aIntro to European History
Enlightenment Ideas and
Political Figures of
The Enlightenment Era
The Enlightenment of the 18th century was an exciting period of history. For the first time since ancient Grecian times, reason and logic became center in the thoughts of most of elite society. The urge to discover and to understand replaced religion as the major motivational ideal of the age, and the upper class social scene all over Europe was alive with livid debate on these new ideas.
A French playwright who went by the pseudonym Voltaire is the most recognized and controversial Enlightenment author. Because of his trademark acidic wit, he was forced to flee the country after giving offence to a powerful nobleman. He spent the next two years in England where he came in contact with the pivotal Enlightenment idea of religious freedom and the freedom of the press. When he returned to France, he had some scathing things to say about the less than enlightened policies followed by the French monarchs, especially concerning religious intolerance. Because his ideas were generally offensive to the ruler of his country, the need to be able to leave France quickly to avoid prosecution was a consideration when deciding where he should live, which eventually was on the Swiss boarder. There he continued to treat on society and anything else that caught his imagination.
Along with Voltaire were many other Enlightened thinkers, or philosophes, as they came to be known. A man by the name of Rousseau was also a very influential personality. His essays mainly treated on social inequality and education.
An Italian by the name of Cesare Beccaria also discussed society, but more in terms of social control and matters of crime and punishment. He was an opponent of torture, capital punishment, and of any punishment that was done to excess or didnt fit the crime that warranted it. He arrived at his conclusions through the logic that was so popular of the day. An excellent example of this logic is in this phrase concerning capitol punishment: Is it not absurd, that the laws, which detest and punish homicide, should, in order to prevent murder, publicly commit murder themselves? Rational arguments such as these permeated Enlightened conversations and didnt fail to be noticed by many of the great national rulers of the day.
One monarch who seemed to be particularly inclined to the Enlightenment philosophies was Emperor Joseph II of Austria. After the less enlightened reign of his mother, Empress Maria Theresa, he was able to finally institutionalize many of the ideas he had been mulling over and thinking about for years. His mother, being a staunch Catholic, saw little use for such trivial issues, but once Joseph finally attainted complete control over the empire, his reforms were widespread. Possibly to spite his mother, one of the first thing he did as emperor was seize much of the land occupied by various monastic sects, which he accomplished through his Edict of Idle Institutions. True to his Enlightened nature, he promptly turned the seized lands into schools and other institutions of learning. He abolished the death penalty, made everybody equal in the eyes of the law, and ratified legislation that called for complete religious toleration. He even attempted to make the Jews living in Austria more acceptable to society as a whole. He had only limited success on this front, but the attempt itself was a drastic step for a monarch of any country to date. He made great progress economically as well.Joseph II ended the monopolies that had unnaturally influenced his economy for decades and eliminated stifling internal trade barriers. After all was said and done, he had created around 11,000 laws in an attempt to transform his country into an embodiment of Enlightened ideals. Has he himself put it once, I have made Philosophy the lawmaker of my empire, her logical applications are going to transform Austria.
Despite his hopes, the reforms set forth by Joseph II were not as successful as he had hoped. He angered the nobles by releasing the peasants from serfdom, and the peasants were similarly distressed over the newfound freedoms which they had no experience dealing with. His reforms were simply too broad and too drastic to be consumed in their entirety, and shortly after the turn of the century most of the above said changes had been repealed.
Another historic leader of the period who leaned toward the Enlightened philosophers was Catherine (II) the Great of Russia. Although not nearly as nieve as Peter, she seemed at least initially to take great interest in topics like capitol punishment and serfdom. In her correspondence to a special committee charged with making a new code, called Nakaz or Instructions, she systematically outlined the ideas and reforms that she wished the committee to consider. She shows her Enlightened nature in such passages as, 220. A punishment ought to be immediate, analogous to the nature of the crime, and known to the public, illustrating the fact that she recognized the importance of punishing illegalities; not just to teach the offender a lesson, but to keep society itself in line. This may seem like common sense today, but back then it was an unconventional rationalization.
As already mentioned, Catherine did not attempt the sweeping changes that her contemporary in Austria had. She recognized that she needed the support of the gentry to maintain her rule, and so she avoided alienating them. Indeed, it seems that she was Enlightened more in thought than in action. Unfortunately, any action she had or might have eventually taken was vanquished with the Cossack Rebellion in 1773, which roughly 1,500 nobles. After ruthlessly quelling that uprising, Catherines attitudes toward reform chilled, and she focused most of her attention on the landed nobles and their concerns rather than lofty ideas concerning serfdom and the peasantry in general.
Her reign illustrated the need to make reforms gradually, so as to maintain your political support while making life better for all those who reside in your territory.
One ruler who seemed to take note of this was Frederick the Great of Prussia. Coming into power after his exceedingly militaristic father, Fredrick I, he displayed great interest in the philosophes and their ideas, insomuch that the Voltaire himself was an honored guest of his court for a number of years. Although he made few real reforms in the bureaucracy that was developed by his father before him, he did make some real progress in legal matters. Absolutely necessary to an Enlightened society was a uniform code of laws available and understood by everybody, and this is exactly what Fredrick did in the early years of his reign. Additionally, he ended put severe limitations on the applications of torture and made his state tolerant of all religious practices. Right about here is where his reforms stopped, however. Understanding, like Catherine the Great, that to alienate your nobles was hazardous to your political career (and occasionally your health), he did not attempt to reform the feudal and rigid class stratification that characterized his country. In fact, he even added to the nobles power by doing things like denying a commoners ability to rise in status through work in the bureaucracy. Despite this blemish, his reign seemed to produce a fairly decent amount of reforms all the while keeping the peace within his borders and himself firmly in power.