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                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                Week 9: Political Ideas part 2

How Enlightened was the Enlightenment?

Week 8: political ideas in the Enlightenment (i).





#general will




#Moses Mendelssohn

#natural rights

#Newton vs Descartes


#possessive individualism





1. Introduction:

1.1 The spectrum of views – from reform to revolution

1.2 A reminder of the importance in the Enlightenment of ‘critique’ – freedom, ideology


2. Enlightened despotism/absolutism:

2.1 Kant – public opinion; limits to expressions of criticism

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


3. The growth of liberalism:

3.1 What was liberalism? Individual freedom; the role of traders and merchants; mercantilism; liberalism and modernisation

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

3.3 The father of liberalism: John Locke (1632 – 1704) – a response to Filmer’s “Patriarchy”; natural rights, property, social contract, government a ‘mechanism’ which can be improved

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


4. The movement towards revolution:

4.1 Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778) - inequality and property, sovereignty of the general will, direct democracy, sensibilité

4.2 Condorcet (1743 – 1794) - public reason.



1. Introduction: 


1.1 The spectrum of views.

The Enlightenment thinkers wanted change, but there was a spectrum of views, from revolution to reform. Some argued that there was a danger of  ‘Enlightenment’ going too far – that there are limits to Enlightenment (the ‘Kant problem’ - Outram), others (Moses Mendelssohn) that it did not go far enough.


The best-known Enlightenment figures were in favour of some change, which they might have seen as profound or even revolutionary – and they had some opponents who thought they were going too far. But to us, the ‘mainstream’ probably does not seem that radical.


As the century went on, in France most of the leading thinkers became in favour of revolution (see next week). Many of the ideas that the French philosophes put forward were influenced by British thinkers such as Locke (see below). However, whereas Locke’s ideas represented the changes that were taking place in Britain – i.e. the settlement of a constitutional monarchy – in France the same ideas had a more radical impact, as the country was still ruled by an absolute monarchy. Hence the need for revolution...


In other words, given the authoritarian nature of the regimes of the time, the (simple?) demand for freedom of thought and tolerance was seen as threatening to the regime (compare the Arab world at the moment!).


Bertrand Russell notes (1975 p 618) that it was the success of Newtonian empiricism (as against Descartes’ rationalism’) that made Locke’s ideas more popular in 18th century France (and when Hume lived in France he contributed to the spread of Locke’s philosophical ideas). On the other hand, Locke’s followers in England (Bishop Berkeley, and Hume who was a Tory) were not much concerned with (and presumably wouldn’t have supported) Locke’s political ideas.


In America, the ‘revolution’ was more a movement of independence (from Britain), and much of the change that came about was in fact close to the way that politics was structured in Britain.



1.2 A reminder of the importance in the Enlightenment of ‘critique’:


The ‘philosophes’ saw their role as one of (to use modern vocabulary) critique – they wanted to remove constraints on progress in the form of unquestioning acceptance of tradition or of religious and other authorities. Their central political demand therefore was for freedom – freedom to criticise without fear of punishment, and freedom to think for themselves.


O’Hara argues that this led to a ‘modern’ phenomenon the rise of ideology, and ideological disputes. Before this period, disputes between nations were largely power-struggles, and within nations they would be based on religious differences. O’Hara: “…towards the end of the Enlightenment ‘history’s first great ideological conflicts broke out… In a sense, the innovation of the Enlightenment was to provide enough theory and ideology to make ideological conflict possible.”


He concludes that the Enlightenment changed politics in a number of ways – it was a counterweight to the decisions or debates at court, and it put forward the interests of a wider class of people, i.e. the bourgeois – not the ‘rabble’ but not yet the general public either (though see below 2.1 on ‘public opinion’).


I have also made the point that many of the enlightenment thinkers took a rather elitist stance, and so they were quite often prepared to work with existing rulers, even if the latter were authoritarian. So:


2. The philosophes’ dialogue with ‘enlightened despotism’ /absolutism:


2.1 Kant: (O’H p 74): his ‘austere’ theorizing didn’t have much practical impact, but the idea that all should be treated equally and fairly ‘began an important tradition.’ Russell (p 618) describes him as ‘a liberal, a democrat, and a pacifist’ – though he also notes that his philosophical followers went in a different political direction...


We should also note several points concerning Kant’s impact on political ideas, as can be seen in his essay ‘What is Enlightenment?’


(i) the importance of the freedom to express critical opinions and ideas comes from Kant’s belief that we all have an ‘inner core’ which is entitled to, needs to, even has a duty to, question things (analogous to a moral sense) (O’Hara)


(ii) perhaps the most important outcome of this – and the other philosophes’ demands for freedom to express opinions on politics etc – was the beginnings of what we now call ‘public opinion’. (O’Hara) After all the ‘public’ comprises those with no official status (as in Kant’s formulation). O’Hara goes so far as to say (p 15): ‘The importance of public opinion both for democracy and for fostering the revolutionary forces of the age cannot be overstated.’


(iii) but as O’Hara and Outram point out, there were limits to the amount of freedom that was desirable, for Kant, as for other philosophes:

- note his comment early in the essay (first page), that ‘a revolution can never truly reform a manner of thinking’ but it would lead to ‘new prejudices’ and: ‘Thus a public can only attain enlightenment slowly.’


- officials, and anyone in a position where they were answerable to those higher up than them should not express their own opinions: ‘The private use of reason may… often be very narrowly restricted, without otherwise hindering the progress of enlightenment’ (2nd page) – in ‘private’ situations (in official posts etc – ‘in many affairs conducted in the interest of a community’) ‘one certainly must not argue, instead one must obey’ …


- and he even notes an apparent paradox: ‘a lesser degree of civil freedom provides enough room for all fully to expand their abilities’ – and ‘a greater degree of civil freedom’ whilst it seemed advantageous, ‘established impassable boundaries’ for [the people’s spiritual freedom] … I think he is hinting at the ‘chaos’ that would ensue were everyone to be allowed to express their opinions freely.  


In other words, Kant seems to want to have it both ways: we have to escape immaturity, and the freedom to question is essential (it would be quite wrong to bind people in unchangeable ideas and rules) – but if someone is employed in a ‘private’ (we would probably say ‘official’ and use ‘private’ for what Kant called ‘public’!) position where they are accountable to others they should stay ‘in line.’


Dorinda Outram says ‘Kant’s concerns about the disruptive impact of Enlightenment [a problem which has been at the heart of the concerns of her book – viz. The Enlightenment 2nd edn. 2005] were probably justified.’


(iv) Kant and others actually favoured an enlightened despot such as Frederick the Great of Prussia - Kant flatters him: “…we do have clear indications that the way is now being opened for men to proceed in this direction and that obstacles to general enlightenment… are gradually diminishing. In this regard, this age is the age of enlightenment, the century of Frederick.” And at the end of the essay he stresses that the ruler must have “a well-disciplined, numerous army to guarantee public peace.”


(v) It is worth noting that although his philosophy did not contribute directly to political thought, Kant did write an influential essay Perpetual Peace, (1795). (See Russell p 684). Here he advocated a federation of free states bound together by a treaty forbidding war; the constitutions of the component states should be ‘republican’ which for him means separate executive and legislature (see on Montesquieu shortly) – and accepts that is easiest to get the best government under a monarchy. NB he wrote under the impact of the reign of terror, so was suspicious of democracy – if the ‘whole people’ are really sovereign then this is a despotism! So what is really being said is majority rule.


Miller (Political Philosophy - a short introduction, p 123): says that Kant

favoured an agreement between states and not a world government as this would ‘sap all men’s energies and end in the graveyard of freedom.’ A confederation would leave states as the main sources of political authority (see also below on liberalism).


Russell notes: “Since 1933, this treatise has caused Kant to fall into disfavour in his own country.”


2.2 Other philosophes and other ‘enlightened depots’:


(i) Voltaire ‘proposed a centralized government that could disseminate ideas while eliminating intolerance and superstition’ (O’H p 69), and he associated absolutism with modernisation. He corresponded regularly with Frederick II (The Great) of Prussia, but the latter only implemented some enlightenment ideas. Although Frederick modernised Prussia, encouraged culture, and stood for religious tolerance, and universal and proportionate taxation, - still it was a ‘militarized, war-hungry state indifferent to individual civil and political liberties’ (Porter p 7).


Still, as O’Hara points out (p 97) Frederick’s views were a step forward compared to earlier rulers, and he didn’t use the ‘divine right’ argument. In fact, he wrote an essay in 1777 “Essay on Forms of Government” where he said that a monarch should: maintain the laws, execute justice, prevent corruption of manners, defend the state against its enemies, pay attention to agriculture, take ‘care that provision for the nation should be in abundance’, and encourage commerce and industry.


Frederick even used a Lockean ‘contract’ argument (see below on Locke), when he said that monarchs are “not raised by their fellow citizens in order that their pride may pompously display itself… Government is not entrusted to them that they may be surrounded by a crowd of useless people, whose idleness engenders every vice…”


(ii) Diderot was more in favour of a technocratic government – rather than a monarchy like Voltaire. He also took a radical stance over the American Revolution: the American settlers had a right to change their government, but since they had displaced the natives did they have a right to be there at all? However, he asked this anonymously. (OH p 103)


(iii) Porter points out that none of the philosophes were activists or politicians - except Edward Gibbon, MP, who never made a speech!


(iv) O’Hara quotes the words of Austria’s Emperor Joseph II: “everything for the people, nothing by the people.” (p 69)


3. The growth of liberalism.

3.1 What exactly was liberalism?


Liberalism is the ideology in which individuals have freedom, and their freedom and rights come before those of the community or the state. The drive for individual freedom and individual rights was mainly supported by those who wanted to trade – and they saw religious wars, as well as interference by the state, as an obstacle to free trade. The traders and merchants saw themselves as value-creating, as against the aristocracy and the monarchy who were rent-seeking (and depriving the public of money by funding wars, raising tariffs etc).

Berki: (....p 116) describes political thinking at the beginnings of liberalism (from the Reformation to the French Revolution) as the ‘civic vision.’


‘Civic’ means man as citizen – and the civic vision marks the divorce of political thought from other aspects of philosophy or religion. Compared to classical and medieval political thought there was less interest in ‘the best life’ and ‘human dependence on outside forces’ (i.e. God) – and instead of the ‘end’ or purpose of the state, attention focuses on the ‘beginning’ or foundations of the state.


People are seen as rational but there is a changed view of the importance of the state (in the middle ages, the Holy Roman Empire was more significant than the individual component states). The state is mainly seen as ‘artificial’ as a machine perhaps. This goes along with the ‘Newtonian’ mechanistic or materialistic view of the world. Moreover, reason is instrumental (serving ‘the passions’ as Hume said) and not an end in itself (nor to gain insight into God’s purposes etc). And of course the main purpose of reason is to gain material goods and security.


This can perhaps be seen in the dominance of the economic theory called mercantilism – the view that money has value because it is durable, and a nation’s duty is to build up its capital by e.g. promoting exports, and imposing tariffs on imports. This belief was popular, and supported by Locke (O’Hara p 79). Adam Smith opposed mercantilism – not only because he believed the market should be given more freedom (as against state controls), but also because while the merchants and the government benefit under mercantilism, the workers generally do not.


Thus civic (and liberal) political thought becomes focused on legalistic notions such as the ‘social contract, natural rights, the separation of powers…’  The state is viewed in ‘negative’ fashion i.e. to defend individual, property etc, not as a ‘positive’ institution which aims to bring about the good life etc.


People are equal in eyes of law. (This is derived from, but not the same as ‘equal because all created by God).


Liberalism is individualistic – so the problem for political thought becomes how to explain relationships between individuals in society and in the political community.

Berki (p 153) says that the ultimate expression of civic vision can be seen in both Kant, with his stress on the autonomy of individual – and Rousseau, with his stress on equality, and his use of the Kantian notion of morality: man acquires ‘moral liberty’ in civil society (‘the mere impulse of appetite is slavery, while obedience to a law which we prescribe to ourselves is liberty’).


Liberalism was, then, a pre-requisite for modernisation.


3.2 Criticisms of liberalism.


Dunleavy and O'Leary argue that liberalism derives from a "pre-democratic ideology" – that is, it came from opposition (by the wealthy) to Catholic dogmatism and to monarchical absolutism, in the 17th and 18th centuries... hence: liberals originally stood for representative government for the propertied classes, to protect against arbitrary state interference. This can also clearly be argued was the case during the Enlightenment – and we can see the Enlightenment as marking the rise of a new elite.


Some (see Porter) claim that the appeals to reason and for freedom led to rulers increasing their power at the expense of the poor; physiocrats such as Quesnay and Mirabeau argued for free trade (against the mercantilist view that government should promote exports and put tariffs on imports), but the result was that merchants profited, and the poor suffered. Physiocracy was the view that wealth came from nature – a view which favoured agriculture; Scottish economists, and Hume, developed this to criticise the emphasis on the ‘value’ of money. These views were in contrast to Adam Smith for whom value came from labour (OH p 78).


Only after the growth of socialist movements did most liberals accept that citizens = all adult males, and only after feminism and anti-colonialism, did citizens become "all adults" (see week 10).


There is also a strong criticism to be made of the ‘possessive individualism’ of ‘liberal’ theory in the 17th and 18th centuries (C.B. MacPherson rfc): this freedom was only, in fact, for propertied males; a point noted by feminists as well, of course (see later). Yet the theory claimed to be ‘universal’ – to be applied to all humans



3.3 John Locke (1632 – 1704).


We have mentioned Locke’s theories of knowledge, but he is also important for his ‘Treatises on Government’ – written as a response to Filmer’s “Patriarchy” (which argued that all monarchs are descended from Adam...)


Locke is also important for his use of the idea of natural rights’ – he believed that it was self-evident that it is wrong to attack another’s rights to life liberty or property.


His starting-point was that the individual was made by God. This is the basis of his advocating ‘natural rights’ (note how, as in the Enlightenment, the word ‘natural’ is frequently used to make a point!).


However, as far as Locke was concerned, the most important individual right was to own property; the state existed to protect the individual and his (not ever “her”!) property.


Locke’s ideas had a strong an influence on many subsequent proponents of capitalism. In his “Treatises on Government” he defined what is known as the “liberal” political view, that has dominated European thought (alongside socialism) ever since.


In the “Letter on Toleration” he said that therefore each has a God-given right to his/her beliefs, conscience and religious practices, and no-one has the right to dictate beliefs to others.


A further point that Locke makes is that since everything comes from God it would be morally wrong to waste resources (e.g. crops), or allow them to spoil (a point reiterated by Adam Smith).


Like Adam Smith, Locke believed that what we have laboured to produce is our property. In describing how the landowner then produces more than he can use, and sells the “surplus” of his produce, Locke makes the case for inequality (as does Smith). Unlike socialism, liberalism recognises the inevitability, and perhaps desirability, of inequality.


Another aspect of Locke’s thinking that was important at this time, and that contributed to liberal political systems, was the ‘social contract’ (OH p 87) – consent is required from the people for a government to be acceptable.


In other words, Locke’s position on politics facilitated the idea of progress: he saw government as a mechanism which may need adjusting or even replacing with a better-working model – as against the conservative view that politics and society evolve naturally and gradually, and change should follow tradition rather than ‘reason’.


The philosophes’ position of basing their views on reason also facilitated the growth of government based on ‘deliberation and discussion’ (parliaments). (O’H p 68)


The influence of the 1688 ‘Glorious Revolution’ is important here: a ‘reasonable’ constitutional settlement was arrived at, after the 17th century civil war and the execution of the king.


Voltaire promoted Locke’s ideas, and Montesquieu wrote extensively in a similar vein to Locke concerning political institutions.


3.4 Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron Montesquieu (1689 – 1755)

(See also Berki p 151ff).


One of the early modern theorists (along with James Harrington 1611 – 1677 and John Locke) who contributed to support for the idea of the ‘separation of powers’ (i.e. the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary - usually) – as part of a theory of limited government.


The legislature formulates policy and enacts it as law, the executive carries policy into action, and the judiciary applies the law according to rules of procedural justice, and resolves disputes.  (Scruton, Dictionary of Political Thought). There is disagreement over the nature of the executive: in Locke’s theory the waging of war and foreign policy were in a separate power, whereas in Montesquieu they are given to the executive.


Montesquieu believed the executive should be a monarch, provided there was a possibility of impeachment if the monarch exceeded their powers (as is the case in the USA); and so he admired the English settlement of 1688, and spread Locke’s ideas, even though the separation of powers does not exist in the British system: in the UK the executive is the Cabinet, which is drawn from (i.e. members of) the legislature – the highest court, the Lords, is also part of the legislature… The judiciary is less a power than a brake on power (as Montesquieu observed). Scruton comments that the separation of powers is rather like the Trinity – three must be one and one must be three!!


Montequieu’s ideas were based on new approaches to science (inductive practice, O’H p 70), using observation/experimentation and description. He believed that each society had a distinct ‘natural genius’ or ‘spirit’ (arising from things like geographical, historical and climatic conditions) and that laws should be designed in accord with this (The Spirit of Laws 1748).


He identified a different ‘spirit’ (or moral sentiment) in different constitutions: in monarchy the fundamental moral sentiment is honour; in a republic it is ‘political virtue’ and a sense of public responsibility.

In other words a constitution expresses social conditions – a view which Durkheim described as the first example of a sociological perspective. He was an influence on Burke (from Scruton) (see next week on Burke).


Scruton says that he believed in restoring liberties that had been lost rather than advocating the new ‘and what he saw as dangerous’ liberties of the Enlightenment. Himmelfarb says he was ‘more representative of the British Enlightenment than of the French.’


He advocated ‘moderation’ and always referred to the context of political judgments, and focused on institutions and methods. He came to reject republicanism, although attracted to it in theory, because he was disillusioned with what he saw in Italy and Holland. Instead he preferred monarchy – especially a constitutional one, with ‘checks and balances’ – which is what was happening in Britain’s political system (rather than a division of powers – this does not exist, as noted). Studying French institutions (giving due weight to the context…) Montesquieu saw roles for the nobility, clergy, chartered cities and parlements (local law courts which had the duty of approving and interpreting legislation laid down centrally – OH p 71)


His views on the separation of powers were adopted by the Americans (see later) – especially Franklin and Jefferson (see below).  Catherine the Great was influenced as well… But in France events overtook his ideas (he died in 1755) – especially when Voltaire continually attacked the clergy, and argued that the parlements acted in the interests of their class/members (lawyers presumably), and when Voltaire kept challenging the decisions of the parlements. To illustrate their reactionary hold, when Louis XV wanted to ban torture, the parlements opposed him.


4. Towards revolution.


4.1 Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778) and 4.2 Condorcet (Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas de Caritat, marquis de Condorcet (1743 – 1794) – French philosopher and mathematician


NB see also notes on human nature in Rousseau (week 6), and Rousseau).

Extracts are from the Everyman paperback edition of The Social Contract and Discourses, tr. G.D.H. Cole, first published 1973, reprinted 1990


4.1 Rousseau opposed the absolute monarchy, and social inequalities, as did the other “philosophes”... However, his approach differed very much from the other political ideas of the time in France, and which were often influenced by Locke.


The famous opening words of his Social Contract are: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.  One believes himself the master of others, and yet he is a greater slave than they.”


He believed that the evolution of society had brought about inequality, based on ownership of property and especially of land. ‘Man’ originally (in the ‘state of nature’) had, as Rousseau believed, no sense of morality beyond a sympathy for his fellows (pitié) and a sense of his own worth (amour de soi). A comparison can be made with Adam Smith here – and with Kant… The transition to society brought a more sophisticated sense of morality, but also brought the evils of inequality and war (both springing from property ownership).


“The cultivation of the earth necessarily brought about its distribution; and property, once recognised, gave rise to the first rules of justice…” (p 94)


“from the moment one man began to stand in need of the help of another; from the moment it appeared advantageous to any one man to have enough provisions for two, equality disappeared, property was introduced, work became indispensable…. Slavery and misery were soon seen (op cit p 92).


The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying 'This is mine', and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society.  From how many crimes, wars and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not anyone have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling in the ditch, and crying to his fellows 'Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.”  (p 84)


Rousseau’s powerful expression of his arguments contributed to the spread of revolutionary ideas – especially the idea of the sovereignty of the people, based on the general will.


The General Will is a radical and highly controversial idea: it indicates an expression by the people as a whole of what is in their general interest. To arrive at it, each citizen would have to put aside their own personal interests whilst trying to identify what is in the interests of the whole community.


Of course, it appears highly idealistic to expect a whole nation to agree on what is in their common interest (though it is most likely that Rousseau believed that this would only be only possible in small communities), and the way Rousseau puts it, especially the statement that an individual who disagrees with the general will would have to be ‘forced to be free’ has led many to reject the idea completely.


If, then, one reduces the social compact to its essence, it amounts to this: “Each of us puts his person and all his power to the common use under the supreme direction of the general will; and as a body we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole.”


Immediately, in place of the private person of each contractant, this act of association produces a moral and collective Body.”


Another radical side to Rousseau was in his rejection of representative democracy, in favour of what we would call direct democracy... He said that the British people were foolish to believe they were free, because they could only exercise this ‘freedom’ once very five years!


These ideas, that the collective can express its own will, and that direct democracy if preferable to representative methods, are based largely on his respect for the ordinary citizen: “It is the common people who compose the human race; what is not the people is hardly worth talking about.  Man is the same in all ranks; that being so, the ranks which are most numerous deserve most respect”. (Emile, quoted in Sabine p 579)


Note finally that a key distinction between Rousseau’s and other philosophes’ approach was the emphasis in the former on feeling or sentiment (sensibilité) – as against reason…


4.2 Condorcet tried to use Rousseau’s general will idea, but called it ‘public reason’ (because of the danger of following ‘will’ rather than ‘reason’ – and in particular the danger of a tyranny of the majority under Rousseau’s formula).


However, he then argued that a small elite group was most likely to produce the best ideas, and as a mathematician he worked out a ‘social arithmetic’ to guide their decisions (OH p 90). The problem then was how to stop the elite becoming self-perpetuating and dictatorial, simply serving its own interests as the parlements had. It should, he suggested, be elected by several provincial assemblies of citizens.


Tragically, after the Revolution his ideas were seen as too elitist, and when he opposed the execution of Louis XVI he was imprisoned – only to die in prison, possibly by suicide to escape the execution that awaited him.


Additional References:


Russell, Bertrand: History of Western Philosophy, Allen and Unwin 1975 (first published 1946)


Berki, R.N.: The History of Political Thought, a short introduction, Dent 1977.