European History/Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment

The Age of Science of the 1600s and the Enlightenment of the 1700s, also dubbed the Age of Enlightenment, introduced countless new concepts to European society. These ideas continue to permeate modern society. Many modern institutions have much of their foundations in the ideals of these times.

An Era of Enlightened Rulers edit

A new form of government began to replace absolutism across the continent. Whilst monarchs were reluctant to give up their powers, many also recognized that their states could potentially benefit from the spread of Enlightenment ideas. The most prominent of these rulers were Frederick II the Great Hohenzollern of Prussia, Joseph II Hapsburg of Austria, and Catherine II the Great Romanov of Russia.

In order to understand the actions of the European monarchs of this period, it is important to understand their key beliefs. Enlightened despots rejected the concept of absolutism and the divine right to rule. They justified their position based on their usefulness to the state. These rulers based their decisions upon their reason, and they stressed religious toleration and the importance of education. They enacted codified, uniform laws, repressed local authority, nobles, and the church, and often acted impulsively and instilled change at an incredibly fast rate.

Catherine the Great 1762-1796 edit

Catherine the Great came to power because Peter III failed to bear a male heir to the throne and was killed.

Her enlightened reforms include:

  • Restrictions on torture
  • Religious toleration
  • Education for girls
  • 1767 Legislative Commission, which reported to her on the state of the Russian people
  • Trained and educated her grandson Alexander I so that he could progress in society because of his merit rather than his blood line

She was friends with Diderot, Rousseau, Voltaire. However, Catherine also took a number of decidedly unenlightened actions. In 1773 she violently suppressed Pugachev's Rebellion, a massive peasant rebellion against the degradation of the serfs. She conceded more power to the nobles and eliminated state service. Also, serfdom became equivalent to slavery under her.

Foreign Policy edit

Catherine combated the Ottoman Empire. In 1774, Russia gained a warm water port on the Black Sea.

Frederick II the Great 1740-1786 edit

Frederick II Hohenzollern of Prussia declared himself "The First Servant of the State," believing that it was his duty to serve the state and do well for his nation. He extended education to all classes, and established a professional bureaucracy and civil servants. He created a uniform judicial system and abolished torture. During his tenure, Prussia innovated agriculture by using potatoes and turnips to replenish the soil. Also, Frederick established religious freedom in Prussia.

Joseph II Habsburg 1765-1790 edit

Joseph II Habsburg (also spelled as Hapsburg) of Austria could be considered perhaps the greatest enlightened ruler, and he was purely enlightened, working solely for the good of his country. He was anti-feudalism, anti-church, and anti-nobility. He famously stated, "The state should provide the greatest good for the greatest number." He created equal punishment and taxation regardless of class, complete freedom of the press, toleration of all religions, and civil rights for Jews. Under Joseph II a uniform law code was established, and in 1781 he abolished serfdom and in 1789 ordered the General School Ordinance, which required compulsory education for Austrian children. However, Joseph failed because he angered people by making changes far too swiftly, and even the serfs weren't satisfied with their abrupt freedom.

England edit

As a result of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, England already had a Parliament and thus the concept of enlightened ruler did not take hold in England.

France edit

After Louis XIV the "Sun King," Louis XV took control from 1715 until 1774. Like his predecessor, he was an absolute monarch who enacted mercantilism. As a result of the influence and control of absolutism in France, France also did not encounter an enlightened ruler. In order to consummate an alliance between his nation and Austria, Maria Theresa of Austria married her daughter, Marie Antoinette, to Louis XV's heir, Louis XVI. Louis XV recognized that the fragile institutions of absolutism were crumbling in France, and he famously stated, "Après moi, le déluge", or "After me, the flood."

A War-Torn Europe edit

War of Austrian Succession edit

The war of Austrian Succession of 1740 to 1748 pitted Austria, England, and the Dutch against Prussia, France, and Spain. Upon Maria Theresa's acquisition of the Austrian throne, Frederick the Great of Prussia attacked Silesia, and war broke out. In 1748 peace came at the Treaty of Aix la Chapelle. The treaty preserved the balance of power and the status quo ante bellum. Austria survived but lost Silesia, which began "German Dualism" or the fight between Prussia and Austria over who would dominate and eventually unite Germany.

The Seven Years War edit

The peace in 1748 was recognized as temporary by all, and in 1756 Austria and France allied in what was known as the Diplomatic Revolution. The reversal of the traditional France versus Austria situation occurred as a result of both nation's fear of a rising, militant Prussia. To consummate the marriage, Louis XVI married Marie Antionette. The Seven Years War engaged Austria, France, Russia, Spain, Sweden, and Saxony against Prussia and England. The purpose of the war was to annihilate Prussia, and took place at a number of fronts: in Europe, in America (where American citizens know it as the French and Indian War) and in India. At the Peace of Paris in 1763, the war concluded, and Prussia retained all of its territory, including Silesia. France ceded Canada to Britain and the North American interior to Spain, and removed its armies from India. It did, however, get to keep its West Indies colonies.

At this point, Great Britain became the supreme naval power and it began its domination of India.

The Partitioning of Poland edit

Poland was first partitioned on February 19, 1772, between Russia, Austria, and Prussia, in an agreement between them to gain more land and power in Europe. Poland was able to be partitioned because it was weak and had no ability to stop the larger and more powerful nations. The balance of power was not taken into consideration by France or England because the partitioning did not upset the great powers of Europe. The second partition involved Russia and Prussia taking additional land from Poland. After the second partition, which occurred on January 21, 1792, the majority of their remaining land was lost to Prussia and Russia. The third partition of Poland took place in October of 1795, giving Russia, Prussia, and Austria the remainder of the Polish land. Russia ended up with 120,000 square kilometres, Austria 47,000 square kilometres, and Prussia 55,000 square kilometres. This took Poland off of the map.

Science and Technology edit

The Enlightenment was notable for its scientific revolution, which changed the manner in which the people of Europe approached both science and technology. This was the direct result of philosophic enquiry into the ways in which science should be approached. The most important figures in this change of thinking were Descartes and Bacon.

The philosopher René Descartes presented the notion of deductive reasoning - that is, to start with a premise and to then discard evidence that doesn't support the premise. However, Sir Francis Bacon introduced a new method of thought. He suggested that instead of using deductive reasoning, people should use inductive reasoning - in other words, they should gather evidence and then reach a conclusion based on the evidence. This line of thought also became known as the Scientific Method.

Changes in Astronomy edit

The Scientific Revolution began with discoveries in astronomy, most importantly dealing with the concept of a solar system. These discoveries generated controversy, and some were forced by church authorities to recant their theories.


Pre-Revolution: Aristotle and Ptolemy edit

The geocentric (earth-centred) view of the universe had been taught since the days of Aristotle. Ptomely's "Almagest" (c.2nd century CE) was the standard text used to teach students astronomy and remained so for hundreds of years. Ptolemy's theories are a mixture of science and religion and to modern readers may come across as unusual though it must always be borne in mind that Ptolemy was building upon the works of earlier astronomers. Surprisingly a Greek philosopher called Aristarchus (310 BC - ca.230 BC) suggested that the earth moved around the sun and though this was common knowledge amongst all who studied astronomy it would be over a thousand years before he was proved right. The early christian church (c.4th century CE) adopted the Ptolemaic system since it was in accord with biblical teaching. A universe without the earth at its center would negate divine purpose and Ptolemy's idea of the spheres in harmony strengthened the creationist argument. The Enlightenment, which is also referred to as the Age of Reason, was a period when European philosophers emphasized the use of reason as the best method for learning the truth.

Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) edit

Heliocentric solar system

During the Renaissance, study of astronomy at universities began. Regiomontanus and Nicolas of Cusa developed new advances in mathematics and methods of calculation.

Copernicus, although a devout Christian, doubted whether the views held by Aristotle and Ptolemy were completely correct. Using mathematics and visual observations with only the naked eye, he developed the Heliocentric, or Copernican, Theory of the Universe, stating that the Earth revolves around the sun.

Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) edit

Tycho Brahe created a mass of scientific data on astronomy during his lifetime; although he made no major contributions to science, he laid the groundwork for Kepler's discoveries.

Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) edit

Kepler was a student of Brahe. He used Brahe's body of data to write Kepler's Three Laws of Planetary Motion, most significantly noting that planets' orbits are elliptical instead of circular.

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) edit

Galileo is generally given credit for invention of the telescope; although the device itself is not of Galileo's design, he was the first to use it for astronomy. With this tool, he proved the Copernican Theory of the Universe.

Galileo spread news of his work through letters to friends and colleagues. Although the Church forced him to recant his ideas and spend the rest of his life under house arrest, his works had already been published and could not be disregarded.

Sir Isaac Newton

Isaac Newton (1642-1727) edit

Newton is often considered the greatest scientific mind in history. His Principia Mathematica (1687) includes Newton's Law of Gravity, an incredibly ground-breaking study. Newton's work destroyed the old notion of an Earth-centred universe.

Newton also had a great influence outside of science. For example, he was to become the hero of Thomas Jefferson.

Developments in Medicine edit

Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) edit

Vesalius studied human cadavers, a practice forbidden by church doctrine. His writing The Structure of the Human Body in 1543 renewed and modernized the study of the human body.

William Harvey (1578-1657) edit

William Harvey wrote On the Movement of the Heart and Blood in 1628, on the circulatory system. He was a doctor and an anatomist.

Society and Culture edit

As a result of new learning from the Scientific Revolution, the world was less of a mystical place, as natural phenomena became increasingly explainable by science. According to Enlightened philosophers:

  • The universe is a fully tangible place governed by natural rather than supernatural forces.
  • Rigorous application of the scientific method can answer fundamental questions in all areas of inquiry.
  • The human race can be educated to achieve nearly infinite improvement.

Perhaps most importantly, though, Enlightened philosophers stressed that people are all equal because all of us possess reason.

Precursors edit

There were a number of precursors to the Enlightenment. One of the most important was the Age of Science of the 1600s, which presented inductive thinking, and using evidence to reach a conclusion. The ideas of Locke and Hobbes and the notion of the social contract challenged traditional thinking and also contributed to the Enlightenment. Scepticism, which questioned traditional authority and ideas, contributed as well. Finally, the idea of moral relativism arose - assailing people for judging people who are different from themselves.

The Legacy of the Enlightenment edit

The Enlightenment began in France, as a result of its well-developed town and city life, as well as its large middle class that wanted to learn the ideas. The Enlightenment promoted the use of one's reason, rather than accepting tradition. It rejected the traditional attitudes of the Catholic Church. Many "philosophers," or people who thought about subjects in an enquiring, inductive manner, became prominent. Salons were hosted by upper-middle class women who wanted to discuss topics of the day, such as politics.

The Enlightenment stressed that we are products of experience and environment, and that we should have the utmost confidence in the unlimited capacity of the human mind. It stressed the unlimited progress of humans, and the ideas of atheism and deism became especially prominent. Adam Smith's concept of free market capitalism sent European economics in a new direction. Enlightened despots such as Catherine the Great and Joseph II replaced absolute monarchs and used their states as agents of progress. Education and literacy expanded vastly, and people recognized the importance of intellectual freedoms of speech, thought, and press.

Changing Views of Childhood and Education edit

Prior to the Enlightenment, the dominant idea of childhood was that children were just smaller versions of adults, but this began to change as Enlightenment ideals emphasized the importance of childhood and the growing middle class allowed more time and resources to be invested in a child’s growth. Enlightenment thinkers advocated for the idea of childhood as a developmental stage. One example of this is in John Locke’s  tabula rasa, which argued that knowledge and behavior comes from experience. [1] Another voice on the topic was Jean-Jacques Rousseau who argued that childhood should be a pure and protected time before adulthood in which children should be free to learn, hands-on, about the world around them, in his novel Emile. [2]

Together,  Scientific Revolution thought and Enlightenment ideas bred an increased emphasis on education. John Amos Comenius, a seventeenth century Czech educator often considered the father of modern education, influenced many Enlightenment thinkers with his model of a comprehensive and universal education system. [3] In the late 18th century, Prussia became the first nation to create a mandatory universal education system. This system had compulsory education for children ages six to thirteen, and included studies of folktales and history, all taught in a common language, which increased nationalist ideals. [4] During the French Revolution, Nicolas de Condorcet created a system of public schools for young men, and in 1802, Napoleon created a comprehensive school system which is the model for the country’s current system. [5]

Conflict with the Church edit

Although the ideas of the Enlightenment clashed with Church dogma, it was mostly not a movement against the Church. Most Enlightened philosophers considered themselves to be followers of deism, believing that God created an utterly flawless universe and left it alone, some describing God as the "divine clockmaker."

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) edit

  • dies before the enlightenment
  • English Revolution shapes his political outlook
  • Leviathan (1651) - life is "nasty, brutish, and short" - people are naturally bad and need a strong government to control them.
  • may be considered to be the father of the enlightenment: because of all the opposition he inspired.
John Locke

John Locke (1632-1704) edit

Born in 1632 amidst one of the most tumultuous eras of mass rebellion and political unrest, British philosopher John Locke is often called the father of liberalism. Locke  introduced Western society to progressive reform through his works. Locke’s beliefs in natural law, which argued for equality amongst all men, egalitarian theories of land ownership, and separation of church and state, heavily influenced not only the French Revolution but also political movements centuries after his time.[6] Locke began his career in Oxford as a scholar and tutor and did not enter the philosophical sphere until he was appointed to the Stuart Court by Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Earl of Shaftesbury. [7] Alarmed by the monarchy’s promotion of slavery and nobility, Locke published The Two Treatises of Government, which argued against inherited status and the rights of the monarchy. Another one of Locke’s prominent works, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, explores the boundaries and limitations of the human mind. [8]  By questioning beliefs  accepted as common knowledge, John Locke gave prominence to empiricism and liberalism in a society formerly structured on religious values.

  • specifically refuted Hobbes
  • humanity is only governed by laws of nature, man has right to life, liberty, and property
  • there is a natural social contract that binds the people and their government together; the people have a responsibility to their government, and their government likewise has a responsibility to its people
  • Two Treatises on Civil Government justified supremacy of Parliament
  • Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) - Tabula rasa - human progress is in the hands of society

Philosophers edit

Voltaire (1694-1776) edit

  • stressed religious tolerance

Baron de Montesquieu (1689-1755) edit

  • Spirit of the Laws - checks and balances on government, no one group having sole power

David Hume (1711-1776) edit

The Enlightenment sparked a period of theorizing about how to approach the world with rationality and knowledge. David Hume (1711-1776), known for his philosophical theory of Skepticism, was one of the main figures in the Scottish Enlightenment. Skepticism was the idea that all knowledge should be approached with doubt. Skepticism was more radical than both the theories of Deism and atheism; it undermined both religious authority and Enlightenment ideas. Hume was skeptical of not only rationality and knowledge but also of miracles and God’s existence. [9] In his An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1758), he used logic to argue against religious miracles, undermining traditional religious texts. Hume’s goal was not to deny belief but to deny the certainty of belief. [10] Traditional Christianity was based on proof of the divinity of Christ and miracles from the gospels, but Hume claimed that miracles were violations of the laws of nature. Evidence of a miracle, Hume reasoned, would always be outweighed by the evidence of nature. Human reason, he argued, was not enough to prove the existence of God. He claimed, “Our evidence for the truth of the Christian religion is less than our evidence for the truth of our senses.” [11] Hume’s work and ideas have become important for the process of skepticism in scientific inquiry and research.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) edit

  • social contract
  • "general will" - government acts for the majority

Olympe de Gouges (1748 - 1793)

Olympe de Gouges was an early feminist thinker and French revolutionary who is often overlooked in Enlightenment history. Born Marie Gouze in southwest France to peasant parents but claimed noble ancestry, she moved to Paris in 1770 and began frequenting salons like the that of Sophia de Condorcet. Throughout her time in Paris, she wrote over sixty political essays, plays, and pamphlets covering what would come to be known as “human rights.” Her writing career culminated with the publication of The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of Female Citizen. She wrote this essay in direct response to Marquis de La Fayette’s The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which discussed the freedoms that should be afforded to all men; but, this document left out women and their importance in society. [12] In the preamble, de Gouges writes, “the sex that is superior in beauty as in courage, needed in maternal sufferings, recognizes and declares, in the presence and under the auspices of the Supreme Being, the following rights of woman and the citizens,” which establishes the importance of women and argues that in some aspects women are not only equal to men but are superior. She goes on to list the rights that women should have but are being denied, including the right to bare arms, the right to vote, and right to an education. [13] Ultimately, it was not de Gouges’ writings on women’s rights that led to her death. She was beheaded on November 3, 1793 after refusing to denounce her statement against the execution of King Louis XVI. Her legacy on women’s rights influenced the suffragettes, the feminist movement of the 1970s, and modern-day women’s rights. [14]

Zera Yacob (1599 - 1692) edit

While European philosophes like John Locke and Voltaire are credited for spreading Enlightenment ideas, an Ethiopian philosopher named Zera Yacob espoused these principles decades earlier. [15]

Yacob was born in 1599 outside the Ethiopian capital city of Axum. As a boy, he excelled in school and later became a professor. However, when a Portuguese Jesuit converted King Susenyos to Catholicism, Susenyos established Catholicism as the national religion and suppressed freedom of thought and speech.[16]

When Yacob advocated that no religion is superior to any other, he was forced to flee the area under the threat of prosecution. Living alone in a cave for two years, he delved into philosophy. Once he was able to return to society in 1667, he wrote Hatäta, which was a compilation of his ideas. In this groundbreaking text, he criticized Ethiopian people for following tradition instead of thinking independently, denounced slavery and declared that all people are equal, and approached religion with a more agnostic, open-minded mentality than was common in the 17th century.[17]

Finally, he considered women’s perspectives in his philosophy. For example, he criticized the Law of Moses that declared the menstrual cycle impure because it impeded the life and love of a woman. He later married a poor servant woman not for her looks but for her intelligence, and he truly considered her a peer. In contrast, philosophe John Locke declared all men were equal but also invested in the slave trade.[18] In this way, Yacob spread and lived his enlightenment principles decades before many philosophes, but he often gets overlooked as an Enlightenment figure.

Rococo Art edit

Diana Leaving her Bath by François Boucher.

The Rococo Art movement of the 1700s emphasized elaborate, decorative, frivolous, and aristocratic art. Often depicted were playful intrigue, love, and courtship. The use of wispy brush strokes and pastels was common in Rococo Art. Rococo Art is especially associated with the reign of Louis XV Bourbon in France. The French artist Boucher painted for Madame Pompadour, the mistress of Louis XV. The most famous paintings of Boucher include Diana Leaving her Bath and Pastorale, a painting of a wealthy couple under a tree.

  1. Gallo, Lou, and Robert Wade. “Revolutions in Daily Life” AMSCO Advanced Placement European History. Perfection Learning, 2019.
  2. Gallo, Lou, and Robert Wade. “Revolutions in Daily Life” AMSCO Advanced Placement European History. Perfection Learning, 2019.
  3. Gallo, Lou, and Robert Wade. “Revolutions in Daily Life” AMSCO Advanced Placement European History. Perfection Learning, 2019.
  4. Gallo, Lou, and Robert Wade. “Revolutions in Daily Life” AMSCO Advanced Placement European History. Perfection Learning, 2019.
  5. Gallo, Lou, and Robert Wade. “Revolutions in Daily Life” AMSCO Advanced Placement European History. Perfection Learning, 2019.
  6. Rogers, G. A.J.. "John Locke." Encyclopedia Britannica, October 24, 2021.
  7. Brewer, Holly. “Does Locke’s Entanglement with Slavery Undermine His Philosophy?” Aeon Magazine, September 12, 2018.
  8. Rogers, G. A.J.. "John Locke." Encyclopedia Britannica, October 24, 2021.
  9. Gallo, Lou, and Robert Wade. “Chapter 11: Religion, Art, and Sentiment,” AMSCO Advanced Placement European History. Perfection Learning, 2019
  10. “David Hume - Belief.” n.d. Britannica. Accessed December 14, 2021.
  11. Spencer, Lloyd. Introducing the Enlightenment: A Graphic Guide. Icon Books Ltd, 2015.
  12. Miles, Rosalind. The Women's History of the Modern World: How Radicals, Rebels, and Everywomen Revolutionized the Last 200 Years. United Kingdom: William Morrow Paperbacks, 2021.
  13. “Olympe de Gouges, the Declaration of the Rights of Woman (September 1791).” LIBERTY, EQUALITY, FRATERNITY: EXPLORING THE FRENCH REVOLUTION, n.d.
  14. Miles, Rosalind. The Women's History of the Modern World: How Radicals, Rebels, and Everywomen Revolutionized the Last 200 Years. United Kingdom: William Morrow Paperbacks, 2021.
  15. Herbjørnsrud, Dag. “Yacob and Amo: Africa’s Precursors to Locke, Hume and Kant.” Aeon Magazine, December 13, 2017.
  16. Herbjørnsrud, Dag. “Yacob and Amo: Africa’s Precursors to Locke, Hume and Kant.” Aeon Magazine, December 13, 2017.
  17. Herbjørnsrud, Dag. “Yacob and Amo: Africa’s Precursors to Locke, Hume and Kant.” Aeon Magazine, December 13, 2017.
  18. Herbjørnsrud, Dag. “Yacob and Amo: Africa’s Precursors to Locke, Hume and Kant.” Aeon Magazine, December 13, 2017.