The Enlightenment

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During the Renaissance, Europeans rediscovered the individual and freedom of thought. During the Enlightenment, the basis for democracy was conceived, leading to a long and arduous birth.

The Enlightenment, that is, the 17th and 18th century, is characterised by rapid development within science, technology, philosophy, politics, education and industrialisation; a development still shaping Western society and its world view. For example, the greatest scientist of the period, Isaac Newton (1643-1727), laid the foundation of science as we know it today, partly through his discovery of gravity.

In the political context, the Enlightenment philosophers wrote on the topic of how human beings could establish the optimum society, and here the recurrent themes were natural law and human freedom. In addition, philosophers specifically addressed the issues of religious liberty and freedom of speech, and it is rather telling that the greatest of them had to do it either under a pseudonym or anonymously. Others wrote under their own names and were exiled as a consequence; partly due to the church, partly to despotic kings.

In one place, a democratic society was successfully achieved early in the 17th century, but this was due to practical reasons, not ideology.

The first constitutional democracy

The first democratic “constitution” was in fact drafted as early as 1620. The term constitution is in quotes, because of the fact that the people to whom the constitution applied were still under the British crown. But they were so far removed from it that they had to create their own rules for their society.

In 1620, the first settlers set sail for America on the Mayflower. Far out on the Atlantic Ocean, they wrote “The Mayflower Compact” in which they reciprocally promised each other that they would create a political civil society built on rights and the law and to create institutions capable of securing these principles. They were deeply religious and loyal to the King, and to a great extent their aim was to spread Christianity - not democracy. Nonetheless, their subsequent influence on world history was due to their status as the founders of a new society which would later go on to become one of the world's democratic driving forces.

The Bill of Rights – development in England

In Europe, the absolute monarchs were ruthless in maintaining their position, so this was not exactly a time or place for writing democratic constitutions. This was also true of England, from where the Mayflower had set sail. On the contrary, the 17th century was a turbulent one for the English with ceaseless power struggles.

In 1625, Charles I (1600-1649) became King of England and, although he was a member of the Church of England, he married the French Princess Henrietta Maria who was a Catholic. Charles I was of the perception that his royal powers sprang directly from God and that, as a consequence, his powers were absolute.

The British Parliament had roots dating back to the 11th century, and it was this Parliament that, in 1215, had forced the King to accept the Magna Carta charter of liberty.

During the reign of Charles I, the conflict between the King and Parliament became progressively larger. The majority of the members of Parliament were Puritans (Protestants) and could neither accept the Catholic marriage of Charles which brought the country closer to the Papal Church, nor that he granted himself increasingly greater powers. This conflict led to the outbreak of civil war in 1642. The war lasted until 1649 when the Puritans were victorious and Charles I was executed. Following this, the Commonwealth of England was founded; in reality, a republic that was led by Oliver Cromwell until he died in 1658.

After Cromwell's death, Charles II became king from 1660-1685, and he cooperated with the Parliament. However, the next king, James II, did not; on the contrary, he was a despotic tyrant. He did however fight for the introduction of religious liberty for all citizens in order that fellow Catholics would be able to practice their religion freely. Parliament sought less royal power and feared a return to “Catholic conditions”, with the remote control of religious matters by the Pope in Rome. Instead, they wanted to strengthen the Church of England so, in 1688, James II was exiled from the country. His heirs to the throne were his Protestant daughter Mary II and her Dutch husband William III.

Out of all this turmoil came the need to define the power relationship between the King and Parliament, and this led to the Bill of Rights in 1689. The Bill of Rights establishes that the King cannot annul laws passed by Parliament and secures freedom of speech within Parliament. Further, the Bill of Rights resulted in considerable improvements in the legal rights of citizens; among other things, arbitrary punishment was prohibited and the King was banned from interfering in the decisions of the courts.

During the internal English power struggles, both Scotland and Ireland came under the English crown.

Natural law and freedom – Locke and Voltaire

Considering developments in England, it is hardly a coincidence that it was also in 1689 that the English philosopher and political thinker John Locke (1632-1704) wrote the Epistola de Tolerantia (A Letter Concerning Toleration). In this piece, he argues in favour of equality before the law, religious liberty, freedom of speech and the abolishment of torture and the death penalty. It is hardly a coincidence either that he published the work anonymously, because outside Parliament there was no freedom of speech!

In other works, Locke argued that all humans as a matter of natural law are free, equal and independent, and he directly affirmed his support for a democratically controlled, constitutional monarchy, a sentiment hardly welcomed by absolute monarchs who had so recently had their wings clipped. According to Locke, natural law is what guarantees the right of each individual to life, liberty and property, and natural law can be grasped by everyone solely by the use of their faculties of pure reason.

The French philosopher and historian François Marie Arouet de Voltaire (1694-1778) wrote under his own name and was prosecuted and exiled. He fought for religious liberty and freedom of speech, and his most famous assertion is probably “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. As a matter of fact, Voltaire never said this – it originated from the English writer Evelyn Beatrice Hall, summarising Voltaire's ideas in a biography in 1906.

The separation of powers – Montesquieu

The Enlightenment thinker most frequently mentioned in connection with the modern democratic state is probably the lawyer Montesquieu (1689-1755), because of his theory of the tripartite separation of powers into a legislative, an executive, and a judicial power. Montesquieu considered the conditions existing in a society as a set of facts that could be studied scientifically. Through his studies of the constitutions and laws of different countries, along with their history and traditions, he attempted to unite universal natural law with local conditions. In 1748, he published L'Esprit de Lois (On the Spirit of Laws), a philosophy of law in which, among other ideas, the separation of powers was expounded. He was by no means a democrat, as he supported constitutional monarchy, but he focused on individual freedom and wanted the monarchy to be based on a degree of power separation to avoid tyranny.


Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) belongs to the next generation of Enlightenment philosophers and, like his predecessors, his thoughts were also built around the idea of natural law. His two main works Du Contrat Social (On the Social Contract) and Émile, ou de l'éducation (Émile, or On education) were both published in 1762.

He was of the opinion that humans are naturally good, but asocial. He laid particular emphasis on the individual human being able to develop organically and in harmony with its nature. In Émile he wrote that a child's reason should be developed in harmony with its emotions, and that nothing should be forced upon the child. The child should come to realise the necessity of a moral sense through its own experiences. Generally speaking, Rousseau's great idea was that humans should develop a healthy and stable emotional life. This was a topic which had not been written about before. His book was banned and publicly burned, and he was forced into exile.

Rousseau believed that sovereignty resides with the people and not with God or anyone else. But he differentiated between the constitution and the government; the constitution should be democratic and rest on the sovereignty of the people, but the government cannot be democratic, for its role is to put the law into practice, and the nature of this task is such that not everyone can participate in it. The responsibility for this task must necessarily be given to a limited group of people. Rousseau thought that this either had to be an aristocracy or a monarchy, because the only democracy he knew of was the Greek polis, the city state, with its direct democracy, which in practice only worked in small communities. In Rousseau's time, no-one had yet accomplished a unification of the ideas of democracy and representative government and thereby conceived of a democratic form of government suitable for larger societies.

Rousseau was further of the opinion that it is the inequality between people which causes the decay of culture, and his thoughts concerning the individual and society came to form the ideological foundation for the French Revolution.

Other Enlightenment philosophers

Among other great Enlightenment philosophers are David Hume, Adam Smith, G.W. Leibniz, G.E. Lessing, and Immanuel Kant. Kant (1724-1804) is especially significant for Humanism, since he established that no human being may be treated as merely a means to an end, but must always be treated as an end itself.


The common feature of the Enlightenment philosophers was that they wanted to detach power and legislation from religion, superstition and absolute monarchs. It is true that some Enlightenment philosophers and political thinkers were themselves religious, but they wanted the governing principles of society to be based on reason, not on the Bible or on the whim of a random king. In the scientific realm, the Enlightenment also brought about a detachment from the religious world view; our perception and knowledge of the world must rest on observation and rational analysis – faith, superstition and old myths cannot be invoked to understand the nature of the physical world.

Furthermore, the Enlightenment philosophers agreed with Aristotle on the issue of the education of the people; that is, enlightenment is a necessary condition for individual autonomy and authority. And so the interest in pedagogy was sparked and writing encyclopedias became a popular activity.

In the wake of the Enlightenment came the European revolutions and constitutions.

Next chapter: Revolutions, Human Rights and Constitutions