The Quest for a Principle of Authority in Europe, 1715-Present: Select Problems in Historical Interpretation

The Quest for a Principle of Authority in Europe, 1715-Present: Select Problems in Historical Interpretation

The Quest for a Principle of Authority in Europe, 1715-Present: Select Problems in Historical Interpretation

The Quest for a Principle of Authority in Europe, 1715-Present: Select Problems in Historical Interpretation

Excerpt

The seventeenth century was rich in the production of new knowledge and novel ideas. That "Age of Genius," while not renouncing its heritage from Renaissance and Reformation, broke loose from the tyranny of formal theology and the classics to make startling developments in many fields. In particular outstanding advances came in mathematics, natural science, philosophy, and political theory; and to a very large extent these developments determined the direction of Western thought for the next two hundred years.

The great thinkers of the eighteenth century adapted and publicized the ideas of their predecessors. Treatises written for scholars in neo-classical Latin they translated into the European vernaculars and popularized for the reading public. Ideas born of seventeenth-century intellectual and political strife they extended and applied to the conditions of their own time. Supremely confident of the correctness of their knowledge, the eighteenth-century philosophes, as they called themselves, looked upon their age as the one which had, for the first time, discerned the pure light of truth after centuries of black ignorance. Hence, they termed the ideological development of their time "The Enlightenment," a label which symbolized their accomplishment.

The Enlightenment was a general European phenomenon. The leading contributions to its body of ideas were made by the thinkers of England and France, but significant contributions were also made by men from the other western European nations. Germany was as proud of her Aufklaerung as France of her Éclaircissement. The Enlightenment was thus cosmopolitan in character and universal in range of thought. But in its universality, it possessed a unity and direction derived from a single underlying principle--the principle expressed in Alexander Pope's famous line, "The proper study of mankind is man." The eighteenth- century philosophe was not a theologian nor yet a natural scientist, though God and nature bulked large in his thinking. He was, to use the term anachronistically, a social scientist. Whatever line of inquiry he pursued, his chief concern was to relate his knowledge to the life of mankind. And there was no phase of man's life which failed to interest him. "Enlightened" thought was thus primarily directed to studies of society, law, government, and economics. In these fields the philosophe was certain that he found the most significant truths discoverable to mankind.

His confidence in his "enlightenment"--the incontestable truth of his knowledge--tended to make the philosophe a reformer and a doctrinaire. Since life as he saw it about him did not conform to his ideas, he felt impelled to formulate doctrines for the regeneration of society. These doctrines took many forms; often they conflicted. For upon the basis of the same ideas could be erected antithetical doctrines. It was possible, for example, for philosophes to differ widely upon the ideal form of government. Yet all shared a common fund of ideas which, they were sure, pointed the way to needful changes in the organization of human society.

Now, this common fund of ideas, as applied to man as a social and political animal, provided the basic material of what is known as liberalism. This body of thought--liberalism as developed in the Enlightenment--became a historic force of outstanding importance. Possessed of a powerful appeal and carrying a conviction of certainty, it exercised a strong influence upon the course of events not only in Europe but wherever European civilization penetrated.

The purpose of this Problem is to examine some of the basic elements in eighteenth-century liberalism. Part I includes selections from some of the seventeenth- century writings upon which was based the liberalism of the Enlightenment.

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