Timeline Historical Dictionary
First posted on July 15th 2006

Narratives : Enlightenment (Age of Reason)

The term Enlightenment is a translation of the German "Die Aufklärung", first used by Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant in 1784.

Wars fought over religious issues had caused severe destruction in the years 1562 to 1648. After that date, the politics of dynasts and governments were less influenced by religious issues and authorities. In France, King Louis XIV. marks a transition; he turned France's Catholic Church into a tool of royal policy (Gallican Liberties 1682; in all but name separating the Church of France from Rome) but also declaring himself the protector of the Catholic church, revoking the Edict of Nantes and forcibly expelling the country's Protestants. The political influence of the papacy was in a constant decline. The papacy branded Jansenism as the ideology responsible for the deviation of the French Church, without declaring it a heresy. In France, after 1682 the Jesuits lost influence, as did the inquisition. In the late 1600es, witchhunts were on the wane, although it would take another century until they ceased.
The Church of England acquired the reputation as being a political instrument in the hands of the dynasty. Various groups of dissenters emerged, the dissenters of the late 17th century emphasizing christianity in one's actions over differences in rite or doctrine (Quakers, Methodists, Baptists, Moravian Brethren). In 1717 the first Grand Lodge of the Freemasons was founded in London, her rites and alleged history obviously ridiculing the church. The quickly spreading organization provided a support base in the struggle against superstition, obstacles to progress, ultimately against the church and absolute monarchy. Witch trials declined since the late 17th century, in rural territories last practised in the 1790es (Glarus/CH 1782; Poznan/Poland 1793).

While, in Catholic countries (in France until 1682) the Jesuits long maintained control of higher education and censorship (with the result of Catholic French scholars such as Rene Descartes (1596-1650) teaching in the Netherlands, outside of the reach of the Jesuits), scientific work thus was somewhat risky (Galileo was forced to recant in 1633), much scientific progress was made in the Protestant countries of Europe. Among the scholars and philosophers of Protestant Europe are some which may be regarded the predecessors of the Enlightenment : Hugo Grotius (1583-1645; Law of War, Law of the Sea), Samuel von Pufendorf (1632-1694; Law of Nations; Natural Law), Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), John Locke (1632-1704), Isaac Newton (1643-1727).
In the late 17th and early 18th century, the establishment of standing armies resulted in the establishment of military academies and the study of areas such as strategy and ballistics. Mercantilist policies resulted in the emergence of economics, as a science. Economist theories emphasized the existing feudal order as an economic absurdum; the ruling classes (nobility, higher clergy) did not contribute to the creation of national wealth, but consumed the greater part of it. Financial advisers of the rulers advocated a policy of lessening the burden on peasants and craftsmen, and at times, of taxing church and nobility.

The center of attention in a chapter on the Enlightenment has to be France, the largest and most diverse of Europe's 'national' economies, where the monarchy, under Louis XIV. (1643-1715), had managed to monopolize political power. Here, in France, the control mechanism the Catholic church used to run, in the early decades of the 18th century failed to work. A generation of writers openly challenged system and establishment, in politics, economics, administration, education.
The French philosophes - Voltaire, Montesquieu, Diderot and (Swiss-born) Rousseau, were of the view that every institution of society was to be observed, and reevaluated according to its value for society. The philosophes agreed on education and the penal system being in need of reform, on the abolition of torture, censorship, the death penalty, monopolies, the guilds, they agreed on religious toleration being desirable. They agreed with Voltaire in regarding organized religion the source of all obstacles to progress in society. The philosophes differed on how to achieve progress.
Montesquieu (1689-1755) proposed a constitutional monarchy, a political system as practised in England, where the crown and an elected parliament formed a balance of power. Voltaire (1694-1778), realizing that a king had the right to make law and to break law, hoped for enlightened absolute rulers, to terminate outdated institutions and create better ones. Diderot (1713-1784), publisher of l'Encyclopedie, refrained from commenting on politics. His Encyclopdia was to collect all that kind of information useful to mankind, worthy to preserve; on purpose he omitted historical and political subjects. Rousseau (1712-1778) was a radical; by suggesting a Social Contract between electorate and elected representatives, he implied the monarchy to be obsolete.

While the philosophes did have to struggle with censorship, they gained the upper hand; their works, written in French, the lingua franca of Europe's nobility and intellectual elite of the 18th century, spread over the European continent and beyond (except for Spain, where a general ban against the import of books was in place). Among their readers were two influential groups : first, the Freemasons and similar secret organizations such as the Illuminati. The Freemasons were founded in 1717 in England and quickly spread over the continent. A papal ban against the organization had rather limited effect; by the 1740es Masonic lodges existed in many countries, and influential persons such as Frederick the Great were member. By the end of the century, the lodges provided contact networks for persons striving to make a career, such as Mozart, but also a network of persons who agreed on the necessity of drastic political reforms. In France they played a role in setting the stage for the French Revolution. Newspapers, written for the bourgeoisie and mostly edited by reform-oriented persons, gained in importance.
Second, monarchs themselves. A generation of monarchs, facing financial difficulties and realizing that the structure of society, many of her institutions were outdated, looked for applicable concepts for reform in the books of the philosophes. Voltaire personally corresponded with, among others, Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, and Catherine the Great, Czarina of Russia. He lived for several years at the courts of Versailles and at Sanssouci (Prussia) and visited St. Petersburg.
Enlightenment policies implemented by monarchs included the abolition of torture (Prussia 1749/1754; Sweden 1772; France 1780; Austria 1781; Tuscany 1786); the abolition of the death penalty (suggested by Cesare Beccaria; abolished by Tuscany in 1786). In Catholic countries an educational reform was implemented after the Jesuit Order, by expulsion or dissolution (1773) was deprived of her assets which then were converted into modern institutions of higher learning. This event may be regarded the beginning of state interference in education. Ignaz Felbinger was instrumental in implementing educational reforms in Prussia, Austria and Russia.
Enlightened monarchs agreed on the benefits of a policy granting religious toleration, which was, against the opposition of the established churches and on occasions against public sentiment, introduced by decree (Russia 1773, Austria 1781, Sweden 1781-1782. Prussia and Denmark had introduced it at earlier stages).
While enlightened monarchs (among the most prominent are listed Frederick the Great of Prussia 1740-1786, Joseph II. of Austria 1780-1790, Catherine the Great of Russia 1762-1796, Gustavus III. of Sweden 1772-1792), the importance of the issue of serfdom was recognized. Catherine the Great attempted to have it abolished, but the Pugachevchina (1773-1774) caused her to change her mind, and actually the privileges of Russia's nobls were extended - at the expense of the serfs. While serfdom was not abolished in any of the major monarchies (Joseph II. attempted to abolish it in the Habsburg lands in 1781, cancelled this reform in 1789; Savoy-Piemont-Sardinia abolished feudalism altogether in 1778), a number of monarchs liberated the serfs living on royal land (France 1779).

The issue of serfdom was directly related to that of the nobility, the wealth and lifestyle of which depended on their serfs. In France the nobility was opposed to the reform policy of Louis XVI. and, in the regional parlements, blocked a series of proposals intended to reform France's finances.
Frederick the Great of Prussia and Gustavus III. of Sweden attempted to improve the status of the country's peasants, as they were regarded as the foundation of national wealth, but at the same time protect the social status of the nobility, seen as a service nobility. In Sweden and Swedish Finland, Gustavus' policy was widely resented among the nobility. The (ethnic Swedish) nobility of Swedish Finland entered into the Anjala Conspiracy, offering the title of Duchess of Finland to Catherine the Great of Russia (1788). In 1792 Gustavus III. was assassinated by a disaffected Swedish nobleman.
Catherine the Great's policy of favouring the nobles and reneging on her earlier policy regarding the serfs brought her immediate gains. The nobility of Swedish Finland offered her Finland (which Czar Alexander acquired in 1809); a large section of the Polish-Lithuanian magnates asked her to interfere in Poland, thus justifying the final Polish Partitions of 1793 and 1795.

The countries which experienced absolutism, for the most part, fared better than those which did not. The legacy of Absolutism includes a standing army and navy, the establishment of a state bureaucracy. In the period of Enlightened Absolutism the state extended her authority by taking over responsibilities from church and nobility, such as the supervision of higher education, and jurisdiction (Prussia : a uniform law code, the Allgemeines Landrecht, 1794). Religious Toleration in effect challenged the status of State Churches. Reforms of the penal system, of punishments were in the spirit of modernity. States which failed to go through these stages included Poland-Lithuania, an elective monarchy where the magnates, with their liberum veto, could block any reform legislation. Once the largest country in Europe, by 1795 it had been erased from the map (Polish Partitions 1772, 1793, 1795); without a standing army of her own, the country had not been able to defend herself. The Holy Roman Empire would be disolved in 1806, the Republic of Venice terminated in 1797, the Dutch Republic in 1795. The main factor was the inability of these entities to defend themselves.
The major exception is the United Kingdom, which continental armies could not reach, and which domestically was in a better shape as her unwritten constitution provided for a system of balance of powers which made political reform possible.

REFERENCE Isser Woloch, Eighteenth Century Europe. Tradition and Progress, 1715-1789, NY : Norton 1982, 364 pp., KMLA Lib.Sign. 940.2 N882h v.4
Leonard Krieger, Kings and Philosophers, 1689-1789, NY : Norton 1970, 369 pp., KMLA Lib.Sign. 940.2 N882h v.3
Daniel Roche, France in the Age of Enlightenment, trsl. by A. Goldhammer, Cambridge : Harvard UP 1998, KMLA Lib.Sign. 944.034 R673f

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