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Somewhere in the centuries between the Copernican Revolution and the French Revolution (1550-1789), developments took place in Western Europe that lay the foundations of the modern world. The names for this era differ according to who is speaking -- historian or critic or philosopher, Frenchman, Englishman, or German. Thus the time span may be characterized by several adjectives, like Baroque, neoclassical, or Augustan, or by several overlapping period designations, listed here roughly in chronological order: the Age of European Expansion, the Scientific Revolution, the Age of Absolutism, the Age of Reason, the Enlightenment.

Although the idea of the "modern" is always provisional, if a twentieth-century observer went back in time to 1500, and then were suddenly transported to l700, the observer would see immediately that dramaticchanges had occurred during those two centuries in the way people lived. While neither era would seem particularly "modern" to this time traveler, nevertheless, a city like London in 1700 would look a great deal more like New York in 1990 than it had in 1500.

The choice of London is deliberate, for the material of modernity probably coalesced first in England. By 1700, a gentleman in London would get up in the morning and put on breeches (the ancestors of trousers), a jacket, and a pair of shoes; in 1500, he would have drawn on doublet and hose and a pair of boots. By 1700, this gentleman might walk across paved streets to a coffee house and pick up a newspaper to read. In 1500, neither coffee, tea, nor chocolate had been envisaged in the Western world; news was disseminated for those who could read by proclamations and broadsides attached to public walls, approachable on muddy walkways.

More than the minutiae of daily existence had moved in the direction of modernity in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England. The rise of parliamentary government "modernized" politics as the adjustment to new markets in Asia, Africa, and the Americas "modernized" economic life well before such change, for good or for ill, came in the other major states of Europe. We will now briefly consider some ideas about government, science, and the nature of the self that emerged in the seventeenth century and underlie the notion of modernity in the West.

Historical and Economic Backgrounds

From the early sixteenth century, when Martin Luther challenged the Catholic Church (see Chapter 5, Historical Background), great shifts in religious beliefs and practices shook the Christian West, resulting in a century and a half of bloodshed. While this more than hundred years of warfare at least ostensibly had religious origins, ambitious princes and noble factions capitalized on the disarray that toppled dynasties and weakened political authority in power struggles throughout Central and Eastern Europe. In Western Europe, centralizing monarchs subdued rebellious subjects, extending the power of the state over ordinary subjects to the degree that they were called the "absolute monarchs."

The popular imagination connects the trappings of royalty with the medieval world when kings ruled, according to general agreement, by God's will; yet no medieval or Renaissance rulers had such control over their cousins and rivals in the nobility as did those in the eighteenth-century who insisted on their Divine Right to rule. These so-called absolute monarchs -- most notably Louis XIV of France (reigned 1643-1715), Frederick II of Prussia (r. 1740-1786), Maria Theresa of the Hapsburg Empire (r. 1740-1780) who ruled jointly with her husband Francis I (1745-1765) and then her son, Joseph II (1765-1790) -- still claimed authority through God. But in fact they owed their unchallenged supremacy to intricate bureaucracies, well organized armies, and state economies of unprecedented size and effectiveness.

Modern conceptions of wealth dependent upon new financial instruments lent power to the centralized states of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In the France of Louis XIV, wherein the rich duchies of a large and fertile land were brought under one authority, the goal of mercantilist policy was to gain economic self-sufficiency for the state. In England, enriched by its colonial empire (which supplied the coffee, tea, and chocolate that the elite enjoyed while the poor sustained themselves on beer), the goal was trade beyond its own borders. The Bank of England, founded in 1694, and the London Stock Exchange, enlarged in the late 1600s, legitimized paper money and speculative investments. In the medieval Christian world, lending money for interest had been deplored by theologians. In the early modern world, by contrast, lending money for interest was recognized as the essential facilitator of economic growth that governments still rely upon today; the royal debt became the preferred means of funding state economies.

A rising standard of living resulted from shifts in commerce and agriculture and even some almost unnoticed changes in the methods of producing goods. In the late eighteenth century, when the process that we call the industrial revolution took hold, a major transformation of human experience began. These sweeping economic changes rested not only upon imaginative methods of financing but also on wide-scale exploitation of human beings, both at home and abroad. Western Europe appropriated the natural resources of a growing colonial empire and intensified slavery in the New World, depopulating western Africa and subjugating Amerindians in the process. By the late eighteenth century, the uprooting of Europe's peasants (another group of unpaid laborers) had begun. With their age-old link to the land soon to be permanently severed, they were fast being turned into factory workers and set adrift in urban squalor. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however, these brutal facts did not diminish most Europeans' aggressive optimism about the abilities of human reason to control nature and know the hitherto unknown. Perhaps perversely, these changes seemed to strengthen this optimism.

The Scientific Spirit

One source of this unquenchable optimism was the heady sense that human beings were at long last unraveling the secrets of the universe. For during the seventeenth century, a host of scientific and philosophical treatises were written to show how things worked. Until this period, science was known as natural (as distinguished from moral and metaphysical) philosophy and, as a branch of philosophy, was viewed primarily as a speculative activity. Laboratories had been places where alchemists sought to turn base metals into gold; magicians were still potent figures. The great Renaissance astronomers, Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler, essentially invented the discipline of modern science by basing their findings on verifiable mathematical calculations and repeatable experiments.

Isaac Newton (1642-1727), who began his career by conducting extensive alchemical research, confirmed and extended the implications of the work of Copernicus and Galileo (see Chapter 5, Historical Background) in his Principia Mathematica (Principles of Mathematics), published in 1687. Until the sixteenth century, people believed that there were two separate spheres of the universe, the sublunary world of imperfection and God's perfect sphere above the moon. In creating the science of dynamics, which embraces his famous theory of gravity, Newton shattered this notion by showing that all the bodies in the universe obeyed the same rules of motion. At the same time, his new telescope and other optical devices for measurement and observation verified the great discoveries that his predecessors had made. Newton in England and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) in Germany simultaneously but independently developed the science of calculus which provided mathematical proofs of astronomical assertions.

Characterizing his findings as the culmination of a century's discoveries, Newton modestly ascribed his farsightedness to his having stood "on the shoulders of giants." Three centuries later, Principia Mathematica remains the single most important book in the history of science; the scope of Newton's accomplishment is far greater than he claimed. Yet even in his lifetime, Newton's genius awed his contemporaries. When Newton died, the poet Alexander Pope composed this epitaph: "Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night:/ God said, Let Newton be! and all was Light." In this tribute, by echoing the account of creation given in the Book of Genesis, Pope suggests that modern science had inaugurated an entirely new understanding of the relationship between the human and the divine.

The Englishman William Harvey was among the first to apply modern experimental techniques to the internal workings of the human body. Previously, as the universe had been divided into two spheres, so the blood had been thought to proceed from two different points in the body. For almost 1500 years, no one had challenged the doctrine established by the Roman physician Galen (c. A.D.130-c. A.D. 210) that venous blood proceeded from the liver(1) and arterial blood from the heart. In his Essay on the Motion of the Heart and Blood (1628), drawing on his observations during vivisection, Harvey revised this misconception and for the first time explained that the circulation of blood was controlled by the heart muscle.

New Conceptions of the Self and the State

While they followed no commonly mapped-out program, the philosophers of the period were more or less united in advocating a more rational and scientific approach to religious, social, political, and economic issues. Inspired by the scientific method, they firmly believed that the application of reason could solve all conflicts. Perhaps the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries invested so heavily in the power of the human mind because the atrocities committed during the sixteenth century in the name of religion had so undermined previous belief in the beneficent powers of God. Renaissance humanism (see Chapter 5, Historical Background) had ended in skepticism and despair, leading some to dream of the Americas as a place where a new holy land could be built among God's natural men, far away from Europe where men had degenerated into brutes. Among the skeptics was the French essayist, Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592); among the cynics was the English political philosopher, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). Their common experience led them in quite different ways to try to replace the lost verities of religion.

Montaigne spent a few years as a Renaissance courtier, but, disgusted by the slaughter of French Protestant Huguenots, he retired from public life. In retirement, he invented a new literary form, the personal essay. Despite his splendid education,(2) Montaigne gradually rejected the essentially medieval form of argumentation that valued cultural precedent over individual thinking; instead, he gave priority in his essays to his own response to events and problems. His motto -- "What do I know?" -- established the tone of modern intellectual inquiry.

Hobbes's cynicism reflects the political crisis that erupted in England in 1640, when the Puritans who controlled Parliament gained ascendancy over the Stuart monarchy. In 1642, the Civil War between the Royalists and the Puritans began; in 1649, the House of Commons tried, convicted, and beheaded Charles I. But, unable to govern, Parliament ceded power to Oliver Cromwell, the general who had led the Puritan forces to victory over the Cavaliers. Having fled to Paris in 1640, where he published his seminal work, Leviathan, Hobbes returned to England in 1651. Leviathan, the great sea beast of biblical lore, symbolized the strong authoritarian state that Hobbes argued was necessary to control the natural impulses that, unchecked, inevitably lead to war and bloodshed.

Significantly, Hobbes regarded his discovery of Euclidean geometry as one of the turning points in his life. The study of mathematics likewise infused the thought of René Descartes (1596-1650), a committed Catholic educated in a Jesuit school who nevertheless sought to counter skepticism without resorting to religious dogma. Frequently credited with being the founder of analytical geometry, he made important contributions to algebra as well. In his most famous work, the Discourse on Method, Descartes attempts to extend the mathematical method to all fields of knowledge, even to the proofs of the existence of God. Forsaking a reliance on miracles or faith, writing in the first person and examining his own mind in action, Descartes arrives at proof of his own existence, in his most famous statement: Cogito, ergo sum ("I think, therefore I am"). From this point, he then comes to proof of God's existence: "the idea of a being more perfect than myself must of necessity have proceeded from a being in reality more perfect."

Descartes's method was a "modern" attack on the scholastics of the middle ages and the early modern period and on the skepticism of Montaigne, who had asked, "What do I know?" Descartes goes further, asking in effect, "What can I know?" For the discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo had sapped confidence in received knowledge. While simple observation would suggest that the sun moves around the earth, as people had believed for centuries, Copernicus had shown that what seemed to be true need not be true and that our senses could lie. Therefore Descartes seeks to find the very core of what can be known for a certainty. His declaration that the only thing that cannot be doubted is doubt itself demonstrates his confidence in rational analysis. In affirming the human capacity to reason back to first premises (or clear and distinct ideas) and from them to proceed deductively to an understanding of truth, Descartes set a pattern of critical thought that characterized French intellectual life for centuries.

John Locke (1632-1704), the next major figure in the development of modern philosophy, was interested in the new sciences and in medicine, which he studied as a young man. Like Descartes, Locke's starting premise was the existence of the self, but he distrusted metaphysical speculation and rooted his system, known as empiricism (the characteristic English style of thought), in practical human experience instead. He believed that everyone began with a tabula rasa, a "clean slate." In other words, knowledge is not innate, but comes through the senses. Consequently, in contrast to Cartesian deduction, Lockean induction reasons from external evidence. Yet Locke thought all human beings shared a common response to these sense perceptions. Should we all reason from this starting point (no matter what culture, what time, what geography) we would all end with the same fundamental truths.

Reasonable beings, Locke thought, had the right to create their own political and economic institutions if those in existence did not conform to standards of reason and justice. Locke believed in a state of nature, as did Hobbes, but unlike Hobbes's vision of life as so "nasty, brutish and short" that men would willingly relinquish it, the state of nature for Locke and all the Enlightenment thinkers was a happy one, characterized by reason and tolerance, and guided by natural law.

Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), Two Treatises of Government (1690), and Letters on Toleration (1689-92) were widely read, influencing all the thinkers of the Enlightenment, among them the founders of the American and French constitutions. Although democratic conclusions logically derive from his belief in common sense, Locke and most Enlightenment thinkers did not reach such conclusions because they saw that everyone did not have the same stock of reason and experience. To both empiricists and rationalists, education was the great tool by which everyone could be taught to reason correctly, even profoundly.

The educated elite was sure that once reason and experimentation were applied to the social and political world, a harmonious existence would follow. The task was simply to discover the laws of nature, apply them to human institutions and spread knowledge. The application of reason ought to reconcile all conflicts. The past was unenlightened, the future enlightened and progressive if there could be liberty to think freely, to express oneself openly, and to choose to follow one's reason. The great writers of the Enlightenment, particularly in France, were not only strong social critics, but also defenders of "enlightened individualism;" they were the "party of humanity." Every country had its philosophes who were proud of their cosmopolitan culture. Since a roll call of all who contributed to the Enlightenment would take pages, only a few names will be mentioned here in addition to those discussed elsewhere throughout the chapter, to indicate the geographical and cultural scope of the movement: the Italian founder of social science, Giovanni Battista Vico (1668-1744); the Scots economist Adam Smith (1723-1790); the American inventor and diplomat, Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790); and the Spanish intellectual Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos (1744-1811).

Deism, Religious Tolerance, and Moderation

Exhausted by the religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and newly confident in the power of human reason, the educated classes of eighteenth-century Europe veered away from traditional religious orthodoxy. Instead, in the popular image of the day, they saw the universe as a splendidly crafted watch and God as the watchmaker, who had set the parts in motion and then in effect retired from active duty while the brilliantly engineered mechanism ticked away. Deism, as this religious system is known, deemphasizes divine revelation; as its name implies, Deism assumes the existence of a God (Deus, in Latin), but not a God who promotes sectarian conflict.

The doctrine of philosophical optismism, most famously articulated by the mathematician Leibniz in his Theodicy (1710), and by Alexander Pope in his Essay on Man (1733), justifies the role of this efficient God. Having organized the universe in a Great Chain of Being and in the best possible way, God has imbued the natural world with principles of order that human beings ought simply to obey. Deists and philosophical optimists believed the world had outgrown the need for religious systems that involve effusive forms of worship or superstitious beliefs.

The dominant literary figure of the French Enlightenment, which embraced Deism more wholeheartedly than the English, was Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet de Voltaire, 1694-1778). In the 1720s, Voltaire spent time in England, where he met Alexander Pope, whose Essay on Man Voltaire greatly admired and translated. When an earthquake shook Lisbon in 1755, leaving more than 30,000 people dead in the greatest natural catastrophe to strike Europe since the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in A.D. 79., Voltaire had a change of heart. Like other Enlightenment thinkers who had seen nature as essentially benign and susceptible to human control when necessary, Voltaire had to reconsider that nature could be cruel and that evil had not been eradicated. Influenced by British empiricism, Voltaire approached these philosophical problems in a practical rather than an abstract manner and wrote Candide, a satiric fiction, rather than a formal treatise on the nature of evil. Locating Eden in cartoon-like Westphalia, Voltaire's Candide uses mockery, sophisticated wit, and exaggeration to ridicule religion and philosophical optimism in general, and Leibniz (in the person of Pangloss) and Catholic intolerance (in his treatment of the Inquisition) in particular.

The age's foremost exponent of religious tolerance was the German dramatist, translator(3) (of Voltaire, among others), critic, and polemicist, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781). Lessing wrote poetry and fables in prose; he wrote critically about the fable, about all aspects of theatre, and about a wide range of literary topics. His best known work is the play Nathan the Wise (1779), whose title character is probably the first Jew portrayed in a wholly sympathetic light in the history of European literature.

Moderation, the great Enlightenment virtue, makes tolerance possible. Advocating classical values in the broadest sense (see Chapter 3, The Idea of a Classic), the Age of Reason warned against passionate excess. In France, the exemplary figures for the age were the honnête homme, the honest man, or the raisonneur/se, the rational man or woman, who consistently urges prudence. In England, an idealized notion of the gentleman embodies a similar ideal. Originally, gentle had denoted high birth; to be a gentleman, one had to be able to prove a certain number of noble ancestors.(4) Over the years, however, gentle took on its current connotations of tender and caring behavior. A gentleman, presumably, who has the leisure to improve his mind and (as we noted in the opening of this chapter) sip coffee and contemplate the world, rather than have to struggle for existence, might be expected to act with generosity and kindness. Readers of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature may gauge how rarely this vision of gentle behavior was realized by the frequency with which the fiction of the age excoriates its opposite. At the same time, the gracious behavior and easy conversation which was thought to characterize true gentility set a standard of civility toward which much of the literature of the eighteenth century aspires.


(1) Readers of literature written before the seventeenth century will know that the liver was thought to be the seat of passion. In Shakespeare's play The Tempest, for example, Fedinand swears to the father of his wife-to-be, Miranda, that he will not violate her chasity: "The white cold virgin snow upon her heart / Abates the ardor of my liver" (IV.1.55-56). Miranda's father, we might note here, is Prospero, a great magician who breaks his magic wand at the end of the play. In the contrast between the view of magic in The Tempest (1611) and in Goethe's Faust (1808; 1833), readers may measure the impact of modern scientific thinking on European culture.

(2) Montaigne's first spoken language was Latin.

(3) Of Voltaire, among others.

(4) In medieval times, this ancestry was pictorially represented by armorial bearings, family insignia that decorated a knight's shield, whch was divided into quarters. Thus the more "quarterings" one had, the higher one's rank; in Candide, Voltaire makes fun of the pretensions to nobility of the Baron of Thunder-ten-tronck and his son by their compulsive counting of quarterings.