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Western Civilization

The European Enlightenment

Researchers show the European Enlightenment came about as the result of the new natural science ideas of Isaac Newton, the political and social theories of great thinkers like Hobbes, and the psychology of John Locke. Much of Newton’s thought comes from the thirteenth century science of men like Galileo, Copernicus, and Kepler. Hobbes’s political and social theories can be traced back to the Northern Renaissance, and the psychology of Locke comes from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

There were many contradictory turns in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, first, with the overthrow of the monarchy in the seventeenth century and its replacement by a republic, followed later in the century by a weakened monarchy. By the end of the seventeenth century England would see the a loss of the monarch’s powers in England’s “Glorious Revolution.” The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw the development of “absolute” monarchies and a more tightly-centralized national government. Many historians regard the growth of the “absolute monarchy” as the origin of the modern state. Because this growth in absolute and centralized power of the government and the monarchy, this age is called the “Age of Absolutism” (1660-1789), beginning with Louis XIV and ending with the French Revolution.

Crises and tragedies primarily motivated absolutism of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Absolute monarchies were originally proposed as a solution to the bloody civil and religious wars erupting as a result of the Reformation. These absolutists argued several important roles of the national government should solely be in the hands of the monarch: the military, judicial system, and tax collection. Powers such as these normally belonged to the aristocracy and local government now required the formation of a national civil bureaucracy that only answered to the king. This bureaucracy had to stand against powerful forces opposing the king such as the church and nobility as well as other regions. In order to centralize the administration of the state, the government had to develop ways to take the political authority away from aristocracy.

The monarch that fully grasp and developed these absolutist principles was that of Louis XIV who ruled France from 1643 to 1715. The reign of Louis XIV is considered the beginning of the modern state. Many countries and leaders turned to him as a model of this new government. Here, the military was under the direct control of the government and a national tax collection in which taxes went directly to the national government rather than passing through regional nobility.

However, after decades of bloodshed over religion made it clear that political unity could only be a dream unless religious unity was first achieved. To reach a solution, Louis, a Roman Catholic himself, actively worked to get rid of the Protestant Huguenots , Quietists, and the Jansenists. Louis’s threat as he saw it was that of the Protestant Huguenots. He destroyed their churces, burnt their schools and forced Protestants under fear of imprisonment or death to convert to Catholicism.

Rene Descartes, in the seventeenth century, attempted to use reason to secure his faith. He tried to clear everything and begin with a blank slate with the bare minimum of knowledge: basically that only of his own existence. (”I think, therefore I am”). It was from this point that he tried to reason his way to a complete defense of Christianity. Logic could be a powerful avenue to truth, and it alone defended all kinds of absurd notions. The seventeenth century was torn with witch-hunts and religious wars.

Led by thinkers like John Locke and David hume, great Britian developed its own enlightenment. After decapitating the king, the monarchy was restored, this experience created an openness toward change. Because England had gotten its revolution out of the way early, it was much more able to proceed smoothly toward democracy.

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