The European Enlightenment

Pre-Enlightenment Europe

The Age of Absolutism   It's difficult to determine precisely when the Enlightenment begins. Since the Enlightenment is primarily about changes in the world view of European culture, the process cannot really be said to have a beginning for when a world view changes it essentially draws on previous shifts in world view. The Enlightenment is sometimes dated to the middle of the eighteenth century and the activity of the philosophes , the French rationalist philosophers active in the middle of the eighteenth century who fully articulated the values and consequences of Enlightenment thought.

   However, the Enlightenment is more convincingly dated to the new natural science of Isaac Newton, the social and political theories of thinkers such as Hobbes, the empirical psychology of John Locke, and the epistemological revolutions of Blaise Pascal and René Descartes. All of these thinkers and innovations have clear antecedents: Newtonian thought derives from the thought and science of Francis Bacon, Galileo, Kepler, Copernicus, and ultimately, Roger Bacon in the thirteenth century. The social and political theories of Hobbes can be traced back to the Northern Renaissance, and the empirical psychology of Locke has antecedents in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Finally, the epistemological crises of Pascal and Descartes are in a long line of epistemological crises dating back to the fourteenth century and clearly articulated in the philosphical skepticism of Michel de Montaigne in the middle of the sixteenth century.. For our purposes then, we'll use the term "Pre-Enlightenment," since it's a standard historical category, but we'll use it in the sense of "the transition to the full Enlightenment," or simply, "the transitional period."

   European history throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries took a variety of contradictory turns. England saw the complete overthrow of the monarchy in the middle of the seventeenth century and its replacement first by a republic and then by a weakened monarchy later in the century; finally, at the end of the seventeenth century England would see the revolutionary erosion of the monarch's powers in England's "Glorious Revolution." For all this drama, however, the rest of Europe saw an astonishing growth in the power of monarchs over their states. The two centuries that bracket the Enlightenment saw the development of absolute monarchies and more tightly-centralized national governments; the growth of the absolute monarchy is regarded as many historians as the origin of the modern state. Europe consequently saw the gradual erosion of local power and autonomy and the rise of national legislation and civil bureaucracies. Because this growth in absolute and centralized power of the national government and the monarchy, this age in European history is generally called the Age of Absolutism (1660-1789). It begins in the reign of Louis XIV, and ends with the French Revolution.


Discovery and Reformation
The Wars of Religion
   Absolutism was by and large motivated by the crises and tragedies of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Reformation had led to a series of violent and terrifyingly cruel wars of religions; states erupted into civil war and thousands of innocents met their deaths in the name of national religions. Absolute monarchies were originally proposed as a solution to these violent disorders, and Europeans were more than willing to have local autonomy taken away in exchange for peace and safety.


   In order to achieve this, absolutists asserted that in practical affairs several key elements of the national government should be solely in the hands of the monarch: the military, tax collection, and the judicial system. These were powers normally enjoyed by the aristocracy and local gentry; the national administration of these functions required the formation of a national civil bureaucracy whose officials were answerable only to the king. This bureaucracy had to stand against the most powerful institutional forces opposed to the king: the nobility, the church, representative legislative bodies, and autonomous regions. So the absolutists faced a problem very similar to that faced by the Japanese after the Meiji Restoration; in order to centralize the administration of the state, the government had to somehow take political authority out of the hands of the aristocracy.


Discovery and Reformation
Protestant England
   In Europe absolute monarchs could not completely break the power of the nobility, so they incorporated them into their new bureaucratic institutions. The church, however, was a different matter. Most absolutist monarchs tried to get around the church by nationalizing it, that is, by imitating the actions of Henry VIII in the early sixteenth century. While Henry had himself named head of the church of England, the absolute monarchs only managed to gain some administrative and judicial control over the clergy. The most difficult battles, however, would be with representative legislative bodies; it was such a battle that precipitated the French Revolution.


Jacques-Benigne Bossuet

Enlightenment Glossary
Divine Right of Kings
   Medieval political theory justified kingship by arguing that the king ruled by the will of God. Jacques-Benigne Bossuet (1627-1704) adapted the medieval concept of kingship in his theory of the Divine Right of Kings, which argued that the king ruled absolutely by will of God, and that to oppose the king in effect constituted rebellion against God. Although people should be excluded from power, God's purpose in instituting absolute monarchy was to protect and guide society.

   Bossuet spelled out his arguments in the treatise Politics Drawn from the Very Words of Scripture in 1709; most of these theories, however, he developed for Louis XIV in France. In this work, Bossuet argues that God institutes monarchy for the welfare of the people; for that reason, absolute rule is not arbitrary rule. The monarch cannot do as he pleases, but must rather consistently act in the best interests of society. As a political theorist attached to Louis XIV, he helped that king establish the first and fullest absolute monarchy in Europe.


Louis XIV   This monarch who fully embodied absolutist principles—Louis XIV, the Sun King—ruled France from 1643 to 1715. In many ways, Louis was the embodiment of the modern age for the whole of Europe. Many countries and monarchs turned to him as a model for the new, modern government, while some countries, such as England, reacted against this model. Historians like to consider the reign of Louis XIV as the beginning of the modern state. Most of the practices of the modern state were more or less instituted in the France of Louis XIV: centralized government, a centralized civil bureaucracy, national legislation, a national judiciary that controlled most judicial activity, a large, standing military under the direct, rather than indirect, control of national authorities, and a national tax collection mechanism in which taxes went straight to the national government rather than passing through the hands of regional nobility.

   Historians also credit Louis with inventing the "theater" of national government. This claim, though compelling in some ways, is not entirely true. Earlier monarchs had, since the beginning of the sixteenth century, largely thought of the monarchy as theater, as show, and as display. The purpose of this theater was to demonstrate both the power and the benevolence of the individual monarch; such a display was integral to the legitimation of the monarch's authority and the dedication of the monarch's subject to the state itself. Louis, however, elevated the "theater of power" to unprecedented heights and clearly thought that every public aspect of the monarch should contribute to this theater of power.

Louis XIV


   Fundamental to Louis's theater of power was the display of monarchical wealth, power, and largesse. To this end, he moved the monarchical residence out of the center of Paris to a suburb in Versailles. There he built the single most opulent palace ever built for a king of Europe: the palace of Versailles. It was an awe-inspiring structure and was built as a stage on which to perform the public rituals and to display monarchical power. The building itself was a little over a third of a mile long; the outside was surrounded by magnificent gardens and over 1400 fountains employing the newest hydraulic technologies. The inside was an altar to French military might, room after room decorated with paintings, tapestries, and statues celebrating French military victories, heroes, and, especially, French kings.

   Louis required every noble to spend some time at the palace at Versailles. There he would stage elaborate performances and rituals designed to show the nobility both his power and his benevolence. In these displays of monarchical power he assumed the role of "Sun King." Neoplatonic philosophers of the Renaissance and seventeenth century argued that the sun, as the source of light, was the proper symbol for god and wisdom. Louis adopted the Neoplatonic symbol for God to symbolize his own role as God's monarchical representative.

   The power and the benevolence that Louis put on display was to some measure real power and real benevolence. In order to secure his power, Louis had to centralize the military, take control of national taxes, reign in independent territories such as Brittany and Languedoc, break up the legislative assemblies, and impose a religious unity on the country

   Until Louis XIV, the military in France had been largely a private affair. Individual regions raised and paid for their own armies; when the king required military help, the army came from these semi-private sources. Louis began to build a state army of professional soldiers and began to bleed the military power from these individual regions. This new centralized military would owe allegiance only to the king; the danger of factionalism and rebellion subsequently declined.

   In order to pay for his new military as well as his expensive theater of power, Louis seized control of national taxes. Until Louis's time, taxes throughout Europe were collected largely by individual nobility on a region by region basis. Nobles had been required to submit a certain amount of taxes to the crown, but they were free to collect whatever they pleased and keep the excess. In all the states in Europe, this was a massively inefficient affair. When Louis assumed power, only 30 percent or so of the taxes due to the monarch actually got paid.


Jean-Baptiste Colbert
   Louis effectively cut out the middlemen. Rather than charging nobility to collect taxes, Louis set up a bureaucracy to collect taxes directly from the peasantry (the tax burden did not fall on the nobility at all). By the end of his reign, Louis was collecting over eighty percent of the taxes due to the monarchy. But Louis did not spend this money only on himself: he and his finance minister, Jean Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683), used much of this money to expand and improve roads and to invest in national industry. In fact, historians usually credit Colbert as creating the first modern state in terms of financial management: collecting taxes and then reinvesting those taxes in the infrastructure and industries of the country.

   Louis broke regional independence by dividing the country into thirty-six generalités ; each generalité was administered by an intendant that was generally appointed from the upper middle classes rather than the nobility. No intendant was ever appointed to a region that he lived in; in this way, corruption would be kept to a minimum. These intendants were appointed by the king and answerable only to the king. For the most part, this bureaucracy mainly functioned to collect taxes. In the most autonomous regions, such as Languedoc and Brittany, Louis ruthlessly imposed obedience to the crown.


   In the matter of legislative assemblies, Louis had no patience whatsoever. The parlements of France were largely regional in nature rather than national. Not only did these parlements represent a diffusion of power from the king to the populace, they also represented a diffusion of power from the king to separate regions. Louis solved the problem of the parlements directly and simply: if any parlement vetoed monarchical legislation, all the members of that parlement would be exiled from France. Simple as that. The national legislative assembly, called the Estates General was never called into session by Louis; in fact, it would not be called until 1789 at the heart of the crisis that precipitated the French Revolution.


Discovery and Reformation
The Wars of Religion
   Finally, decades of bloodshed over religion made it obvious that political unity would only be a dream unless religious unity were achieved first. To that end, Louis, a Roman Catholic, actively worked to get rid of heterodox religious groups: the Protestant Huguenots, the Quietists (mystical Christians) and Jansenists, whose beliefs were a combination of Calvinism and Catholicism. The biggest threat to religious unity, as Louis saw it, were the Protestant Huguenots. He destroyed their churches and burned their schools and forced Protestants, under pain of imprisonment or death, to convert to Catholicism. Finally, he overturned the Edict of Nantes and declared Protestantism to be a crime against the state. All Protestant clergy were exiled from France. Most French Protestants chose to leave France rather than convert; the latter half of the seventeenth century saw the expansion of French culture throughout Europe as middle-class French Huguenots brought their culture, language, and artisanal skills to countries all over Europe.


   In all the documents that we can find, it seems that Louis conceived his role as absolute monarch in terms of benevolence. His reign, he argued, was primarily about benefitting the people of France materially, spiritually, and militarily. He saw the political and religious unification of France as a means of protecting his French subjects from the ravages of political unrest and religious civil war. The collecting of taxes made this possible, and the reinvesting of taxes in infrastructure and industry were seen as means of increasing the general national wealth of the country.


Prussia   All throughout continental Europe, rulers began to adopt the principles and practices of Louis's absolute monarchy and centralized government. They met with varying degrees of success, and the process of converting European governments into centralized states went on for over a hundred years. The surprising twist in history, though, is that the most successful centralized and absolutist states were created only in the twentieth century—and they all started as democracies (such as fascist Germany) or they are democracies still (such as the United States).

   In the eighteenth century, the first European power to fully adopt absolutist principles was a tiny, more or less powerless kingdom called Brandenburg-Prussia in what is now modern day Germany; as a result of this centralization, it would become one of the most powerful states in Europe. Throughout the sixteenth century, this area was part of the Holy Roman Empire, a disparate collection of semi-autonomous states from northern Germany to eastern Europe to the Mediterranean. These states were never fully unified politically or culturally. The rise of the Reformation severely frayed the political bonds between these separate states, and the Thirty Years' War severed them completely. What was once a great empire fragmented into a million tiny, inconsequential kingdoms.


Frederick William, Elector of Brandenburg
Frederick William, Elector of Brandenburg


   After the disintegration of the empire, Prussia was transformed through the efforts of Frederick William, or Frederick the Great, the Elector (head of state) of Brandenburg-Prussia from 1640-1688. He adopted all the strategies that Louis had innovated in France. His state consisted of two semi-autonomous and semi-hostile territories—Brandenburg in the north and Prussia in the south-east. In order to effect political unity, he built a large standing army (which would eventually become the largest army in the European world), and he built a centralized and ruthless taxation system. In order to manage this army, he put it under the control of a military commission which not only ran the military but managed the industries which manufactured military goods. This, of course, would become a standard feature of the modern, centralized state. As in France, taxes were levied only on the peasants and the middle class; the landlord nobility, called Junkers, were exempt. But although the Junkers thought that they had gotten away with something, in reality William Frederick's centralization of the military and the taxation system drained regional power from the Junkers and placed it in—the hands of Frederick William.


Austria   Austria was an empire throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries which was, like the Holy Roman Empire, only a loosely-unified state. It included three culturally different regions: the German-speaking regions in what is modern day Austria and the German-speaking region of Silesia, the Czech-speaking regions of what is now southeastern German and Czechoslovakia, and the Magyar-speaking regions in what is now modern-day Hungary. The Austrians—or more precisely, the Hungarians—were also the European front line against Ottoman Turk invasions of Europe. Whenever the Ottomans got a notion to invade Europe, they always started with the Austrian Empire. From 1583 onwards, the history of Austria is one long series of wars with Turkey over control of Hungarian territory. In 1683, the Ottomans made it all the way to Vienna and besieged the capital city itself.

   This loose and volatile political territory was ruled by the Hapsburg emperors. They had, you might say, one of the worst jobs in Europe. This job wasn't made any easier when the Hapsburgs decided to adopt absolutist principles and impose them on this diverse set of territories and cultures. Beginning with Frederick I (ruled 1637-1657) and Leopold I (ruled 1658-1705), the Hapsburgs tried to centralize the government of Austria and break the power of the noble landlords. They managed this by making deals with the landed nobility; in the Czech-speaking territories, for instance, the Hapsburgs passed national legislation that required peasants to work three days every week for their landlords in order to produce agricultural exports. In exchange for this inhumane increase in peasant labor, the landlords gave away the powers of their regional assemblies to the Hapsburgs.

   Hungary, however, was a different matter. Not only were the regions controlled by an autonomous aristocracy, the Hungarians had their own king and jealously guarded their right to appoint their own king. Leopold I managed to talk them out of that right in 1687, but he didn't get rid of the Hungarian monarchy. However, from this point onward the Hapsburg Emperors would appoint kings that they knew would be on their side: themselves. That's as far as Hapsburg dreams of unity got in Hungary. They tried many strategies to break the power of the Hungarian aristocracy: granting large tracts of land to German-speaking landlords, imposing religious unity by exiling large numbers of non-Catholics (mainly Eastern Orthodox but a few Protestants as well), and trying to set up a military administration of the country. The Hungarian nobility resisted and would, for the rest of the history of the Austrian empire, function as a more or less autonomous state with a Hapsburg as the titular monarch.


Peter the Great   The seventeenth century marks a political and cultural transformation of Russia that is epic in its scale. Russia, for the most part, can be culturally and politically considered as a separate people, even a separate continent. The Russians were a mixture of peoples; in eastern Russia, they were mainly Indo-Europeans who had settled the area in waves beginning with the original Indo-European migrations and ending with the Germanic migrations of the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries AD. These Indo-Europeans were Eastern Orthodox in their religion. In the east, Russians were largely derived from peoples living north of China. The Mongol invasions of Russian territory had infused a strong Mongol character into the Russian world view in the same way the Mongol invasions had greatly changed Persian and Turkish culture.

   The Russians, then, were a mixture of cultures and world views and saw themselves as neither continuous with Europeans to the west, Muslims to the south, or Asians to the east. It is probably fair to say that Russians saw themselves as having more in common with Asians than with Europeans. Be that as it may, Russians in the late Middle Ages and the early modern period primarily saw themselves as a separate people with their own traditions and their own culture. The Russian state was, by European standards, economically, politically, and technologically "backward." This was not, by and large, a fair assessment of the situation of medieval and early modern Russia; however, it was an assessment that Peter the Great accepted completely.

   Peter I became Tsar (or Czar—both words come from "Caesar") of Russia in 1682 and ruled until 1725. He was a member of the Romanov family which had established its dynasty in 1613. The Russian Empire was a truly fragmented affair. The various peoples under the control of the Russian Empire were highly diverse and hostile to one another: Ukranians, Russians, and a large number of nomadic peoples were constantly at one another's throats. Not only that, they didn't like being ruled by an emperor. So volatile was the situation that the Russian Empire nearly fell beneath the sword of a Cossack rebel named Stenka Razin who led a huge popular revolt against the Romanovs.


Peter I in Russian Dress
Peter I in Russian Dress


   Peter felt that the Empire could only be preserved by adopting Western European culture, industries, and political management. His first task was to bring Western European industry to Russia; in 1689, he went to Holland and England and brought back skilled workers. He also demanded that the nobility adopt Western cultural habits, such as going beardless or wearing only short beards, eating with utensils, wearing European clothes, and engaging in the habits of "polite" speech.

   More than anything else, however, Peter was determined to bring new European political practices in Russia, in particular, the practice and theater of absolute monarchy. Unlike the European kings, however, Peter had inherited a Russian tradition that the monarch was entirely above the law. Peter's power, therefore, was far greater than any of his European contemporaries, and he wielded it with an arbitrary cruelty that would have sent any European monarch to their execution. He did, however, wield it to a purpose: his singular goal was to convert Russia into a Western European culture.

   Peter imitated European armies by creating a standing army that was only answerable to him; he created this army by drafting five percent of the male population of Russia to serve in the army for life. This army was supplied by state-run factories; the factories were staffed by peasants who had been drafted to work in these factories. He centralized the tax system—you can probably guess—by taxing the peasants of Russia directly rather than indirectly through landed nobles. As in other European states, the nobility were exempt from this tax. He created a bureaucracy and staffed it with both nobility and civil servants.

   In pursuit of his aims, Peter did use a level of severity that almost boggles the mind. The peasants who served in his army and factories were, for all practical purposes, slaves. He suppressed any dissent with swift and harsh capital punishment; he directed this even at his son, Alexis, who opposed him in his innovations. So Peter ordered him to be tortured to death.

   Peter was determined to orient Russia towards the West; in order to do this, he needed a port that would allow him to enter the Baltic Sea at all times of the year. Most of his foreign wars were directed at this goal until he finally beat Sweden and acquired coastal territory. He instantly moved his capital to this new territory and built a city dedicated to himself: St. Petersburg. There he built himself a palace that was meant to imitate and even rival Louis XIV's palace at Versailles; this palace became the staging ground for the theater of power that would demonstrate his power and benevolence to his nobility, peasants, and the world.

   When Peter died, he was followed by a series of Tsars and Empresses that never really ruled as strongly, single-mindedly, or effectively as Peter. Russia would not see a strong absolutist government again until Catherine II, the Great, became Empress in 1762.

   While Europe steadily developed strong, absolutist, and centralized governments, there was one exception. During all this time, the tiny kingdom of England would undergo some of the most radical changes in the early modern state: from republic to a limited monarchy, the English were setting out in different directions in the long struggle to forge a new, modern state.

Richard Hooker



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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 1-26-98