The European Enlightenment

The Eighteenth Century


   The eighteenth century was a century of mind-boggling change; when Europeans entered the nineteenth century, they lived in a world that barely resembled the beginning of the eighteenth century. In the one hundred years in between, European thought became overwhelmingly mechanistic as the natural philosophy of Isaac Newton was applied to individual, social, political, and economic life. The century saw the development of the philosophe movement which articulated the full values of the European Enlightenment, including deism, religious tolerance, and political and economic theories that would dramatically change the face of European society. Europe itself changed from a household economy to an industrial economy. This change, perhaps one of the most earth-shattering transitions in human history, changed permanently and dramatically the face of European society and the family. Finally, the century ended in revolution. The ideas of the philosophes were translated into new governments, one in France and one in America, that shook the old order down to its very roots.

   On continental Europe, the monarchy slowly developed into more absolutist forms following the theories of Bossuet and applying the enlightened ideas of the philosophe movement, which argued that a monarch's job is to see to the rights and welfare of the governed. States that had been only loosely centralized, as Austria and Russia, became powerfully centralized states, while states such as Prussia and France further tightened the centralized control of the monarch. This centralized, absolutist power of the monarch was used to effect profound reforms in the structure of justice, government and economic life. Judicial torture gradually disappeared from the face of Europe, and the death penalty was radically curtailed. Government was slowly turned over to the hands of a civil bureaucracy, and serfs and peasants saw their economic liberties greatly expanded. The exercise of absolutism, however, would produce a fiery revolution in France, a revolution that would forever make the absolute monarchy an obsolescence.

   The century saw the decline of monarchical power in England. At the beginning of the century, power was divided between the monarch and the Parliament, but Parliament refused to engage in any of the reforms going on in the rest of Europe. Because these reforms were associated with absolute monarchies, the English refused to participate in any kind of national legislation. Instead the English government was run on "interest"; coalitions were built in Parliament by making promises to varying groups. These promises were knit together into powerful factions whose primary job was simply to deliver on the promises. Needless to say, parliamentary politics was incredibly corrupt. Members of Parliament secured votes mainly by paying for them, and the temptation to corruption increased as the power of the institution increased. This came to a head in the latter part of the century when George III began to assert his own prerogatives and replaced parliament ministers with his own. This crisis, the "battle over prerogative," eventually was won by Parliament at the end of the century. This was the last gasp of monarchical power in England; from this point on, the nation was, for the most part, run by Parliament.

   Finally, a new European nation was established in America. This nation was forged in a revolution and built almost entirely off of Enlightenment ideas. Practically speaking, the final legacy of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century would be the establishment of a fully functioning Enlightenment government based, theoretically at least, on secular values and the notions of right and equality. But that, as they say, is a story for another day.

Richard Hooker



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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 1-22-98