Reason, Natural Law, Progress – these are the words by the eighteenth century.
It was the Age of Enlightenment, when it was widely assumed that human reason could cure past ills and help achieve utopian government, perpetual peace, and a perfect society. Reason would enable humanity to discover the natural laws regulating existence and thereby assure progress.
The intellectuals who professed this creed were known by the French name of philosophes. They included critics, publicists, economists, political scientists, and social reformers. The most famous philosophe, Voltaire, in his most famous tale, Candide, ridiculed optimists who thought that all was for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Many intellectuals followed Voltaire in stressing the unreasonable aspects of human behavior and the unnatural character of human institutions. On the whole the Enlightenment was based on the belief that people could correct the errors of their ways, once those errors had been pointed out to them.
The philosophes derived their basic principles from the writers of the preceding “century of genius.” Their faith in natural law came from Isaac Newton, and their confidence in the powers of human reason in part from Rene Descartes. But it was John Locke (1632-1704) to whom the rationalists particularly turned. In the Second Treatise of Government (1690), Locke contended that people are “by nature all free, equal, and independent,” and that they submit to government because they find it convenient to do so, not because they acknowledge any divine right on the part of the monarchy.
The new psychology that Locke advanced in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) also strengthened his argument against absolute monarchy. Defenders of political and religious absolutism had contended that the inclination to submit to authority was present in the human mind from birth; Locke’s Essay denied the existence of such innate ideas.
He called the newborn mind a tabula rasa, a “blank slate” upon which experience would write. The two “fountains of knowledge” were environment, rather than heredity, and reason, rather than faith. Locke’s empiricism (that is, reliance on experience) places him among the rationalists. He believed that human reason, though unable to account for everything in the universe, could explain all that one needs to know.
Locke also pointed the way to a critical examination of the Old Regime. The philosophes submitted existing social and economic institutions to the judgment of common sense and discovered many to be unreasonable and unnecessarily complex. Locke’s psychology suggested to them that teachers might improve human institutions by improving the thinking of the rising generation. The philosophes sought, in effect, the right kind of chalk to use on the blank slates of young minds.
The Enlightenment seized on Newton’s discoveries as revelations of ultimate truth. Newton had disclosed the natural force—gravitation—that held the universe together; in so doing, he made the universe make sense. The philosophes believed that comparable laws could be found governing and explaining all human activity. They saw themselves as the Newtons of statecraft, justice, and economics, who would reduce the most intricate institutions to formulas of almost mathematical exactness.
The world, they argued, resembled a giant machine whose functioning had hitherto been impeded because the machinery was not properly understood; once the basic laws that governed it were grasped, the world- machine would operate as it should.
The optimistic implications of the belief were expressed most completely in The Progress of the Human Mind (1794) by the marquis de Condorcet (1743-1794), written when he was in hiding from political persecution during the French revolutionary Reign of Terror. “Nature has placed no bounds on the perfecting of the human faculties,” Condorcet concluded, “and the progress of this perfectibility is limited only by the duration of the globe on which nature has placed us.”
He foresaw a society that would enjoy a much higher standard of living, more leisure, and more equality among people in general and between the sexes in particular. War would be given up as irrational, and disease would be so effectively conquered by medicine that the average life span would be greatly lengthened.
A shortcut to utopia was proposed by the advocates of enlightened despotism, who believed that rulers should act as benevolent reformers. Like a new Solon, the enlightened despot should clear away the accumulation of artificial law that was choking progress and permit natural laws decreed by God to be applied freely.
Many monarchs, among them Frederick the Great of Prussia, Catherine II of Russia, and Joseph II of Austria, adopted the notion of enlightened despotism because it gave them the opportunity to act as the champions of reason and progress while making royal authority more absolute.