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Unit 5

5.1 The Enlightenment

4 min readseptember 18, 2020

Andrew Fultz


Reason and Individualism Gain Traction

“Reason over Revelation” is normally a tagline associated with The Enlightenment. This means that people began looking to humans, rather than a deity, to solve their problems. That is a significant change from medieval Europe. Out of reason emerges new political ideas about people, natural rights, and the function of government. 
For people, they are born with a tabula rasa (“blank slate”), meaning everyone is born equal and the son of a king does not have a divine right to rule. For natural rights, John Locke discussed life, liberty, and property as core rights that a government cannot take away without due cause from anyone. For government, philosophers stated a social contract involves people giving up some rights in exchange for living in a community under a shared authority or government.
https://firebasestorage.googleapis.com/v0/b/fiveable-92889.appspot.com/o/images%2FJohn_Locke.jpg?alt=media&token=6a3763e2-0e65-48de-8200-dcbd658115ed

Image courtesy Wikimedia

New Ideas Challenge Old Ideas

New ideas challenging tradition produces tension in a society. As the Enlightenment ideas spread from France and Britain, it influenced people that perceived themselves as having natural rights violated by a king that has no right to rule.
Enlightenment ideas challenged the status quo and established traditions, such as patriarchy, slavery, and a divine right to rule. Those traditions often supported, politically and/or economically, established governments, and those governments would fight to keep them. This would sometimes lead to bloody revolutions. 

Nationalism and States and Empires

Nationalism is often equated with extreme patriotism, and in many ways, the Revolutions from 1750-1900 have a hint of nationalism fueling it. In addition to extreme, hardcore patriotism, nationalistic belief usually involves a sense of superiority over other nations. In the late 1800s, the creation of Italian and German states were driven by nationalism. 

Key philosophers led the way with new ideas

  • Thomas Hobbes → social contract
  • John Locke → natural rights (life, liberty, & the pursuit of property), right to overthrow gov’t if rights are not protected
  • Baron Montesquieu → checks and balances, different branches of gov’t
  • Voltaire → religious freedom
  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau → expanded social contract, will of the people
  • Adam Smith → laissez-faire economics, free market, capitalism
  • Thomas Paine → advocated for US freedom from Britain, anti-church

Enlightenment & Reform Movements

As one could imagine, notions of equality, natural rights, and the government receiving its authority from people (and not a deity), influenced some people on the margins of society to see those ideas applied to their life. Enslaved, women, and serfs all wanted equality from those Enlightenment and religious ideas. 
The enslaved wanted to see slavery ended, and by 1900, this mostly occurs. Serfdom, where a person farmed land he/she did not own, gave a portion of their crop to a local lord, and could not leave that area, essentially ended by 1750.
Women wanted the right to vote, and by 1900, this mostly did not occur. Women had to continue fighting for suffrage (voting rights) into the 20th century. Suffrage did expand to poorer and less educated males throughout 1750-1900. 
An important example of women demanding suffrage took place at the Seneca Falls Convention (1848). This convention, led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, used ideas regarding natural rights and specifically applied them to suffrage for women. In fact, they rewrote a portion of the Declaration of Independence, a document that started the American Revolution, to include women: “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men and women are created equal…” Their document, the Declaration of Sentiments, intends to convey that women are willing to start a revolution against patriarchy because they believe in suffrage so strongly. 

Religion, New Ideas, & the Enlightenment

Enlightenment philosophers and religious leaders did not necessarily agree on various issues. Many Enlightenment philosophers followed Deism, which involves believing in a creator that does not upset the natural order. It would be ridiculous from the Deist perspective to have a divine being rise from the dead. This is a major change from medieval European religious ideas. 
For example, Thomas Jefferson is a widely known Deist. He (and other deists) embraced a notion of a universal, clock-maker type, creator that set natural laws in place. However, he famously edited a copy of the Bible to remove parts he thought were inaccurate. 
Enlightenment ISMs
empiricism
knowledge from observation and experiments, rather than religious
socialism
the public / the workers should own the means of production
classical liberalism
reflected enlightenment ideas pushing back on traditional politics, society, and economics
classical conservatism
natural social order, belief in traditional monarchies & nobility, unapologetically elitist
nationalism
intense loyalty to others who speak your language and/or share your culture
utopian socialism
ideal societies designed to maximize harmony - shared ownership, positive workplaces, equal rights
feminism
belief that women’s rights are human rights
abolitionism
movement to end slavery and extend rights
zionism
desire for Jewish homeland in Middle East
anti-semitism
hostility toward Jews

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