Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750

By Jonathan I. Israel | Go to book overview

2

GOVERNMENT AND
PHILOSOPHY

i. The Advent of Cartesianism

By 1648 Europe's rulers had been engulfed for over a century in inter-confessional conflict. Most of this incessant strife had been ideological and political rather than physical but, in France and the Low Countries, between the 1560s and the 1590s, and in Germany and Bohemia during the Thirty Years' War (1618–48), there had also been unprecedented slaughter, savagery, and destruction. Rarely had this war of confessions been a straightforward conflict between Catholics and Protestants. More often, the religious battle was triangular or even quadrilateral, as in Lutheran Germany where the new State Church simultaneously fought Catholicism, Calvinism, and radical Protestant fringe movements, such as Anabaptism, Spiritualism, and Socinianism. Between the mid-sixteenth and mid-seventeenth century, confessionalization and the resulting war of the Churches constituted Europe's prime engine of cultural and educational change. So powerful indeed was the ideological, intellectual, and general cultural impulse of confessionalization that monarchs, patricians, and republics had little choice but to take sides, selecting one main bloc or another, and imposing their own local confessional agenda. Education, social welfare, the arts, scholarship, no sphere of activity remained free from the unrelenting demands of confessional and theological rivalry.

Some rulers, plainly, were more zealous for confessional uniformity, and given to campaigns to stamp out dissent, than others. Some permitted an informal toleration of selected dissenters for one reason or another, often because they valued their economic contribution or lacked the means to eliminate them militarily. A few states, such as the Dutch Republic, Brandenburg-Prussia, and, until the mid-seventeenth century, also Poland, embraced a broader, more formal toleration of confessions. There were also cases, such as Brandenburg-Prussia after 1613, where the prince chose a different confessional allegiance to that prevailing among his subjects. Yet everywhere organized Churches of one theological complexion or other were deemed indispensable pillars of the social order, arbiters of belief, morality, education, and censorship, and the ultimate guardians of authority, by élites and populace alike. So great indeed was the cultural ascendancy of the dominant or State Churches in their

-23-

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