Chapter 17 European Revolutions of Society and State, 1714-1815

Section 2 The Age of Enlightenment

While European nations remained embroiled in alliances and warfare throughout much of the 18th century, a revolution in intellectual activity began to change the way many Europeans thought about themselves and their societies.  In his 1759[lxiii] tale Candide, for example, the French writer Voltaire[lxiv] criticized what he saw as a pointless conflict between Great Britain and France over territory in North America: “These two nations are at war over a few acres of snow out around Canada, and . . .  they are spending on that fine war much more than all of Canada is worth.”[lxv]  As more and more people became aware of the discoveries of the Scientific Revolution, they also became more interested in understanding the nature of the physical world around them – rather than concentrating on how to achieve salvation in the next world. The popularization of the new science, and especially the discovery of seemingly natural, mechanistic laws that governed the physical universe, also caused many literate Europeans to question the traditional foundations of politics and society – foundations rooted in the old medieval religious conceptions of the world. This change of ideas and attitudes became known as the Enlightenment.[lxvi]

Popularizing Enlightenment Ideas

As the Scientific Revolution progressed in the 1600s,[lxvii] European scholars began to accumulate a vast body of knowledge about nature through the use of systematic, scientific methods. In the 1700s[lxviii] the ideas and methods of the Scientific Revolution found a wider audience. Many educated people embarked on the study of the natural world around them and began to believe that for every natural phenomenon there was both a cause and an effect.

            The great thinkers of the Enlightenment were called philosophes, the French word for “philosophers.” The philosophes popularized the new science and the application of scientific methods to the study of the human condition. They believed that truth could be arrived at solely by the application of reason, or logical thought, to observation—a belief known as rationalism.

A new view of the world. The philosophes based their ideas on several major assumptions. The first, rooted in the discoveries of scientific investigators like Newton, was that nature was regulated according to a uniform system of natural law. A second assumption was that human behavior could also be understood through the use of natural law.[lxix] The last major assumption was that people should use this knowledge to work toward perfecting both themselves and society. Consequently, the Enlightenment fostered a growing sense of individualism, the importance of personal freedom, and the basic equality of all individuals.

Progress. The idea of progress was one of the most significant outcomes of enlightened thought. Because scientists had discovered new truths, the philosophes came to believe that human life could constantly improve. Progress in individuals could be measured by their discovery and application of natural law, which would make them more aware of their role in the universe. The philosophes hoped to achieve progress not only in individuals but also in society.

            One target of the philosophes was the church. Some saw the church as an obstacle to progress since it taught people to focus attention on the afterlife instead of improving conditions on earth. For example, the French writer Voltaire was vehement in his criticism of the church. He complained that the church taught people to believe in miracles, which contradicted the laws of nature. In addition, he denounced the church's teaching that humankind was innately evil, when he believed it was actually good.[lxx]  His famous cry of “crush the infamous thing!” expressed his frustration with the power of the church to suppress rationalism.

            In keeping with their emphasis on reason and natural law, many of the philosophes advocated a new attitude toward religion, known as deism. These deists saw God as the creator of a rational, orderly universe governed by natural law. Once he had created the universe, they believed, he no longer interfered in its functioning. Consequently, human beings had a moral responsibility to apply the laws of nature to improve the human condition themselves.

Spreading the Enlightenment. Because the philosophes believed that knowledge was the key to human progress, they made a great effort to share their knowledge with the educated public. Denis Diderot[lxxi] edited the Encyclopédie, a multi-volume collaborative work of more than 200 experts,[lxxii] which was intended to encompass the sum of human knowledge. Other philosophes published their ideas in newspapers and journals or spread their ideas through scientific or cultural clubs.

            One important place for the exchange of ideas was the salon, a gathering of the social, political, and cultural elites. Upper-class women, who held the salons in their homes, played a crucial role in the Enlightenment by bringing about the meetings of great minds. The salons provided intelligent women with the opportunity to contribute to the intellectual debates of the day. Amid lavish entertainment and intelligent conversation, the philosophes, both men and women, could meet and exchange ideas. 

“"Abbé Delille reciting his poem, La Conversation in the salon of Madame Geoffrin" from Jacques Delille, "La Conversation" (Paris, 1812) Courtesy of Harvard University (Goodman, 1).” Taken from

Social Criticism

The philosophes used their rational arguments concerning the nature of humanity to question many established patterns of European society. The new conception of human nature put forth by John Locke[lxxiii] in the 1600s[lxxiv] helped shape the philosophes' attitude toward society. Locke wrote that human beings were born without innate ideas or principles—in other words, the human mind was a tabula rasa, or clean slate.[lxxv] According to Locke, human beings were shaped by their environment, education, and society. The philosophes of the 1700s[lxxvi] agreed with Locke, and they emphasized the importance of education and environment in giving people the tools needed to improve society. 

Judicial reform. Many of the philosophes believed that European judicial systems were unjust and irrational. Torture was still used as a means of punishment, as it had been since the Middle Ages. In the Middle Ages, people believed that accused criminals would tell the truth when confronted with death, so that they could achieve salvation. Philosophes, however, reasoned that accused criminals would confess simply to remove the physical pain of torture, regardless of their guilt or innocence. .

            An Italian economist and jurist, Cesare Beccaria,[lxxvii] was profoundly moved by the injustice of judicial torture. He denounced torture as being useless and evil, "the sure way to acquit robust criminals and convict infirm innocents."[lxxviii] In his book On Crime and Punishment, published in 1764,[lxxix] Beccaria explained that punishment should be a deterrent to crime, not an act of vengeance, and the severity of the punishment should fit the severity of the crime. In addition, Beccaria believed that accused criminals should not be punished until proven guilty.

Education. The philosophes believed that education was an essential tool for people to improve their lives and society as a whole. Under the influence of the Enlightenment, many monarchs came to believe that educating their subjects strengthened the state.

            The Austrian empress Maria Theresa made primary education available for all children in her realm in 1774.[lxxx]  In Germany too, basic education was made more widely available, along with professional and vocational training for civil servants, laborers, and artisans.[lxxxi]  In countries with absolute monarchies, however, education was strictly controlled. Free thought was not encouraged; rather, students were trained to believe in the absolutist state and to become better subjects. Moreover, education was not required and literacy rates remained low.

Political and Economic Criticism

Philosophes of the 1700s[lxxxii] believed that in order to achieve a rational society that functioned according to natural law, political and economic institutions must themselves become more rational. They believed, as Locke had in the 1600s, that people had certain natural rights that they must never surrender. The philosophes believed that a ruler who violated those rights had broken the social contract, and the people had the right to find another ruler.

Montesquieu. Not all philosophes reached the same conclusions from their belief in natural law. The Baron de Montesquieu,[lxxxiii] believed that government should be suited to the needs and circumstances of a people. In 1748[lxxxiv] he published The Spirit of Laws, in which he defined his idea of perfect government: 

Laws should be adapted to the people for whom they are framed, in relation to the nature and principle of each government, to the climate of each country, to the quality of its soil, to the principle occupation of the natives, to the degree of liberty which the constitution will bear, to the religion of the inhabitants, to their inclinations, riches, numbers, commerce, manners, and customs.[lxxxv] 

            After examining the great variety of governments, Montesquieu concluded that the best form of government for Europeans included a separation of powers—in other words, the government should be divided so that no single branch had enough power to dominate the others. Such a balance, Montesqieu believed, would prevent the development of tyranny. 

Rousseau. Jean-Jacques Rousseau[lxxxvi] differed from other philosophes in that he believed that cultivating intellect at the expense of emotion corrupted people. Rousseau wrote that "everything is good, as it comes from the hands of God; everything degenerates [breaks down] in the hands of man."[lxxxvii]  Rousseau believed that people began their lives innocent and noble, but that the act of creating society ruined people’s natural goodness. Rousseau also believed that people must reform society so that conscience and emotion (instead of intellect) guided all actions.[lxxxviii]

            In The Social Contract, Rousseau wrote that a perfect society would be composed of free citizens who formed a government by meeting face-to-face. Individuals would determine what the common good was, and the will of the people would become law. This idea of popular sovereignty, a government created by and subject to the will of the people, would later have enormous influence in the American Revolution. 

Adam Smith.[lxxxix] In addition to addressing the problems of society and politics, the philosophes also turned their attention to the economy. They believed that the economy, like everything else in the universe, functioned according to natural law and that any attempt to interfere with these natural economic laws would bring certain disaster. In 1776[xc] Adam Smith, a Scottish economist, best stated these ideas in The Wealth of Nations.

            Smith reasoned that two natural laws regulated all business and economic activity—the law of supply and demand and the law of competition. In any business, prices would be determined by the relationship of the supply of a product to the demand for it. If an item were scarce and in great demand, people would pay a high price for it. Thus profits from its sales would rise, and more manufacturers would want to produce the scarce item. Soon the supply of the item would exceed the demand for it. Prices would be driven down as manufacturers competed for people to buy their products. 

            Smith believed in what became known as free enterprise, in which every person should be free to go into any business and to operate it for maximum profit. The result would benefit everyone—laborers would have jobs, investors and owners would make profits, and buyers would receive better goods at lower prices. 

            Many of Smith's ideas were a direct contradiction of the old economic theory of mercantilism. Mercantilists believed that all nations competed for a limited amount of wealth, which made restrictions and regulations necessary to keep other nations from gaining an unfair amount of the world's wealth. Smith believed that the world economy was self-regulating and should be allowed to function without regulation or other outside interference. This belief was known as laissez-faire,[xci] meaning "let do" or leave things alone.

Women and the Enlightenment

Although most of the philosophes were men, women too participated in the Enlightenment. In England, for example, Mary Wollstonecraft,[xcii] an author and early advocate of women's rights, believed that Enlightenment ideals should be extended to women as well as men.

            BIO Born in 1759,[xciii] Wollstonecraft became interested in intellectual pursuits at an early age. While a schoolteacher, she was appalled by the frivolity that was encouraged in young women of the elite. She realized that women needed a sounder education to make them more serious, charitable, and moral. Unlike most women of her time, Wollstonecraft sought personal liberty and economic independence.[xciv] She educated herself, and once she began earning money from outside employment, she became the sole support of her family.[xcv]

            She first caused controversy with the 1792[xcvi] publication of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. In it she expressed her belief that women and men were created equal—only a poor education prevented women from doing important work: 

If they [women] be really capable of acting like rational creatures, let them not be treated like slaves; but cultivate their minds and let them attain conscious dignity by feeling themselves only dependent on God.[xcvii] 

Although Wollstonecraft’s book was warmly regarded by some philosophes in France, in Britain the conservative reaction was harsh. Horace Walpole,[xcviii] an aristocratic author, wrote that Wollstonecraft was “a hyena in petticoats,” and Hannah More,[xcix] an English religious writer, believed that the title alone was so ridiculous that she would not read the book.[c]

            In later writings, Wollstonecraft sharply criticized the conditions in which women—particularly poor women—had to live. While traveling through Scandinavia in the 1790s she observed "the men stand up for the dignity of man, by oppressing the women."[ci]  By this time, however, many people turned away from her ideas, in part because of her lifestyle. Defying convention, she chose to live with, but not marry, the father of her first daughter. When he left her, she despaired so much that she attempted suicide. After recovering from her despair, in 1797 she married the writer William Godwin.[cii] She died days after giving birth to their daughter.

            Unlike Mary Wollstonecraft, some writers saw the success of women in the salons and believed that women were truly gaining in power and influence, particularly in France. In 1795 the French general Napoleon Bonaparte[ciii] remarked, "Only here [in France], of all places on earth, do women deserve to wield such influence."[civ]  The Scottish philosopher David Hume[cv] observed that in France "the females enter into all transactions and all management of church and state: and no man can expect success, who takes not care to obtain their good graces."[cvi]

            However, most thinkers still believed that women should keep their traditional roles of wife and mother. For example, Rousseau complained that an educated woman "scorns every womanly duty, and she is always trying to make a man of herself."[cvii]  In the Encyclopédie, there was no mention of the salons at all, and articles about women concentrated on the common misconceptions about women's physical weakness and emotional sensitivity.[cviii]

Enlightened Despotism

The ultimate result that the philosophes sought was the restructuring of European monarchies along Enlightenment principles in order to bring society, politics, and the economy in line with natural law. Advocating reform, not revolution, the philosophes generally supported a strong monarchy. Many philosophes appealed directly to monarchs for change. What they wanted was enlightened despotism—a system of government in which absolute monarchs ruled according to the principles of the Enlightenment.

            Many monarchs did accept some Enlightenment principles—at least those that served their own purposes. Catherine the Great, for example, read the works of Montesquieu and Beccaria, corresponded with Voltaire, and persuaded Diderot to visit her court. In 1767[cix] she established a legislative commission to codify Russia's laws. Representatives from all classes but the serfs were allowed to voice their opinions. This was the first time Russian subjects participated in central government; and it would be the last time until the 1900s.[cx]

            Catherine instructed the commissioners that "the Sovereign is absolute," but that the government should set “less Bounds than others to natural Liberty,” and coincide “with the Views and Purposes of rational Creatures."[cxi]  Catherine soon became preoccupied with other things, however, such as war with the Turks, the Partition of Poland, and a fierce peasant revolt, Pugachev’s Rebellion, which shifted her attention away from enlightened reform.[cxii] The rebellion in particular convinced Catherine of the need to strengthen her authority. She imprisoned or exiled Russian Enlightenment thinkers, ordered Russian students studying abroad to return to Russia, and banned all French newspapers, which she believed spread revolutionary ideas. Her reign, which began with the flowering of Enlightenment culture, ended in repression and fear.[cxiii]

            Frederick II of Prussia was a somewhat more enlightened despot than Catherine. Under the influence of Voltaire, Frederick undertook numerous reforms. His reforms, however enlightened, were intended to strengthen the state, for he believed that a strong state would benefit all of his subjects. In 1774, while codifying Prussia's laws, Frederick abolished torture as a punishment and declared religious toleration.[cxiv]  He wrote in 1777 that "the sovereign is attached by indissoluble [unbreakable] ties to the body of the state; hence . . . he . . . is sensible of all the ills which afflict his subjects."[cxv] Nevertheless, Frederick believed strongly in the established system of class and privilege. [cxvi]

            Perhaps the most enlightened monarch was Joseph II[cxvii] of Austria. He believed that the state was obligated to provide a moral example for its subjects. He abolished serfdom and assumed responsibility for caring for the poor and the sick.[cxviii]  Joseph also proclaimed religious toleration for all Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the Austrian Empire, which meant that people of all faiths could worship freely, hold property, be educated, and have access to all professions.[cxix]  In 1787 he wrote: 

[Religious] fanaticism shall in future be known in my states only by the contempt I have for it; nobody shall any longer be exposed to hardships on account of his creed; no man shall be compelled in future to profess the religion of the state if it be contrary to his persuasion.[cxx] 

Like all other enlightened despots, however, Joseph II's enlightened rule had its limits. Revolts in his domains caused him to withdraw many of the reforms he had instituted. In addition, Austria's poorly paid bureaucrats were not eager to enforce the remaining reforms. Joseph lamented, "Almost no one is animated by zeal for the good of the fatherland; there is no one to carry out my ideas."[cxxi]

Section 2 Review

IDENTIFY and explain the significance of the following:




natural law



Mary Wollstonecraft

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

popular sovereignty

Adam Smith

free enterprise


enlightened despotism 

1.   Main Idea   What was the Enlightenment?

2.   Main Idea   How did the philosophes apply their conceptions of human nature and natural law to criticize European political systems?

3.   Politics  What impact did Enlightenment ideas have on absolute monarchs?

4.   Synthesizing  How did the Enlightenment affect European attitudes toward society and politics?  In answering this question, consider the following: (a) how philosophes criticized European society and its institutions; (b) how philosophes wanted to reform the political and the economic structure; and (c) to what extent European monarchs instituted reforms based on Enlightenment ideas.