolutism and to inequality; property the origin of inequality and conflict; sovereignty of the general will; direct democracy; the common people; sensibilité.


2. Condorcet (1743 – 1794) - public reason, a ruling elite elected by assemblies. Mathematical formula for elections. Imprisoned and died.  

3. The American Revolution (notes mainly from O’Hara: The Enlightenment)

- for independence from Britain; a recent colony; attitudes to Britain

- influence of Scottish enlightenment: John Knox (1510- 72) – Calvinism, and for a national system of education, and George Buchanan (1506 – 82) political legitimacy comes from the people

- Presbyterianism democratic, Scotland a literate, numerate, practical-oriented society

- Thomas Reid (1710 – 96) ‘common sense philosophy’, influenced ‘pragmatism’ (CS Peirce and others)

- involvement of Tom Paine (from England) ‘natural rights’ (see below)


- Thomas Jefferson (1743 – 1826) and self-government: “the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favoured few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.” 


- 1776 Declaration of Independence – authors: Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin (1706 – 1790), John Adams:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by the Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness etc...”


- Articles of Confederation (drawn up 1777, ratified 1781), Constitution (drawn up 1787, ratified 1789), Federalist Papers (by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Day)

- federalism: a central government, but a federation of states with their own executive and legislature (note the recent elections, electoral college etc)

- the constitution aimed at: a representative government strong enough to be able to raise taxes, prevent factions, and defend citizens of their new-won liberty (O’Hara p 102). There would be regular votes to appoint the government i.e. representative (not ‘direct’) democracy.


- at first, the electorate contained neither women nor slaves.


4. The French Revolution

- inspiration from America (but discontent built up over a long period): demands that the king consult the three estates (aristocracy, church, third estate). Abbé Joseph Sieyes: Third Estate is everything (1788)

- 1789 fall of the Bastille; restraints were put on Louis XVI; by 1792 the monarchy had been abolished, Louis was put on trial for high treason and executed early in 1793. Later that year Queen Marie Antoinette was executed also.

- power struggle between Jacobins and Girondins (who opposed the execution – as did Tom Paine, Condorcet and others). Robespierre, follower of Rousseau and leader of the Jacobins, triumphed. During 1793 – 4 (‘The Terror’) thousands were executed.  July 1794 Robespierre toppled, guillotined. Napoleon declared himself emperor - the revolution died shortly after.

- Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen August 1789

- universal, natural and inalienable rights of the individual - liberty, property, and security; the law is the expression of the general will and must be applied equally and fairly. Again, no mention of slavery or women (despite Condorcet)


5. Contrasting political views on the two revolutions:


5.1 Edmund Burke 1729 – 1797: MP in 1765 (Whigs); supported the Americans in their demand for independence from Britain, as the American revolution was justified in order to regain or “restore” something lost: they were being taxed but had no votes, so had lost their citizenship rights.

Reflections on the Revolution in France (1780): opposed the French Revolution because: it sought the overthrow of a long-established government of a type that was widespread, and “natural rights” were dangerous, as they could be taken to extremes by anyone; they were too “abstract.”

Represents conservatism: collective experience builds up tradition; politics is complex and intricate; change should be ‘piecemeal’; organic model of society; “natural” to feel awe at monarchs, etc; ordinary citizens are fallible; “aristocracy” should govern.


5.2 Tom Paine 1737 – 1809. Customs officer, councillor (Lewes, Sussex), pamphleteer

In America from 1774, drummer in the revolutionary army. Common Sense (1776); Rights of Man; The Age of Reason; Agrarian Justice.  To France in 1787 – later elected to the Convention, spoke against the execution of Louis XVI, imprisoned, released in 1793. In 1802 went to America, died there.

- Common sense” a fundamental attribute of human psychology.

- “… reason (freed from impostures of tradition and absurdities of religion) could easily apprehend the natural laws of society and government.” The science of government is has been “enveloped... [with] mystery, for the purpose of enslaving plundering and imposing upon mankind”.

- “society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness.” Government is a necessary evil – it should serve to do only the few things that people cannot do for themselves

- we all have a natural love of liberty, and “inextinguishable feelings to do good, and the right to reason for ourselves.”  Therefore we all have natural rights to “act for our own comfort and happiness”.  Rights are, “by reciprocity” duties: “Whatever is my right as a man is also the right of another; and it becomes my duty to guarantee as well as to possess.”

-  “…a nation has at all times an inherent and indefeasible right to abolish any form of government it finds inconvenient, and establish such as accords with its interests, disposition and happiness.”

- A social contract can only bind the generation that agreed to it. It cannot “govern beyond the grave”… So, hereditary monarchy is not natural: “all hereditary government is in its nature tyranny”…“Monarchy is popery of government; a thing kept to amuse the ignorant, and quiet them into paying taxes.”

– “man is not the enemy of man, but through the medium of a false system of government.



(i) Voltaire: from ‘Lettres Philosophiques ou Lettres anglaises’ - Eighth Letter – on parliament:

“The English nation is the only one on earth that has found the ability to control the power of Kings, by resisting them. They have, after a long struggle, finally established a government where the Prince, who has unlimited power to do good, has his hands tied to prevent him doing bad; and where the Lords are elevated without being too powerful, and where the people participate in government with understanding.”


From an article for the Encyclopedia on the government of England:

“It took a long time to establish such a government, as it could only happen after a long struggle against powers that were held in awe: the power of the Pope, the most terrifying of all because based on prejudice and ignorance; royal power, which was always on the brink of exceeding its limits, and which had to be held in check; the power of the barons, which was anarchic; the power of the bishops who, always confusing the sacred and the secular, tried to push aside both the barons and the king.”


(ii) The American Declaration of Independence (1776) – authors: Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin (1706 – 1790), John Adams:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by the Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles , and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”