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During the Scientific Revolution of the 1500s and 1600s, scientists such as Copernicus (1473-1543 CE), and Galileo (1564-1642) displayed that humanity had understood the solar system and the universe incorrectly. Many believed the Earth was the center of the universe, called the Geocentric Theory. Yet, Copernicus and Galileo proved that the objects of our solar system were revolving around the Sun, not the Earth. This is called the Heliocentric Theory. This breakthrough unleashed the Scientific Revolution. Scientists and other thinkers began to understand reality more accurately and this impacted astronomy, medical studies, physics, and other subjects.
In the 1500s, many respected the Greco-Roman philosophers of the past. They looked to these ancient thinkers to understand their world. Yet, some of the greatest Greco-Roman thinkers, such as Aristotle (384-322 BCE) and Ptolemy (100-170 CE), incorrectly taught the Earth was the center of the universe. Due the Scientific Revolution that Copernicus and others created, many began to value observation of the natural world over the rhetoric of ancient thinkers.
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), experienced the bloodshed and violence of the English Civil War that lasted from 1642-1651. Hobbes was convicted that, without a strong ruler, people would naturally gravitate toward violence and evil. He claimed the only sure way to stop this from occurring was to have a strong leader, such as an absolute monarchy.
Hobbes called this the Social Contract. According to Hobbes, monarchs gained immense power and their people gained security. Yet, Hobbes old way of viewing government would give way to more innovate and optimistic notions of various Enlightenment Philosophers.
Humanity began to realize that past conceptions on the nature of reality were incorrect. Science began to correct these misconceptions. As skeptical views of past notions led to scientific advancement based on observational investigation, humanity began to grasp new truths. Influenced by this new way of thinking, philosophers also started questioning past systems of government. They began to ask questions like, “Is an absolute monarchy the best form of government humans can create?”
From the 1500s to the 1700s, these philosophers became skeptical of past human institutions. These scholars began to develop new forms of government and innovative ideas concerned with what humans should be given by their leaders. This change that came to humanity, during the 1500s and through the 1800s, connected with the shift in scientific reasoning and philosophical thinking about government, economics, humans rights, and the like, is called the era of The Enlightenment.
John Locke (1632-1704) taught that governments should involve their people in managing the affairs and interactions of society. Locke and other Enlightenment thinkers asserted that past institutions of absolute monarchies did not allow for human flourishing and were oppressive. In order for society to flourish, Locke asserted that good governments would protect the life, liberty (freedom), and property of its people.
Baron de Montesquieu (1689-1755) asserted that governments would become corrupt with too much power. While Thomas Hobbes saw the corruption of man in all people and the remedy being a strong leader, Montesquieu believed evil would manifest in leaders who had too much control. Therefore, Montesquieu argued that the government should be separated into different branches of power that compete against each other. That way, no one person or group would gain too much power and this would protect the people from a strong centralized dictator or oppressive group. This created a system of checks and balances.
Francois-Marie Arouet, also known by this pin name, Voltaire (1694-1778), was a prolific author who advocated for new forms of government and the protection of human rights. He often used satire, critiquing others through ridiculing them in sarcastic and cynical ways. He questioned the authority of past institutions including clergy in churches, nobility, and the like. He was bluntly critical of leaders in society, which led to his imprisonment on multiple occasions. Due to the harshness he experienced from speaking his mind, he became a fierce proponent of free speech and argued that just governments would guarantee the freedom of speech to their people. Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) was perhaps the most extreme thinker of the Enlightenment Philosophers. He believed the “general will” of society should guide all government policies. This “hyper democracy” meant free individuals had to develop a plan for governance and the majority should guide all actions and plans for the future. Rousseau also argued that European nations should end the rule of nobility. Nobles were born into power. Rousseau argued all men were equal and, thus, the nobility should be abolished.
Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794) was concerned with laws and the purpose of rules and regulations implemented by governments. Many in his era believed one purpose of government was to punish and enact revenge on wrong doers. Beccaria argued the purpose of enforcing laws should be to protect social order, not enact vengeance. Beccaria argued all members of society deserved a fast and speedy trial, should they be accused of crimes. Radical for his time, Beccaria also demanded the banning of capital punishment and torture.
A contribution left by the Enlightenment philosophers was the concept of progress, that humans have the ability to improve scientific understanding and societal practices. Religious leadership of the Catholics and Protestants dominated European society prior to this era. Yet, the Enlightenment cultivated a more secular (focusing on the here and now over religious priorities of belief in an afterlife) outlook on life and challenged church leadership in society. This led to a society more focused on individualism. This meant people were preoccupied with ideas and notions that advanced individual freedom and rights, as well as notions of equality between citizens. As these new ideas spread, many gathered in salons, clubs where people could discuss the new ideas of the Enlightenment. While the increase of knowledge spread, Denis Diderot (1713-1784) invented the concept of the Encyclopedia, a book series that documented the most vital knowledge humanity had discovered. The Enlightenment was so popular that even monarchs, though they refused to abandon power, claimed to support the movement, such as Frederick the Great (1712-1786) of Prussia and the Catherine the Great (1729-1796) of Russia. Being monarchs, this seemed ironic. Yet, it was a way to bolster their reputation with an ever changing Europe.