Chapter 1 Enlightenment and Modern Ideas

Background to Modernism: Decline of Feudalism And Beginning of Modernism

The 16th century marks a watershed in human history. Though human existence on our planet goes back to at least three million years, they have been living largely in regional isolation till the 16th Century. Naturally, barriers like oceans and deserts have kept them virtually segregated. It was only in the 16th century that direct contact was established among them and they were finally brought together. Strictly speaking, one may even say that world history in its proper sense did not begin until the daring voyages of Columbus, Vasco de Gama and Magellan. Till then, there were comparatively parallel histories of separate people rather than one common history of humanity. How did this (first the segregation and then the integration of people) come about?

During the long period of the Palaeolithic (old stone) Age, our ancestors, the Homo Sapiens, gradually spread out from their birth place in Africa to all the continents except Antarctica. Then the Pleistocene Period (ice age) along with the Paleolithic Age ended, raising the level of the oceans and consequently splitting Africa from Europe, the Americas from Northeast Asia, Australia from South East Asia, and so on.

From then onwards humans started living in regional isolation, though in varying degrees. Some were totally isolated like the Australian aborigines or the inhabitants of North and South America, while others like the sub-Saharan Africans were partially isolated. In the case of the former, oceans like the Atlantic or the Pacific became barriers to human movement, whereas in the case of the latter, this role was played by the expanding deserts like the Sahara.

Then what about the condition of the people of the earth’s remaining portion, namely, Europe, Asia and North Africa, which for convenience’s sake, may be described as ‘Eurasia’? Indeed, world history up to the 16th century was primarily the history of this Eurasia. For it was not only the place of origin of the earliest and most civilised cultures of humanity, but also the scene of almost continuous and substantial interaction of people and civilisations. While the American natives (the so-called ‘Red Indians’) and the Australian aborigines lived for thousands of years in virtual isolation, and the sub-Saharan Africans in semi-seclusion, the Eurasians in comparison were exchanging technologies, ideas, institutions and material goods.

However, contacts among the Eurasians were much less regular or widespread before the 16th century than after, when direct sea contact was established amongst all parts of the world. In the pre-modern period (i.e., the Ancient Period as well as the Middle Ages), interaction varied greatly from era to era; it was most limited in the earliest eras, and then gradually picked up momentum.

The four earliest civilisations that flourished in the river valleys of the Nile, Tigris-Euphrates, Indus and Hwang Ho during the pre-Christian millennia were confined mostly to their restricted localities. Though there is substantial evidence of contacts at least among some of them, they were nevertheless somewhat circumscribed oases surrounded by vast stretches of barbarism across which there was relatively little communication.

The situation changed considerably during the Classical Era. By the close of the first century AD when the Classical Age had reached its peak, there were four great empires, consisting of entire regions rather than single river valleys. The Romans controlled the entire Mediterranean basin, the Parthians held sway over the Middle East, the Kushans established themselves in parts of upper India and Central Asia, and the Chinese Han Dynasty ruled over the remaining territory of Asia. Consequently, large scale inter-regional contacts came to be established in almost all spheres of human activity. In fact, it was during this period that ancient religions like Buddhism and Christianity became inter-regional religions with far-reaching religious and cultural as well as political repercussions. It was also during this period that trade and commerce witnessed an unprecedented growth among the different parts of this ‘Eurasia’, while the Greek culture, known as ‘Hellenism’, spread from Eastern Mediterranean to all parts of this ‘Known World’.

During the Middle Ages, which witnessed the foundations of great inter-regional empires for the first time, interaction among most Eurasians became even more intense. Between 632 and 750 A.D., the Arabs established a vast Islamic empire stretching from the Pyrenees to the Indian Ocean, and from Morocco to the borders of China. Subsequently, the banner of Islam was carried further into Central Asia, India, South-East Asia and interior Africa. Furthermore, the Mongols, in the 13th century, established a massive empire consisting of China, Korea, Central Asia, Russia and most of the Middle East. Nothing can be more illustrative of the new horizons than the exploits of the famous travellers, like Marco Polo (1254–1324), Ibn Battutah (1304–1378) and Rabban Bar Sauma (late 13th century). Their travels across the breadth of ‘Eurasia’ clearly demonstrated the advantages of peace and security established by the Arabs and the Mongols in their vast dominions.

However, Western Europe, during most of the pre-16th century period, was what we may now describe as an ‘under-developed area’. For even the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and Arabs, not to speak of the Chinese, generally looked down upon the people of Western Europe as backward ‘natives’, ‘stupid’ and ‘uneducable’. Yet it was the descendants of these Western Europeans who discovered continents unknown to the Greeks and Romans and ultimately became masters of the whole world.

How did the Western Europeans become the leaders of the world in the modern period? In view of their previous backwardness, how did they, instead of the Chinese or the Arabs or the Indians, play a leading role in geographical discoveries and thus begin the global phase of world history? In order to answer this question, it is necessary to find out the situation in the non-European world at that time. Without going into the details, however, we can reasonably assert that the contemporary China, India and the Middle East, while being comparatively developed and wealthy, lacked the expansionism of Western Europe. In fact, it may be said that it was their wealth and development that made them selfcentered, inward-looking and, consequently, unresponsive to the changes.

Modern world history was marked by European expansion and eventually by the disintegration of European empires only during the 20th century. The unprecedented expansion of Europe was facilitated greatly by a variety of historical forces and factors such as the decline of decadent feudalism, beginning of dynamic capitalism, geographical discoveries, Renaissance and Reformation, emergence of national monarchs, agricultural and commercial revolutions, technological progress, population increase and the resulting growth in economic productivity and resources.

The newly emerged national monarchs in Europe granted charters to joint-stock companies and even backed them up militarily, if the need arose. The ex-ploits of Columbus and Vasco da Gama, for instance, would not have been possible without the necessary backing from the Spanish and Portuguese courts. The British and French courts showed no less enthusiasm in providing the necessary backing for such ventures though they did it somewhat later. As a matter of fact, the relations between monarchs and merchants were much closer in North-Western Europe (England, France, etc.) than in the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal), where the feudal lords, because of their close links with the crown, were still predominant. Thus, in North-Western Europe, the merchants had gradually acquired a social status and state backing that was hardly, comparable with Eurasia.

In China, Japan, South-East Asia, India and Middle East, on the contrary, the merchant groups were looked down upon as inferior and undesirable. In fact, none of the merchants, in any of the Oriental empires, could rise to positions of authority. Government was carried on by scholars in China, by soldiers in Japan, by the local nobility in South-East Asia, India and Middle East, but nowhere by merchants except in North-Western Europe where they were steadily gaining political as well as economic power.

Furthermore, Europe had a genuine need and strong demand for foreign products (especially Eastern spices) which were altogether lacking in other parts of Eurasia. In short, there was an impelling dynamism in Europe—a lust and an opportunity for profit. Europe at this time, as a famous scholar has said, was like a ‘giant fed through the chinks of a wall’. For during the late medieval times, a combination of developments, such as the loss of the crusaders’ outposts in the Levant (Eastern Mediterranean region), the break-up of the Mongol Empire, the expansion of the Ottoman Turks into central Europe, etc., isolated and fenced in the Western Europeans. These ‘prison walls’, however, could neither deter nor contain the giant whose strength and knowledge were growing for long.

Thus, towards the end of the medieval period, Eurasia witnessed a curious and fateful development. While the Oriental people were withdrawing into themselves, the Western Europeans were experiencing an unprecedented and thorough, transformation in almost all aspects of their lives. The result was the birth of a dynamic, expansionist civilisation, viz. modern civilisation. It made Western Europe drastically different from the rest of Eurasia and, for that matter, rest of the world, characterised by the traditional agrarian-based civilisations.

The process of modernisation, which began in Western Europe, determined the course of modern world history. It provided the Western Europeans not only with superior economic and military power but also with superior socio-political cohesion and dynamism, and, therefore, paved the way for the European domination of the world. Modernisation, which is a continuing process rather than a sudden single event, initially comprised Renaissance and Reformation, economic expansion, emerging capitalism, state building and overseas enterprise. Later, it manifested itself in the form of the great scientific, industrial and successive political revolutions that have moulded human history to the present day.

Decline of Feudalism and Beginning of Modernism

General Survey

Most of the kings who ruled kingdoms set up after the fall of the Roman Empire began to lose their power. With Western Europe split into several Germanic Kingdoms, there was little unified strength. The individual rulers did not have sufficient military manpower or organisation to control, millions of inhabitants in their areas. As the kings lost their ability to govern, the larger land-owning nobles gained power. Long distance travel ended as highway men, bandits and killers took over the countryside. Little law and order remained. Trade suffered because merchants, with little protection for their goods and no international standards of credit or law, could depend only on nearby markets for their sales. Many schools, libraries, and museums were closed or destroyed. Education was neglected. All this brought a new system of government called feudalism. The Age of Feudalism continued for about 1000 years (500–1500).

Feudalism as a system of government that offered protection in return for working a noble’s lands, replaced strong central governments. Nobles who were large landowners gained most of the power, providing armies for the king when required. The king controlled only his own estates, his domain, and gave the nobles large fiefs or grants of land. These nobles were called king’s vassals. Under the leading nobles were lesser nobles, or sub-vassals, who received fiefs from their overlords in exchange for military support. Then there were the lowest nobles, the knights who made up the armies. When faced by war, a king called on his vassals. These nobles called on their sub-vassals, who called on their knights to do the actual fighting. Feudalism’s lowest class was the serfs, who did farming and most of the other work required by their nobles.

The nobles owned large estates, called manors, and lived in castles, or fortresses that had thick stone walls surrounded by deep water-filled trenches, called moats. Living quarters for knights, serfs, and others were provided in the manor. The surrounding land was used for farming. Young nobles trained in tournaments, wearing armour and using swords, lances, and battle axes. The serf, while not a slave, was bound to the land. If the land was sold, the serf was sold with it. He worked on the noble’s farms, receiving part of the crops he raised. He also did other work on the manor receiving part of what he produced as pay. Despite his share, a serf earned only a bare living for himself and his family.

By the 14th century, feudalism began to fade, particularly in Western Europe. It could not change to meet people’s new needs. As Europe approached an economy based on trade, manufacturing, and crafts, the feudal system of rigid loyalties, without the possibility of changing jobs or moving to other areas, no longer worked. Protection, once offered only by the nobles, was now also possible in cities where, in addition, a man could have more freedom.

As the size and number of cities increased, the political and military power of the nobles weakened. The importance of owning large lands faded as a trade economy based on money expanded. Central governments were established in cities, and one-man rule of the nobles under the feudal system declined.

The build-up of the nation-state had begun in Europe. Powers of kings increased as the nobles lost powers. Under feudalism, the kings had ruled in name only. With the development of nation-states, the kings’ powers greatly expanded. The age of the absolute monarch or powerful king was about to begin. As world trade expanded, a new middle class of merchants and tradesmen developed. Cities increased in size. Merchants wanted sound systems of law and order, and better opportunities. Thousands of farm workers (serfs) managed to leave their farms and seek better living conditions in the cities. In some towns, serfs who had escaped from the manors could gain their freedom after working a year and a day.

One reason for the downfall of nobles was the invention of gunpowder and the use of cannon. Cannons could batter down the walls of the castles which had been strongholds of the nobles. The day of the nobles’ heavily armuored knights riding on war horses and carrying battle-axes was coming to an end. Any former serf armed with a gun could easily defeat the most powerful knight.

What is Feudalism? In the specific sense, it means a social system of rights and duties based on land tenure and personal relationships in which land is held in ‘fief’ (meaning property in land) by vassals from lords to whom they owe specific services and with whom they are bound by personal loyalty. In a broad sense, it denotes ‘feudal society’, i.e., a form of civilisation that flourishes especially in a closed agricultural economy and has certain general characteristics besides the mere presence of lords, vassals and fiefs. In such a society, those who fulfil official duties, whether civil or military, do so not for the sake of an abstract notion of the state or of public service but because of the personal and freely accepted links with their overlord, receiving remuneration in the form of fiefs, which they hold hereditarily. Since various public functions are closely associated with the fief rather than with the person who holds it, public authority becomes fragmented and decentralised. So the socio-economic and political system that developed in the medieval period first in Western Europe and later in other parts of Europe and the rest of the world (particularly the East) is called ‘Feudalism’.

The classical age of feudalism is usually dated from 11th to 13th century, and located in Northern France. Other societies in different historical periods; European or non-European, are compared to this northern French society to determine the extent to which feudal institutions and tendencies developed within them.

The foremost characteristic of feudalism was the hierarchical division of the society based on a system of land-holding consisting of granting of fiefs in return for services and assurance of future services. The feudal society in Western Europe soon developed a hierarchy, in which every person was allotted a position. It was a pyramidal structure with the peasants at the bottom, followed by knights, barons, dukes and earls in the ascending order, and with the king at the top. The king bestowed fiefs or estates on a number of lesser lords, viz. dukes and earls. Those people, in their turn, distributed a part of their fiefs among a number of lesser lords, viz. barons, and in return secured their military support. Thus, dukes and earls were the king’s vassals owing allegiance directly to the king. (Similarly, the barons were the vassals of the dukes and earls). Finally, the knights who formed the lowest category of feudal lords were usually the vassals of barons for whom they performed military service. However, these knights did not have any vassals of their own. Every feudal lord, except the knight as mentioned above, was first a vassal and then an overlord with a number of vassals under him. The relationship from the top to bottom was one of allegiance. No vassal owned any land; he only held the land as of his overlord. The vassal was in every way his lord’s man and he recognised no other authority than that of his overlord. Thus, the feudal lords of different categories held the land as vassals of their overlords, and did not cultivate their lands themselves. They had peasants instead to do it for them.


The peasants formed the lowest but the largest section of the feudal society, and they too were divided into a number of categories. The first category consisted of ‘freeholders’, who received their lands from the lords which they used and managed as their own. These peasants, instead of working for their lords, paid tax to them. The second category was formed by the ‘villeins’, who gave a part of the produce of their own lands to their lords and worked on the lords’ fields for a fixed number of days (on other days they were free to look after their own fields). The last and the most numerous category comprised ‘serfs’. Many of them had lands which they cultivated entirely for their lords. In addition, serfs had to perform any service that the lords wanted them to perform, such as bulking or repairing a house or road. These services were ‘forced labour’, because the lords got the work done without paying to the serfs. Further, the serfs suffered from many restrictions. For instance, they could not change their masters, unless the land changed hands. They also could not leave the land without the permission of the lord.

Soon, this whole system became hereditary. The eldest son of a lord succeeded him and demanded an oath of allegiance from his father’s vassals. The other sons of a lord were lords, the vassals’ sons were vassals and the serfs’ sons were serfs. Thus grew up a rigid society, somewhat similar to our caste system. It was difficult for a person to grow out of his class. He was bound to the class in hierarchy in which he was born.

Another important feature of feudalism was the Manorial or Seignorial system in which landlords exercised a wide variety of police, judicial, fiscal and other rights over the unfree peasantry. Each feudal lord was all powerful within his fief, which might consist of one or several manors, depending on the status of the lord. He had a wide variety of rights and duties such as maintaining the police and the armed forces, building castles, protecting the life of his tenants, deciding their cases and punishing the guilty, levying and collecting taxes from those who lived in his fief, etc.

Another feature of feudalism was the existence of private armies and a code of conduct in which military obligations are stressed. The king had no significant standing army with himself. Hence, in times of war, he had to summon the feudal lords who maintained their own private armies. The feudal lords, in turn, called on their vassals, and so on. Since fighting was practically the only occupation of the nobility, an elaborate code of conduct was developed for them. Kings alone could make the son of a nobleman a knight. Making a young man a knight was a ritual in which he solemnly vowed to observe his duties as a loyal vassal and to protect the weak. The knights showed special courtesy to women and often fought to uphold their honour. There are many interesting stories of knights that resemble those of Rajput heroes in Indian history.

How and why did it Decline? The decline of feudalism was due to the socio economic and political transformations of the 12th and 13th centuries on one hand, and the defective features inherent in the system itself on the other. We will first examine the transformations and their effects on feudalism, and then proceed to the defective features of feudalism.

The economic transformations were the result of the 12th century ‘Urban Revolution’. But before that, the feudal economy was highly localised and essentially self-sufficient. The production was for local use, and the needs of the people for non-agricultural goods such as cloth and agricultural implements were also met locally. In this kind of economy, there was no need of towns. However, gradually from the 11th and 12th centuries, trade and towns began to become important. There was an increase in the demand for luxury goods by the lords. The contacts with the East, which the ‘holy wars’ (crusades) had facilitated, created demand for luxury goods of the East. With the extension of cultivation and improvements in agricultural methods, many peasants were in a position to exchange a part of their agricultural products for non-agricultural goods. These developments encouraged the growth of crafts and trade, and led to the emergence of towns.

The revival of money economy, renewal of city life and its more complex division of labour, the rise of the new social-stratum of burgesses—all proclaimed new needs and possibilities. They enabled the state to perform and enlarge its functions without constant recourse to feudal service. The new market situation enabled the peasants to accumulate money from the sale of surplus production, and initiate the commutation of manorial services into money payments. The final result was the disruption of the manorial economy and a profound change in the standing of the nobility.

The process of dissolution on the manorial level brought about a complete transformation in patterns of social cohesion and state organisation. Different strata of society became crystallised in the pattern of ‘estates’. The estate grouped people of the same social class, who had similar economic standing, and enjoyed the same privileged position in the state in relation to the crown and other estates. Unlike the former feudal links of cohesion, which were vertical, the new links binding man to man were horizontal. Men joining others or their own class sought assurance and confirmation of their privileged position, more than security and protection. A man’s standing was no longer described in terms of his belonging to a given ‘estate’. The hierarchic pattern continued to exist, but as a strata of society instead of a hierarchy of individuals. Moreover, there were no formal links of dependence between the different estates. In other words all were in direct relation to the crown, and each claimed a share in political power, whether national or local.

Insecurity gradually decreased in the distant states of the central Middle Ages, and the rural population did not depend for its survival or defence on the local magnate. The political power they wielded could be, and was, more efficiently used by state officials. Inherited political power consequently lost its practical and moral justification. Soon after, powerful monarchies began to rise in some of the West European countries such as France, Spain, England, etc., and this hastened the decline of feudalism. These monarchies devised various methods to crush the weakened position of the feudal lords, and in this they got the full support of the newly risen middle class, who were eager to usher in a new system.

The hierarchical division of the feudal society led to the gradual development of a rigid class system. Man was divided from man, and class from class. This gulf (both economic and social) between the nobles and the common people (serfs) proved harmful to the very existence of feudalism. The nobles lived in palatial buildings and led a luxurious life at the cost of the common people. The serfs, on the other hand, suffered from many social and economic disabilities, and led a poor and wretched life, mainly because they could not reap the fruits of their own labour. They were completely at the mercy of their cruel and immoral master. Naturally, a system with this kind of blatant injustice and inequality could not last very long, particularly when the circumstances that led to its establishment were no longer there.

The feudal polity was equally defective as it fostered local loyalties at the cost of national unity, and had a weak central government and defective military organisation. The feudal lord held and ruled their fiefs as they wished, cared more for their own interests and ignored the interests of the nation as a whole. The king was entirely dependent on these feudal lords for military as well as financial help. Sometimes the powerful lords asserted their independence, and the king was in no position to control them. Since the vassals owed allegiance directly to their overlords and not to the king, it became even more difficult for the king to contain the recalcitrant nobles.

Feudal economy was also defective because it led to economic stagnation. The wealth produced by the peasants and the artisans was wastefully consumed by the feudal lords in luxurious living and wars. Enterprises and individual initiative were all but unknown. Finally, innovations were not encouraged.

Feudalism also proved harmful for the development of arts, literature and crafts. Lords and their vassals attached great importance to and encouraged fighting and warlike activities. Much attention could not be paid to literary activities and cultural development.

Although feudalism by the end of the 14th century was no longer a political and social force, it had left its mark on the European society. It exercised its greatest influence in the elaboration of the modern forms of constitutional government. Ideas about consent to taxes, resistance to and defiance of the lord, and the balance between rights and duties among lords and vassals played a great role in colouring the outlook of early representative institutions.

Twin Forces of Modernism: Renaissance And Reformation

Renaissance in Europe

General Survey

The Renaissance, which is a French word meaning rebirth or revival, led Europe out of the Middle Ages and into the modern times. It was a period between the 14th and early 17th centuries. The rebirth occurred in the fields of art, literature and science. Among the people of the Middle Ages, life after death had been of greater concern than their daily hardships. The Renaissance brought many changes in a man’s way of thinking and in his opportunities to enjoy his life. Towns grew, trade expanded and new areas of the world were discovered. Men realised that they had control over their own lives. They became confident, ready to adopt changes, and more resentful of unjust rulers.

The term ‘Renaissance’ was coined by 15th-century intellectuals who believed that their age represented the rebirth of classical culture following an intervening ‘age of darkness’ of the medieval period. This interpretation was accepted through the 19th century, but historians today no longer consider it to have been a case of medieval pitch darkness as against Renaissance’s dazzling light. The fact is that the interest in the classics was by no means completely absent during the Middle Ages, and conversely, certain characteristics associated with Medieval Ages were very much in evidence during the Renaissance. So modern historians, while not discarding the familiar term Renaissance, now define it as connoting not a sharp break or turning pint, but rather an age of transition from medieval to modern civilisation—roughly from 1350 to 1600.

The Renaissance got underway first in Italy, and hence reflected the conditions and values of contemporary Italian society. This was a bustling urban society based on flourishing industries and on the profitable commerce between Western Europe and the wealthy Byzantine and Islamic Empires. The Italians were the middlemen in this commerce and prospered accordingly. The Italian cities were dominated by the great merchant families who controlled politics as well as trade and crafts. These families were the patrons of Renaissance artists and writers. Their needs, interests, and tastes coloured the Renaissance cultural revival even though the patrons also included Popes such as Nicholas V, Pius II, Julius II, and Leo X.

At the centre of Renaissance art and literature was the new Renaissance person who was the moulder of his own destiny rather than a plaything of supernatural forces. People did not have to be preoccupied with supernatural forces, rather the purpose of life was to develop one’s innate potential. ‘Men can do all things if they will’, wrote Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472), and his own attainments abundantly validated this maxim.

The secularism and individualism of Renaissance was reflected in its scholarship and education. The so-called father of Renaissance literature, Francesco Petrarch (1304–1374), stressed the value of the classics as a means for self-improvement and guide to social action. Likewise, the new board schools of Renaissance trained not priests but the sons of merchants. The curriculum emphasised classical studies and physical exercise, and was designed to educate students to live well and happy and to function as responsible citizens.

The Renaissance spirit was most strikingly expressed in its art. Since the Church was no longer the sole patron, artists were encouraged to turn to subjects other than the traditional Biblical themes. Giotto (1276–1337) and the versatile genius, Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), are the best examples.

About 1550, after two centuries of sparkling achievement, Italian Renaissance began to wane. One reason for the decline was the French invasion in 1494 which precipitated decades of war and left the Italian peninsula devastated. Another reason was the economic blow suffered when Vasco da Gama sailed into Calicut. This ended the profitable monopoly that the Italians enjoyed as the middlemen in the trade between Western and Eastern Europe. More serious than this commercial decline was the industrial decline. For centuries, Italy had exported manufactured goods, especially textiles, to Northern Europe and the near East, and had also derived substantial revenues from banking and shipping services. But by the late 16th Century, the British, French, and Dutch had surpassed the Italians who were hampered by restricting guild regulations, high taxes and labour costs, and failure to adapt goods to changing tastes. The gap between Italy and the Northern European countries was further widened by the growing importance of colonial trade from which the Italian cities lacking overseas possessions were excluded. Italy, which had been the developed part of Europe during the Middle Ages, now became the underdeveloped. It was Italy that henceforth exported raw materials (oil, wine, grain, wool, and raw silk) to Northern Europe in return for manufactured goods.

The Renaissance, however, was not an exclusively Italian phenomenon. Its innovations spread to Northern Europe in the 16th century. The instruments of diffusion were Italian diplomats and generals employed by northern monarchs, and the printing press which accelerated the circulation of books and ideas. In the process of transmission northward, the Renaissance changed somewhat in character. Whereas in Italy it had manifested itself primarily in art and literature, in the North, it found expression more in religion and morals. However, this was, by no means exclusively so, as evident in the works of German painters such as Albrecht Durer (1471–1528), and Hans Holbein (1497–1543).

Printing was particularly influential in Northern Europe because literacy was more widespread there than in the southern and eastern regions of Europe. The flood of printed matter certainly fomented popular agitation concerning political and religious issues, thereby contributing substantially to the Reformation and the ensuing religious and dynastic wars. Printing also stimulated the development of national schools of literature during this early modern period.

What is the significance of the Renaissance in the perspective of world history? It is apparent that new emphasis on man and on what he could accomplish obviously was more conducive to overseas expansion than the preceding medieval outlook. The fact is that Renaissance Europe was not science-oriented. The leading figures were inclined towards aesthetic and philosophical than objective and sceptical. They retained, in various degrees, certain medieval patterns of thought. They persisted in admiring and believing the incredible and the fantastic. They continued to seek the philosopher’s stone that would convert other metals into gold. They still believed in astrology and mistook it with astronomy.

The Iberian pioneers of overseas expansion definitely were not ‘Renaissance men’. Prince Henry, the Navigator, for example, was described by his contemporaries as a rigid, pious, and chivalrous ascetic rather than as a humanist. Although a generous patron of sailors and cartographers, he was not interested in learning and the arts. Thus, the stimulation of rapidly widening ‘new intellectual horizons’ explains less about the origins of European expansion before 1500 than it does about the impetus and irresistible power that knowledge explosion provided after 1600. Indeed, European expansion was vastly important in its own right. The fact remains that there was an intellectual ferment in Western Europe and that it had no counterpart in the rest of Eurasia. This is a fundamental difference of enormous significance.

What is Renaissance? ‘Renaissance’ is a collective term used to include all the intellectual changes that were in evidence at the close of the Middle Ages and the beginning of modern times. It denotes an intellectual, literary, artistic and scientific movement which widened the mental horizons of man. The intellectual revival was manifested in an interest in the past and a desire for understanding the present. Its greatest attribute, perhaps, was the development of inquisitiveness which is necessary for intellectual progress. Interest in which earlier civilisations had contributed was great, and the Classics were revived.

Renaissance included much that was not found in art and literature. In economic life, for instance, the simple agricultural ways of the manor were altered by commerce and industry. In social relationship, the manor, the nobleman’s castle, and the bishop’s palace gave way to the crowded and busy towns. In the political sphere, there was a new consciousness manifested in the decline of the feudal lords and the papacy, and in the rise of powerful monarchies and nation states. In the scientific field, astronomy, physiology and medicine were investigated with sound scientific procedure, instead of the old method of theological scholasticism.

Man was in the process of making a fundamental change in his attitude towards himself and the world in which he lived. This point of view is commonly called ‘Humanism’. The Humanists were primarily interested in classical literature, but the effect of this interest was more than a revival of the study of Greek and Latin languages. It focused on things of this world, and hence the exaltation of human nature. The natural, the human and the sensual were given precedence over the ascetical, the supernatural, and the theological.

Renaissance, thus, was a great movement of roughly 250 years in European history that began in Italy in the 14th century and spread to Northern Europe by 16th century and that revived man’s power of original thinking on scientific lines and encouraged him to express himself freely and fearlessly in all matters concerning life. In short, intellectualism, humanism and the spirit of enquiry are the chief features of Renaissance. It would, in fact, be quite proper to describe it as ‘the Age of Expansion—intellectual, cultural, geographical and commercial’.

Why did it Take Place? Philosophers and thinkers like Roger Bacon, Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, St. Francis of Assisi, Cimabue and Dante, who were the moving spirits of the new era, lived in the 13th century. In the medieval period, the church dominated the human mind and activities. It was difficult to question its authority. But these philosophers revolutionised thought and laid great stress on the spirit of enquiry, reasoning, independent thinking and scientific investigation. Thomas Aquinas, for instance, declared that the prime author and mover of the universe was intelligence. Roger Bacon made a bold appeal for the free use of powers of mind. Thus, the spirit of inquiry and free thinking gave great impetus to the Renaissance movement.

The invention of the printing press was a very important factor for the spread of Renaissance. Before the invention of the printing press, it was very difficult to spread knowledge because books were written by hand and were also costly. This made knowledge a privilege of the people. Things changed drastically with the invention of the printing press. The first printing press was set up in 1465 in Germany by Gutenberg. Later on, Caxton introduced it in England in 1476. Printing presses were also set up in Italy and Hungary.

All these helped in publishing books in large numbers. Besides, printing was more accurate than copying by hand, and as a consequence printed books became more dependable. Books now reached the common man, and they went a long way in spreading knowledge. Increase in education and knowledge also gave a great impetus to the literary activity of the Renaissance and widened the mental horizons of people.

Besides, there were other scientific developments that paved the way for the Renaissance. Galileo, for example, invented telescope, and Copernicus proved that the Earth moves around the Sun. Leonardo placed his new scientific ideas and discoveries fearlessly. Bacon contemplated the use of horseless carriages and flying machines. All these inventions broadened the mental outlook of the people and put an end to the old beliefs and traditions.

The European navigators, especially those under the patronage of the Portuguese and Spanish crowns, played an important role in the geographical discoveries. After the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 AD, the Europeans felt the need of discovering new sea routes to the East. They succeeded in discovering not only new searoutes to the East but also many new lands and continents. These geographical discoveries and explorations brought the people of Western Europe into close contact with the people of Asia and their cultures. In the process, many misnomers and misconceptions about the world, the shape of the Earth, the seas and oceans were removed, and many new things were learnt.

The commercial revolution that resulted due to the geographical discoveries, led to the establishment of many flourishing towns and cities in Europe, and also to the rise of middle classes which began to play an important role in the history of Europe. The new towns and cities grew into wealthy Renaissance cities and soon became centres of Renaissance art and learning. The middle classes not only became wealthy but also gained in social status. They opened new schools for their children which were free from the dominance of the church. The new learning and education liberalised their ideas and broadened their outlook.

Wealthy and influential people, like kings, Popes, nobles, merchants, etc., became patrons of the new movement. King Francis I of France invited Italian classical scholars to his country to train Frenchmen in the new learning. Henry VIII of England, Charles V of Spain, Sigismund I of Poland and Christian II of Denmark encouraged scholars to come to their courts. Pope Nicholas V and Leo X were great lovers of the classical art, literature and music. They became the patrons of this movement, and encouraged the revival of Graeco-Roman classics. Some of the wealthy families began to buy antiques, and patronised artists to decorate their houses. The Medici family in Florence (Italy), for instance, patronised Renaissance artists, painters, sculptors and learned men such as Michael Angelo, Leonardo, etc.

How and where did Renaissance Take Place? In the Middle Ages, literature was dominated by religion and was written in Latin. But the Renaissance writers wrote about man and everything connected with man. Further, instead of writing in Latin, they began to write in languages of the people (vernaculars). As a result, all over Europe, vernacular prose was gradually raised to a position of literary dignity. Thus, literature ‘during Renaissance’ evolved from a type dictated by churchmen and scholastics to one embodying secularism and individualism. Moreover, the revived interest in the form and composition of classical Greek and Latin languages was carried over into the study of the new languages (Italian, German, French, Spanish, Dutch, etc.) on a scientific basis.

While Italy was the home of many famous literary figures of the Renaissance, a literature typical of that period can be found in France, England, Germany, Holland, Spain and Portugal. Machiavelli was the great political writer of Italy, and his work The Prince, written in Italian, served as a guide for the rulers. Dante’s Divine Comedy is an epic poem, and reveals human love, love for the country and a desire for a free and united Italian nation, though its main theme is the state of soul after death. The works of Petrarch, who has been called the ‘Father of Humanism’, made Italy supreme in Renaissance literature. They dealt with the economic, social and political aspects of man’s life.

English literature reached the height of its glory in the Renaissance era. Chaucer was the father of English poetry. Thomas More wrote Utopia in Latin, and it contained criticism of the society and government of the day. Shakespeare, Ben Johnson and Marlowe were the renowned dramatists. The works of Shakespeare particularly have never been excelled in any language. Francois Rabelais and Michel de Montaigne were the prominent literary personalities in France. The works of Montaigne especially reflect an intense interest in himself and in things connected with the life of man. In Germany, Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible into German helped to develop that language for general use. The greatest Renaissance scholar of Holland was Erasmus, the author of The Praise of Folly, in which he condemned the evils of the church and the atrocities of the clergymen. In Spain, the important literary figures were Cervantes (author of Don Quixote) and Lope de Vega (dramatist). The Portuguese writer, Camoens, described the wonderful voyages of Vasco de Gama in his epic, Lusiads.

Thus, although Renaissance literature was characterised by a revived interest in classical literature, literary activity of the period was not confined to the classical style. There was a tendency to break away from Latin and Greek and to seek expression in the vernacular languages. This was a significant step, not only in bringing about the development of national literature but also in aiding the development of national political institutions.

Throughout the Middle Ages and well into Renaissance, art was dominated largely by christian church. Christian art in the early period was tender and humane. However, organised theology had a devastating effect on art, which became a vehicle of dogma. There was a tendency on the part of churchmen to widen the breach between art and life, to recoil in horror from realism, the human body, and the whole external world. Under such restrictions, art tended to become hard, conventional, and more restrained than what had been typical of the Middle Ages. There was an adoption of classical art forms for Christian uses.

Painting was less influenced by classical works than architecture and sculpture. Paintings of ancient Greece and Rome were scarce, and the artists of the Renaissance had an opportunity to be original. The spirit of humanism prevailed in painting, but the subject matter was distinctly christian. Painting, known as frescoes, were painted on plaster walls. Oil painting was also invented.

Renaissance painting bloomed profusely in Italy. Here it received its impetus and became representative of the spirit of the Renaissance. A number of painters held a prominent place in the pre-Renaissance period (e.g., Cimabue, Giotto, etc.), but they were overshadowed by the brilliance of Michael Angelo (1475–1564), Raphaell (1483–1520) and Leonardo da Vinci (1442–1514) who are considered as the most dominant figures among the Renaissance painters. Besides these Italian painters, Albrecht Durer and Holbein of Germany, Velasquez, Murillo and El Graeco of Spain, and Rubbens and Van of Holland were the other renowned painters of the Renaissance era.

Many of the observations made above on the evolution of painting apply to sculpture as well, except that in technique, the sculptor could rely more closely on classical traditions than could the painter, because sculpture was more developed in classical time and the work was in a state of better preservation. Secondly, Renaissance sculptors studied the human body thoroughly and knew how the muscles and joints worked so they could make their figures more life-like. A famous sculptor, named Ghiberti, made the doors for the Baptistery at Florence.

The huge statues of David, Moses and the Pieta chiselled out by Michelangelo are really praiseworthy. Michelangelo was, in fact, more revolutionary as a sculptor than as a painter. All these Italian sculptors were invited to England, France and Spain, and they spread Renaissance over the whole of the Western Europe.

In renaissance architecture, there was a trend toward classicism. The Gothic style (medieval style) which was essentially Christian in origin, was discarded for the arch, the dome, and the columns characterising the Greek and Roman models. Secondly, while the classical element was basic in Renaissance architecture, the latter had an emphasis upon design and ornamentation. In the latter period, this tendency became so predominant that it degenerated into what is called the baroque; an extremely ornate style.

Alberti, Manetti, Michelangelo, were some of the famous Renaissance architects. Great churches like St. Peter’s at Rome, St. Paul’s at London, St. Mark’s at Venice are examples of this new type. The Pitti palace in Florence and the Farness palace in Rome furnish noteworthy instances of Renaissance secular architecture. The existence of these secular buildings emphasises the tendency noted in painting and sculpture, viz. a shifting from the medieval absorbing interest in future life to a universal emphasis on individual and his earthly existence.

Renaissance music, more than any other arts time, was free from classical influence. Though music was still dominated by religion, several fundamental changes were made in music in the 16th Century. Particular attention was given to harmony, rhythm and symmetry. Musical instruments were also improved, and violin and piano became very popular. Palestrina was the leading musician of the Roman school and his ‘Book of Masses’ (1544 A.D.) has been used ever since. Philip Neri founded the order of Oratorians in Rome, and this served as a forerunner for the modern opera. Martin Luther, seeing the advantage of the popularised use of music in his church, wanted people to take an active part in congregation singing. He also published the first popular religious hymnbook in history in 1524.

Science made some progress in the Middle Ages, but the spirit of modern science was born with the Renaissance. Science in the Middle Ages struggled against restrictions, and there were many fetters to be destroyed before it could continue unhampered. Superstitions were common and, to the masses, were much more acceptable than scientific explanations. The Renaissance, however, brought about an interest in all things pertaining to men, and the thirst for new achievements led to a critical observation of natural phenomena. The spirit of learning was manifested in science as much as in any other field of endeavour, if not more.

Scientists of the 16th Century made the first effective protest against the medieval scientific method of accepting theories before investigation had verified them. Francis Bacon (1561–1626), for example, pointed out that classical scientific conclusions did not represent mature knowledge, and implored men to explore the realms of nature. Descartes (1506–1650) brought out convincingly the necessity of questioning everything. He doubted what the Greeks were supposed to have discovered, and he questioned the conclusions that the scholastics had made on the basis of Greek science. Thus, Descartes contributed the ideas of doubt, and doubt was the forerunner of a new age in science.

What was its Significance? People in the Middle ages had blind faith in the church, its dogmas and rituals. They followed blindly the preachings of the priests as they were very keen to improve their future life, i.e., life after death. They accepted various theories without bothering to verify or investigate them. But Renaissance marked the end of the age of blind faith and the advent of the age of reason and scientific outlook in Europe. It encouraged original thinking, the spirit of enquiry and scientific investigation, and in the process, it freed man from the mantle of slavery of the church. Moreover, people now began to attach great importance to worldly life, and all their efforts were now directed to make it happier and prosperous. Renaissance also created an interest in man, his interests, his nature and his life in this world. This developed Humanism and encouraged the study of humanities such as history and literature.






Da Vinci’s Monalisa


DaVinci’s Last Supper



Renaissance gave great impetus to the growth of various arts, such as painting, sculpting, architecture and music. It also encouraged the study of different sciences and led to various scientific inventions and discoveries. With regard to literature and education, the invention of printing press helped in bringing out cheap and more reliable books in large numbers. Schools, colleges and universities were opened at various places which helped in spreading education and knowledge. Renaissance also led to the growth of vernacular languages and vernacular literature of high standard. It thus enriched European civilisation and culture.

Renaissance did not usher in an era of democracy but it promoted the spirit of nationalism and paved the way for the rise of nation-states, under powerful monarchies in England, France, Spain, Holland, Portugal, etc. These monarchies ensured peace, security, political stability and economic prosperity in these countries.

The geographical discoveries and contact with the East and the New World promoted trade and industry of Europe. The national income of the European countries increased tremendously, and there was an increase in the standards of living of the Europeans. All these developments inevitably led to the rise of a powerful middle class which in alliance with the absolute monarchies put an end to the power of the feudal lords.

Church in the Middle Ages was supreme in religious matters and had great influence in all other spheres of life. But with the growth of the spirit of inquiry and development of critical attitude, people began to question the authority and supremacy of the Church. They now raised a strong voice against the evils that had penetrated the Church. This led to the Reformation movement and the decline of the power of the church in Europe.

Reformation in Europe

General Survey

As the 16th century began, a revolt against the Roman Catholic Church gained strength in Western Europe. At that time, all Christians in Western Europe were members of the Catholic Church. Criticism of the Church had been growing among some religious and political leaders. Out of criticism and opposition, came Reformation, or search for changes and improvements. The Reformation occurred in two parts—Protestant Reformation and Catholic counter reformation.

Several reasons were given by those who broke away from the Catholic Church during the Reformation. Some rulers did not like Catholic Church’s claim of authority over them. Religious arguments sometimes led to wars. Some claimed that the Pope had too much power over the political affairs of nations far from Rome. The Church’s wealth was resented. Rulers objected to the Church not paying taxes on its vast land holdings. Some people objected to having their church donations sent to Rome, rather than being used in their own countries.

Groups of businessmen disliked the Church rule that forbade them from charging interest on loans.

Influence of the Renaissance also contributed to the build-up that led to the Reformation. In the 14th century an English theologian, John Wycliffe, charged that the Church’s formal services were meaningless—that religion was an individual matter between man and God. Wycliffe’s followers, the Lollards were badly treated. John Huss, a Bohemian religious leader, was burned at the stake in 1415 because of his criticisms of the Church. When his followers, the Hussites, rebelled, they were put down by the armies of the holy Roman Emperor. In Florence, Italy, Friar Savonarola denounced the excesses of the Church. For a while, he had a large following but when he was excommunicated, he lost his support, and the Church was again victorious in asserting its supremacy over the reformers. Included in the charges against the Church was nepotism, the appointment of relatives to Church offices, regardless of ability. Another was the Church’s pardoning of sins for a certain payment, called ‘indulgences’. The selling of appointments to Church offices for money, called ‘simony’, was another reason for the revolt.

Martin Luther, a German priest, wanted changes in the Catholic Church. He listed criticisms against the Catholic Church and his differing beliefs about religious authority. Luther’s views were widely reprinted, and the Reformation or the Protestant movement had begun. Luther argued that man’s salvation (saving of his soul) rested between himself and God and that the Bible, not the Pope, was the final authority. He believed that faith brought salvation. Luther won many followers in Germany and his beliefs came to be known as Lutheranism. As Luther’s attacks on the Church continued, the Pope excommunicated him. But he was supported by many German rulers who welcomed the revolt against the Pope.

When the Luther Church was established in Northern Germany, civil wars broke out between German princes. Some supported Luther, others the Pope. A treaty signed at Augsburg in 1555 allowed each German ruler to choose for himself and his people whether to follow Catholicism or Lutheranism. In general, German states got divided into Lutheran North and Catholic South. Soon Martin Luther’s ideas spread into other European countries. Rulers in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden made Lutheranism the official state religion.

In Switzerland, Ulrich Zwingli, a religious reformer, won followers to his form of Protestantism. Zwingli was killed in a short Catholic Protestant war that led to a peace agreement allowing each Swiss district, or canton, to choose its own style of Christianity. Geneva, an independent city in Switzerland, asked John Calvin, a French Protestant scholar, to organise a Protestant Church there. Though a follower of Lutheranism, he held some views that differed from Lutheran teaching. Calvin believed in predestination, or that man’s fate had been determined in advance. Calvin also taught that man should work hard, be serious, and have high morals because this pleased God. Calvinism spread as people from other countries went to Geneva to hear Calvin’s sermons. In time, Calvinism in Switzerland became the Swiss reformed Church. In Scotland, John Knox established Calvinism as the Presbyterian Church. In France, a small group, called Huguenots, were Calvinists. In England, Calvinists were known as the Puritans.

England broke with the Roman Catholic Church over an argument between King Henry VIII and Pope Clement VII. The Pope refused to grant Henry VIII at first, a loyal Catholic, a divorce from his Spanish wife, Catherine of Aragon. Catherine had not given Henry any sons, and the king wanted to marry an English girl. He also wanted the vast Catholic Church lands in England. Catherine’s nephew, Charles V of Spain, the most powerful Catholic ruler of Europe, opposed the divorce. Henry appointed a new archbishop who dissolved Henry’s marriage to Catherine. Henry then married Anne Boleyn and caused the Parliament to pass an Act of Supremacy. This established the independent Church of England and made him, and not the Pope, the religious leader of that church. Under Henry VIII’s successors, Protestant reforms were introduced. The Anglican Church, a form of Protestantism, became the official state religion of England.

A program of reforms known as the Catholic Reformation, or Counter Reformation was undertaken by the Catholic Church to offset the Protestant Reformation. The church had held councils whenever serious religious problems arose. In 1542, Pope Paul III called the Council of Trent. Meeting from 1545 to 1563, it upheld all Catholic religious beliefs and services but changed some procedures.

Activities of the ‘Inquisition’ were widened and strengthened. The Holy Inquisition, a system of Church investigation, tried people on charges of heresy. Several new religious orders were established. The Capuchins, a branch of the Franciscans, cared for the poor and the sick. An order of nuns, the Ursulines, educated girls. The Society of Jesus, called Jesuits, was founded in 1534 by a Spaniard, Ignatius Loyola, and conducted worldwide missionary work.

By the 17th century, the Catholic Counter-Reformation had persuaded many people to return to the Catholic Church. The spread of Protestantism was slowed in France, Hungary, and Poland. Catholicism was maintained in Austria, Ireland, Bavaria, and the Southern Netherlands (present Belgium). New people were converted to the Catholic faith in North America, India, China and Japan.

The legacy of the Reformation is ambiguous. It sowed the seeds of doctrinal dissension and intolerance which culminated in a succession of bloody religious wars. The resulting fragmentation of Western Christendom compelled the contending sects to accept the fact that the hegemony of any universal Church was not feasible. Hence the gradual acceptance and implementation of religious toleration – a process so slow and contested that it is not yet fully complete. The Reformation was equally ambiguous concerning the status of the individual. Luther championed individual interpretation of the Scriptures, but when this led to the radicalism of the Anabaptists and to peasant revolts, he called on the civil authorities to destroy them. Yet the emphasis on the reading of the Bible did lead to greater literacy which opened doors to books and ideas other than religious.

So far as the immediate legacy of the Reformation was concerned, it shattered the universal medieval Church into a large number of local territorial churches – national, princely, provincial, and some confined to a single city. The common feature of all these local Churches was their control by secular rulers. Regardless of whether the Church remained Catholic in doctrine or adhered to one of the Protestant faiths, it was the secular authority that controlled ecclesiastical appointments and Church finances. The immediate and decisive legacy of the Reformation was the transfer from the Church to the state. In this sense, the Reformation represents a state in the evolution of the modern nation-state.

What was its Meaning? In the Middle Ages, the authority of the Roman Catholic Church, was accepted as final in religion and as a necessity in an orderly civilised society. It was crowned with the sanctity of having been founded by Jesus Christ and was considered a perfect order, whose officials were above any coercion. They had control of the means of a salvation: no one outside the Church could possibly be saved. The masses accepted these conditions as a matter of course. However, in course of time many abuses crept into the Church, and it headed towards its decline. As a result, the apparent security of the Church and the predominance of its power were challenged quite unexpectedly by a group of reformers in the 16th century. So ‘Reformation’ was a protest against certain practices of the Roman Catholic Church and an attempt to remove the evils. As it turned out, the reformers and the protesters separated themselves from the Roman Catholic Church, and started new Protestant Churches. Thus, the Christians in Europe came to be divided into two major groups – Protestants (those who rose against the papal authority and monopoly of the Roman Catholic Church) and Catholics (those who remained loyal to the Roman Catholic Church).

Reformation was, therefore, the swan-song of the medieval order. For, it ended the monopolistic power of the Universal Church, which was one of the greatest of all medieval institutions. This great religious upheaval not only was the evidence of a great religious change, but also proclaimed the dawn of a new era in Europe.

While both the Renaissance and the Reformation aided in the breakdown of the old order, and each contributed to the establishment of the new, they operated individually and in some cases, were opposed to each other. Some Protestant Humanists or Reformists utilised classical studies in religious controversies, but Humanism (an important part of the Renaissance) stimulated pagan learning, which austere Protestants condemned. Paganism rebelled against the other-worldliness of scholastic Christianity, while leading Protestants revived supernaturalism and even witchcraft. Moreover, many of the early Humanists were loyal Roman Catholics, critical of ecclesiastical excesses but interested primarily in merely reforming the established Church. Some Protestants were, however, bitter critics of the cult of humanity and of beauty expressed in the Renaissance.

Why did it Begin? The Roman Catholic Church, typical of the institutions of the Middle Ages, was monopolistic, absolute and uncompromising. As long as it was well organised and the clergy was dutiful, the Church was able to maintain its hold on the minds of the people and to command respect from them. But with the accumulation of wealth and worldly power by the Church, the clergy were tempted to neglect their spiritual duties and became engrossed in worldly pursuits. As the Popes and the clergymen became ambitious and began to lead a luxurious life, many abuses and evil practices grew in the Church. Clerical offices were no longer filled by the worthy men but were sold for money, which was known as ‘Simony’.

According to another obnoxious practice, viz. ‘Plurality’, a clergyman could hold more than one post. These clergymen behaved like feudal lords and exploited the people. Besides, a clergyman of every state was required to pay his first year’s income to the Pope as ‘Annates’ or ‘first Fruit’. Even the Popes sold various kinds of pardoncertificates, such as the ‘Indulgences’, ‘Absolutions’ and ‘Dispensations’ ostensibly to save the people from sins, crimes and fire of hell. Again, the clergy did not keep the vows of celibacy, poverty and service of mankind. The Church had, in fact, deteriorated to a kind of commercial organisation.

Abuses in the Church might not have been a fundamental cause for its decline, but they did provide weapons for opponents to wield. Many reformers of the 14th and 15th centuries such as Wycliffe, Huss and Savonarola attacked the priesthood and challenged the church on these grounds. All of them were convicted as heretics and severely punished, but criticism of the Church did not stop. Erasmus (1466–1538), a Renaissance scholar from Holland, criticised the clergy and the blind faith of the people. He pleaded for a return to the simple teachings of Jesus Christ and wanted to reform the Church by appeal to reason.

The Renaissance bred the spirit of enquiry, developed critical attitude of mind, and widened the mental outlook of men. It encouraged original and independent thinking on scientific lines. People now began to question the authority of the Pope and criticise the corrupt practices, rituals and the immoral life of the clergy. Many pious Christians began to study the Bible themselves, as it was now translated into their own languages. They now began to question the authority of the Pope as the only means of salvation. Moreover, the learned people began to raise a strong voice against the abuses that had invaded the Church.

The Pope thought himself to be the representative of God on Earth. Regarding the kings to be his subjects, he claimed authority to throne or dethrone them. Hence, Popes frequently interfered in the internal affairs of different states. In doing so, the Church assumed a role that was quite alien to religion itself. The interference of the Popes in the political affairs of different states was strongly opposed by the kings, and they became anti-Pope. The kings strongly supported the Reformation in order to weaken the Church and to strengthen their own position.

The position of the kings to the Roman Catholic Church and their support to the Reformation increased with the emergence of nation-states in Europe. Rulers of many European nation-states, such as France, England, Spain, Holland, etc., and many of their subjects now began to regard the Pope as an outsider. They objected to the concept of Universal Church, and wanted a national Church free from the control of a foreign Pope. The Popes tried to exert their authority, but the kings in combination with their people (especially the middle classes) overthrew the power of the Pope and made their national churches independent of his authority.

Heavy religious taxation alienated the growing capitalist class, the peasantry, the bourgeoisie, and the aristocracy. Certain Protestant sects encouraged economic individualism, and contested the restrictions that the clergy had imposed upon commercial pursuits. They demanded the removal of the ban on personal wealth gained through commercial occupations, and were willing to permit monetary profits for the businessman. Since much of the Church money was collected from the middle classes or the bourgeoisie, the members of this powerful group welcomed the opportunity to oppose the Church for financial reasons, if for no other.

Between 1305 and 1378, a great catastrophe overwhelmed the papacy. With the election of Clement V, the papacy fell into the hands of the French, and the seat of Church was moved from Rome to Avignon (in France). Due to this event, the Church came to be dominated by the French. Why, for example, should the English or Spanish submit to a French Pope and furnish him money to live in luxury? National governments all over Europe passed laws to limit or, in some cases, to prevent papal intervention in the affairs of the state altogether.

When the churchmen finally emerged out of their ‘Babylonian Captivity’ at Avignon (the above incident is known by this name in world history), they were confronted with other problems. In the ensuing confusion, two Popes were elected; one representing French interests and the other representing Italian interests. The Great Western Schism (1378–1415), the name given to this period of confusion, resulted in strifes that were carried even to the battlefield. For the Church, this was not only a severe test of its material powers but also a scandal. The Church was supposedly a single organisation established by Christ, with a Pope as his successor on earth. People lost respect for the institution and turned to heresies. The great schism was healed but the power of the papacy was never completely restored. Heresies grew in number and became increasingly threatening to the universal authority of the Church.

How and where did it Begin? It was inevitable that the Reformation should start in Germany. For, many Germans were not good Roman Catholics, either by temperament or by training. They were sufficiently far from Rome to make contacts difficult. Germans lacked a strong centralised government to aid the Church in carrying out its decrees. Besides, it was the home of Martin Luther (1483–1545), a fearless and dynamic critic of the Church.

Several of the German princes were itching for civil war, and they eyed the work of Luther as a good excuse. If all the parties were in favour of peace, the theological issues might have been settled. Nobles and peasants also, for disparate reasons, supported Luther. Hostilities broke out between Catholic and Protestant States but peace was temporarily restored at the Peace of Augsburg (1555). According to this agreement, each prince might dictate the religion he wished his subjects to have, provided that it was either Lutheranism or Roman Catholicism. Lutheranism was thus recognised, and its rights were defined. The rebellion did not stop there. For, Luther’s influence reached beyond the territorial limits of Germany. Lutheranism, as a result, spread into other countries, especially to the Scandinavian states, where it was more generally accepted than in Germany.

Protestantism, by its very nature, was conducive to the rise and growth of several sects. Other than Lutherans, two other large groups developed, viz. the Calvinists and the Anglicans. Calvinism, unlike Lutheranism, was not the product of one man, as the name might suggest. The foundation for the rise of Calvinism was laid by Zwingli (1458–1531). He preached against fasting, celibacy of the clergy, and veneration of saints. He insisted strongly than Luther on the supreme authority of the Bible, and diverged radically from the form of service in the Catholic Church. His work was renewed in 1536 by Calvin (1509–1564) with more aggressiveness than he himself had shown. Calvinism soon spread to France, the Netherlands, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Scotland and England.

Anglicism was another form adopted by the third large group of the Protestant sects. It became the faith and order of the established Church of England and the Protestant Episcopal Church in the USA, and from it originated the Methodist Church. In many respects, Anglicism was more conservative and evolutionary than either Lutheranism or Calvinism, besides being highly nationalistic.

During the reign of Henry VII of Tudor Dynasty differences arose between the Catholic Church and the King, but it was not until the reign of Henry VIII (1509–1547) that a definite break came and then on the seemingly insignifi- cant question of his marital relationship. Henry VIII declared himself head of the church when the Pope refused to allow him to divorce his wife, Catherine. His reign was followed by long conflict between Catholics and Protestants. In 1559, Queen Elizabeth I established the Church of England as the official Church. Religious conflicts continued to rock England and the continent for another century. By 17th Century, half of Europe had adopted one or the other form of Protestantism.

What was its Significance? One of the important offshoots of Reformation was Counter-Reformation or Catholic Reformation as opposed to Protestant Reformation. There were many loyal Catholics who did not want to break away from the Church but felt the urgent need for reform from within. The Council of Trent (1545–1563), a council summoned by the Church at Trent in Northern Italy to bring about reforms, earnestly undertook to remove some of the most glaring abuses and to restore unity in the Church. The representatives affirmed the main points in Catholic theology, but condemned the sale of Church offices and demanded that the clergy adhere more strictly to their duties.


European Reformation

A number of orders were also established. ‘The Society of Jesus’, founded by Ignatius Loyola (1491–1556), was one of the most important orders. Strict and unquestioning obedience, as of a soldier in the army, was required for its members. They sought to enhance the power of the Roman Catholic Church through the establishment of schools and missionary work. Their influence spread as far as the Americas and the Orient. Thus, the Catholic Reformation cured the Roman Catholic Church of several of its ills. If it had taken place earlier, the strength of the Protestant cause could have been mitigated. The success of the Counter Reformation could be measured, to a degree, by the fact that the rapid spread of Protestantism was halted.

The unity of Christendom and the universality of the Church became things of the past. The uniformity in doctrines, dogmas and rituals also came to an end. There was a split in the Church into Protestantism and Catholicism. These two groups further broke up into many sects. National Churches were set up in many countries with their own doctrines, principles and sacraments. The heads of these Churches were the rulers of these countries, and not the Pope. Supremacy of the Pope was now replaced by that of the Bible.

While the influence, authority, power and prestige of the papacy was undermined, the spirit of nationalism and the absolute monarchies were enormously strengthened. The Act of Supremacy in England and the Peace of Augsburg in Germany led to the establishment of national churches and later on of the national states.



Martin Luther





Rivalries between the two major groups of Christians gave rise to intolerance, fanaticism and hatred. They committed cruel acts in the name of God and discipline. The Catholic Inquisition was responsible for the persecution of Protestants and they were burnt alive at the stake. Mary Tudor of England is known as ‘Bloody-Mary’ in history because of her bloody deeds of persecuting the Protestants. The Protestants, too, did not follow a policy of religious toleration towards the Catholics, who had, to suffer many hardships during the reign of Edward VI of England. With the passage of time, both Reformation and Counter-Reformation movements became aggressive. The result was the long and bloody civil wars and revolts in many countries, especially in France, Germany, and Switzerland, among the supporters of the two sects. They caused great loss of life and property, and hampered all-round progress.

It saw the beginning of many religious wars among the Christian European countries. King Philip II of Spain was a staunch supporter of the Catholic Church. He was determined to conquer England and put an end to Protestantism in England. He also wanted to check the spread of Protestantism in his dominions, particularly in the Netherlands. Though he succeeded in destroying Protestantism in Spain, he did not succeed either in conquering England and putting an end to Protestantism there or in checking the spread of Protestantism in Holland. Again, when the Protestants of Bohemia rebelled against the Holy Roman Emperor, the rulers of Sweden and Denmark helped the Protestants. Later on, the Catholic France also joined fray, by supporting the Holy Roman Emperor. This was known as the ‘Thirty Years War’ and came to an end by the Treaty of West Phalia in 1648 A.D. Calvinism was also recognised as another branch of Christianity, and the rulers of German states were given the freedom to choose Catholicism or Luther-anism or Calvinism as their state religion.

Emergence of A Scientific View of the World And the Age of Enlightenment

General Survey

Western man’s view of himself and his world underwent great changes during the 17th and 18th centuries. Man slowly turned his mind and efforts from religion to problems and descriptions of the natural world. These changes of thought led to attack on the authority of the ancient thinkers and in some cases, attacks on Christianity. Two great themes combined to cause changes in man’s view. The first was the scientific view that, through proper methods, man could constantly improve himself and his world. The other was that all the laws of nature and the problems facing man could be explained and solved by man’s mind through logic and reason.

The new thinkers created a different method of thought from the ancients. In the field of astronomy, they started basing their findings on measurements, observations and experiments. Arguing that the popular belief that earth was the centre of the universe was ‘unpleasing to the mind’, Nicolaus Copernicus in the 1500s stated that the planets moved around the sun. Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilee agreed and established laws describing planetary motion, inertia, and acceleration. The study of planetary motion reached its climax with the work of the English scientist Isaac Newton. Writing in 1687, Newton improved and worked out the laws describing inertia and gravity. The success of this logical attack upon the workings of the universe caused men to begin to apply reason to other areas of thought and living.

Even man’s idea of himself was questioned. Rene Descartes, a Frenchman, wanted to know how the mind could understand what the body tells about the outside world if the mind and the body have different properties. Descartes began to doubt everything he had learned, but he could not doubt that he was thinking. His words, ‘I think, therefore I am’, show the one thing man knows about himself. John Locke in England, exploring this problem further, believed that man’s mind is ‘blank’ when he is born and that society, through education and religion, places all knowledge in man’s mind. If this were true, thinkers reasoned that better education would make better men. Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher, explained the role that reason plays in man’s understanding of what his senses perceive or see. Kant’s work began modern man’s understanding of the use of reason and logic.

Some men analysed the role of governments with this system of reason. Locke argued that government was created to protect man’s ‘natural rights’. Montesquieu said good government must have separation of powers to keep rulers from becoming too strong. Governments must listen to their people, Jean Jacques Rousseau stated, because the people have ‘natural goodness’ and are ‘sovereign,’ or supreme. The thinkers of the Age of Enlightenment gave man the vision of his own never ending improvement. This vision changed the history of Western man forever.

Scientific View

What is it? In modern civilisation, almost everything is approached from a scientific view. Scientific progress does not mean only accumulation of knowledge and perfection of mechanical instruments, but also establishment of a scientific attitude on the part of the people. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, a steady growth of knowledge and a general clearing up of man’s ideas about the world in which they lived was in progress in the European world. This gradual emergence of a scientific view of the world went on disconnected from political life, and producing no striking immediate results. Nor was it affecting popular thought very profoundly during the period. These reactions were to come later and only in their full force in the latter half of the 19th century. It was a process that went on chiefly in a small world of prosperous and independent-spirited people. In this process, universities played a part but not a leading part. Endowed learning is prone to be timid and conservative unless it has the spur of contact with independent minds.

Why did it Emerge? The primary cause in its emergence is the growth of philosophical thought. A brief survey of the main philosophical trends will drive home the point. From times immemorial, there have been three important attitudes towards life, viz. supernaturalism, humanism and naturalism. The first one, the oldest and most primitive of the three, has never lost its hold on people, particularly the uninformed masses. It is based on the concept that theistic authority rules the forces of nature and salvation of the soul was the primary purpose of life. Naturally there is no meeting point between the scientific view and this supernatural attitude. The second one advanced first by the Greeks and then revived by the Renaissance men, assumed that man was the measure of all things, emphasising secularism rather than other worldliness. While the humanist attitude was not necessarily scientific, it fostered science. The third approach, which was also Greek in origin, did not play any significant part till the dawn of the 17th Century. The forces of nature, according to naturalism, operated according to fixed laws. Life, in its fullest sense, can be realised only by controlling natural forces. This means the glorification of science.

Philosophy by itself could not give rise to scientific view. The proper setting and the necessary demand for its services were equally in need for its emergence.

The expansion of Europe and the commercial revolution gave scientists the much needed opportunity, while the establishment of law and order by the new nation-state provided them the security. The newly risen middle classes provided patronage to them. Above all, the importance of the contributions of many pioneer scientists cannot be forgotten. Many scientists gave up their lives because they were branded as heretics.

How and where did it Emerge? The British and the French were the pioneers in the emergence of the scientific view, but soon the Germans, who had earned humility under Napoleon, showed so much enthusiasm and perseverance in scientific inquiry that they were able to overtake the leaders. Though this work of research and experiment was making Britain and France the most powerful and richest countries in the world, it was not making scientists prosperous. A scientist is normally unworldly, for he is too preoccupied with his research to plan and scheme how to make money out of it. Therefore, the economic exploitation of his inventions falls very easily and naturally into the hands of the more worldly type. For such men, inventors and discoverers came by nature for cleverer people to make profit.

In this matter, the Germans proved themselves to be better. German intelligentsia did not display the same attitude towards new learning. They promoted its development and the German entrepreneurs had not quite the same contempt for the man of science as had his British competitors. Knowledge, these Germans believed, was like cultivated crop, responsive to fertilisers. They did concede, therefore, a certain amount of proceeds to the scientists; their public expenditure was abundantly rewarded. By the second half of the 19th century, the German scientific workers had made German a necessary language for every science student who wished to keep abreast with the latest work in his field. In certain branches, and particularly in chemistry, Germany established her undisputed superiority over her Western neighbours.

The Enlightenment

What was it? The late 17th century saw the sparks of interest in natural sciences and rational thinking flourished leading to an age of Enlightenment. This dominated the 18th century and paved the way for a revolutionary era in politics and society. The leaders of the Enlightenment believed that they lived in an enlightened age. For them the past was largely steeped in superstition and ignorance and saw their age as a time when people were moving from darkness into light. They were imbued with the idea of progress.

The Enlightenment was a time of positive thought. It began to be assumed that the condition of human beings would improve steadily so that each generation would be better off than the previous one. This progress would be achieved by the use of man’s rational thinking. Faith in reason was a crucial characteristic of the Enlightenment Age. Indeed the twin concepts of Enlightenment were progress and reason.

The exponents of these twin concepts were an extremely articulate group, known as the ‘philosophes’, who are not to be confused with philosophers in the academic sense. These were not profound or systematic thinkers in any special branch of knowledge. They were mostly literary men or popularisers—more journalists than philosophers. The ‘philosophes’ were vehemently opposed to the prevailing system and they penned down plays, novels, essays and histories to popularise their ideas and demonstrate to the people the need for change.

Among the large number of people who devoted themselves to the acquisition of ‘natural knowledge’, Newton was undoubtedly the most influential. The ‘philosophes’ were greatly influenced by his law of gravitation and believed in the existence of natural laws that regulated not only the physical universe, but also human society. All people’s institutions and traditions had to stand the test of reason. The ‘philosophes’ subjected the ancient regime in France and throughout Europe to a barrage of devastating criticism. More importantly, they evolved a set of revolutionary principles by which they proposed to effect a total reorganisation of society. Their proposals for change in the areas of religion, economy and government are of particular interest.

How was Enlightenment Achieved? Their key slogan in economics was ‘laissez faire’ or freedom for the people to do what they will with no interference form the government. This was in reaction to the strict regulation of economic life generally known as ‘Mercantilism’. During the formative phase of the nation state, Mercantilism was considered as essential for national security. By the 18th century, it seemed superfluous and detrimental to growth. The best known defence of laissez faire was made by the Scotsman Adam Smith in his classic work, ‘An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations’ (1776). His argument was that individuals are motivated by self-interest so far as their economic activities are concerned, that the national welfare is simply the sum of all the individual aspirations operating within a nation and that each man knows his own interest better than anybody else does.

Religion too underwent reform in this period. The key slogan here was ‘ecrasez l’ infame’ or ‘crush the infamous’. The demand was for the stamping out of religious fanaticism and intolerance. The ‘philosophes’ opposed the traditional belief that God controls the universe and arbitrarily determines the fate of humanity. Instead, they sought a rational approach to religion. Consequently, a variety of radical departures were made from religious orthodoxy. Some became atheists, denouncing the existence of God and condemning religion as a tool of priests and politicians; others became agnostics—neither denying nor affirming the existence of God. But the majority were deists, willing to concede that God allowed the universe to function according to certain natural laws and refrained from intervention. Thus, the deists accepted God amid the teachings of Christianity while simultaneously rejecting supernatural features such as the virgin birth, the resurrection, the divinity of Christ and the divine inspiration of the Bible. What is important to all these new dogmas; atheism, agnosticism and deism is that they reflected the spurt in skepticism regarding ‘revealed’ or ‘supernatural’ religion. Thus, for the first time since the triumph of Christianity in Europe, a definite break with the Christian tradition took place.

In the field of politics, too, they had a key phrase—the ‘social contract’. The contract theory of government, which was not new and was formulated by the English political theorist, John Locke, in his ‘Essay on Civil Government’, was a political contract between the rulers and the ruled. Jean Jacques Rousseau, the French philosopher, changed it into a social rather than a political contract. Social contract, for him, meant an agreement amongst the people themselves. In his ‘Social Contract’ (1726), Rousseau regarded government merely as a ‘commission’ by which he justified revolution as a restoration of their rightful power to the sovereign people.

What was its Significance? This general review of the revolutionary thought sweeping Europe suggests the significance of the Enlightenment for European history. The slogans ‘ecrasez l’ infame’, ‘laissez faire’ and ‘social contract’ were subversive of traditional thought, practices and institutions. Besides, they denoted a threat to the status quo, not only in France, but throughout Europe and even the world. As a matter of fact, these ‘philosophes’ considered themselves not as Frenchmen or Englishmen but as members of the humanity. In other words, they thought and acted in global rather than Western terms and sought to discover social laws that had universal application like Newton’s laws of the physical world.

Though the ‘philosophes’ did not come up with any laws governing all mankind, their writings did leave a mark in many parts of the world. Their greatest success lay in being able to persuade many European monarchs to accept at least some of their theories. These monarchs, though still believed in divine right theory, changed their ideas about the purpose of their rule. Governmental authority was to remain with the kings but now it was to be used for the benefit of the people. These kings, therefore, came to be known as benevolent despots. Frederick the Great of Prussia (1740–1786), Catherine the Great of Russia (1762–1796) and Joseph II of Austria (1765–1790) were the most prominent among them.

The legacy of the Age of Enlightenment was manifold. First, sensualist psychology and the idea of conditioning man’s development through societal laws became integral to the 19th century thought. Secondly, scientific speculation of the 18th century was a step toward the future, but for the most part had little permanent value except in its materialism and in the dawning idea of evolution. Thirdly, moral speculation gave birth to the Utilitarianism that remained a powerful undercurrent, emerging again after World War I. Fourthly, the development of the tenets of both liberal democracy and totalitarian democracy (or collectivism) was promoted during the Enlightenment. Franklin, Jefferson, Adams and Madison found ideas on political and civil rights a rational and just society, representation and popular sovereignty as expressed in suffrage. Karl Marx, another spiritual son of the Enlightenment, stimulated its speculative proto-totalitarianism with the doctrine of class struggle, economic determinism and dialectical materialism.

Rise And Growth of Major Ideas: Kant & Rousseau

General Survey

The scientific and intellectual developments of the 17th century – the discoveries of Isaac Newton, the rationalism of Rene Descartes, the skepticism of Pierre Bayle, the pantheism of Benedict de Spinoza, and the empiricism of Francis Bacon and John Locke-fostered the belief in natural law and universal order and the confidence in human reason that spread to influence all of 18th century society. Currents of thought were many and varied, but certain ideas may be characterised as pervading and dominant. A rational and scientific approach to religious, social, political, and economic issues promoted a secular view of the world and a general sense of progress and perfectibility.

The major champions of these concepts were the ‘philosophes’, who popularised and promulgated the new ideas for the general reading public. These proponents of the Enlightenment shared certain basic attitudes. With supreme faith in rationality, they sought to discover and to act upon universally valid principles governing humanity, nature, and society. They variously attacked spiritual and scientific authority, dogmatism, intolerance, censorship, and economic and social restraints. They considered the state the proper and rational instrument of progress. The extreme rationalism and skepticism of the age led naturally to deism; the same qualities played a part in bringing the later reaction of romanticism. The Encyclopedie of Denis Diderot epitomised the spirit of the Age of Enlightenment, or Age of Reason, as it is also called.

What were the Roots? Although the intellectual movement called ‘Enlightenment’, is usually associated with the 18th century, its roots, in fact, go back much further. But before we explore those roots, we need to define the term. This is one of those rare historical movements which in fact named itself. Certain thinkers and writers, primarily in London and Paris, believed that they were more enlightened than their compatriots and set out to enlighten them. They believed that human reason could be used to combat ignorance, superstition, and tyranny and to build a better world. Their principal targets were religion (embodied in France in the Catholic Church) and the domination of society by a hereditary aristocracy.

To understand why this movement became so influential in the 18th century, it is important to go back in time. We could choose almost any starting point, but let us begin with the recovery of Aristotelian logic by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. In his hands the logical procedures so carefully laid out by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle were used to defend the dogmas of Christianity; and for the next couple of centuries, other thinkers pursued these goals to shore up every aspect of faith with logic. These thinkers were sometimes called ‘schoolmen’ (more formally, ‘scholastics,’) and Voltaire frequently refers to them as ‘doctors,’ by which he means ‘doctors of theology.’ Unfortunately for the Catholic Church, the tools of logic could not be confined to the uses it preferred. After all, they had been developed in Athens, in a pagan culture which had turned them on its own traditional beliefs. It was only a matter of time before Europeans did the same.

In the 14th and 15th centuries, there emerged in Italy and France a group of thinkers known as the ‘humanists.’ The term did not then have anti-religious associations it has in contemporary political debate. Almost all of them were practicing Catholics. They argued that the proper worship of God involved admiration of his creation, particularly the crown of creation: humanity. By celebrating the human race and its capacities, they argued, they were worshipping God more appropriately than gloomy priests and monks who harped on original sin and continuously called upon people to confess and humble themselves before the Almighty. Indeed, some of them claimed that humans were like God, created not only in his image, but with a share of his creative power. The painter, the architect, the musician, and the scholar, by exercising their intellectual powers, were fulfilling divine purposes. This celebration of human capacity, though it was mixed in the Renaissance with elements of gloom and superstition (witchcraft trials flourished in this period as they never had during the Middle Ages), was to bestow a powerful legacy on Europeans. The goal of Renaissance humanists was to recapture some of the pride, breadth of spirit, and creativity of the ancient Greeks and Romans, to replicate their successes and go beyond them. Europeans developed the belief that tradition could and should be used to promote change. By cleaning and sharpening the tools of antiquity, they could reshape their own time.

Galileo Galilee, for instance, was used the same sort of logic the schoolmen had used–reinforced with observation—to argue in 1632 for the Copernican notion that the earth rotates on its axis beneath the unmoving sun. The Church, and most particularly the Holy Inquisition, objected that the Bible clearly stated that the sun moved through the sky and denounced Galileo’s teachings, forcing him to recant (take back) what he had written and preventing him from teaching further. The Church’s triumph was a pyrrhic victory, for though it could silence Galileo, it could not prevent the advance of science (though most of those advances would take place in Protestant northern Europe, out of the reach of the Pope and his Inquisition). Before Galileo’s time, in the 16th century, various humanists had begun to ask dangerous questions. Francois Rabelais, a French monk and physician influenced by Protestantism, but spurred on by his own rebelliousness, challenged the Church’s authority in his Gargantua and Pantagruel, ridiculing many religious doctrines as absurd.

What was the Background of Major Ideas? During the late Middle Ages, peasants had begun to move from rural estates to the towns in search of increased freedom and prosperity. As trade and communication improved during the Renaissance, the ordinary town-dweller began to realise that things need not always go on as they had for centuries. New charters could be written, new governments formed, new laws passed, new businesses begun. Although each changed institution quickly tried to stabilise its power by claiming the support of tradition, the pressure for change continued to mount. It was not only contact with alien cultural patterns which influenced Europeans, it was the wealth brought back from Asia and the Americas, which catapulted a new class of merchants into prominence, partially displacing the old aristocracy whose power had been rooted in the ownership of land. These merchants had their own ideas about the sort of world they wanted to inhabit, and they became major agents of change, in the arts, in government, and in the economy.

They were naturally convinced that their earnings were the result of their individual merit and hard work, unlike the inherited wealth of traditional aristocrats. Whereas individualism had been chiefly emphasised in the Renaissance by artists, especially visual artists, it now became a core value. The ability of individual effort to transform the world became a European dogma, lasting to this day.

The chief obstacles to the reshaping of Europe by the merchant class were the same as those faced by the rationalist philosophers: absolutist kings and dogmatic Churches. The struggle was complex and many-sided, with each participant absorbing many of the others’ values; but the general trend was clear: individualism, freedom and change replaced community, authority, and tradition as core European values. Religion survived, but weakened and often transformed almost beyond recognition; the monarchy was to dwindle over the course of the hundred years beginning in the mid-18th century to a pale shadow of its former self.

This is the background of the 18th-century Enlightenment. Europeans were changing, but Europe’s institutions were not keeping pace with that change. The Church insisted that it was the only source of truth, that all who lived outside its bounds were damned, while it was apparent to any reasonably sophisticated person that most human beings on earth were not and had never been Christians—yet they had built great and inspiring civilisations. Writers and speakers grew restive at the omnipresent censorship and sought whatever means they could to evade or even denounce it.

Most important, the middle classes—the bourgeoisie—were painfully aware that they were paying taxes to support a fabulously expensive aristocracy which contributed nothing of value to society (beyond, perhaps, its patronage of the arts, which the burghers of Holland had shown could be equally well exercised by themselves), and that those useless aristocrats were unwilling to share power with those who actually managed and—to their way of thinking—created the national wealth. They were to find ready allies in France among the impoverished masses who may have lived and thought much like their ancestors, but who were all too aware that with each passing year they were paying higher and higher taxes to support a few thousand at Versailles in idle dissipation.

How did the Ideas Rise & Grow? Michel de Montaigne, in a much more quiet and modest but ultimately more subversive way, asked a single question over and over again in his Essays: ‘What do I know?’ By this he meant that we have no right to impose on others, dogmas which rest on cultural habit rather than absolute truth. Powerfully influenced by the discovery of thriving non-Christian cultures in places as far off as Brazil, he argued that morals may be to some degree relative. Who are Europeans to insist that Brazilian cannibals who merely consume dead human flesh instead of wasting it are morally inferior to Europeans who persecute and oppress those of whom they disapprove? This shift toward cultural relativism, though it was based on scant understanding of the newly discovered people, continued to have a profound effect on the European thought to the present day. Indeed, it is one of the hallmarks of the Enlightenment. Just as their predecessors had used the tools of antiquity to gain unprecedented freedom of inquiry, the Enlightenment thinkers used the examples of other cultures to gain freedom to reshape not only their philosophies, but their societies. It was becoming clear that there was nothing inevitable about the European patterns of thought and living: there were many possible ways of being human, and doubtless new ones could be invented.



The other contribution of Montaigne to the Enlightenment stemmed from another aspect of his famous question: ‘What do I know?’ If we cannot be certain that our values are God-given, then we have no right to impose them by force on others. Inquisitors, Popes, and kings alike had no business enforcing adherence to particular religious or philosophical beliefs.

It is one of the great paradoxes of history that radical doubt was necessary for the new sort of certainty called ‘scientific.’ The good scientist is the one who is willing to test all assumptions, to challenge all traditional opinion, to get closer to the truth. If ultimate truth, such as was claimed by religious thinkers, was unattainable by scientists, so much the better. In a sense, the strength of science at its best is that it is always aware of its limits, aware that knowledge is always growing, always subject to change; never absolute. Since knowledge depends on evidence and reason, arbitrary authority can only be its enemy.

René Descartes, in the 17th century, attempted to use reason as the schoolmen had, to shore up his faith, but much more rigorously than had been attempted before. He tried to begin with a blank slate, with the bare minimum of knowledge: the knowledge of his own existence (‘I think, therefore I am’). From there, he attempted to reason his way to a complete defence of Christianity, but to do so he committed so many logical faults that his successors over the centuries were to slowly disintegrate his gains, even finally challenging the notion of selfhood with which he had begun. The history of philosophy from his time to the early 20th century is partly the story of more and more ingenious logic proving less and less, until Ludwig Wittgenstein succeeded in undermining the very bases of philosophy itself.

Here we are concerned with early stages in the process in which it seemed that logic could be a powerful avenue to truth. To be sure, logic alone could be used to defend all sorts of absurd notions; and Enlightenment thinkers insisted on combining it with something they called ‘reason’ which consisted of common sense, observation, and their own unacknowledged prejudices in favour of skepticism and freedom.

We have been focusing closely on a thin trickle of thought which travelled through an era otherwise dominated by dogma and fanaticism. The 17th century was torn by witch-hunts and wars of religion and imperial conquest. Protestants and Catholics denounced each other as followers of Satan, and people could be imprisoned for attending the wrong church, or for not attending any. All publications, whether pamphlets or scholarly volumes, were subject to prior censorship by both Church and state, often working hand in hand. Slavery was widely practiced, especially in the colonial plantations of the Western Hemisphere, and its cruelties frequently defended by leading religious figures. The despotism of monarchs exercising far greater powers than any medieval king was supported by the doctrine of the ‘divine right of kings,’ and scripture quoted to show that revolution was detested by God. Speakers of sedition or blasphemy quickly found themselves imprisoned, or even executed. Organisations which tried to challenge the twin authorities of church and state were banned. There had been plenty of intolerance and dogma to go around in the Middle Ages, but the emergence of the modern state made its tyranny much more efficient and powerful.

It was inevitable that sooner or later many Europeans would begin to weary of the repression and warfare carried out in the name of absolute truth. In addition, though Protestants had begun by making powerful critiques of Catholicism, they quickly turned their guns on each other, producing a bewildering array of Churches each claiming the exclusive path to salvation. It was natural that people tossed from one demanding faith to another to wonder whether any of the Churches deserved the authority they claimed, and to begin to prize the scepticism of Montaigne over the certainty of Luther or Calvin. Meanwhile, there were other powerful forces at work in Europe: economic ones which were to interact profoundly with these intellectual trends.

Interestingly, it was among those very idle aristocrats that the French Enlightenment philosophers were to find some of their earliest and most enthusiastic followers. Despite the fact that the Church and State were more often than not allied with each other, they were keenly aware of their differences. Even kings could on occasion be attracted by arguments which seemed to undermine the authority of the Church. The fact that the aristocrats were utterly unaware of the precariousness of their position also made them overconfident, interested in dabbling in the new ideas partly simply because they were new and exciting.

Voltaire moved easily in these aristocratic circles, dining at their tables, taking a titled mistress, corresponding with monarchs. He opposed tyranny and dogma, but he had no notion of reinventing that discredited Athenian folly, democracy. He had far too little faith in the ordinary person for that. What he did think was that educated and sophisticated persons could be brought to see through the exercise of their reason that the world could and should be greatly improved.

Not all Enlightenment thinkers were like Voltaire in this. His chief adversary was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who distrusted the aristocrats not out of a thirst for change but because he believed they were betraying decent traditional values. He opposed the theater which was Voltaire’s lifeblood, shunned the aristocracy which Voltaire courted, and argued for something dangerously like democratic revolution. Whereas Voltaire argued that equality was impossible, Rousseau argued that inequality was not only unnatural, but that—when taken too far—it made decent government impossible. Whereas Voltaire charmed with his wit, Rousseau ponderously insisted on his correctness, even while contradicting himself. Whereas Voltaire insisted on the supremacy of the intellect, Rousseau emphasised on the emotions, becoming a contributor to both the Enlightenment and its successor, Romanticism. Whereas Voltaire endlessly repeated the same handful of core Enlightenment notions, Rousseau sparked off original thoughts in all directions: ideas about education, the family, government, the arts, and whatever else attracted his attention.

For all their personal differences, the two shared more values than they liked to acknowledge. They viewed absolute monarchy as dangerous and evil and rejected orthodox Christianity. Though Rousseau often struggled to seem more devout, he was almost as much a sceptic as Voltaire: the minimalist faith both shared was called ‘deism,’ and it was eventually to transform European religion and have powerful influences on other aspects of society as well. Across the border in Holland, merchants who exercised most political power made a successful industry out of publishing books that could not be printed in countries like France. Dissenting religious groups mounted radical attacks on Christian orthodoxy.

How did it Spread in Various Countries? Centred in Paris, the movement gained international character at cosmopolitan salons. Masonic lodges played an important role in disseminating new ideas throughout Europe. Foremost in France among proponents of the Enlightenment were Baron de Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Comte de Buffon; Baron Turgot and other physiocrats, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who greatly influenced romanticism. Many opposed the extreme materialism of Julien de La Mettrie, Baron Holbach, and Claude Helvetius.

In England, the coffeehouses and the newly flourishing press stimulated social and political criticism, such as the urbane commentary of Joseph Addison and Sir Richard Steele. Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope were influential Tory satirists. Lockean theories of learning by sense perception were further developed by David Hume. The philosophical view of human rationality as being in harmony with the universe created a hospitable climate for the laissez-faire economics of Adam Smith and for the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham. Historical writing gained secular detachment in the work of Edward Gibbon.

In Germany, the universities became centres of the Enlightenment. Moses Mendelssohn set forth a doctrine of rational progress; G. E. Lessing advanced a natural religion of morality; Johann Herder developed a philosophy of cultural nationalism. The supreme importance of the individual formed the basis of the ethics of Immanuel Kant. Italian representatives of the age included Cesare Beccaria and Giambattista Vico. From America, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin exerted vast international influence.

Some ‘philosophes’ at first proposed that their theories be implemented by enlightened despotic rulers who would impose reform by authoritarian means. Czar Peter I of Russia anticipated the trend, and Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II was the prototype of the enlightened despot; others were Frederick II of Prussia, Catherine II of Russia, and Charles III of Spain. The proponents of the Enlightenment have often been held responsible for the French Revolution. Certainly the Age of Enlightenment can be seen as a major demarcation in the emergence of the modern world.

Meanwhile, Great Britain had developed its own Enlightenment, fostered by thinkers like the English thinker John Locke, the Scot David Hume, and many others. England had anticipated the rest of Europe by deposing and decapitating its king back in the 17th century. Although the monarchy had eventually been restored, this experience created a certain openness toward change in many places that could not be entirely extinguished. English Protestantism struggled to express itself in ways that widened the limits of freedom of speech and press. Radical Quakers and Unitarians broke open old dogmas in ways that Voltaire was to find highly congenial when he found himself there in exile. The English and French Enlightenments exchanged influences through many channels, Voltaire not least among them. Since England had gotten its revolution out of the way early, it was able to proceed more smoothly and gradually down the road to democracy; but English liberty was dynamite when transported to France, where resistance by Church and state was fierce to the last possible moment. Ironically the result was that while Britain remained saturated with class privilege and relatively pious, France was to become after its own revolution the most egalitarian and anti-clerical state in Europe—at least in its ideals. The power of religion and aristocracy diminished gradually in England while in France they were violently uprooted.

Across the Atlantic, many of the intellectual leaders of the American colonies were drawn to the Enlightenment. The colonies may have been founded by leaders of various dogmatic religious persuasions, but when it became necessary to unite against England, it was apparent that no one of them could prevail over the others, and that the most desirable course was to agree to disagree. Nothing more powerfully impelled the movement toward the separation of Church and State than the realisation that no one church could dominate this new state. Many of the most distinguished leaders of the American revolution—Jefferson, Washington, Franklin, Paine—were powerfully influenced by English and—to a lesser extent—French Enlightenment thought. The God who underwrites the concept of equality in the Declaration of Independence is the same deist God Rousseau worshipped, not that venerated in the traditional churches which still supported and defended monarchies all over Europe. Jefferson and Franklin both spent time in France—a natural ally because it was a traditional enemy of England—absorbing the influence of the French Enlightenment. The language of natural law, of inherent freedoms, of selfdetermination which seeped so deeply into the American grain was the language of the Enlightenment, though often coated with a light glaze of traditional religion, what has been called our ‘civil religion.’ This is one reason that Americans studied the Enlightenment. It is in their bones. It has defined part of what they have dreamed of, what they aim to become. Separated geographically from most of the aristocrats against whom they were rebelling, their revolution was to be far less corrosive—and at first less influential—than that in France.

But we need to return to the beginning of the story, to Voltaire and his allies in France, struggling to assert the values of freedom and tolerance in a culture where the twin fortresses of monarchy and Church opposed almost everything they stood for. To oppose the monarchy openly would be fatal; the Church was an easier target. Protestantism had made religious controversy familiar. Voltaire could skillfully cite one Christian against another to make his arguments. One way to undermine the power of the Church was to undermine its credibility, and thus Voltaire devoted a great deal of his time in attacking the fundamentals of Christian belief: the inspiration of the Bible, the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, the damnation of unbelievers. No doubt he relished this battle partly for its own sake, but he never lost sight of his goal: the toppling of Church power to increase the freedom available to Europeans. Voltaire was joined by a band of rebellious thinkers known as the ‘philosophes’: Charles de Montesquieu, Pierre Bayle, Jean d’Alembert, and many lesser lights. Although ‘philosophe’, literally means ‘philosopher’, we use the French word in English to designate this particular group of French 18th-century thinkers. Since Denis Diderot commissioned many of them to write for his influential Encyclopedia, they are also known as ‘the Encyclopedists.’

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804)

What is his Role in Enlightenment? Complicated in thought but simple in lifestyle, Kant—who wrote and taught on a broad range of subjects from physics to metaphysics, from theology to philosophy—lived out his life in the relative confines of his hometown of Konigsberg, East Prussia (‘Kaliningrad’ since its Russian takeover towards the end of World War II).

In many ways, Kant’s intellectual life was shaped by the challenge that Hume had issued the world a quarter of a century earlier. In his Critique of Pure Reason (1781), Kant agreed with Hume’s empiricism—namely that sense-experience is essential to human knowledge. But he also agreed with the continental rationalists (most notably Leibniz, whose writings also were a major influence over Kant) that knowledge is also a matter of the exercise of human reason—in particular the use of innate human ideas (‘categories’) which help us to organise this empirical information. Thus Kant saw himself as closing the intellectual gap between the British empiricists and the Continental rationalists.

Kant also saw himself as answering Hume’s skepticism about ever knowing with any degree of certainty the truth of transcendent ideas, such as moral laws or ethical principles. In Kant’s, Metaphysics of Morals (1785) and Critique of Practical Reason (1788), he proposed a new moral/ethical ‘categorical imperative,’ one that did not require the existence of God for its validity. Yet Kant’s concept was of a definite transcendent nature, one with absolute universal validity. It involved an ingenious piece of moral logic: we ought to act in such a way that our act could become accepted as a universal principle of behaviour. If it were not able to attain such a universal validity (because, for instance, of an internal contradiction in logic) then that action, by ‘practical reason,’ was obviously not to be pursued.

Taking this logic of ‘practical reason’ a step further, he turned to the issue of the existence of God. He agreed with Hume that no rational argument could be given for God’s existence—that is, ‘pure reason’ could not build a case for God’s existence, ‘practical reason’ could. Pursuing a traditional line of reason that went back as far as Ockham in the early 1300s, Kant claimed that human reason cannot establish the ‘fact’ of God. In observing the moral instincts of people, we can see (through the eyes of faith) that there is ‘some kind’ of source beyond the mere human will itself that directs life. That higher moral grounding is by definition God. Thus God exists. (This kind of theological reasoning did not impress the Prussian government, which censured his work). Kant was so impressed that we humans could live in accordance with such higher moral imperatives that in his Perpetual Peace he laid out a vision for a new world order.


Immanuel Kant

What is his Contribution to Philosophy? According to Kant, his reading of David Hume awakened him from his dogmatic slumber and set him on the road to becoming the critical philosopher, whose position can be seen as a synthesis of the Leibniz–Wolffian rationalism and the Humean scepticism. Kant termed his basic insight into the nature of knowledge, the Copernican revolution in philosophy.

Instead of assuming that our ideas, to be true, must conform to an external reality independent of our knowing, Kant proposed that objective reality is known only insofar as it conforms to the essential structure of the knowing mind. He maintained that objects of experience-phenomena may be known, but that things lying beyond the realm of possible experience—or things-in-themselves—are unknowable, although their existence is a necessary presupposition. Phenomena that can be perceived in the pure forms of sensibility, space, and time must, if they are to be understood, possess the characteristics that constitute our categories of understanding. Those categories, which include causality and substance, are the source of the structure of phenomenal experience.

The scientist, therefore, may be sure only that the natural events observed are knowable in terms of the categories. Our field of knowledge, thus emancipated from Humean skepticism, is nevertheless limited to the world of phenomena. All theoretical attempts to know things-in-themselves are bound to fail. This inevitable failure is the Partial theme of Critique of Pure Reason entitled, the Transcendental Dialectic. Here Kant shows that the three great problems of metaphysics—God, freedom, and immortality—are insoluble by speculative thought. Their existence can be neither affirmed nor denied on theoretical grounds, nor can they be scientifically demonstrated, but Kant shows the necessity of a belief in their existence in his moral philosophy.

Kant’s ethics centres in his categorical imperative (or moral law)—act as if the maxim from which you act were to become through your will a universal law. This law has its source in the autonomy of a rational being, and it is the formula for an absolutely good will. However, since we are all members of two worlds, the sensible and the intelligible, we do not infallibly act in accordance with this law but, on the contrary, almost always act according to inclination. Thus what is objectively necessary, i.e., to will in conformity to the law, is subjectively contingent, and for this reason, the moral law confronts us as an ought.

In the Critique of Practical Reason, Kant went on to state that morality requires the belief in the existence of God, freedom, and immortality, because without their existence there can be no morality. In the Critique of Judgment, Kant applied his critical method to aesthetic and teleological judgments. The chief purpose of this work was to find a bridge between the sensible and the intelligible worlds, which are sharply distinguished in his theoretical and practical philosophy. This bridge is found in the concepts of beauty and purposiveness that suggest at least the possibility of an ultimate union of the two realms.

What is the Impact of Kantian Philosophy? The impact of Kant’s work has been incalculable. In addition to being the impetus to the development of German idealism by J. G. Fichte, F. W. Schelling, and G. W. F. Hegel, Kant’s philosophy has influenced almost every area of thought. Among the major outgrowths of Kant’s work was the Neo-Kantianism of the late 19th century This movement had many branches in Germany, France, and Italy; the two chief ones were the Marburg school, founded by Hermann Cohen and Ernst Cassirer, and the Heidelberg school, led by Wilhelm Windelband and Heinrich Rickert.

The Marburg school was primarily concerned with the application of Kantian insights to the understanding of the physical sciences, and the Heidelberg school with the application of Kant to the historical and cultural sciences. Closely connected with the latter group was the social philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey. Kant influenced English thought through the philosophy of Sir William Hamilton and T. H. Green, and some Kantian ideas are found in the pragmatism of William James and John Dewey. In theology, Kant’s influence can be seen in the writings of Friedrich Schleiermacher and Albrecht Ritschl; his ideas in biology were developed by Hans Driesch and in Gestalt psychology by Wolfgang Köhler. All of Kant’s important works have been translated into English.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–78)

What is his Role in Enlightenment? Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a French philosopher, and a leading figure of the Enlightenment. He believed that people are naturally good but are corrupted by society’s false values. He was against the limitations of civilised society, and advised a return to nature. He also developed the idea of the general will, and argued that conformity with it had to be the guiding principle of government. Essentially concerned with the notion of freedom, Rousseau began his masterpiece, The Social Contract (1762) with the words ‘man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains’. He argued that people sacrifice their rights in return for protection by a head of state.

Rousseau challenged the idea of absolute monarchy, and the tradition that the nobility and clergy were entitled to special privileges. He also had the opinion that education should be available to everyone. Rousseau’s ideas were an important influence on Romanticism and French Revolution. His writings began to influence political events, and inspired revolutions in France and North America. Slavery had no place in these nations formed to protect human rights.

Rousseau’s ideas also inspired people to fight for freedom on behalf of others who were unable to help themselves. Politicians, Church leaders and ordinary people began to think how they might help slaves.

How did he live and Write? Rousseau was born at Geneva, the son of a watchmaker. His mother died shortly after his birth, and his upbringing was haphazard. At 16, he set out on a wandering, irregular life that brought him into contact (1728) with Louise de Warens, who became his patron and later his lover. She arranged for his trip to Turin, where he became an unenthusiastic Roman Catholic convert. After serving as a footman in a powerful family, he left Turin and spent most of the next dozen years at Chambery, Savoy, with his patron. In 1742, he went to Paris to make his fortune with a new system of musical notation, but the venture failed. Once in Paris, however, he became an intimate of the circle of Denis Diderot (to whose Encyclopedie Rousseau contributed music articles), Melchior Grimm, and Mme d’Épinay. At this time also began his liaison with Therese Le Vasseur, a semi-literate servant who became his common-law wife.

In 1749, Rousseau won first prize in a contest, held by the Academy of Dijon, on the question: Has the progress of the sciences and arts contributed to the corruption or to the improvement of human conduct? Rousseau took the negative stand, contending that humanity was good by nature and had been fully corrupted by civilisation. His essay made him both famous and controversial. Although it is still widely believed that all of Rousseau’s philosophy was based on his call for a return to nature, this view is an oversimplification, caused by the excessive importance attached to this first essay. A second philosophical essay, Discours sur l’origine de l’inégalité des hommes (1754), is one of Rousseau’s most mature and daring productions. After its publication, Rousseau returned to Geneva, reverted to Protestantism in order to regain his citizenship, and returned to Paris with the title citizen of Geneva.



Mme d’Epinay lent him a cottage, the Hermitage, on her estate at Montmorency. Rousseau began to quarrel with Mme d’Epinay, Diderot, and Grimm, all of whom he accused of complicity in a sordid plot against him, and left the Hermitage to become the guest of the tolerant Duke de Luxembourg, whose chateau was also at Montmorency. There he finished his novel, Julie, ou La Nouvelle Heloise (1761), written in part under the influence of his love for Mme d’Houdetot, the sister-in-law of Mme d’Epinay; his Lettre a d’Alembert sur les spectacles (1758), a di-atribe against the suggestion that Geneva would be better off for having a theater; his Du contrat social (1762); and his Emile (1762), which offended both the French and Genevan ecclesiastic authorities and was burned at Paris and at Geneva.

Rousseau, with the connivance of highly placed friends, escaped, however, to the Swiss canton of Neuchatel, then a Prussian possession. His house was stoned, and Rousseau fled once more, this time to the canton of Bern, settling on the small island of Saint-Pierre, in the Lake of Biel. In 1765, he was expelled from Bern and accepted the invitation of David Hume to live at his house in England. There he began to write the first part of his Confessions, but after a year, he quarrelled violently with Hume, whom he believed to be in league with Diderot and Grimm, and returned to France (1767). His suspicion of people deepened and became a persecution mania.

After wandering through the provinces, he finally settled (1770) at Paris, where he lived in a garret and copied music. The French authorities left him undisturbed, while curious foreigners flocked to see the famous man and be insulted by him. At the same time, he went from salon to salon, reading his Confessions aloud. In his last years he began Rêveries du promeneur solitaire, descriptions of nature and his feelings about it, which was unfinished at the time of his death. Shortly before his death, Rousseau moved to the house of a protector at Ermenonville, near Paris, where he died. In 1794, his remains were transferred to the Pantheon in Paris.

What is His Contribution to Philosophy? Few people have equalled Rousseau’s influence in politics, literature, and education. His political thought is contained in Du contrat social, but it must be supplemented by other works, notably the Discours sur l’origine de l’inegalite and his drafts of constitutions for Corsica and for Poland. Rousseau is fundamentally a moralist rather than a metaphysician. As a moralist, he is also, unavoidably, a political theorist. His thought begins with the assumption that we are by nature good, and with the observation that in society we are not good. The fall of humanity was, for Rousseau, a social occurrence. Human nature does not go backward, and we never return to the times of innocence and equality, when we have once departed from them.

Although he locates the cause of our deformity in society, Rousseau was not a primitivist. In Emile and Du contrat social, he proposed, on an individual and a social level, what might be done. What was new and important about his educational philosophy, as outlined in Emile, was its rejection of the traditional ideal: education was not seen to be the imparting of all things to be known to the uncouth child; rather it was seen as the drawing out of what is already there, the fostering of what is native. Rousseau’s educational proposal is highly artificial, the process is carefully timed and controlled, but with the end of allowing the free development of human potential.

Similarly, with regard to the social order, Rousseau’s aim is freedom, which again does not involve a retreat to primitivism but perfect submission of the individual to what he termed the general will. The general will is what rational people would choose for the common good. Freedom, then, is obedience to a self-imposed law of reason, self-imposed because imposed by the natural laws of humanity’s being. The purpose of civil law and government, of whatever form, is to bring about a coincidence of the general will and the wishes of the people. Society gives government its sovereignty when it forms the social contract to achieve liberty and well-being as a group. While this sovereignty may be delegated in various ways (as in a monarchy, a republic, or a democracy) it cannot be transferred and resides ultimately with society as a whole, with the people, who can withdraw it when necessary.

Rousseau’s political philosophy assumes that there is a common good, and that the general will is not merely an ideal, but can, under the right conditions, be actual. It is under such conditions, with the rule of the general will, that Rousseau sees our full development taking place, when the advantages of a state of nature would be combined with the advantages of social life. He had such faith in the existence of the common good and the rightness of the general will, that Rousseau was extreme in the sanctions he was willing to allow for its achievement. If anyone, after publicly recognising these dogmas, behaves as if he does not believe them, let him be punished by death: He has committed the worst of all crimes, that of lying before the law. Finally, Rousseau advocated a civil religion. Rousseau’s thought sometimes rings of Calvinist Geneva, even though he reacted against its vision of humanity and had his books burned by its ecclesiastic authorities.

In its time, his epistolary novel Heloise was immensely popular, but it is scarcely read today, while Confessions remains widely read. Proposing to describe not only his life, but also his innermost thoughts and feelings, hiding nothing, be it ever so shameful, Rousseau followed the model of St. Augustine’s Confession, but he created a new, intensely personal style of autobiography. The Heloise, Emile, The Confessions, and The Reveries, all transfer to the domain of literature that Rousseau longed for closeness with nature.

His sensitive awareness apprehended the subtle influences of landscape, trees, water, birds, and other aspects of nature on the shifting state of the human soul. Rousseau was the father of Romantic sensibility; the trend existed before him, but he was the first to give it full expression. Rousseau’s style, in all his writings, is always personal, sometimes bizarre, rhetorical, bitterly sarcastic, sometimes deliberately plebeian, and often animated by a tender and musical quality unequalled in French prose. Although self-taught, he possessed a thorough knowledge of musical theory, but his compositions exerted no direct influence on music.

What is his Impact? Rousseau’s influence on posterity has been equalled by only a few, and it is by no means spent. His influence on German and English Romanticism—and thus, indirectly, on Romanticism in general—is difficult to overestimate. In addition, men as diverse as Immanuel Kant, Johann Goethe, Maximilien de Robespierre, Johann Pestalozzi, and Leo Tolstoy have been his disciples. His doctrine of popular sovereignty had a profound impact on French revolutionary thought. Although he did not advocate collective ownership, his ideas had their effect on socialist thought.

Rise of Socialist Ideas And Spread of Marxian Socialism

General Survey

A new type of reform called socialism gained strength during the 19th century. Socialists believed that the government, led and controlled by the people, should own and operate industry, transportation and services. The government would supply goods and services to citizens at prices based on the actual amount of labour used to produce them. Socialists argued that the people, whose labour made production possible, should share in industries’ profits. This differed from capitalism, the economic system in which individuals and corporations owned and operated industries and charged prices for goods and services based on the demand for goods and highest possible profits.

Early socialists were called ‘Utopians’ after the 16th century novel in which Thomas More described a perfect community. Robert Owen, a rich English cotton manufacturer, built an ‘Utopian’ community at New Lanark, Scotland, in the early 1800s. He provided his workers with reduced working hours, high pay comfortable homes and schools for their children. In 1825, Owen built an agricultural industrial model community at New Harmony, Indiana. Both experiments later failed because of internal disagreements. During the 1840, American followers of French socialist Charles Fourier established Brook Farm in Massachusetts which was also unsuccessful.

It remained for Karl Marx, German philosopher and economist, to find modern socialism. Exiled from Prussia as a result of his political writings, Marx moved to London. In 1848, he and another German, Frederick Engel, published the ‘Communist Manifesto’. Feeling that the utopian socialists were too idealistic, they called their theory ‘scientific socialism’. Marx later wrote ‘Das Kapital’ which criticised capitalism by arguing that the working class should control a nation’s economy and social conditions. Marx considered control of an economy to be a crucial issue of history. He reasoned that only those people who made things society used should decide what they and their goods were worth. Under capitalism, Marx said, only a minority of the people, those who owned the means of production decided the worth of goods while the rest of the people, the workers, did not.

Socialist parties met at London in 1864 and 1889 to form the International Workingmen’s Association, or the International. They urged workers throughout the world to unite. Since then, socialist parties in countries all over the world have had significant political influence.

Socialist Ideas

What is Socialism? Bourgeois or middle class rule superseded the domination of the absolute monarchies and aristocracy of the old regime. When the new governments were set up, legislation restricting business enterprises was revoked and almost nothing was done to better the conditions of the workers. Socialism was, therefore, the proletariat’s (workers) answer to the restrictions imposed upon them by the bourgeois rule. The socialist idea of political organisation took diverse forms, ranging from legislative, evolutionary reform without disturbing the political structure of the state to a violent, revolutionary overthrow of existing governments and the establishment of a political order controlled by the workers.

The origin of socialism can be dated back to the French Revolution when assortment of ideas for the reconstruction of the society were mooted. Baneuf made extensive use of his own newspapers and several popular songs that he sponsored in order to popularise his ideas. Charged with causing an uprising, he was arrested and executed in 1797.

How did it Originate and Grow? Some Idealists including Saint Simon, Owen and Fourier, came out with what has been called ‘Utopian Socialism’ named after Sir Thomas More’s Utopia. They favoured voluntary formation of social groups into large groups Tandy like organisations, so that the unit could live together. Saint Simon (1760–1825), a Frenchman who participated in the American Revolution, spent a huge amount on an unsuccessful social experiment. He advocated common ownership of all land and capital to be managed scientifically by the state. His slogan was ‘From each according to his capacity and to each according to his need. Robert Owen (1771–1858), a rich Englishman, made futile experiments at New Lanark in Scotland and at New Harmony in Indiana (USA). Charles Fourier (1772–1827), another Frenchman, held that people should be divided into industrial communities. The earning should be divided after each citizen was given a starting sum giving labour five parts, capital four and talent three parts of remainder. A number of attempts were made to carry out his plan, the best among them being the Brook Farm in Massachusetts (USA) by his American followers. These Utopian Socialists had only a small following even among the working class. Their ideas were too theoretical and idealistic to be carried out but they did attract the attention of reformers to the need for change and thus indirectly achieved their aim. Yet, till 1850, the Socialist Movement did not make much headway in Europe.

Karl Marx (1818–1888), the profounder of Scientific Socialism or Marxian Socialism, not only gave a theory and but also gave a graphic sketch of the kind of society that he desired. He provided the working men’s organisation with a social philosophy and a program for social reform. The ‘Communist Manifesto’, one of the most vital document of Socialism, was written by him and his co-worker, Frederick Engel (1820–1895) during the Paris Revolution of 1848. In this, they made an impassioned appeal to the workers of Europe to unite and throw off their chains.

‘Das Kapital’ a much more detailed and scholarly work on the socialist theory was also their combined effort. Modern scientific socialism is built around these two works. The two basic principles involved are the theory of value and the materialistic conception of history. The influence of Marx would be difficult to overestimate. The Russian Communist state was the first ever successful experiment of his theories and since its inception, has been a great influence on the proletariat.

Marxian Socialist which was distinctly revolutionary in nature preached the inevitability of class war. But all socialists did not share its views. An influential group in England, for instance, sponsored what is called ‘Evolutionary Socialism’. It was the Fabian Society, organised in 1884 that aimed at ‘The reorganisation of society by the emancipation of land and industrial capital from individual and class ownership and vesting them in the community for the common benefit’. Its members came from diverse fields and include journalists, artists, literary men and women, social workers and teachers. They adopted their name from the Roman general, Quintus Fabius, famous for his delaying tactics. Publication of pamphlets was their chief method of propagation of their ideas. The Fabians, unlike Marx did not condemn capital as being stolen funds of labour; instead they admited that the capitalist has his role, to play in society. In their opinion, capitalists deserved a reward for the organisation of industry, but ultimately they should be replaced by paid employers. The Fabians contended that there were many values created wholly by the community which should be used not for private profit but for the benefit of the whole community. The means of production, for example, should be utilised for the general welfare, instead of being exploited for the enrichment of the few.

Yet another variety of social control that arose in Europe was ‘Syndicalism’. It is based on trade union organisation which is held to be the foundation of the new society and the means through which it can be brought about. It agrees with the Marxian theory of an inevitable clash between capital and labour, and aims at the abolition of private ownership of the means of production. Believing in the producer’s control, it gives workers charge of the economic and political affairs of the state. Syndicalism claims to be more of the product of the workers than any other form of socialism and hence, much more in conformity with their needs. Its efficiency is also stressed. If workers own and control the industry in which they work, they will have a greater personal interest in the conduct of the plant and enjoy a greater amount of freedom than that offered by the capitalistic system.

Guild socialism, which closely resembles syndicalism aimed at ‘the abolition of the wage system, and the establishment of selfgovernment in industry by the workers, through a democratic system of national guilds, working in conjunction with other democratic functional organisations in the community’. Power and responsibility in society were to be in proportion to the importance of the work that the individuals perform. Guild socialists held that industry should be supervised by technocrats rather than unskilled workmen. Besides, the interests of the consumer should be taken into consideration. This was sought to be guaranteed through consumer’s councils, which acting in cooperation with producer’s guilds, would fix prices and control the distribution of goods.

The most radical among the socialist ideologies, however, is Anarchism. Initially the Anarchists were part of the Communists, but they were expelled in 1869 at the Fourth Congress of the First International. Under the leadership of Bakunin (1814–1876) and Kropotkin (1842–1921), a separate organisation came into being. They propagated the overthrow of existing governments and favoured a system under which society is conceived without government, and harmony in such a society being obtained not by submission to law, or by obedience to any authority, but by free agreements concluded between various groups. The Anarchists were, however not sure about the manner in which such a society could be established and maintained. Yet they were quite definite in their criticism of the existing form of government.

What was its Significance? Majority of the people no longer considered political democracy as the last word in government. In fact, there were quite a few who contended that democracy had failed. The growing power and influence of the proletariat had resulted in increased toleration of socialism. Democracy had even been condemned as an agency of the bourgeoisie for the suppression of the proletariat.


Karl Marx

Socialist theories, despite their growing popularity, suffered from certain limitations. All forms of socialism were based on the presumption that men are willing to work for the general good of society and not for their own benefit, which was quite doubtful. For the incentive to do better financially than one’s neighbour was one of the primary motivations for men. Besides, ‘to consume without producing’ was considered, by the socialists, as an act subject to punishment. How well it can be enforced remains to be seen. Moreover, the question of administration of the socialist state was a serious problem. Most socialists believed in the necessity of a fundamental change in existing political system. Chaos followed in almost every socialist experiment. Centralisation of authority destroys the socialist aim. Something must be found as a substitute for the State. Some central authority to regulate economic and social activities in a harmonious group seems indispensable. Revolutionary socialists, by far the most dynamic group, insist upon the complete destruction of many important contributions that we own to capitalism. The risk of a revolution is great and the ruling class that emerges from it may not be what the idealist prefers. However, these dangers are not insurmountable obstacles.

Labour Movement in Europe

What Led to the Rise of the Labour Movement? From the dawn of the 19th century, the European states tried to regulate labour for protecting workmen from unscrupulous employers. Though improvements in the working conditions were effected in most classes, factory legislation did not go far enough to satisfy the labour groups. Labourers eventually realised after great suffering that by forming combinations and working together, they could make their demands much more effective.

Unfortunately, Such attempts were fraught with several difficulties. The best type of organisation was the way to appeal to fellow workers, dissension in their own ranks, difficulty of agreement on aims, and the best manner of confronting employers were questions that threw up many plans and a variety of opinions.

However, leaders were agreed on two things; first, replacement of individual bargaining (between workmen and employer) with collective bargaining for the purpose of obtaining a standard wage and standard working hours and secondly, a united front on the part of labour to prevent one person from underselling labour in general. The aim was to use peaceful negotiations but if that method failed, a strike might be used as a last resort. The labour movement in Europe developed on three lines, viz. unionism, cooperation and politics.

What was its Origin? The roots of modern trade union can probably be traced to the journeyman’s associations or guilds in the 17th century. The journeyman did not press for his demands fully because of the relative certainty that he would become master craftsman and thus be relieved of the abuses about which he complained. There was no permanency in the status of the worker and he lived in hopes of rising above the position of a mere workmen.

The industrial revolution completely changed the position of the ordinary worker. The establishment of a factory system drew the employee and the employer further and further apart. The factory, at the same time, brought together in one group a large number of labourers, all of whom had common interests. They were naturally opposed to the interests of the employer which made them to fight untidily to promote their own interests.

Progress in labour organisation was tardy due to several obstacles, like the ignorance and inexperience of labourers, prohibitive laws, hostile public opinion, etc. In England, for instance, the combination Acts of the 18th century prevented artisans or tradesmen, either employers or employees, from combining for the purpose of changing rates of wages. The enforcement of the law generally favoured the employer. In fact, there was on the part of the upper class a prevailing fear of democratic movements on the part of the masses. The clergy, philanthropists, and economists were suspicious of the motives and policies of labour organisations.

The movement towards trade unionism faced what appeared to be insurmountable obstacles in the incompetency of labour leaders in the influence of the employers in official circles in the existence of prohibitory laws, and in the hostility of public opinion. However, one by one, these obstacles have been overcome.

How and where did it Grow Between 1800 and 1914? The law prohibiting labour combinations were not in agreement with the spirit of liberalism, which had made great progress in England in the 19th century. The general abolition of various restrictions in conformity with the philosophic tendency included even the repeal of the Combination Act (1825). Parliament, however, was not willing to permit violence and intimidation on the part of both employer and employee. Collective bargaining was given legal recognition. Some more obstacles were removed in 1871 and in 1875, and this gave trade union in England legal rights similar to those of any other organisation. Consequently, there was the gradual disappearance of public suspicion and animosity against trade unions.

Trade unions made rapid progress after their legalisation. Funds were created through dues in order to promote their cause and to aid members who were forced out to work because of illness. Workers in different occupations were organised into trade unions, and annual trade unions, congresses were started in 1864. Regular yearly meetings have been held since 1869. English labourers began to send delegates to London while parliament was in session in order to obtain favourable legislation and the appointment of officials in the interest of trade unions. On the whole, they have been very successful. Later, the English experience was used to good effect by the workers in Germany, France Italy and the U.S.A.

The English trade unions even found a means of expression in politics. Members were used to vote for certain candidates in 1893 a separate party called the Labour party come into being, though they could elect a member to parliament only in 1900. In 1906, seven labour candidates were sent to the represent working class in the government. Two famous cases—the Taff Vale case (1901) and the Osborne judgement (1909)—accentuated political activity on the part of the labourites. The Taff Vale decision pronounced that trade unions might be sued and if convicted, be forced to pay damages for losses incurred to a company’s property through strikes. In 1906, the parliament was persuaded to pass the Trade Disputes Act which practically reversed the above decision. The Osborne judgement held it illegal for trade union to bear the cost of expenses of members in parliament. As members of parliament received no remuneration at that time it was very hard for a representative of the workers to serve because of lack of funds. So in 1911, at the behest of the Labour Party, a bill for the payment of salaries to all members of the House of Commons was passed. The Labour party became strong enough during the First World War to be a Party to the coalition government.

German labour organisations date back to the Franco Prussian War. Labour leaders faced a hostile government. Anti-socialist laws were in force in Germany until 1890 but by 1914 labour was well organised. German employers resisted labour groups by organising to oppose them. The Central Union of German Industrialists made up of the colliery proprietors and iron masters of Westphalia is an example. They attempted to boycott the unions by refusing to give employment to trade unionists and socialists. The struggle was still going on when World War I broke out in 1914.

In France, labour organisation was slower and more irregular than in England or Germany. Labour combinations were forbidden by Napoleon; the problem was discussed at great length in the famous penal code of 1810. There was no marked relaxation until after the Revolution of 1830. At the time the progress of Saint Simon and Fourier began to attract attention. But napoleon III revived the labour legislation of his uncle the great Napoleon in 1851 and it was not until 1864 that combinations of workmen were legalised. The famous Waldeck Rousseau Law in 1884 gave labour recognition in France that it had gained in Germany and England.

The ‘Confederation General Du Travail’ or the General Confederation of Labour (CGT), one of the largest and most influential labour organisations in the world, was organised at Limoges in 1895. It excluded politics and declared that its sole object was unification of workers. The society was active in the propagation of revolutionary ideas to the workmen so effectively that in 1906, there were innumerable strikes.

How and where did it Grow Between the World Wars? Labour movements survived the First World War in all the parliamentary democracies of Europe. In Britain, workmen had the hardest time, for technology destroyed jobs and unemployment became chronic. Simultaneously, the Labour Party, under the influence of its socialist wing, increased its vote enough to form a government (with liberal help) in 1923 and 1929. Even with the aid of strikes, neither the trade unions nor the party was able to solve the problems of the economy.

In France, the labour movement was no more successful. The old membership of the CGT was replaced by new element, mostly unskilled, with a wide variety of socialist persuasions. In late 1918, the CGT announced a new programme revealing a willingness to accept the government as a partner with a demand for rationalisation of key industries. In 1920, the French socialists, sympathetic to communist influences, precipitated a general strike. The event proved so great a fiasco that the CGT expelled its Communist members who established their own confederation.

The German workers recovered quickly from the war. They rejuvenated their old organisations, assumed a place of importance within the government of Weimar republic and persuaded employers to concede some more demands. Throughout the 1920s, German trade unions operated cautiously to preserve liberal democracy and to promote their social gains. They hunted out and expelled trouble making communists. However, the world wide Depression brought drastic changes. The declining economy produced an ideological political war in Germany that reached fruition in 1933 with Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party in control.

What was Hitler’s Impact on it? In Britain, where workers focussed on rising unemployment and agitated for nationalisation of mines and railways, a shift occurred in public attitudes. For the first time, non-industrial elements among the British people revealed sympathy for labour’s plight. The shift encouraged a growth of membership in the Trade Union Congress. Workmen benefitted through collective bargaining and a new atmosphere of mutual responsibility was created.

In France, dissatisfaction with parliamentary democracy grew rapidly. Farm prices and middle class incomes had declined. Reduction in government payrolls and tax receipts were blamed on the government which seemed singularly inept compared to the efficient totalitarian governments of Mussolini and Hitler. After a clash between native fascists and communists, the CGT and the socialists called a general strike (1934) which was the first successful general strike in French history. In 1936, the Socialist and Communist parties merged with the Radical socialists to elect a popular Front government headed by Leon Blum. These events released a reservoir of suppressed hope among French workers and strikes followed. Blum managed to persuade employers to accept the inevitable, parliament legalised the right to organise and to bargain collectively along with establishing a 40-hour week. Membership of the trade unions mushroomed to unprecedented levels.

In Germany, however, Hitler had destroyed the German trade union movement with one stroke of his pen in 1933. The end of the Second World War (1945) however, quickly revived trade union movements which moved almost in concert throughout West European countries towards three objectives, viz. (a) enlargement of power, (b) more government control of the economy, and (c) expansion of welfare programmes.

The Labour Party in Britain won a parliamentary majority. The French CGT claimed five million members, while a coalition of communists, socialists and moderates took over control of the provisional government and created a new constitution (Fourth Republic) with the traditional aims of labour guaranteed. In both Britain and France, labour-influenced governments nationalised a party of industry.

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