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The Age of Reason

Renaissance approaches had proved unable to cope with the problems of the seventeenth century: the irresponsible scramble for power among rulers, the increasing religious divisions, and the tension among the social classes caused by incipient capitalism. The last victories of the Renaissance view can be considered the Edict of Nantes in France (1698) and the religious and political equilibrium achieved in England by Elizabeth I (d. 1603). Shakespeare (d. 1616) is one of the last representatives of a view of life that was humane, tolerant, and skeptic. Giordano Bruno, who was burned alive in 1600, is the last of the great representatives of Renaissance science and philosophy; he was suspected both by the Protestants and by the Catholics of the Counterreformation for holding a vitalistic and pantheistic philosophy in the frame of which he preached the infinity of the universe and the possibility of the existence of numerous inhabited worlds.

The political chaos increased in the first two thirds of the seventeenth century. Europe saw the endless destruction of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), apparently fought for religious reasons among Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists, but fanned by the rivalries among princes and by economic and social conflicts. England was rent by the Civil War (1640-1660) which was both a conflict of religious groups and of social classes.

A new principle of order was found in giving supreme authority to mathematics and geometry which were identified with “reason.” The first representative ot this new trend was Decartes (1596-1650). This resulted in a conception of the physical world that was essentially that of Democritus and in a conception of man and of the world that was essentially Stoic.

In politics the new trend found its expression in the idea of an absolute monarchy based on the power of a professional standing army. This ideal was realized in France by the rule of the Sun King. But the absolute monarchy was unable to cope with the increasing economic problems, and Louis XIV died in 1715 a hated king. In Great Britain the power of the absolute monarchy was moderated by appealing to another aspect or ine ideal ot reason, that of natural laws to which even rulers are subjected. A first expression of this conception had been the treatise of the Dutchman Hugo Grotius On the Law of War and Peace which had tried to moderate the horrors of the continuous wars by establishing international law. The idea of an international law and of a ruler subjected to reason triumphed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 which made Great Britain a limited monarchy, limited by the power of the Parliament which later grew to an oppressive power by the time of the American Revolution.

The physics of Newton’s Principia (first edition 1685) were understood as giving a mathematical demonstration to the conception of the universe as a fixed rational order established by a benevolent providence. Newton was a theist in that he believed that there was a God that kept this world running smoothly as a clockwork; but most of the thinkers of the eighteenth century were deists who believed that once God had created his mechanical order, he was subjected to its laws himself; more radical thinkers were atheists, since they believed that the beautiful and perfect order had come into existence by itself because of natural laws.

Descartes had proclaimed that philosophy should be based on the sweeping rejections of all traditional concepts and beliefs, appealing only to reason as exemplified by the exact sciences. This gave origin to a movement which aimed at the replacement of all existing social institutions, customs and practices by a new system based purely on scientific reason. This movement was called the Enlightenment because it believed that man should find his way merely by relying on the inner light of reason. In France the representatives of the new thought called themselves philosophes, but in reality they created what we call social science. They believed that as nature was regulated by fixed laws, similar laws applied to society, and could be objectively determined by following a scientific approach. Hence, it believed that society could be changed if only men could be educated to take a responsible attitude, free from superstitions, traditions and passions. By following reason they could reach a universal agreement. The Encyclopedia was written as the summa of new ideas. It was believed that progress would inevitably bring about the triumph of the new views. Social distinctions and inequalities would be spontaneously abolished once all social groups were sufficiently enlightened. A great effort at propaganda conquered most of the bourgeoisie and a part of the nobility, but there was a great confidence that the monarchs too could be persuaded to use their absolute power in order to enact the reauired social reforms.

The Enlightenment had an ethical system which it considered valid for all men, in all ages, among all nations; it was summed up by the word humanité, “a sentiment of benevolence towards all men,” which would achieve the end of all sufferings due to social causes. It was a secular version of the Christian ethics.

The plans for social reforms were only sketchily applied in the eighteenth century, but they were more positively realized by the American and the French Revolutions and influenced the social policy of the nineteenth and even of the twentieth century.

The eighteenth century was characterized by a substantial agreement among those who were considered the significant thinkers. This contributed to confirming their conviction that they had found the final answers to the problems of science and society and gave to the writers of this age a prestige and a power unusual in history. The prophets agreed with each other so much that the public that read their books was inclined to accept them as as revelation. However, there were a few discordant voices. In England the philosopher Hume advanced a skeptic philosophy, arguing that the concept an orderly universe regulated by cause and effect was a construction of the human mind. In France, Rousseau upheld the value of human instincts against reason and considered the heart, not the brain, the infallible source of wisdom. At the end this appeal to emotions contributed more to actual revolution against existing social institutions and traditional concepts than the appeal to reason. The great figures of the French Revolution, from Robespierre to Napoleon, were rationalists in their words, but followers of Rousseau in their deeds.


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