In the lecture on Enlightenment and revolution I discussed the origins and the basic outlines of the Enlightenment. I noted that it was a European-wide movement that used reason to evaluate the social, economic, and political structures of the age. The rhetoric of rationality can be found in all regions of Europe, England, Scotland, France, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, the German states and across Russia as well. Today, I will discuss in detail some of the Enlightenment’s most important thinkers, in order to give you a sense for how reason was used in these various places in public life and to consider as well reason’s fate by the end of the century.
I will begin by considering three French thinkers, Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Rousseau. As you know, in France enlightened thinkers were called philosophes, because they thought critically about all things that came before them. The first great philosophe was Baron Montesquieu (1689-1755). Born into the nobility of Bordeaux, Montesquieu studied law before becoming a member of Bordeaux’s parliament. He was soon bored, however, by politics, and around 1710 retired to his estate where he spent the rest of his life reading the ancients and pondering the problems of his age.
The results of Montesquieu’s withdrawal into private life were two of the most important books in the history of the eighteenth century. In 1721, Montesquieu published The Persian Letters. This text fit into an established European genre of the time travel literature. (You have seen one example of this in Oroonoko.) In a generic travel tale some European who had visited a strange place such as Istanbul or the New World would report back on his experiences. The Persian Letters were not an actual travel tale, but a fictitious account of two Persians who come to France and comment on all the strange happenings there.
This text was an enormously subversive piece of literature. Using the Persian as a foil, Montesquieu launched a broad critique of European cultural practices. For example, he had one character in his text named Uzbek report back to his compatriots that in this strange society people actually believe that three equals one, that blood and flesh can come from wine and unleavened bread, and that the monarch has the magical power to heal the sick. (Montesquieu was referring here to the so-called Royal Touch, or the king’s ability to heal scrofula by laying on hands.) These observations were all meant to show that some of Europe’s cultural practices actually made little sense from a foreign point of view. Culture was becoming a relative thing.
Still, Montesquieu also offered positive commentary. Uzbek pointed out a number of things in which the French could take pride, though Uzbek did not understand them. Women did not wear veils and were actually allowed to talk to men. Slavery did not exist in France, but the economy was enormously productive. Uzbek even speculated that this was so because the state and religion stayed out of people’s economic lives, leaving the French with the freedom to pursue their own interests. What is important for you to understand here is how important Montesquieu’s conclusion was. Based on all this discussion Montesquieu concluded that however much cultural practices might differ around the globe, there is one true universal value--freedom.
Montesquieu’s cultural relativism was, therefore, based on the idea that there was a still higher law to which all human activity should submit. As was the case with Newton and Locke, the universe is a place of laws; only the law that interested him was the law of freedom. Montesquieu then directed his interest in laws to matters of politics. Here his long engagement with ancient literature became important. In 1748, Montesquieu published his masterpiece, The Spirit of the Laws, which was a sustained commentary on the various forms of government that have organized human affairs in the past.
Borrowing from the ancients, Montesquieu identified four forms of government: democracy, aristocracy, monarchy, and despotism. Unlike the classical Greeks, however, Montesquieu inverted the order of preference. In general, the Greeks approved of monarchy and aristocracy, while Montesquieu preferred democracy. In his view, democracy was that government that spread virtue most evenly among the populace. Still, Montesquieu feared a fully democratic government; as he should have, given that he was a noble. So he developed the idea of a mixed government that would use the best aspects of the monarchical, aristocratic, and democratic forms. He thought this was possible by separating these powers in separate branches of government. As you can already see, this idea had an enormous influence here in the United States, as the idea of mixed government was directly inscribed into the US constitution.
The second philosophe that I will consider today is Voltaire. If there is one French figure that embodies every aspect of the Enlightenment—for better and worse—it is Voltaire. Born in 1694 into a comfortable middle-class family in Paris, Voltaire was sent to the Jesuits to get a top-flight education. He was always grateful for the education he received, but like many other members of the Enlightenment, Voltaire questioned many of the assumptions that guided his parents’ and the Jesuits’ worldview. Supposedly destined for a career in law, Voltaire rebelled and pursued interests in the theater and poetry. His family was not amused and had him thrown in jail through an infamous legal instrument called a lettre de câchet. This experience merely alienated Voltaire further, but the biggest turning point in his life came in 1726, when he challenged a noble to a duel. This was not done, since Voltaire was a commoner, and the noble tried to have Voltaire thrown in jail for his impertinence. Voltaire heard of the planned arrest and thought it a good time to leave the country; hence, he went to England to live in exile.
Voltaire spent the late 1720s in England learning English, and grew enamored of England’s politics, philosophy, and science. There he met such luminaries as Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, George Berkeley, and Sir Robert Walpole. He admired English economic theory, especially Bernard Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees, was extremely interested in the Quakers, and became an enthusiastic convert to Newtonianism. When Voltaire returned to France in early 1729, he decided to present England to his compatriots as the very model of an enlightened society.
In 1734, Voltaire published his Lettres philosophiques that instructed the French in the glories of English culture. Among other things he noted that England was free because parliament checked the king’s power. In addition, he held that true freedom included economics, as state interference in the economy prevented people from acting in their own interests. Finally, Voltaire noted that England was free, because religious tolerance characterized daily life there.
Voltaire was enormously important in shaping the Continental view of England. In addition to lauding English politics and economics, he also helped England become the place for science. In 1738, he published Éléments de la philosophie de Newton, which popularized Newton’s scientific approach on the Continent. But Voltaire was also important in other realms. He wrote history books and plays. He commented publicly on political events, including the unjust execution of Jean Calas, a Protestant who was accused of murdering his son to prevent the latter’s conversion to Catholicism. Calas was broken on the wheel, protesting his innocence to the end. Voltaire was scandalized, and wrote a series of attacks on the stupidity of the church and the political authorities that served it.
Throughout his literary career, Voltaire attacked things that seemed irrational, that were unjust, and that limited human freedom. Voltaire did not do this from Paris, however, for he remained in exile much of his life. He spent some time in Berlin with Frederick II, and also lived in Geneva, but was chased out by the city’s religious authorities. Later in life he settled down on an estate in Fermey, a Swiss territory just across the French border, where he was safe from the French police. Just be sure, however, he also bought an estate on the French side of the border to which he planned to flee were the Swiss authorities to come for him. (Voltaire well recognized that he had a gift for making enemies.) In 1778, Voltaire returned to Paris for the last time, in order to direct a play. He died during that year, a hero to all Frenchmen.
The final French figure that I will consider today is Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau was the key figure in eighteenth-century thought. He is often viewed as the first of the Romantics, but he was, in fact deeply rooted in the Enlightenment. Born in 1712 in Geneva to an artisan family, Rousseau was deeply influenced by the moral earnestness of Geneva’s Calvinist environment, though he thought that life in Geneva was too narrow and constricting for him. He fled Geneva and went to Paris, spending much of his 20s and 30s bouncing from one trade to the next.
Rousseau’s great opportunity for fame appeared in 1749 at the age of 37, when the Dijon Academy held a prize essay competition on the question of whether the arts and sciences had advanced or corrupted morality. Rousseau’s response was the now classic “Discourse on the Arts and Sciences.” In this text Rousseau argued that the progress of arts and sciences had harmed morality, because income inequality had led to moral corruption. The arts were a slave to money and consumption, not the human spirit. This was a direct attack on the Enlightenment, which was rooted deeply in patronage. Rousseau won the prize largely because the Dijon Academy was conservative and opposed the Enlightenment, and the victory made him an instant celebrity.
Two years later, the Academy offered another prize for the best essay that dealt with the origins of inequality. Rousseau responded with “Discourse on the Origins of Inequality,” in which he argued that inequality came as the result of the accumulation of private property. This essay did not win the prize, because it was deemed too radical. It did, however, incorporate themes that would be important to Rousseau’s great work The Social Contract, holding that man in a state of nature was free, and that property had destroyed that blessed state. This insistence on the corrupting nature of society led to a stark break with Rousseau’s enlightened allies, especially after the Discourse was published in 1755. When he originally argued that the arts and sciences were corrupting morals, his argument was interesting but not dangerous to the elite. Indeed, he was a salon favorite for a while in Paris, mostly because he was so weird and obviously did not belong to the crowd. To argue, however, that private property was the problem made everyone insecure. Just think how Voltaire would have felt, were he to be denied his private sanctuary.
In the 1760s, Rousseau’s stark Calvinist morality led him down a path different from the rest of the Parisian Enlightenment. In 1762, he published the Social Contract, which tried to understand how we can create a society in which everyone is free, but still retain a sense of community. The text’s opening line is justly. It runs, “Man was born free, but he is everywhere in chains.” Rousseau argued in this text that humanity couldn’t go back to the state of nature. Instead, what he wanted to create was a state in which the freedoms of the state of nature could be guaranteed in the present, and in order to do so he developed the philosophical concept of the General Will.
The General Will was, in its purest form, is a combination of the historical, cultural, and social circumstances of a given polity. In terms of policy, this will is not merely the will of the majority, but a policy that is best for everyone across the board. In practical terms this meant a polity in which no one could become too rich or too poor, and everyone could maintain their individual rights. There are, however, some problems with Rousseau. It is never clear how this General Will can be determined, since it is not a matter of simple majority rule. What is clear, however, is that the community—once it has decided--can discipline those people who violate the General Will. As Rousseau put it, they can be “forced to be free.” There are, as a result, many scholars who see the origins of modern totalitarianism in Rousseau’s philosophy.
Rousseau’s austere moral vision enjoyed wide influence. Thinkers as different as Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant became fans. Kant, in fact, had only one picture on the wall of his study in Königsberg, a portrait of Rousseau. Rousseau’s most significant contribution came, however, through his novel The Emile (1762). The Emile was supposedly a novel about education, though it really traces the education of a noble child by a tutor. The novel’s argument is, in essence, that vice is alien to children, since they are born innocent. The task of education is, therefore, to work with nature and to avoid the inculcation of vice. Thus, teachers should let children run wild and remain innocent, inducting them into civilization in the gentlest way.
As I have already noted at length, the Enlightenment was a European movement, with sources in many different countries and languages. Now, I want to turn briefly to three other thinkers from different countries, in order to show how general but also how diverse this movement was. I will begin with David Hume, before moving to Cesare Beccaria, and finishing with Immanuel Kant.
David Hume was a member of the Scottish Enlightenment. Born in 1711, he is a rough contemporary of Rousseau and, like Rousseau, grew up in a Calvinist society. By the age of 20, however, Hume had rejected much of religion, particularly English Puritanism. It is not clear why he turned against religion, but it is clear that he had read Locke, Newton, and Cicero by the time his change occurred. During his twenties, Hume moved toward a Lockean empiricism, holding that all we can know is derived from sense experience. All our concepts are nothing more than sense experience reformulated, which means that there are no absolutes, no laws, no cause and effect, and no science. The only thing we can be sure of is pleasure and pain. Hume published some of his philosophical speculations at the time, particularly in the Treatise on Human Nature (1739), though his radical skepticism led him into a dead end. If there is only pleasure and pain, what is there left to talk about? By 1750 Hume locked up much of his philosophical speculations in a cabinet and proceeded to publish on matters of history and politics.
In writing on matters of history Hume refused to accept any grand historical theses. Hume saw history in small terms, as nothing more than the story of man groping for a polity that is based on vague ideas. All history was for Hume merely a grand experiment, in which some things worked and others did not. In politics, the best system for Hume was that which survived and stood the test of time. Thus, in Hume’s view, The British Parliamentary system was good because it was still around, and as long as it survived—and worked—it was owed respect and obedience.
Hume’s ideas in history and politics injected into the British Enlightenment an aversion to fanaticism and utopianism. Politics was the realm of the possible and the practical. Hume rejected Rousseau’s grand designs for a more just politics. For him politics is simply what people do in the political arena. Of course, Hume did not reject comparisons between political systems. He believed, for instance, that tyranny was bad, but not because it undermined the individual or violated his rights. No, tyranny was bad because people rebelled against it, which only made matters worse. In Hume’s view whatever was was right, and there was no use worrying about the rest. This fundamentally conservative position became extremely influential in early-modern England.
Having completed my survey of Hume, I turn now to Italy and Beccaria. It was once believed that the Italian Enlightenment was fragmented and moribund. Thanks to the work of Franco Venturi and others, however, historians have rediscovered a vibrant world of enlightened debate. In this context, it is important to understand that Italy was a fragmented region; it was not a unified as a political entity until 1870. Contrary to what was once believed, however, Italy’s political fragmentation was not a sign of weakness. In fact, its many political centers, Naples, Rome, Florence, and Milan—just to name—a few sparked a remarkable diversity of ideas. The Grand Duchy of Tuscany, for example, with its capital at Florence, was one of the leading enlightened absolutist states in the second half of the eighteenth century, under the leadership of the Habsburg Duke Leopold, who later became Holy Roman Emperor as Leopold II.
Milan was also an important center of enlightened thought. A major commercial and industrial center in the eighteenth century, Milan was connected to a large intellectual network that extended into northern Europe. Milan even had an enlightened academy that became a center for reading and discussion of the latest ideas. Out of this milieu emerged one of Italy’s more celebrated enlightened minds Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794). Beccaria was the son of a minor noble. After a youthful break with his family, he returned to the fold in the 1760s to become part of an enlightened circle in Milan.
In the early 1760s Beccaria began publishing reform-minded texts, including one that appeared in 1762 on monetary reform. In 1763, Beccaria began an intense study of law that resulted in 1764 with the publication of his classic On Crimes and Punishments (Dei dellitti e delle pene). This text made him an immediate celebrity and is the foundation of the modern approach to crime and punishment. In it Beccaria criticized the corruption and excess punishments of the existing system, holding that the certainty of punishment not its severity deterred future crimes. The idea was only to prevent a recurrence of the crime; anything beyond that would be tyranny. Hence, he concluded that the punishments should be scaled to coincide with the severity of the crime.
Beccaria’s ideas spread across Europe rapidly in translations into French, Dutch, German, and English. In 1777, an edition even appeared in the British Colonies of North America. His opposition to excessive punishments, in which he included capital punishment, then became the foundation for all future discussions of penal laws. To the extent that our own penal system is enlightened, it finds its origins in Beccaria.
The last enlightened figure I will discuss is Immanuel Kant. Some of you will know him as one of history’s greatest philosophers, a man against whom all modern philosophy is measured. Kant calls our attention to the similarities between Italy and Germany in the eighteenth century. Germany was also politically fragmented, though there were many pockets of enlightened discussion in places such as Leipzig, Göttingen, Hamburg, Berlin, and Weimar. Kant was not in any of these cities, but lived and worked in Königsberg, a town on the Baltic that was connected to the Baltic economy that I discussed in other lectures. Königsberg was small and out of the way, but its status as a port town made it a lively place. The university of Königsberg, which had been founded in 1544, provided a realm for education and discussion. Moreover, the presence of a large and diverse merchant community meant that there was a constant exchange of news and ideas.
It is in this context that we must understand both the cosmopolitan nature and universal importance of Kant’s thought. Born in 1724 into an artisan family, Kant was educated in a strict Pietist setting, before beginning his studies at the University of Königsberg in 1740. Kant began by studying theology, though he showed more interest in philosophy and mathematics. Among others Kant read the works of the German philosopher Christian Wolff and the English scientist Isaac Newton. Wolff is known today as an interpreter of Leibniz, and his philosophy is famous for trying to shoehorn moral and teleological ideas into physical discussions. Newton, of course, expelled morality and teleology from the physical universe, and Kant spent much of his philosophical career moving between these two poles.
The outcome of Kant’s philosophical speculations is the famous Critical Philosophy, which brought together the Newtonian universe with the moral freedom that had been so important to Wolff and Leibniz. In the 1780s, Kant published three critiques that are the cornerstone of all modern philosophical debate. (Today, as a philosopher, you can disagree with Kant, but you must still confront his arguments fully.) In the Critique of Pure Reason, Critique of Practical Reason, and Critique of Judgment Kant outlined a philosophical foundation for all knowledge that accepted the basic arguments of empiricists such as Locke and Hume, overcame the problem of freedom associated with Newtonian physics, and retained the respect for morality in Wolff and Rousseau.
Kant was the quintessential enlightened thinker. He read widely, questioned everything, published a good deal, and created a system of thought that encouraged change without yielding to the desire to overthrow everything. It is, therefore, in his philosophy that we see the highest point of both the eighteenth century and the early-modern world. When the French Revolution spilled over its borders, many of Kant’s careful compromises and exact definitions were swept away. It was left to other philosophers such as Fichte and Hegel to rethink the rhythms of the modern world. The early-modern world was carefully balanced, widely dispersed, and extremely fragile. When French Revolutionary and, later, Napoleonic armies traversed Europe the modern world was born. That is a subject for another class. I hope that you have enjoyed the story I have told you in this one.