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The Culture of Old Regime Europe 371

llustration 20.1

— Secular Rococo Architecture. As the monarchs of Europe

emulated the French Bourbons in building lavish new palaces,

they did not make precise copies of Versailles. Instead they

built luxurious homes in the newest architectural style. The

Wittelsbach family, who ruled the south German state of

Bavaria, were among the most active builders, and their palaces

included Schloss Nymphenburg at Munich, whose gilded rococo “Hall of Mirrors” is shown here.

ornately decorated, the extravagantly expressed.

Whether looking at the energetic statues of Bernini,

paintings of suffering martyrs by Caravaggio, or the

voluptuous pastel nudes of Rubens, the viewer was overwhelmed by the lavish baroque style. Architects brought

baroque emotions to palaces and churches, composers

brought them to oratorios and fugues, artisans even

sought the baroque style in gilded chairs and writing tables. This style culminated in an extravagant artistic

style, characterized by fanciful curved forms and elaborate ornamentation, known as rococo (see illustration

20.1). Frederick the Great’s Sans Souci Palace was rococo—there a warrior king could write French poetry,

compose flute music, and dispute philosophers in a home

he helped to design, with the gaudy yellow walls and the

plump cherubs a soldier wanted.

Historians chiefly remember the high culture of the

eighteenth century for the reaction against the baroque

style. A revival of the styles and aesthetics of the classical Graeco-Roman world rapidly supplanted the

baroque during the middle decades of the century.

The elegant simplicity of classical architecture—

characterized by symmetry, mathematical proportions,

the harmony of forms, and severe rules—became a

vogue in the 1740s after archaeologists began to exca-

vate the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum,

which had been buried (and preserved) by volcanic ash

in A.D. 79. A classical revival swept European architecture, producing such masterpieces as the Romanov

Winter Palace in St. Petersburg (now the Hermitage

Museum), La Scala opera house in Milan, and the Royal

Crescent in Bath, England. In some cases, neoclassical

buildings closely resembled classical structures built

eighteen hundred years earlier (see illustration 20.2).

Classicism soon came to dominate the arts of the

eighteenth century. Histories of the ancient world, such

as Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, became popular reading together with the ancients

themselves. Universities required Latin and Greek of

their students, and in some countries an honors degree

in classics became the best route to a high-paying job

or a government post. Painters, sculptors, dramatists,

poets, and composers all mined classical literature for

inspiration. The French painter Jacques-Louis David,

for example, inspired a generation of politicians with

his dramatic canvases depicting stirring moments in

Roman history. Music was perhaps most shaped by

eighteenth-century classicism. The strict attention to

form, the mathematical precision, the symmetry

learned from architecture became the basis of a new

372 Chapter 20

IIllustration 20.2

— The Parisian church of St. Mary Magdalen, known as la

Madeleine, was begun in 1764 and redesigned several times. The

final version, a neoclassical temple with imposing Corinthian

columns, bears a striking resemblance to temples built two

thousand years earlier.

music: The development of the sonata, the symphony,

the string quartet, and the concerto so changed musical

composition that the name classical music remained long

after the classical era.

Popular Culture in the Eighteenth Century

In recent decades, cultural historians have paid closer

attention to the culture of the lower classes, as distinct

from the high culture of the elite. The distinction is not

absolute, because high culture and popular culture are

often remarkably similar. In the eighteenth century, the

plays of Shakespeare were popular with the agricultural

classes of rural England, who welcomed the touring

troops of actors who brought drama to the countryside.

In London, David Garrick’s famous theater on Drury

Lane was as popular with the artisans and laborers who

flocked to the cheap seats as it was with the wealthy

who bought the boxes. In the capitals of opera such as

Milan and Vienna, few shopkeepers could afford to attend the lavish productions. But Mozart had a popular

following, too, and versions of his operas were produced in lower-class music halls.

Popular culture and high culture also intersected

for the converse reason: The well-bred, well-educated,

and well-off also frequented the robust entertainments

of ordinary folk. The world of popular culture—a world

of rope-walkers, jugglers, and acrobats of village bands

and workers’ music halls; of folktales and folksong; of

races, fights, animal sports, and gambling; of marionettes, pantomimes, and magic lantern shows projected on smoke; of inns, taverns, public houses

(“pubs”), cafes, and coffeehouses; of broadsheets and

limericks; of carnivals and fairs; of entertainment in

public parks and on the village commons—was not the

exclusive province of the laboring classes who gave

these their meanings and values. High culture honored

this intersection by regularly borrowing from popular

culture, from the folk theme that reappeared as a leitmotif in a symphony or the tales of oral culture that

reappeared in learned anthologies.

A good illustration of the parallels in high culture

and popular culture can be seen in two of their centers:

the salon (high culture) and the coffeehouse (popular

culture). The salon, a social gathering held in a private

home where notable literary, artistic, and political figures discussed the issues of the day, characterized the

educated world of high culture in the eighteenth century. Salons were typically organized and directed by

women of grace and style who shaped European culture

by sponsoring rising young talents, protecting unpopular opinions, finding financial support for impoverished

writers, and sometimes fostering political intrigues (see

illustration 20.3). The salons glorified conversation—

about the republic of letters, the arts, politics and policies, scandal and gossip, and wit and flirtation. Salon

hostesses were sometimes the wives, daughters, or

mistresses of powerful men, such as the duchess de

Maine, the mistress of Philippe d’Orleans, the regent of

France; some were prominent intellectuals in their own

right. Their ranks included women such as Madame de

Lambert, the author of Advice of a Mother to Her Daughter

(1734), which advocated university education for

women. Another salon hostess, Louise d’Epinay, won

the French academy’s prize for 1774 for her Conversations

with Emile.

The habit of organizing salons originated in the

French aristocracy, but it was adopted by other elements of the educated classes and spread across Europe.

By the middle of the century, salons were flourishing in

London, Berlin, Vienna, Rome, and Copenhagen, usually assuming a national character somewhat different

from Parisian salons. In England, they ranged from the

formal salon of Elizabeth Montagu, the granddaughter

of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who forbade such

frivolity as playing cards, to the less formal salon of

Mary Monckton, the countess of Cork, which included

such prominent figures as Samuel Johnson. Salons in

the German states provided an opportunity for Jewish

families to win social acceptance previously denied

them. Moses Mendelssohn began the habit of holding

The Culture of Old Regime Europe 373

Illustration 20.3

— The Salon of Madame Geoffrin. Marie-Therèse Geoffrin

(1699–1777) was the hostess of one of the most influential salons

of eighteenth-century France. In presiding over such private

meetings of writers, philosophers, artists, and politicians, women

played a central role in the shaping and transmission of the ideas

of the Enlightenment.

open houses for intellectuals, and his daughter,

Dorothea von Schlegel, built on this habit to emulate

the French salons. Most German salons, however,

insisted upon a stricter sexual respectability than characterized Parisian salons.

The coffeehouse served a similar cultural role for

other social strata. Coffeehouses—and sometimes taverns, which were less expensive and less formal—served

as meeting houses, reading rooms, and debating halls.

The daily newspaper was at the center of this phenomenon. Dailies were born and began to flourish in the

eighteenth century, starting with the Daily Courant in

London in 1702. Moscow had a newspaper later that

same year, Berlin a daily paper from 1704, and Rome

from 1716. Paris even had a women’s newspaper, advocating the equality of the sexes—Le Journal des dames,

founded in 1759—before it had a daily newspaper.

Larger Sunday newspapers appeared in London in

1780. Until the technological innovations of the midnineteenth century, however, these newspapers re-

mained expensive and their circulation low. Subscription libraries and “reading societies” appeared in the

German states as early as 1704. But the coffeehouse

provided the most popular solution by subscribing to

multiple newspapers, holding public readings of newspaper stories for the benefit of the illiterate majority,

and providing the sociable setting. The towns and

cities of eighteenth-century Europe were filled with

coffeehouses. The first coffeehouse opened in Paris in

1672 and soon failed; in 1754, however, fifty-six were

flourishing. There were none in London in 1650, but

more than two thousand had opened by 1725. The first

coffeehouse in central Europe opened in Vienna in

1683, after a few sacks of coffee were taken from a retreating Turkish army. After the eighteenth-century

boom, the Viennese all but lived in fifteen thousand

coffeehouses. Coffeehouses became so popular in

Berlin that Frederick the Great blocked the importation

of coffee as a drain on the national wealth—a hint at

how expensive coffee was initially.

374 Chapter 20

Arctic Ocean

Catholic majority

Muslim majority

Orthodox majority

Protestant majority

Orthodox minority

Protestant minority


Date of Jewish




99% Lutheran




Presbyterian (Calvinist)


Episcopal (Anglican)





3% Jewish

1% Lutheran


Blac k

Se a




99% Lutheran





65% Calvinist



99% Lutheran

Calvinist POLAND



70% Catholic

90% Anglican


Catholic 49% Catholic


20% Presbyterian

8% Dissenter

SAXONY Jewish 40% Orthodox

10% Anglican

2% Catholic

7% Jewish

99% Lutheran (1850)



4% Lutheran





99% Catholic

48% Catholic


27% Orthodox

98% Catholic

60% Calvinist

15% Calvinist

2% Calvinist


40% Catholic

8% Lutheran




2% Jewish




2% Protestant






99% Catholic

99% Catholic





99% Catholic

sl a


ri c

B a lea

M e d i t e r r a n e a n Sicily









900 Kilometers

600 Miles

MAP 20.1

— Religious Population of Eighteenth-Century Europe —


Religion and Eighteenth-Century


Christianity stood at the center of European culture in

the eighteenth century, as it had for more than a thousand years. Although European civilization was almost

exclusively a Christian civilization, it was split into

many conflicting sects. The religious map of the Old

Regime followed lines drawn by the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which had ended a period of ferocious

religious warfare (see map 20.1). At the simplest level,

most of northern Europe was Protestant, most of southern Europe was Roman Catholic, and much of eastern

Europe was Orthodox. Protestant Europe included

Great Britain, the Dutch republic, the northern German

states (notably Hanover, Saxony, and Prussia), all of

Scandinavia, part of divided Switzerland, and pockets

in eastern Europe (notably in Hungary). Catholic Europe included Portugal, Spain, France, all of the Italian

states, the southern German states (notably Bavaria),

and the Austrian Empire, plus most of the population in

religiously divided Ireland and Poland. Orthodox Eu-

The Culture of Old Regime Europe 375

rope included Russia plus large portions of Poland and

the Ottoman Empire (such as Greece and Serbia).

This religious division of Europe left many minority populations inside hostile countries. Important

Catholic minorities existed in Britain (only 2 percent of

the population, but including many powerful families),

Holland (35 percent), Switzerland (40 percent), and

Prussia (especially after the annexation of Silesia). Similar Protestant minorities were found in Ireland (30 percent), France (2 percent, but disproportionately

important, like Catholics in Britain), Piedmont (2 percent), Poland (4 percent), and Hungary (23 percent). In

addition to Christian minorities, Europe contained

small Jewish and Moslem populations. Jews were forbidden to live in some countries (notably Spain) but

formed a small minority (less than 1 percent) in many

states, especially Britain, France, Holland, and Prussia;

they constituted larger minorities in eastern Europe,

chiefly in Poland (7 percent), Hungary (2 percent),

Russia, and the Ottoman territories. Moslems were almost entirely confined to the Ottoman Empire, in the

provinces of modern Bosnia and Albania.

Protestant Europe included three predominant

faiths: Anglicanism, Calvinism, and Lutheranism. Virtually all of the membership of the Anglican Church (the

Church of England) was found in England, Wales,

Scotland, and Ireland. Lutheranism was the dominant

form of Protestantism in the German states and Scandinavia, and Lutheran minorities were scattered in many

east European states. A variety of Calvinist churches—

usually called the Reformed Church—existed in western Europe. Their traditional center was Geneva, where

Calvin had established his church. Calvinist churches

were predominant in Switzerland, Holland (the Dutch

Reformed Church), and Scotland (the Presbyterian

Church); Calvinist minorities existed in many states,

notably France—where the Reformed Church was illegal though 500,000 followed it in secret—Prussia, and


In addition to these primary Protestant churches,

many smaller Christian sects existed in 1700, and more

were founded during the eighteenth century. Small

populations of diverse Protestants—such as Quakers

(the Society of Friends) in England and the Baptists in

central Europe—lived even within Protestant states. In

England, approximately 8 percent of the population,

collectively called Dissenters or Nonconformists, belonged to Protestant sects outside of the Church of


The Roman Catholic Church was more unified and

centralized than Protestantism, but it, too, encom-

passed diversity. Catholicism remained united by the

authority of the pope and by the hierarchical administrative structure directed by the Vatican. However, the

eighteenth-century papacy was too weak to resist the

absolute monarchs of Catholic lands. Louis XIV of

France had created a virtually autonomous French

Catholic Church, often called the Gallican Church.

(Gallicanism meant that the king named French cardinals and bishops himself and decided whether papal decrees would apply in France.) Other Catholic monarchs

copied the French administrative independence from

Rome, as the kings of Piedmont did in the early eighteenth century and Joseph II of Austria did later. Variations of Catholicism also depended upon the local

strength of individual orders (such as the Jesuits) or

doctrines (such as Jansenism). The Jesuits began the

eighteenth century as the most important of all

Catholic orders. They were rigorously trained men

who had acquired global influence through their educational and missionary efforts, and they had increasingly

turned their attention to politics. Their role in statecraft

made the Jesuits controversial, however, and they were

expelled from Portugal in 1759, from France in 1762,

from Spain and many Italian states in 1767, and finally

dissolved by Pope Clement XIV in 1773. Jansenism,

named for a Dutch theologian, was equally controversial for teaching an austere, puritanical—almost

Calvinistic—form of Catholicism, particularly in

Belgium and France, and the doctrine was condemned

by a papal bull.

Important differences existed between Catholicism

and Protestantism, shaping cultural differences in

Europe. These extended far beyond matters of faith—

beyond the fine points of theological doctrines, such as

the nature of Christian sacraments or the route to salvation. Protestant pastors, unlike Catholic priests, married

and raised families, frequently producing dynasties of

preachers when their sons also entered the church and

their wives and daughters took leading roles in Protestant organizations. Protestant states abolished the

monastic orders that existed in Catholic countries and

seized church lands; thus, the church had a greater

physical presence in Catholic countries through land

ownership and especially the far greater size of the clerical population. The Catholic Church owned 10 percent of the land in France (30 percent in some regions),

15 percent of Castile and central Spain, and 40 percent

of Naples and southern Italy. The ecclesiastical population of Portugal has been estimated at 80,000 to

300,000—at least 4 percent of the population, and perhaps as much as 15 percent. A study of the island of

376 Chapter 20

Corsica has found that a population of 220,000 people

sustained sixty-five monasteries. The situation was dramatically different in England, where a population of

5.8 million people, 90 percent of whom were nominally

Anglican, sustained eleven thousand clergymen in the

Church of England—less than 0.2 percent of the


Within these variations, all of Europe lived in a

deeply Christian culture. Churches provided most of

the social services that existed for the poor, crippled,

aged, orphaned, released prisoners, and reformed prostitutes. Hospitals and schools were run by the church,

not by the state. Schools provide perhaps the best illustration of the Christian character of European civilization. Few people received a formal education in the

eighteenth century—most of the population in all

countries remained illiterate—but the majority of the

schools that existed were run by churches. The Presbyterian Church ran most of the schools in Scotland, the

Anglican Church the majority of the schools in England, the Lutheran Church dominated Scandinavian education, and the Orthodox Church conducted most of

the schools in Russia. In many Catholic countries—

including Spain, Portugal, Poland, and most of the Italian states—the church totally controlled teaching. Religion formed a large part of the educational curriculum.

The need to be literate to read the Bible was frequently

the decisive reason in creating new schools, especially

in Protestant faiths that stressed Bible reading.

Religion remained central to both high culture and

popular culture, but Christian themes no longer dominated painting and sculpture, and literature had entered

a thoroughly secular age; European culture reflected an

“age of reason” more than an “age of faith.” Still, the arts

of the eighteenth century relied heavily upon religion.

Goethe’s Faust (1773), one of the masterpieces of German literature, is a Christian tragedy of lost faith and

damnation. The dominant buildings of the age were

royal palaces and stately homes, yet many of the structures that characterized baroque and rococo architecture were churches, such as the lavish Karlskirche in

Vienna (see illustration 20.4). Composers may have favored secular subjects for the flourishing opera of the

eighteenth century, but many of the masterpieces of

baroque music originated in Christianity, such as MarcAntoine Charpentier’s powerful Te Deum. Johann Sebastian Bach long earned his living as cantor and organist

at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, where he composed a

huge array of music on Christian themes, such as his

Mass in B minor. And perhaps no music composed in the

eighteenth century is more famous than Handel’s


Christianity similarly remained central to popular

culture and the rhythms of daily life. The sound of

church bells marked the time of day for most Europeans, and a church clock was often the only timekeeping that the poor knew until late in the eighteenth

century. Sunday remained the day of rest—often the

only day of rest—for shopkeepers, laborers, and peasants alike. The only vacation most people knew came

from religious holidays and festivals, and the calendar

of the Old Regime was filled with such days. In addition to the universal holidays of the Christian calendar,

such as Christmas and Easter, every region, village, and

occupation added the celebration of patron saints.

Most governments maintained a state religion, rewarding its members and limiting the rights of nonmembers. In Denmark and Sweden, non-Lutherans

could not teach, hold public office, or conduct religious

services. In Britain, a series of laws called the Test Acts

excluded non-Anglicans from military command, sitting in parliament, or attending Oxford or Cambridge

universities. Catholics could not live in London, nor

Protestants in Paris, in 1750. Restrictions were stricter

in regions where the Inquisition retained power. More

than seven hundred Spaniards condemned by the Inquisition were burnt at the stake between 1700 and

1746; the last burning for heresy in Spain came in

1781. The Inquisition exerted a greater force on European culture by regulating behavior. A trial before the

Inquisition in 1777 listed some of the behavior that true

Christians must cease: (1) eating meat on Friday;

(2) crossing one’s legs during a church service; (3) believing that the Earth revolved around the Sun; (4) not

believing in acts of the faith, such as ringing church

bells during a storm to beg God to stop it; (5) owning

prohibited books, listed on the church’s Index of forbidden books; (6) corresponding with non-Catholics;

and (7) disputing the idea that only Catholics could go

to Heaven. No Protestant equivalent of the Inquisition

existed, but that did not make Protestant lands models

of toleration. Denmark forbade Catholic priests from

entering the country under threat of the death penalty.


The Enlightenment and Its Origins

The eighteenth century is one of the most famous periods in the history of European thought. Historians often call that century the Age of Enlightenment (or the

Age of Reason) because eighteenth-century writers

smugly considered their epoch more enlightened than

earlier eras. It was an age that cherished universities,

The Culture of Old Regime Europe 377

Illustration 20.4

— Ecclesiastical Rococo Architechure. Much of the finest rococo architecture is found in the eighteenth-century churches of

Germanic central Europe. The Abbey Church at Ottobeuren,

shown here, uses colored stucco, marble, frescoes, and gilded

frames to achieve a spectacular image.

learned academies, scientific laboratories and observatories, libraries, philosophic journals, books (especially

great reference works), and talking about all of them

(see map 20.2). Although the term the Enlightenment was

not used during the eighteenth century, synonymous

terms—particularly the German term, Aufklärung—

were used.

The history of the Enlightenment focuses on the

influential thinkers and writers of the age. They are

usually identified by a French name, the philosophes,

which is a broader term than philosophers in English. The

importance of the Enlightenment rests in the circulation of the ideas of the philosophes among a small

378 Chapter 20

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Palaces modeled

after Versailles

Publication of scientific

or philosophical journals

Important universities

Location of


Famous European

academic centers


St. Petersburg










Leiden Göttingen















Danub e






















B a lea

ic I


sl a









900 Kilometers

600 Miles

MAP 20.2

— The Enlightenment —

literate population and the influence of these ideas in

changing the Old Regime. The central ideas of the

Enlightenment are frequently simplified to a few

basic concepts. The philosophes often differed, but a

few concepts were nearly universal: (1) skepticism—

questioning the validity of assumptions about society

and the physical world without regard for traditional

authority; (2) belief in the existence of natural laws—

such as the law of gravity—that govern both the social

and physical worlds; (3) confidence that human reason,

rigorously applied, can discover these natural laws and

establish them as the basis of human activity; and

(4) optimism that the application of reason and obedience to natural laws will produce progress, leading to the

perfection of human institutions.

One of the most eminent German philosophes, Immanuel Kant, summarized many of these attitudes in an

essay of 1784 entitled “What Is Enlightenment?” His

definition of Enlightenment was the liberation of individuals from direction by others (see document 20.1).

Kant held that people achieved this liberation when

they resolved to use their reason and to follow its dictates. Thus, he suggested a Latin motto for the Enlightenment: Sapere aude! (literally, “Dare to know!”), which

The Culture of Old Regime Europe 379

[ DOCUMENT 20.1 [

Immanuel Kant: Enlightenment

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) was a distinguished German

philosopher and a professor of logic and metaphysics at the

University of Königsberg in eastern Prussia. He was already

famous for his greatest work—The Critique of Pure Reason (1781)—when he published the essay “What Is Enlightenment?” (1784), from which the following excerpt is taken.

Enlightenment is man’s leaving his self-caused immaturity. Immaturity is the incapacity to use one’s

intelligence without the guidance of another. Such

immaturity is self-caused if it is not caused by lack

of intelligence, but by lack of determination and

courage to use one’s intelligence without being

guided by another. Sapere Aude! Have the courage

to use your own reason! is therefore the motto of

the enlightenment.

Through laziness and cowardice, a large part

of mankind, even after nature has freed them from

alien guidance, gladly remain immature. It is because of laziness and cowardice that it is so easy to

usurp the role of guardians. It is so comfortable to

be a minor! If I have a book which provides meaning for me, a pastor who has conscience for me, a

doctor who will judge my diet for me, and so on,

then I do not need to exert myself. I do not have

any need to think; if I can pay, others will take

over the tedious job for me. . . .

But it is more nearly possible for a public to

enlighten itself: this is even inescapable if only the

public is given its freedom. . . . All that is required

for this enlightenment is freedom; and particularly

the least harmful of all that may be called freedom,

namely the freedom for man to make public use of

his reason in all matters.

Kant, Immanuel. “What Is Enlightenment?” In Carl J. Friedrich,

ed., The Philosophy of Kant. New York: Modern Library, 1949.

he translated as “Have the courage to use your own


The Enlightenment developed from several

trends in European thought. Skepticism had been one

of the dominant themes of seventeenth-century philosophy, chiefly associated with the French philosopher René Descartes. In works such as the Discourse on

Method (1637), he had advocated universal doubt; that

is, the doubting of everything until it can be proven.

Pierre Bayle had even taken the dramatic step of applying skeptical philosophy to the Bible. Bayle, a

Frenchman whose advanced ideas forced him to live

in the greater freedom of Holland, proposed “a detailed refutation of the unreasonable deference

given to tradition,” and he included Christianity

within that tradition. All religious questions,

including the reading of the Bible, “require the

use of reason.”

A second fundamental source of the Enlightenment thought was the scientific revolution of the

seventeenth century, especially Sir Isaac Newton’s

synthesis of the accomplishments of many scientists.

Newton had built upon a scientific revolution that

had destroyed the geocentric theory of the universe,

instead placing the Sun at the center in a heliocentric theory. This required sweeping, counterintuitive

adjustments in European thought. For the heliocentric theory to be true, the Earth must move, at

tremendously high speeds, around the Sun and the

Sun did not rise or set, it merely appeared to do so

because the rotation of the Earth turned a viewer toward or away from the Sun. Christian theologians

fought such conclusions. The Catholic Church

placed the writings of astronomers on the Index of

prohibited books, arguing that “it is the Holy Spirit’s

intention to teach us how to go to heaven, not how

the heavens go.”

The Enlightenment canonized Newton because

he convinced the intelligentsia that the new astronomy was correct and the churches were wrong. His

greatest fame resulted from stating the Principle of

Universal Gravitation (the law of gravity) in his masterwork, Principia mathematica (1687). The “universal”

element of the law of gravity fascinated the

philosophes of the eighteenth century. Newton

proved to them that human reason could discover

“the universal qualities of all bodies whatsoever.”

Voltaire, who popularized Newton’s work in Elements

of the Philosophy of Newton (1738), proclaimed him “the

greatest and rarest genius that ever rose for the ornamentation and instruction of the species.” The English poet Alexander Pope was equally lavish in

praising the Newtonian synthesis in his Essay on Man

(1734): “Nature and nature’s law lay hid in night/God

said, ‘Let Newton be,’ and all was light.” And around

the Western world, philosophes placed a bust of

Newton in their study—as Thomas Jefferson did at

Monticello—as a reminder that human reason could

find universal natural laws.

A third source of Enlightenment thought, alongside

philosophic skepticism and scientific rationalism, was

380 Chapter 20

the revival of classicism Like the humanists of the Renaissance, the philosophes revered the Graeco-Roman past, but with a different emphasis. To them,

antiquity represented the historical model of a society

that had revered scientific observation and reasoned

objectively from these observations. This admiration of

antiquity implied the rejection of knowledge supported

only by authority, dogma, or superstition—the traits

that the philosophes often associated with the history

of Europe after the fall of Rome.

Natural Law, Reason, and Progress

When the scientific revolution convinced the European

intelligentsia that natural laws existed, the philosophes

concluded that laws governing human activity—the organization of governments, economic relations, the efficient operation of prisons, and the writing of

history—similarly “lay hid in night.” Such laws merely

awaited the Newton of economics or penology. The

belief in natural law was not new; ancient authors had

asserted its existence, too. The scientific revolution

merely allowed thinkers to embrace this old idea with a

new self-confidence.

One of the leading figures of the French Enlightenment, the Baron Charles-Louis de Montesquieu, illustrates this interest in natural law in his writings on

political theory. Montesquieu was a wealthy provincial

noble, educated in law, who inherited a position in the

Parlement of Bordeaux. Although he was elected the

chief justice of the parlement, he was more interested

in theories of government than in the day-to-day

drudgery of his highly political job. He sold his

office—such positions were often the property of nobles in the eighteenth century—and turned to writing.

His The Spirit of the Laws (1748) became one of the most

widely influential books of the century, joining the

seventeenth-century works of John Locke, who had attacked the divine right of royalty and asserted the divine royalty of right, in laying the foundations of

modern political theory.

Montesquieu began The Spirit of the Laws by asserting

that people, like the physical world, are “governed by

invariable laws.” This did not mean laws promulgated

by the government and enforced by the courts; Montesquieu called that type of law “positive laws.” Instead,

Montesquieu meant laws in a scientific sense—laws

that exist in nature, laws that state “fixed and invariable

relationships” just as much as the law of gravity did. For

example, Montesquieu believed that natural law proclaimed the need for food and the attraction of the

sexes. Other natural laws governing human relations

were less certain. Montesquieu, for example, asserted

that people were, by nature, peaceful rather than warlike. One consequence of asserting the existence of natural laws and trying to define them was that they might

be different from the positive laws enforced by the government or the moral laws of the established church.

Philosophes such as Montesquieu insisted that positive

law must therefore be changed to agree with natural

law. “ The intelligent world,” he wrote, “is far from

being so well governed as the physical.”

References to “nature” and “nature’s law” are found

in a great variety of eighteenth-century works in addition to Newton’s physics, Pope’s poetry, and Montesquieu’s political theory. The most typical work of the

Enlightenment, the French Encyclopedia of the Arts and Sciences (the Encyclopédie), devoted three full articles to natural law. Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote one of the

famous books in the history of education, Emile, or Concerning Education (1762), stressing natural education. “Nature,” he wrote, “never deceives us; it is always we who

deceive ourselves.” The first draft of the American Declaration of Independence proclaimed that people were

entitled to independence and self-government by “the

Laws of Nature.” Not all philosophes used the theory of

natural law, however. But even those who rejected it—

as did the Scottish philosopher David Hume, who

called it a “fallacious and sophistical” theory—discussed

the idea at length.

To discover natural laws, the philosophes relied on

skepticism and rationalism. Skepticism meant questioning and criticizing everything. “A thing is not proved

when no one has ever questioned it,” wrote one of the

editors of the Encyclopédie. “Skepticism is the first step

toward the truth.” Kant insisted upon the skeptical evaluation of everything, including church and state, in The

Critique of Pure Reason (1781):

Our age is the age of criticism, to which everything

must be subjected. The sacredness of religion, and the

authority of legislation, are by many regarded as

grounds for exemption from the examination by this tribunal. But, if they are exempted, they become the subjects of just suspicion, and cannot lay claim to sincere

respect, which reason accords only to that which has

stood the test of a free and public examination.

Most philosophes shared this glorification of reason.

Montesquieu stressed that reason must be the basis of

law. An American philosophe, Thomas Jefferson,

advised: “Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call on her

tribunal for every fact, every opinion.” Denis Diderot,

the coeditor of the Encyclopédie, wrote that the

philosophe must be “actuated in everything by reason.”

The Culture of Old Regime Europe 381


Landmark Works of the Enlightenment



















Daniel Defoe’s The Shortest Way with Dissenters

satirizes intolerance

Baron Montesquieu’s Persian Letters derides

French institutions

Madame de Sévigné’s posthumous Letters reveal life of the aristocracy

Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia mathematica translated into English from Latin

Voltaire’s Letters Concerning the English popularizes Newtonian science and representative


Madame de Lambert’s Advice of a Mother advocates university education for women

David Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature states

utilitarian principles

Sophia’s Woman Not Inferior to Man asserts the

equality of women

Johann Süssmilch’s The Divine Order pioneers

the field of statistics

David Hume’s Essays Concerning Human Understanding states case for complete skepticism

Baron de Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws

establishes study of comparative government

Denis Diderot and Jean d’Alembert publish

the first volume of the Encyclopédie

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin

of Inequality attacks the social order of Europe

Samuel Johnson publishes first comprehensive dictionary of the English language

Claude Helvétius’s De l’esprit asserts the principle of enlightened self-interest

Voltaire’s Candide satirizes ideas and institutions of the eighteenth century

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract propounds radical ideas about rights and liberties

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile urges “natural”


The insistence upon rationalism caused collisions

between the philosophes and the established authorities. This was especially true of the Christian churches,

which insisted upon the primacy of faith as a standard

of knowledge rather than, or in addition to, reason.



















Voltaire’s Essay on Toleration denounces religious intolerance

Cesare Beccaria’s Treatise on Crimes and Punishments urges penal reforms

Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary criticizes both

church and state

Joseph Priestley’s Essay on the First Principles of

Government stresses the happiness of citizens

Baron d’Holbach’s The System of Nature attacks

organized religion

First edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica


Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations outlines

principles of capitalist economics

John Howard’s The State of the Prisons exposes

horrible prison conditions

Gotthold Lessing’s Nathan the Wise, a dramatic

poem on toleration published

Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason


Moses Mendelssohn’s On the Civil Amelioration

of the Condition of the Jews published

Johann Pestalozzi’s Leonard and Gertrude advocates the reform of education

Joseph Priestley’s A History of the Corruptions of

Christianity criticizes the church

Immanuel Kant’s “What Is Enlightenment?”

urges people to dare to use their reason

Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason

states “the categorical imperative” for


Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights

of Woman calls for equal education

Marquis de Condorcet’s Progress of the Human

Spirit proclaims the doctrine of progress

Thomas Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population foresees world overpopulation

One of the first popes directly rejected reason as the

standard of the church, arguing that “[i]f the word of

God could be comprehended by reason, it would no

longer be wonderful.” The conflict between reason and

faith had interested many thinkers across the centuries,

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