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The Age Of Enlightenment Essay, Research Paper

The Scientific Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment

The Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century, which was initiated by the Renaissance, greatly advanced the movement toward modernity. No longer was there a medieval view of the universe, but instead scientific method of understanding. It was then thought that “rigorous and systematic observation and experimentation were the essential means of unlocking nature’s secrets” (Western Civilization, 276). Western thinkers increasingly felt that “nature was a mechanical system governed by laws that could be expressed mathematically” (Western Civilization, 276). Science was now the main source of knowledge as opposed to the more primitive method of “theology,”

which resulted in many prominent scientists to emerge.

The Medieval view of the universe blended theories of ancient Greeks, Aristotle and Ptolemy. The medieval mind knew the planets to be in qualitative order, ascending order toward Heaven, with Hell just below Earth. The two philosophers held that planets moved in circular orbits and at uniform speeds around the earth, which was stationary. This model was known as the geocentric model. The Renaissance did indeed contribute to the Scientific Revolution in several ways. The revival of interest in antiquity, which fostered new ideas in mechanics and anatomy, and Renaissance art, which linked an exact representation of the human body to mathematical proportions and required accurate observation of natural phenomena. The Renaissance revival of ancient Pythagorean and Platonic ideas, which also contributed to the Scientific Revolution,

stressed mathematics as the key to comprehending reality. These qualities together helped to make up the “New View of Nature.” Modern astronomy began with Nicolaus Copernicus, a Polish mathematician, astronomer, and church canon. Copernicus claimed that earth is a planet that orbits a centrally located sun together with the other planets. This was known as a heliocentric theory, and would replace the medieval view of the universe. In 1543, Copernicus published his masterpiece, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres. Just as he had feared, his views stirred up controversy. For going against God, Copernicus’ work was put on the Index of Prohibited Books.

The seventeenth was sometimes referred to as “the century of genius.” The principal reason for this was because of astronomer and physicist Galileo Galilei. “Galileo rejected the medieval division of the universe into higher and lower realms and proclaimed the modern idea of nature’s uniformity” (Western Civilization, 278). Galileo built a telescope for himself to observe the heavens—the first person to do so. He concluded that the surface of the moon was not smooth and uniform, but instead rough and uneven. Nature was not a hierarchical order according to Galileo. He felt that it was a homogeneous system, the same throughout. A pioneer of advanced physics, Galileo advanced the modern idea that knowledge of motion should be derived from direct observation and mathematics. He also proposed that motion is the relationship of bodies to time and distance. Galileo ascribed absolute authority to mathematics.

Galileo had insisted that physical truth is arrived at through observation, experimentation, and reason. Therefore he strongly denounced reliance on authority. He also argued that passages from the bible had no authority in questions involving nature. Copernicanism, which was the basis of Galileo’s works, was condemned by the church in 1616. An aging Galileo was tried and sentenced to life imprisonment-mostly house arrest at his own villa near Florence. In addition, Galileo was forbidden to write on Copernicanism. In the early 1600’s, “Johannes Kepler, a German mathematician and astronomer combined the Pythagorean-Platonic quest to comprehend the mathematical harmony within nature with a deep commitment to Lutheran Christianity” (Western Civilization, 282). Kepler stated that “God gave human beings the ability to understand the laws of harmony and proportion” (282). He is best noted for discovering the three basic laws of planetary motion, which shattered Ptolemaic cosmology. Kepler’s three laws were as follows:

1. Planets move in elliptical orbits, not circular ones. 2. Planets do not move at uniform

speed, but accelerate as they near the sun. 3. There is a mathematical relationship between the time it takes a planet to complete its orbit and the average distance from the sun. From these three laws, one could calculate accurately a planet’s position and velocity at a particular time.

In 1687, Isaac Newton published Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, which marked the climax of the Scientific Revolution. Newton derived three laws of motion:

1. Inertia: A body at rest remains at rest unless acted on by a force. 2. A given force produces a measurable change in a body’s velocity. 3. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction or force. Both Newton’s mechanical universe and his mastering of the experimental method were foundation blocks of the Age of Enlightenment.

The accomplishments of the Scientific Revolution were far greater than the creation of a new model of the universe. They also included the recognition that science could serve humanity, and the formulation of a new method of inquiry into nature. Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and Rene Descartes (1596-1650) were two of the men responsible for articulating the implications of the Scientific Revolution. Bacon, an English philosopher, supported the advancement of science and the scientific method. He attributed the limitation in the progress of science to the interference of scholastic philosophers, who he felt bent the theories of nature to the requirements of Scripture. Bacon also denounced scholastic thinkers for their attachment to Aristotelian doctrines, which prevented independent thinking. “Knowledge should help us utilize nature for human advantage; it should improve the quality of human life by advancing commerce, industry, and agriculture” (285).

Descartes, a French mathematician and philosopher, is regarded as the father of modern philosophy. He was an advocate of the deductive approach to knowledge. In the deductive approach, which is employed in mathematical and theoretical physics, truths are derived in successive steps from first principles. Descarted is best known for his quote, “I think therefore I am” (286). He concluded that mathematics is the key to understanding both the truths of nature and the moral order underlying human existence.

The Enlightenment of the eighteenth century culminated the movement toward modernity initiated by the Renaissance. Thinkers of the Enlightenment aspired to create a more rational and humane society. They rejected theology as an avenue to truth and sought to understand nature and society through reason alone. In addition, they questioned all inherited opinions and traditions. The writings of two seventeenth century English philosophers, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and John Locke (1632-1704), had a great affect on the Enlightenment. Hobbes believed absolutism was the most logical form of government. In his major work Leviathan (1651), Hobbes wrote, “Only the unlimited power of a sovereign could contain human passions that disrupt the social order and threaten civilized life…” (292). Hobbes aimed at constructing political philosophy on a scientific foundation and rejected the authority of tradition and religion as inconsistent with a science of politics.

Locke, in contrast to Hobbes, saw people as essentially good and humane. In the Two Treatises of Government (1690), Locke stated that “Human beings are born with natural rights to life, liberty, and property, and they establish the state to protect these rights” (293). Whereas Hobbes justified absolute monarchy, Locke endorsed constitutional government. The value that Locke gave to reason and freedom, and his theories of natural rights had a major effect on the Enlightenment and the revolutions of the late eighteenth century.

Charles Louis de Secondat, baron de la Brede et de Montesquieu (1689-1755) published The Spirit of the Laws in 1748, which was an immense erudition, and covered many topics of political theory. Montesquieu held that “The study of political and social behavior is not an exercise in abstract thought, but must be undertaken in relation to geographic, economic, and historic conditions” (293). He concluded that different climactic and geographic conditions and different national customs, habits, religions, and institutions give each nation a particular character. Unlike Hobbes and Locke, Voltaire (1694-1778) was not a systematic political theorist, but instead a propagandist and polemicist. He felt that freedom consisted in being governed by an established and standard code of law that applies equally to all. Voltaire also stated that, “Power should be used rationally and beneficially” (294). Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) published The Social Contract in 1762. He considered the state to be corrupt and unjust.

Rousseau felt the modern state deprived human beings of their natural freedom and fostered a selfish individualism, which undermined concern for the common good. He wanted the state to be a genuine democracy that bound people together in freedom, equality and civic devotion.

At this point in time Humanitarianism became a new outlook on life. It expressed itself on torture, on cruel and unjust punishments for criminals, on slavery, and on war. Many philosophers denounced war as barbaric and an affront to reason. They felt that human nature was essentially virtuous and that human beings were capable of benevolent feelings toward each other. In addition, philosophers continued to view women as intellectually and morally inferior to men. One man however, Condorcet, who wrote Plea for the Citizenship of Women in 1791, argued for female emancipation. He was one of the very few exceptions. Rousseau believed that nature had granted men power over women, and regarded traditional domesticity as a woman’s proper role. Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman protested against the submiss- iveness and subordination of women, and their limited opportunities.

Scottish professor of moral philosophy Adam Smith (1732-1790) attacked the theory of mercantilism in The Wealth of Nations (1776). The theory held that a state’s wealth was determined by the amount of gold and silver it possessed.

Smith argued that “The real basis of a country’s wealth was measured by the quantity and quality of its goods and services, and not by its storehouses and metals” (301). The concept of laissez faire-that government should not interfere with the market-became a core principle of nineteenth-century liberal thought.

The major conflicts of the eighteenth century were between Britain and France for control of the New World and between Austria and Prussia for dominance in central Europe. In the late 1700’s, the American and French Revolutions broke out and helped shape the liberal democratic tradition. In 1740, Prussia launched a successful war against Austria and was rewarded with Silesia. At the same time, France and England were fighting over their claims in the New World. England’s victory in the conflict (French and Indian War) deprived France of nearly all of its North American possessions. It also set in motion a sum of events that culminated in the American Revolution. In 1775, the quarrel turned to into shear and utter bloodshed, and on July 4th, 1776, delegates from various colonies came together to adopt the Declaration of Independence. Written mainly by Thomas Jefferson, who applied of Locke’s theory of natural rights, the document declared that “Government derives its power from the consent of the governed, that it is the duty of a government to protect the rights of its citizens, and that people have the right to alter and establish a government that deprives them of their unalienable rights” (303).

The ideals of the Enlightenment spread from Europe to America and helped shape the political thought of the Founding Fathers. The Declaration of Independence clearly articulated Locke’s basic principles. Philosophers broke with the traditional Christian view of human nature and the purpose of life. They also expressed confidence in people’s ability to attain happiness by improving the conditions of their earthly existence, and derived a theory of human progress that did not require divine assistance.

Works Cited

Western Civilization: A Brief History. Marvin Perry.

Houghton Mifflin Company. Boston, MA. 1997.

Nicolaus Copernicus and his Epoch. Jan Adamczewski.

Copernicaus Society of America. Philadelphia, PA. 1970.

The Universe of Galileo and Newton. William Bixby.

American Heritage Publishing Co. New York, NY. 1964.


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