Monday, December 16, 2013

The Enlightenment

Here is another paper I wrote for school that I really liked.

The enlightenment was a philosophical movement dedicated to personal freedom and knowledge seeking centered on the eighteenth century. The enlightenment espoused ideas ranging from sexual freedom to economic policy. One of the main focuses of the enlightenment period was increased social and political freedom as well as creating a more just society. Enlightenment thinkers such as Kant summed this up with the phrase “Have the Courage to Know!” Three areas that the enlightenment touched in an ultimately long lasting way were Economics and economic policy, the rights of women, and the relationship between the government and the people. The enlightenment laid the intellectual foundations for future liberal democracies.

            Adam smith’s The wealth of Nations was an influence book written about economic policy. In it, Smith’s argued for more economic freedom and a significant relaxing of regulation. Smith’s work laid the foundation for the liberal economic system that would eventually be called capitalism. He talks about economic concepts such as the division of labor, which was a radical turn at the time from the artisanal one-man-shop common in Europe since at least the Middle Ages. This book is remarkably modern seeming in its descriptions; probably because it is so foundational to western economic theory. Smith also talks about education; he details how factory life can cause a person’s intellect to suffer while eating all his time too. He recommends that before people start working they go to school and learn basic math, reading and writing. Once again, the idea of universal, government supported education is a very modern seeming one. At the time it was not an established institution however.
            Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the rights of woman was a book advocating equal rights for women in society. Wollstonecraft’s opinion is that while women may be physically inferior to men; they should not allow men to look at them as un-intellectual or simply as objects of sexual desire. She sums up exactly what she means by saying:

“If by this appellation men mean to inveigh against their ardour in hunting, shooting, and gaming, I shall most cordially join in the cry; but if it be against the imitation of manly virtues, or, more properly speaking, the attainment of those talents and virtues, the exercise of which ennobles the human character, and which raises females in the scale of animal being, when they are comprehensively termed mankind; - all those who view them with a philosophical eye must, I should think, wish with me, that they may every day grow more and more masculine."

            Basically she trying to say that she doesn’t think women need to act like men and engage in the same hobbies and interests; but that they should pursue what were at the time considered “male” virtues, such as physical courage, pursuing talents, and asserting oneself. Wollstonecraft’s ideas are very modern, and in fact are shadowed by how many women think today. It’s practically the basis of modern feminism; to be able to have a career, even one traditionally thought of as male-dominated, and at the same time still be a woman interested in the same things as other women and possibly also balancing children and a family with a career as well. The enlightenment is where the idea of equal rights for women took root. Her ideas are modern in the freedom she encourages women to grasp, but somewhat archaic too in that she identifies women as weaker then men, she just happens to think they should still be equal.
            Jean-Jacques Rousseau in The Social contract wrote about how a social contract was the basis for an operable society. In this book Rousseau’s social contract emphases how the contract is between all people in a society. Rousseau believed that society should best be run by what he calls “the general will.” The general will is, as Rousseau defined it the true will of society, basically society’s best interest; he did not equate this idea with the idea of voting or direct democracy however, because he saw the general will as the sovereignty of all the people and as exercising it’s power in the best interest of all the people. He says that the general will is enforced by everyone who makes up a portion of it, what he calls “the whole body politic.” Essentially, everyone forces you to obey the rules that everyone has agreed on. This idea is very modern; in fact, I would say modern society largely runs just like this. This idea is even more applicable when dealing with a modern liberal democracy of course, because in it there is a free press which hounds those who seems to be defying the “general will” and there are elections to remove politicians who defy it or reward those who follow it. Think about it like this; in modern western society, politicians who win their elections by a significant margin often take this to mean they have a “mandate” from the people to take some policy action which was a major focus of their campaign. This concept of the general will is essentially what they are invoking, they believe that they know what is both best for and desired by the society they govern.
            John Locke’s argues in the Second Treatise on Civil Government in a natural state people exist as a political unit all on their own, able to make all their own decisions and to execute judgment on those who defy their rights or hurt them. He says that you give up some of these rights by joining with other people in society and be protected by laws. However, he argues that the government exists entirely to serve the needs of the people and that the people can and should dispose of it if it stops properly serving the people’s needs. This is modern in the sense that it explains how being in a social unit with other people means you have to follow rules you might not like or do things you might not want to and also in the sense that he describes the government as existing to serve the people rather than the other way around.
            Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence echoes’ some of the thoughts  of John Locke, which is unsurprising considering he was attempting to justify armed rebellion. He argues that all men are created equal and have rights that are natural to them and not given to them by their government, and he then goes on to explain that if the government is not respecting these rights the people should dissolve it. He then goes on to details the specific abuses that the British government has committed against the colonies; he concludes the statement by declaring that the thirteen united colonies are severing all connections with the government of Great Britain and the King. This particular document is one of the foundations of the American nation, the first nation on earth which was a republic with a body politic encompassing all property-owning men and a written constitution. This was a huge step towards establishing liberal democracies all over the west.

            The enlightenment espoused many ideas that we now consider modern. In a really significant way the philosophes of the enlightenment were men and women ahead of their time. Though they lived in societies that were transitioning from feudal or quasi-feudal to early industrial, and most lived under the rule of absolutist monarchs or princes too; they were able to articulate and espouse ideas which were put into practice only much later by societies much freer and more “enlightened” than the ones they were born into.

On a side note, some Enlightenment inspired artwork!

                                                                             Washington Crossing the Delaware

Weimar's Courtyard of the Muses 

Lady Liberty

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