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In this lesson, we’ll be looking at the English Enlightenment which was central to the formation of our modern society.

Check out the main thinkers, their ideas and test your knowledge with a quiz.

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The Non-American Revolution

Most of us remember that after the American Revolutionary War, the leaders of the new United States wrote the Constitution, but they then had to get the 13 states to agree to it. Some of the states didn’t want to concede unless they could add some specific rights for individuals. Therefore, in 1791, ten new rights were added to the Constitution. We know these as the Bill of Rights.

These include the freedoms of religion, speech, press, the separation of church and state, the right of people to gather together peacefully and the system of participatory democracy.

American Bill of Rights

However, the ideas were not uniquely ‘American;’ they were the essence of the movement known as the Enlightenment, which came to the Founding Fathers from the British Enlightenment thinkers in the 1800s.

The Enlightenment

The driving force behind the Enlightenment was a comparatively small group of writers and thinkers from across Europe and North America who became known as the ‘philosophes,‘ which is French for ‘philosophers.’A concise definition of the Enlightenment is difficult to make, but broadly speaking, it was a philosophical, intellectual and cultural movement during the 17th and 18th Centuries, which stressed reason, logic and freedom of thought over dogma and blind faith.

They also rejected the notion of absolute authority of the church and state.

Sir Isaac Newton was one of the most well-known leaders of the British Enlightenment

In its early phase, known as the Scientific Revolution, new ‘scientists’ believed that rational, empirical observation and the examination of human life could unveil the truth behind society and the self, as well as the universe. In the later phase, known as the Enlightenment, the philosophes expanded on this worldview to argue that there could be academic disciplines known as ‘social sciences’, which would focus on all activities of humans, so that human life and society, in general, could be changed for the better.One problem in defining the Enlightenment is that there was a great deal of deviation in the leading thinkers’ views and in the specific issues that various Enlightenment philosophes investigated. For example, some explored humanity’s development from a primitive state, while others looked at the economic and political structures within society.However, there were two common themes in the Enlightenment Era.

First, there was a general turning away from the dominance of organized religion – especially the Catholic Church – with less emphasis on literal interpretations of the Bible. Second, there was the emergence of a secular public culture that challenged the absolute authority of the traditional church and state leaders.

The British Enlightenment

There is no general consensus on the definitive starting or ending point for the British Enlightenment, but many historians have argued that the 17th-Century struggles for political power in England had a profound impact on the philosophers of the British Enlightenment. In 1649, there was a power struggle known as the English Civil War, which resulted in the execution of King Charles I, and the establishment of a commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell.

This first experiment with a republic lasted only ten years, and then the monarchy was restored under King Charles II.

The Glorious Revolution

However, when Charles II ascended the throne, Parliament placed limits on the absolute power of the re-established monarchy. Unfortunately, the Stuart monarchy did not abide by these restrictions, so in a nonviolent coup d’;tat, known as the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the English people once again overthrew the Stuart monarchy and essentially chose their next rulers. When Mary, a direct descendant to the Stuart throne, and her husband, William of Orange, took the throne, they agreed to the limitations imposed by the Parliament on their powers. This effectively ended the idea of ‘divine right to rule’ (the concept that rulers derive their right to rule directly from God and are accountable only to God) in England forever. The English Bill of Rights was drawn up, increasing parliamentary power and insuring personal liberties.

Thomas Hobbes

Many scholars maintain that the first major figure in the British Enlightenment was the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679).

Hobbes is best known for the Leviathan (1651), a lengthy work that explores the nature of man and justifies absolutist rule.

Front page of The Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes

Hobbes argued that human nature was inherently bad and that humans would remain in a constant state of war, vying for power and material resources, unless kept in check by an absolute ruler. He was of the opinion that human life is, by nature, ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’ and was pessimistic about the prospects for progress. Hobbes represented the pessimistic side of the Enlightenment and saw progress as the result of the suppression of man’s instincts rather than the freedom granted to those instincts as the more optimistic British Enlightenment thinkers claimed.In terms of the theory of government, Hobbes contended that whenever people assume high political office, they will be inclined to abuse their position.

Therefore, Hobbes believed a single absolute ruler is better than an oligarchy (a small group of people having control over a country) or democracy because an absolute sovereign’s main duty is to provide stability for the society and if he fails at that task, people will replace the ruler with another.

John Locke

Diametrically opposed to the pessimistic Hobbes was John Locke (1632-1704). In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), Locke presents his idea that man’s mind is a tabula rasa (blank slate) and that all humans can improve through conscious effort.

In Locke’s best-known work, Two Treatises of Government (1690) – he builds on his optimistic belief that every man is inherently good.

John Locke

Locke believed in the necessity of government, and he says that people must compromise on some issues for the betterment of the whole. This becomes the foundation for our idea of a representative government and what would eventually be the structure known as the separation of powers – the system that the founding fathers of the United States used when writing the U.S. Constitution.

Locke’s political work is still considered the foundation for modern political thought, and as you can imagine, Locke’s more optimistic work was, in the long run, more influential than Hobbes’s.

Influence of the British Enlightenment

‘Thus in the beginning all the World was America,’ wrote John Locke. Like many Enlightenment thinkers, Locke had never been to the New World; however, he, like many other philosophes, believed America was a vast Enlightenment laboratory.Many of us might be surprised to learn that the Enlightenment was deeply influenced by the European colonization of the Americas.

The discovery of the ‘New World’ provoked numerous questions about nature, society and politics. For instance, did Native Americans represent the fundamental state of nature from which all human societies developed? Could a perfect new government or society – uncorrupted by European decadence – be created in the New World? These sorts of questions were integral to the thinking of the Enlightenment Era.On the other hand, the Enlightenment was important in the British American colonies because it provided the philosophical justification for the American Revolution for leaders such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. John Locke’s theories had an important influence on American revolutionary political thought, particularly on the ideas of Jefferson. For example, Locke refuted the principle of absolute monarchy and argued that the powers of the state are derived directly from the people.

American Founding Fathers

Ultimately, the American Revolution also provided a blueprint for the organization of a democratic society, whose documents, such as the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights, embody all of the principle ideas of the Enlightenment.

Lesson Summary

Whether we realize it or not, in the United States, we are still living in the aftermath of the British Enlightenment.

The legacy of the Enlightenment is the emphasis on free and open inquiry, the toleration of difference, the importance of a secular society and the celebration of universal human rights. Several of the voices of the Enlightenment – Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Isaac Newton, for example – not only influenced the architects of the United States, like Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, but they can still be heard and felt in modern politics today.

The English Enlightenment Overview

theenlightenment
Topics Explanations
Constitution contract between the government and citizens of the states initially written in 1776
Bill of Rights first ten amendments of the Constitution added in 1791
The Enlightenment a philosophical, intellectual and cultural movement during the 17th and 18th Centuries, which stressed reason, logic and freedom of thought over dogma and blind faith
Social sciences focus on all activities of humans, so that human life and society, in general, could be changed for the better
British Enlightenment political turmoil of the 17th Century led to the rise of voices of Hobbes, Locke and Newton
King Charles I British ruler executed by Cromwell
Oliver Cromwell established a commonwealth
King Charles II British parliament restored the monarchy
Stuart monarchy did not abide by the restrictions placed on the monarchy
Glorious Revolution of 1688 English people overthrew the Stuart monarchy and chose their next rulers
Mary/William of Orange she was a direct descendant to the Stuart throne and with her husband agreed to the limitations imposed by the Parliament on their powers
English Bill of Rights increased parliamentary power and insured personal liberties
Thomas Hobbes best known for the Leviathan a lengthy work that explores the nature of man and justifies absolutist rule
John Locke his Essay Concerning Human Understanding presents his idea that man’s mind is a tabula rasa (blank slate) and that all humans can improve through conscious effort
Separation of powers system that the founding fathers of the United States used when writing the U.S. Constitution
Benjamin Franklin/Thomas Jefferson John Locke’s theories had an important influence on American revolutionary political thought

Learning Outcomes

When this lesson ends, you should be ready to:

  • Describe the English Enlightenment
  • Recognize the political impact in Britain and its effect on the Enlightenment
  • Identify the influence the British philosophers had on the colonist leadership in America
  • Explain the philosophies of some of the main players of the Enlightenment
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