Cultural and Intellectual Life in Europe – 1600-1789

Early Modern Europe, 1450-1789

Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks


Chapter 10 Cultural and intellectual life, 1600–1789


Cambridge History of Europe

Cambridge University Press, 2006

The title page and front is piece illustration of an English translation of Isaac Newton’s Principia, published in 1729, two years after his death. The illustration shows a man in classical dress seated in the clouds, with the nude figure of a woman holding a drafting compass standing in front of him and the solar system below. Compasses were often used as symbols of discernment, and, nude women, sometimes explicitly labeled “Nature revealing her secrets,” often appear in heroic illustrations of major scientific thinkers or their ideas.


1543 Copernicus publishes On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies

1610 Galileo publishes The Starry Messenger

1620 Bacon publishes New Instrument

1635 Académie Française founded

1637 Descartes publishes Discourse on Method

1660 Royal Society of London founded

1661 Palace of Versailles begun

1667 Milton publishes Paradise Lost

1687 Newton publishes the Principia

1748 Montesquieu publishes The Spirit of the Laws

1752–72 Diderot and d’Alembert publish the Encyclopédie

1759 Voltaire’s Candide published anonymously

1762 Rousseau publishes Emile: Or, On Education

1786 Mozart composes The Marriage of Figaro

1789 Lavoisier publishes Elementary Treatise on Chemistry

Early Modern Europe, 1450–1789

In 1550, the Italian art historian Giorgio Vasari, who coined the word Renaissance, described the painters, sculptors, and architects of his era in a series of biographies as “rare men of genius.” One hundred and seventy-five years later, another cultural commentator, the English poet Alexander Pope (1688–1744), extended this judgment to a mathematician and physicist, Isaac Newton (1642–1727), offering a brief couplet as part of the outpouring of eulogies right after Newton’s death:

Nature, and Nature’s laws lay hid in night, 

God said Let Newton be! and all was Light.

Newton himself was not so sure about this, writing in a letter to fellow scientist Robert Hooke in 1675, “If I have seen further [than certain other men] it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” In terms of intellectual development, the period from Vasari’s biographies to Pope’s poem is often referred to as the “Scientific Revolution,” a phrase invented in the nineteenth century to label this time of change in the way learned individuals approached, conceptualized, and studied the natural world. 

Like the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution is not an event with a specific beginning and end, but a series of developments. Whether these changes were as Pope envisioned – sudden bursts of genius that altered everything – or as Newton described them – steady advances that built on earlier ones – is still a matter of debate.

Among recent scholars, one of the most influential voices arguing in favor of dramatic change was the philosopher and physicist Thomas Kuhn (1922–96). In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), Kuhn proposed that people studying the natural world (what we would now term scientists) work within a specific world-view until there is too much data that contradicts that world-view, but no one theory that explains all the contradictions. At that point, someone – often from outside the establishment in which scientists normally work – proposes a radically different world-view, what Kuhn calls a “paradigm shift.” 

This new paradigm does not just add to earlier knowledge, but makes people who accept it view the world in a completely new way. Kuhn uses a number of scientific developments from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries as examples of such paradigm shifts, the most dramatic of which was the shift from an earth-centered to a sun-centered view of the cosmos. Since then, other historians of science have argued that Kuhn overemphasized big changes. The major thinkers of the Scientific Revolution, they point out, continued to accept many ideas because they appeared in ancient sources, and built on the work of medieval scientists. Kuhn’s argument has been very powerful, however, and his phrase “paradigm shift” is now so pervasive in business, government, and other realms of life that it has become a joke, particularly when coupled with “thinking outside the box.”

Whether we call it a paradigm shift or not, the idea that there was a radical break in the world-view of educated Europeans in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is a powerful one, and extends beyond the realm of science. Pope uses the word “light” to praise Newton because many of Newton’s discoveries involved light and optics, and because Pope saw him as setting a pattern in which the “light of reason” is used to explore the universe. Thinkers in the eighteenth century described their enterprise as“Enlightenment,” the principles of which the German philosopher Immanuel Kant(1724–1804) summarized in 1784 in the phrase: “Sapere aude! [Dare to know!] Have the courage to use your own understanding!”

The Enlightenment was a self-conscious intellectual movement in the same way as the Renaissance had been. Renaissance thinkers envisioned themselves as part of a rebirth of classical culture, while Enlightenment thinkers asserted that knowledge could free them from the ancient past. The “light of reason,” they argued, could be used against the darkness of prejudice, superstition, blind belief, ignorance, tyranny, and injustice.

The classical past was not uniformly rejected, as architects, writers, and even political theorists used Greek and Roman models for their works, but it was to be emulated selectively and deliberately, and not regarded as superior. This questioning of received wisdom extended to the realm of religion, as thinkers challenged the cultural and institutional authority of the Christian churches and criticized many beliefs and practices as “superstition.”

Thinkers in the Enlightenment – those in France called themselves philosophes – regarded the development of science as one of the most important sources of their own intellectual liberation, and also looked to the writings of several seventeenth-century thinkers who emphasized the role of reason and observation as challenges to received wisdom, including René Descartes and John Locke. They took ideas and methods from the realm of the natural sciences and applied them to the social sciences, seeking to find rules and laws that applied to human beings in the same way that the law of gravity or other of “Nature’s laws” applied in the physical world. This search for order did not lead to a single ideology, for there was great diversity of opinion on a range of issues, but to general consensus around a set of common values: reason, religious toleration, progress, liberty, utility, and skepticism toward traditions and dogmas.

The Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment were not the only intellectual and cultural developments in seventeenth and eighteenth-century Europe, which also saw new forms and themes in art, literature, and music. All of these were supported by the centralizing monarchs we discussed in chapter 9, for intelligent rulers recognized that having educated and talented writers, scientists, philosophers, musicians, and artists at their courts only enhanced their stature. In return for flattering dedications in scientific or philosophical works, defenses of their policies, effusive poems of praise, and larger-than-life individual and family portraits, rulers – and also wealthy churchmen and nobles – provided pensions in cash, positions as tutors, offices at court or ecclesiastical benefices.

Along with this traditional system of patronage, however, new social and cultural institutions developed through which ideas were exchanged, and writers, artists, and early modern Europe, 1450–1789 thinkers were supported. Some of the institutions were formal, including scientific and literary societies, journals and newspapers, and clubs or lodges that one paid to join. Many of them were more informal, including salons, coffeehouses, booksellers’ shops, and taverns. They were the places where the business of the Enlightenment was conducted. Learned societies, salons, and newspapers. These new institutions operated outside the traditional intellectual centers of courts, churches, and universities, and created what the German philosopher and historian Jürgen Habermas called the “public sphere,” which provided both an audience for new ideas and a place where those ideas were often germinated.


The “public sphere” as Habermas envisioned it developed fully in the eighteenth century, but it built on earlier formal and informal groups of people who gathered together to talk, argue, and debate. In the cities of the Italian Renaissance, humanists thought of themselves as belonging to the “Republic of Letters,” a phrase they invented that came to mean those who engaged in learned exchange of all types, both oral and written. 

The most formal of these were learned academies and societies, originally devoted to studying the classics, but by the end of the sixteenth century often with the broader goals of encouraging learned conversation on many topics. Many academies were short-lived private gatherings, but several gained royal patronage and grew into national academies, usually with a very limited number of members. The Académie Française, for example, which focused on French language and culture, was founded in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu and Louis XIII and still exists today.

During the seventeenth century, academies specifically devoted to the study of nature and science were founded in Rome, Florence, Paris, London, and elsewhere. The Royal Society of London (founded 1660) collected specimens for study, supported experiments using new types of instruments such as the air pump and the barometer, and published reports. The Academy of Science in Berlin, founded in 1700 by the German philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716) for the Electress Sophie Charlotte, supported astronomical and other types of scientific study.

In the middle of the eighteenth century, some newly learned societies saw their mission as (in the words of the Royal Dublin Society, founded in 1731) “promoting husbandry, manufactures, and other useful arts.” They wanted to apply learning to practical problems and make knowledge available to a broader public, so they published their findings in the vernacular, not Latin.

Learned societies, first in Italy and then elsewhere, put together permanent collections of natural objects: what we would today call museums of natural history but were then usually termed “chambers of wonders” or “cabinets of curiosities.” These contained strange things found locally – unusual specimens of plants, animals born with birth defects (preserved in jars or mounted and stuffed), fossils, beautiful geological cultural and intellectual life, 1600–1789 formations such as geodes – and objects brought in from European voyages around the world. Collections were initially private, but many were gradually opened to the public; as Robert Hooke (1635–1703), the first curator of the collection of the Royal Society in London, commented, viewing a collection offered visitors the opportunity to “peruse, and turn over, and spell, and read the Book of Nature.” As museums do today, the founder of these collections sought wealthy patrons who could provide permanent buildings and the resources to obtain still more objects; Peter the Great amassed a huge collection, specializing in archeological finds from Siberia and central Russia. Along with the “wonders of nature,” collections included art and artifacts from Europe’s past and from different parts of the world, jumbling together human-produced and natural objects in an effort to awe and astonish. Visitors discussed what they had seen or wrote about it in letters and essays. Some collections issued printed catalogs, so that even those who could not afford to visit could know the wonders they contained. Wealthy young men, especially from England, visited collections as part of their “Grand Tour” of the cultural and intellectual centers of Europe, designed to give them polish and sophistication.

The members of one learned society, the Academy of Linceans (that is, of the lynx), whose most famous member was the Italian scientist Galileo Galilei, decided to make a pictorial record of all of nature. They traveled all over Europe, making drawings of materials in collections. Many of these collections became the foundation of international museums, and by the last half of the eighteenth century, a few of these began organizing their holdings in ways that emphasized the order rather than the exuberance of nature.

Learned societies and museums were only some of the places where discussion flourished in European cities. The Society of Freemasons, a fraternal voluntary association whose exact origins are disputed, established lodges first in England and then on the continent, where members gathered to discuss politics as well as science and learning. In Edinburgh, discussion groups met at the universities, in private homes, and in the city’s many taverns – one estimate is six hundred drinking establishments in a town of only forty thousand people. Individuals in Paris established clubs called musées in the late eighteenth century, in which people paid a fee to hear lectures, watch or perform scientific experiments, and participate in discussions on a range of issues. Several of these had hundreds of members; fees were too high for artisans or workers, but lawyers,officials, shop-owners, and even a few middle-class women joined. Societies and clubs devoted to “progress” and the “useful trades,” and lodges of Freemasons, sprang up in European colonial cities like Philadelphia and Rio de Janeiro as well, whose members were in frequent contact with European thinkers.

Members of learned societies and others interested in literature and learning discussed their ideas orally or in letters, and by the late seventeenth century circulated them in printed journals, such as Pierre Bayle’s News from the Republic of Letters (1684). The English journals The Tatler (1709–11) and The Spectator (1711–12), edited by the playwright Richard Steele and the poet Joseph Addison, had circulations in the tens of thousands, which meant they were read by far more people than just a small elite. They included essays by their editors, commentary on theatrical productions, and a skillful mixture of society news and social criticism. Readers were encouraged to respond, and their letters were printed, so that the circle of authors as well as readers expanded. Similar literary journals appeared later in the eighteenth century in Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands.

In many European states, journals and books that included material too critical of the church or the government were often censored or banned, but such efforts were not very effective at limiting the spread of ideas. Philosophical and political works in many languages were published intolerant Amsterdam or in Switzerland and then smuggled to eager readers, while works that criticized or satirized political figures and religious authorities were easily available with a word to the right bookseller.

Along with journals, newspapers were an important element in the circulation of ideas. A regular postal service allowed printed publications to be delivered on a set schedule, and the first printed newspaper appeared in Germany in 1605. Newspapers soon appeared in other central and western European countries, and by the eighteenth century there were a few daily newspapers in larger cities, and weekly or twice-weekly papers elsewhere. They were generally sold by subscription, and initially contained little or no advertising, as businesses did not see the point of paying to market their products. Coffeehouses, taverns, wine-shops, and cafés did see the point of providing newspapers for their patrons to read, so that a single subscription was often read by many people, provoking animated discussion. Rulers recognized that the press could be a powerful force; they required publishers to get a license, fed information about laws and government activities to them, and routinely censored unflattering news. Besides their local newspapers, educated people often read and discussed international French-language newspapers printed in the Netherlands.

At about the time that national scientific academies were being founded, elite women in Paris created a more informal and private institution that would allow them greater access to the “Republic of Letters” – the salon. Salons were gatherings of men and women for formal and informal discussion of topics decided upon by the women who ran them, held in the drawing rooms (salons in French) of their own homes. The early modern Europe, 1450–1789 salonnière, or salon hostess, selected the guests, determined whether the conversation on any particular night would be serious or light, and decided whether additional activities such as singing, poetry readings or dramatic productions would be part of the evening’s offerings. She took what she did seriously, preparing herself by reading and practicing letter-writing and conversational skills. Salonnières did not have any official public or academic role, but the approval of certain salon hostesses was often an unofficial requirement for a man to gain election to the Académie Française, the highest honor for a French intellectual or writer. (No woman was elected to the Académie Française until 1979, and there were only a handful of women in any European national academy; the first woman was elected as a full member to the British Royal Society in 1935.) Writers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–78) warned that salons were “feminizing” French culture and weakening the country’s military and work ethic. In the later eighteenth century, salons became important institutions in the development and dissemination of philosophical ideas associated with the Enlightenment. They were places where wealthy nobles, professionals, and members of the clergy who were interested in new ideas or cultural forms met less-well-off writers and artists. English and German women also created salons on the French model; those in Germany were one of the few places where Christians and Jews could mix.

Though rulers and church leaders were still important shapers of culture, the institutions of the “public sphere” – learned societies, salons, clubs, literary journals, and newspapers – helped create what we now call “public opinion,” a force that became more powerful as the eighteenth century progressed. Public opinion was shaped by the tastes of elites, but also by those of more ordinary people, and increasingly determined which artistic and literary genres and styles would be judged praiseworthy, and which political ideas and plans should be accepted or rejected. Many artists, writers, and composers continued to get commissions from aristocratic patrons, but others depended on selling their work to a middle-class public through galleries, art shops, book stores, or subscriptions. Middle-class urban households often had more disposable income in the eighteenth century than they had had in the sixteenth, and the consumer goods they purchased included books, engravings, paintings, musical instruments, and music to play on them.

The men and women who gathered in societies, academies, clubs, and salons em-braced science as well as other interests. Like Pope – who was a favorite of discussion groups in London – they saw new developments in science as a proper basis for all knowledge and something that all educated people should understand. They regularly purchased popularizations of scientific works, which sought to explain both the basis and the impact of new ways of understanding the world.

Ancient authorities and new methods


In the later Middle Ages, learned study of the natural world, usually termed “natural philosophy,” had gone on primarily in Europe’s universities, where it was seen as an appropriate part of understanding the glory of God. Such study revolved around ancient greek ideas and texts, particularly those of Aristotle and Ptolemy. Aristotle (384–322 bce) viewed the cosmos as centered on a motionless earth, with the planets (including the moon and sun) revolving around it in fixed spheres made up of a crystalline substance, and the fixed stars at its outer perimeter. The planets moved, he thought, in exactly circular orbits at a uniform speed, and were perfectly round bodies made of ether, a substance completely different from the four terrestrial elements – earth, air,fire, and water. Above the moon – the heavenly body closest to earth – the cosmos was changeless, so that objects that did change in the skies, such as comets and meteors, must be closer than the moon. Things on earth did change, and each element had a tendency to move in a specific direction; things made primarily of the element earth tended to move toward the center of the earth, while water flowed sideways around the earth and air went upward. The earth was round, the perfectly spherical center ofa perfectly spherical cosmos.

There were problems with Aristotle’s view. For one, it did not fit with the motions of the planets observable from earth – the planets often appear to move backwards or reverse direction – but this was solved in the second century by Ptolemy (c. 100–c. 165 ce), a Greek astronomer working at Alexandria. Ptolemy held that the moon,sun, planets, and stars move around the motionless earth at various rates of speed inspiral-like paths he called epicycles. Based on observation, he calculated the epicycles of the major heavenly bodies, and the Ptolemaic system gained wide and long-lasting acceptance.

The rediscovery of Greek writings other than those of Aristotle and Ptolemy led scholars in a different direction. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the works of Pythagoras (c. 582–c. 496 bce), Plato (c. 428–c. 348 bce), and Archimedes (c. 287–c. 212 bce), were copied, translated, and ultimately printed. All of these ancient writers emphasized the importance of mathematics as the underlying structure of the uni-verse, an idea that was echoed by their later admirers. Johannes Kepler (1571–1630), a German astronomer who calculated the laws of planetary motion, wrote: “Geometry,which before the origin of things was coeternal with the divine mind and is God himself … supplied God with patterns for the creation of the world.”2 Kepler and other scholars saw the mathematical patterns of the universe as a mystical harmony, created by God and ultimately understandable to humans.

Among the ancient texts rediscovered in the fifteenth century was a body of writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, a god-like Egyptian sage thought to have lived at the time of Moses. These Hermetic writings – now known to have been written in the second and third centuries ce – were revered as ancient wisdom, and offered sug- gestions on how to exploit the hidden divine powers of minerals, plants, the planets, and other natural objects. Through processes of distillation, heating, and sublimation (cooking something to a gaseous state and then resolidifying it), these hidden powers could be tapped to transform lead into gold or cure disease and prolong life, practices usually termed alchemy.

The Swiss physician Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, who called him- self Paracelsus (1493?–1541), fully embraced the Hermetic tradition, as did many other scientists, who sometimes linked Hermeticism with Christian ideas about the power of angels. Paracelsus rejected the Aristotelian elements and the Galenic notion that disease is caused by an imbalance of bodily humors, and introduced the use of drugs made from small doses of purified minerals, especially sulfur, antinomy, and mercury. Hoping to find one powerful agent – often called the “philosopher’s stone,” or the “elixir of life” – that was capable of healing all illnesses and transforming all less per- fect substances into more perfect ones, Paracelsus and other alchemists experimented with ways to extract pure elements (termed magisteria) and divine essences (termed arcana). With its peculiar properties as a metal that is liquid at normal room temperature, mercury was often part of alchemical theories, as was gold distilled in various liquids so that it was drinkable (aurum potabile).

Alchemists such as Paracelsus were rooted in ancient texts, but they were innovative in their methods, advocating experimentation as the best way to discover the hidden properties of various substances. They were often the earliest to make extensive use of what was later called the “scientific method,” in which a hypothesis to explain a phenomenon is developed, tested, the results recorded and measured, and the hypothesis confirmed, rejected, or modified. They invented equipment still used in laboratories today, such as beakers and balance scales, and discovered new ways of producing chemical changes, such as the application of acids and alcohols.

The development of the scientific method is often associated with the English philosopher and statesman Francis Bacon (1561–1626), who took his inspiration and procedures straight from alchemy. In The Advancement of Learning (1605) and Novum organum (New Instrument, 1620), Bacon rejected earlier claims of knowledge as based on faulty reasoning, and called for natural philosophy that began with the empirical observation of many similar phenomena. Those studying the phenomena would then use their powers of reason to propose a generalized explanation or hypothesis for the phenomena, a process called induction. This generalization would then be tested with further empirical and inductive inquiry. Like any good alchemist, Bacon was a firm believer in the practical value of science in promoting human progress and greater control of nature. He called for national support for scientific investigations, which led the founders of the English Royal Society in 1660 to see him as an inspiration.

Experimentation was very important in the study of material substances. George Ernst Stahl (1660–1734), a German chemist and physician, proposed that combustion and other processes resulted in the release and absorption of a substance he called phlogiston. The phlogiston theory led other chemists to study gases – what they called “airs” – and in the middle of the eighteenth cen-tury carbon dioxide and hydrogen were both identified as substances different thanthe air that surrounds us. In the early 1770s, the Swedish apothecary Carl WilhelmScheele (1742–86) and the English cleric and theologian Joseph Priestley (1733–1804)both discovered an air in which substances burned more easily. Viewing his discov-ery within the context of the phlogiston theory, Priestley called it “dephlogisticated air.”

The French chemist Antoine Lavoisier (1743–94) performed similar experiments,but interpreted the results differently. He recognized that the same substance al-lows for combustion, the action of acids, and respiration in living things, and calledthis substance “oxygen.” Lavoisier’s oxygen theory came to replace the phlogistontheory, particularly as Lavoisier made it part of a radically new way of discussingchemical compounds and processes in his Elementary Treatise on Chemistry (1789),the first modern textbook on chemistry. Like Bacon, Lavoisier regarded science asa way of providing solutions to real-world problems, and he experimented on croprotation, the quality of drinking water, the military and scientific use of balloons,and the production of gunpowder. He also proposed reforms for the French econo-my and prison system, but his involvement in tax collection ultimately outweighedhis contributions and he was sent to the guillotine during the French Revolution.

The revolution in cosmology

While Priestley and Lavoisier developed their ideas in the realm of chemistry through experimentation, the most dramatic developments in early modern science often came from applying mathematics and philosophical principles to the physical world. Verifi- cation came later, sometimes much later when instruments were invented and methods developed that would allow an idea to be tested through observation and experiment. The prime example of this is the proposal by Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543), a Polish priest, lawyer, church official, painter, and astronomer, that the sun, not the earth, was the center of the universe. Copernicus became interested in astronomy and mathemat- ics while he was a student, and put the two of them together in proposing a heliocentric system, with the earth rotating on its axis while revolving around the sun, first in an anonymous treatise and then at the very end of his life in On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies (1543). Copernicus proposed this idea as a “mathematical hypothesis,” but he clearly felt it was valid, not because he had physical proof, but because it was far simpler than Ptolemy’s system in terms of the geometry involved in calculating planetary motion. This desire for simplicity, reinforced by Platonic ideas about perfect mathematical forms, meant Copernicus retained circular orbits for the planets, as the circle was the most perfect form.

Copernicus’s work was discussed by astronomers, but it created no great stir, espe- cially as it also created problems – if the earth was not the center of the universe, why did objects fall? And if it rotated, why did objects thrown into the air not land west of where they were thrown? The Aristotelian world-view was gradually challenged by oth- ers, however. From his observatory, Tycho Brahe saw and measured the appearance of a supernova and a comet in the 1570s, proving that these could not be below the moon and that the heavens did indeed change. Accepting Copernicus’s idea of a heliocentric uni- verse was too much for Brahe, however, and he posited a complicated double-centered universe, with the planets traveling around the sun, and the sun, moon, and stars revolv- ing around a motionless earth. Using Brahe’s data, Johannes Kepler proposed in 1609 that the sun was indeed the center, but that the planets moved in elliptical orbits around it at speeds that varied according to the distance the planet was from the sun. He figured out the exact proportions of speed and distance – what were later called the “laws of plan- etary motion” – and asserted that these applied to all the planets, including the earth. In Kepler’s conceptualization, the planets circling the sun were a system distinct from the rest of the universe, clearly breaking with the Aristotelian notion of a unified cosmos, just as his elliptical orbits challenged Aristotelian (and Copernican) concepts of perfectly circular forms.

Brahe’s and Kepler’s observations had all been done with the naked eye, but the invention of the telescope by Dutch opticians in the early seventeenth century allowed for closer observations. On hearing about the Dutch invention, Galileo built his own telescope and used it to study the sky. Galileo was a tutor and later professor of mathematics at the universities of Pisa and Padua, where he was expected to teach courses in astronomy. Studying astronomical theory he became convinced that Copernicus was right, and his telescopic discoveries offered evidence that Aristotle’s understanding of the universe was wrong. The moon was not a perfectly round sphere that glowed,but was pitted like the earth and simply reflected light; the sun was not changeless, for sunspots moved across its surface. The earth was not the only center of rotation, for the planet Jupiter had four moons, a dramatic discovery that Galileo highlighted in The Starry Messenger, published in 1610. In this lively account, which the title page describes as “unfolding great and very wonderful sights,” Galileo named the moons of Jupiter the “Medicean Planets,” in honor of the ruling Medici family of Florence. He wrote that this was the best possible tribute, for “all human monuments ultimately perish through the violence of the elements or by old age.” Galileo’s bid for patronage paid off, and Cosimo de’ Medici, the grand duke of Tuscany, named Galileo his personal mathematician and brought him to Florence, where he continued his investigations of the heavens, and also turned his attention to the mechanics of motion on earth.

Galileo had a forceful personality and was always willing to engage in controversy. In 1615, he wrote a letter to Cosimo’s mother, the Grand Duchess Christina, in which he argued that Copernican theory was consistent with biblical teachings, and in any case “the intention of the Holy Ghost is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes.” The letter was circulated widely, a complaint was made to the Roman Inquisition, and Galileo was ordered not to “hold or defend” Copernican theory, though he could “discuss it as a mathematical supposition”; this prohibition was soon extended to all authors. Galileo was chastened for a while, but in 1632 he published a long synthesis of his astronomical observations, the Dialogue concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Ptolemaic and Copernican. Galileo structured this as a dialogue between advocates of each system and claimed he was providing a balanced argument, but gave his inept Aristotelian the name Simplicio, and made his own position clear in the final discussion. Summoned again to Rome, Galileo was forced to recant, and was sentenced to life imprisonment; he spent the rest of his life under house arrest, though this did not stop him from publishing a further defense of new scientific ideas in many fields.

In an older view of the history of science, the trial of Galileo was part of a long battle between religion, especially Catholicism, and science, in which science, or at least Galileo, was finally vindicated in 1992 when Pope John Paul II publicly admitted the church had made a mistake in condemning him. Most historians of science today find the story to be more complicated, as Galileo had many supporters within the Catholic Church, especially among Jesuits, and both personal and political issues were involved in the 1633 condemnation. Catholics and Protestants varied in their acceptance of the Copernican system and other new ideas, and it is clear that most scientists regarded their religious beliefs as essential to their scientific work.

Mathematics, motion, and the mind of God

Cosmology was not the only field of inquiry in which mathematical speculation led to radically new ideas. The French mathematician and philosopher René Descartes (1596– 1650) agreed with traditional teachings that everything depends on the power of God, but he also asserted that God created the world according to mathematical principles. Humans could perceive one perfect and infinitely powerful being, Descartes reasoned,  only if that being actually existed and had created them. Along with this intuition about God, Descartes wondered what else we could know for sure. Earlier writers such as Michel de Montaigne (1533–92) had puzzled over this question of the foundation of knowledge – a branch of philosophy known as epistemology – noting that established authorities such as Aristotle had been proved wrong, and that sense perceptions and empirical observations might be deceiving. Montaigne remained skeptical about whether true knowledge is ever possible, but Descartes decided that what we can know for certain is that we exist as thinking beings, a philosophical position called rationalism. He captured this in the Discourse on Method (1637) in the phrase “I think, therefore I am” (in Latin, Cogito ergo sum ). From these two conceptions – God and self – the existence of the rest of the universe and its laws could be posited by applying logical principles, a process called deduction. In Descartes’s philosophical system, known as Cartesianism or Cartesian dualism, the world consists of two basic substances, matter (or body) and mind (or spirit), each of which can exist, at least theoretically, without the other. Humans are a union of these two substances, but there is nothing material about the mind, and nothing spiritual about the body or any other material objects, which only move when acted upon by some outside force. Descartes thought that all motion could be explained as a result of invisibly small particles pushing an object, a completely mechanical explanation. Though he thought even gravity and magnetism operated this way, some of his followers put greater emphasis on God as the ultimate cause of all events and actions in the universe; God was thus the Prime Mover.

For Isaac Newton, the natural world provided unambiguous evidence for certain religious ideas. An aloof and intense young man, Newton was a student and then professor of mathematics at Cambridge, where he studied the new concepts of mechanics and cosmology, and built the first working reflecting telescope. He developed the calculus, a branch of mathematics that allows calculations involving rates of change, varying quantities, and curved figures, that would ultimately underlie modern physics and engineering as well as mathematics. 

In the 1670s Newton studied the nature of light, and also studied the Bible and the writings of the early Christian Church, because he was expected to be ordained as a clergyman in the Anglican Church as a condition of his position at Cambridge. His views on optics were published by the Royal Society, but his views on religion were far too dangerous to be shared publicly. He decided that the doctrine of the Trinity, in which the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are equally part of a triune God, was not part of the early church, but invented in the fourth century; the ultimate God was one, not three, though Christ was divine. Denying the Trinity was heresy and also illegal, so that Newton kept his religious writings private, and got special dispensation to remain at Cambridge without being ordained. He also collected Hermetic and alchemical texts, and spent decades trying to discover or manufacture a substance that would cause metals to grow or transform. His extensive writings on alchemical and spiritual subjects, which were never published, led the British economist John Maynard Keynes, who bought Newton’s papers in the mid-twentieth century, to declare that “Newton was not the first of the age of reason … he was the last of the magicians.” 

Newton’s fame rested on works that were published, especially his most important work, the Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, usually just called the Principia), published in 1687. The Principia provided mathematical descriptions of the laws of motion and the operation of gravity. This book brought together Galileo’s discoveries about motion on earth and Kepler’s discoveries about motion in the heavens, developing universal laws that applied anywhere, expressed in mathematical terms. All bodies attract one another across empty space, with the force of attraction dependent on the size of the bodies and the distance between them (universal gravitation), and all bodies continue to move or not move unless an outside force acts on them (inertia). Though few people could actually understand it, the Principia was immediately recognized as a work of genius, and Newton was rewarded with a position as Master of the Royal Mint, in charge of issuing coins and bills and preventing counterfeiting. 

Newton’s public fame and status continued to grow. He was elected to Parliament several times, and elected president of the Royal Society in 1703, a position he held until his death. He was given a magnificent state funeral and was buried alongside kings and other notables in Westminster Abbey. In the Principia Newton described how gravity operated, but not why, and the idea that one body could attract another across empty space was initially unacceptable to many continental thinkers. By the middle of the eighteenth century, however, Newton’s ideas had triumphed, and other scientists began to apply his theorems to the study of heat, light, magnetism, and electricity. His followers wrote popular works explaining Newtonian science in terms that educated people who were not mathematicians could understand, several labeled “Newton for the Ladies” or something similar. This fueled the idea, as Pope expressed succinctly in his couplet, that Newton had once and for all explained the mechanism of the universe. Developments in science shaped philosophy, and also other realms of life. 

In politics, finance ministers and other officials used more quantitative methods of administration; governments began to take statistical surveys, attempting to calculate aggregate figures for things like population growth, manufacturing output, income, and imports and exports. This would allow more effective application of economic principles that would lead to growth, officials reasoned, and also provide a sort of unified picture of the nation to parallel Newton’s unified picture of the cosmos. In literature, writers began to use scientific terms more widely in all types of prose, and some advocated a simpler and plainer style, more in line with what they saw as a scientific emphasis on clarity and logic. As Pope put it in another couplet: Words are like leaves, and where they most abound Much fruit of sense beneath is rarely found. Not everyone was convinced of the value of science, however. In 1726, the year before Newton’s death, Jonathan Swift (1667–1745) published Gulliver’s Travels, in which his fictional traveler goes to Laputa and Lagado, where scientists are working on extracting sunbeams from cucumbers, converting ice into gunpowder, building houses from the roof downward, and preventing the growth of wool on sheep. All of these satires are based on proposals being discussed by the Royal Society at the time Swift was writing. Swift was not alone in pointing out that actual scientific discoveries did little to improve the lives of most people. Newtonian ideas about motion helped gunners to fire their artillery more accurately, but in general scientific ideas had few practical effects on technology until the very end of the eighteenth century.

Reason, knowledge, and property

Mathematics, abstract reasoning, and experimentation all provided tools for studying the natural world in the seventeenth century, and they also provided tools for thinkers contemplating the place of humans and God in that world, and the limits of human knowledge. Descartes based all knowledge on our intuition about God’s existence and understanding of ourselves as thinking beings, but other philosophers had different ideas. Baruch Spinoza (1632–77) was born to Jewish parents in Amsterdam, but his freethinking and unorthodox views led him to be thrown out of the Jewish community. He traveled from town to town, making a living as a lens-grinder, an occupation that cut his life short because he steadily breathed in glass dust. Hostility to his earliest published works and political instability in the Netherlands led him to withhold his writings from publication, and his main work, Ethics, was only published after he died. In Ethics (1677), Spinoza argues that there is really only one substance in the universe. That substance is God. God and Nature, Creator and creation, mind and matter are all the same, a position called pantheism, which Spinoza demonstrated through logical geometrical proofs and theorems. Our sense of remoteness from one another or separation from God is an illusion, he asserted, and our immortality is certain, as the One Substance is eternal. Whatever happens is destined to happen – a position called determinism, akin to Calvin’s idea of predestination – but because God and the universe are one, we can be confident that things happen for a reason. We do not have free will, but if we understand our place in nature, we can achieve freedom of mind and an intellectual love of God, a state Spinoza calls bliss. This bliss, this sense of oneness with God and other people, is vastly superior to any other emotion, which Spinoza urges us to control. 

The German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz met Spinoza, and built his own philosophical system on Spinoza’s ideas, though their lives were dramatically different. In his long life, Leibniz corresponded and visited with thinkers, rulers, and statesmen all over Europe, serving as a diplomat in Paris and the official historian and librarian for the dukes of Brunswick. He invented the calculus independently of Newton, and sought to apply Cartesian rational principles to law, theology, and politics as well as scientific issues. 

He was fascinated by Chinese learning, corresponding with Jesuits who had been in China and writing a knowledgeable book praising Chinese culture. Leibniz accepted Spinoza’s notion that everything happens for a reason, and because all reasons are God’s and God is good, everything must happen for a good reason. The world as it exists is only one of many possible worlds, but because it is what God has chosen, it is the best of all possible worlds. Suffering and evil are the result of our not understanding God’s reasons. 

Leibniz was ruthlessly satirized in the French author Voltaire’s anonymous novel Candide or Optimism (1759) in which the young hero Candide, accompanied by his Leibniz-quoting tutor Pangloss, experiences a series of dreadful events, including shipwrecks, trials by the Inquisition, starvation, flogging, and the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which was followed by a tsunami and fire. No matter what happened, Pangloss responds with “everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds,” until finally by the end Candide decides that simple work is the only real escape. “All that is very well,” he says in the last words of the book, “but let us cultivate our garden.” 

While Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz viewed abstract reason as the best tool for understanding the world, the English philosopher and political theorist John Locke (1632–1704) picked up on Francis Bacon’s emphasis on experience, observation, and sense perceptions as the true basis of knowledge. In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) Locke argued that the mind at birth is a blank tablet (tabula rasa) with no innate ideas. All knowledge is derived from actual experiences, a position called empiricism or experientialism; education was thus extremely important, for only through education could the mind reach its fullest potential. Locke’s empiricism was not absolute, however, for he did make room for both reason and faith in the acquisition of knowledge. Reason, experience, and divine will were not only the sources of human understanding for Locke, but also the proper bases for government. 

In Two Treatises on Government (1690), Locke challenged both Robert Filmer (1588–1653), whose Patriarcha based the divine right of kings on the patriarchal power given to Adam by God, and Hobbes, who viewed the original “contract” by which monarchs had been given authority in return for order as immutable. Locke did not see the family and political society as analogous; property, not fatherhood, was the proper basis of political authority. God had given the world to humans in common, and individual property derived from applying labor and talents to that common inheritance; the state of nature was not, as it was for Hobbes, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” but rather pleasant. Individuals had not formed a contract with governments to avoid chaos, but simply to better assure protection for their property. Monarchs who did not do this, or who applied their powers in capricious or arbitrary ways, could justifiably be overthrown. Locke uses the word “property” in several senses. Narrowly, he takes it to mean land, goods, and money. Only those who owned property, he argued, could be free enough to make political decisions without being influenced by others, an idea that fitted well with the political realities of England in the late seventeenth century, and provided justification for limiting voting rights in national elections to property-owning males until the nineteenth century. (In a few local elections in some areas of Britain and eventually in some British colonies in North America, unmarried and widowed female property owners were allowed to vote. Laws that eliminated property ownership as a requirement for voting in the nineteenth century used the word “male,” thus explicitly excluding women on the basis of their gender.) More broadly, Locke uses property to mean “life, liberty, and estate,” which he describes, somewhat vaguely, as “natural rights” given to humans by God. Tyrannical monarchs could thus be legitimately opposed when they failed to protect individuals’ property, but also when they failed to uphold these broader natural rights.

Natural rights and their limits in the Enlightenment

The concept of natural rights as defined by Locke and other political theorists was enormously important for the eighteenth-century thinkers of the Enlightenment. They prepared translations, commentaries, and popularizations of works of political theory, and rights joined reason as a topic for discussion in academies, salons, and coffeehouses. Denis Diderot, one of the editors of the massive compendium of knowledge known as the Encyclopédie, contributed to critiques of the slave trade, while the French mathematician and philosopher Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas Caritat, marquis de Condorcet (1743–94), called for broader political representation and the extension of human (though not political) rights to women, non-Europeans, and Jews. Their works were read, and ideas accepted, in European communities outside Europe. “All men are created equal,” wrote Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), in the first words of the American Declaration of Independence, “endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Enlightenment thinkers also built on Locke’s ideas about the role of experience and the value of education. The Scottish philosopher and historian David Hume (1711–76) wrote essays and popular philosophical works he titled “Enquiries,” advocating the teaching of analytical skills and a wide array of subjects. Hume was a thoroughgoing empiricist, holding that all ideas are based on experience; ideas about things we have never experienced come simply from combining impressions in new ways. Because all we have are sense impressions, we can never really know the substance of anything, and our “deductions” about the world are really no more than beliefs, ultimately unverifiable; nature provided models of probability, not absolute certainty. Hume did argue that we are all born with a capacity for sympathy toward others and common sense about the way the world operates and the way we should behave. These “natural” sentiments, combined with education, will allow us to build ethical political and social systems whether or not we can know anything for certain. Condorcet agreed with Hume about the value of education, though he was far less skeptical about people’s ability to achieve true knowledge and more confident about human progress. “The number of men destined to push back the frontiers of the sciences by their discoveries will grow in the same proportion as universal education increases,” he wrote in Sketch for the Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind (1794), which will in turn lead to “the general welfare of the human species,” and the “indefinite perfectibility of mankind.” Science also provided a ready model for philosophical works. In The Spirit of the Laws (1748), which many historians see as the single most influential Enlightenment text, Charles de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu (1689–1755), sought to construct social science based on the methods of natural science – experiment, observation, deduction, and rational inquiry. “The material world has its laws,” he wrote, “the intelligences superior to man have their laws, the beasts their laws, and man his laws.”

Montesquieu studied governments and societies throughout time and around the globe, trying to deduce general laws from these empirical observations. He asserted that there was no liberty and no assurance of rights without law, and decided that the best form of government was one in which the legislative, executive, and judicial powers of government were separated and held in balance. Montesquieu’s ideas shaped the writing of the United States constitution, and in 1811 Jefferson translated a French commentary on Montesquieu’s text. The Spirit of the Laws was thus influential on both sides of the Atlantic, serving as a foundation for later developments in the writing of history and the conceptualization of economics as well as the creation of political systems. While Montesquieu was primarily interested in human laws, others explored the relationship between God’s laws and those of nature. God had first established physical and moral laws in creating the universe, but then, in the minds of many Enlightenment thinkers, he largely left it alone. This idea, called deism, starts with the ideas of Descartes and Newton, but accords God a much less active role than they did; God was the clockmaker, in a widely used analogy, and the clock he created was so perfect it never needed adjustment. The laws of nature would ultimately be discovered, argued many Enlightenment writers, because God, who had endowed humans with reason, would not have made a universe so complex that humans could not understand it.

Hume went even further, arguing that our perceiving the world as large and complex does not prove it was made by an intelligent creator, for it could have come into existence by accident. God remained far more than a clockmaker in the writings of other Enlightenment thinkers.

Moses Mendelssohn (1729–86), a philosopher, biblical scholar, literary critic, and Jewish community leader in Prussia, accepted Enlightenment ideas about the importance of reason, using these to develop a Jewish philosophy of religion. Though he observed traditional religious practices, he was also part of the Haskalah (a Hebrew word meaning Enlightenment), a cultural movement that advocated reforming and modernizing Jewish education and ways of life. Mendelssohn also advocated civil rights for Jews, and produced a new translation and commentary on the first books of the Hebrew Bible. 

Ending at p. 348

Next section ‘Literature and drama’


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