Last Updated 09 Nov 2022

An Introduction to the Period of Enlightenment in Europe in the 18th Century

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The run up to the 18th Century was characterized by religious, cultural and scientific strife. The Enlightenment had, well, enlightened Europe. The middle class were better educated, and less tolerant of meddling by government and church, and managed to reform both to various degrees. After much spilling of blood, England had established a system of government that balanced the power of the Crown with the power of Parliament, with a resulting trickle down to the lower classes of various rights and privileges. Locke and Hobbes both wrote on Natural Law, offering wildly different ideas on how people should be governed, yet largely agreeing on the idea that there are certain rights that any human being should enjoy, simply by virtue of existence.

If those rights came from God, or existed without God was largely an academic exercise in what if, as the concept itself could survive with or without God. Meanwhile, throughout the 17th Century, kings were consolidating power. It was claimed that Louis XIV famously proclaimed “L'etat, c'est moi” (I am the State), but rather he stated “The interest of the State must come first” This was not born out of some nefarious pursuit of absolute power and dominance, like some sort of ruffled collar and high heel wearing version of Doctor Evil, but rather out of the literal birth of the idea of the State.

Prior to the idea of the State as a distinct entity, the right to rule, and the authority thereof was often considered to come from God himself. Monarchs would make much effort to claim legitimacy through the church of their choice, and even fought civil wars over which sect would hold dominance over the throne. There was no distinct national identity per se, but rather the somewhat fluid notion of the crown, and the power of the church. But again, that pesky Enlightenment thing. By the time Hobbes proposed his Social Contract Theory, people started seeing the world differently.

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They were Frenchmen, Englishmen, Prussian, Dane, or Swede first. They might be Catholic, or Protestant, or Anglican, or any of the various flavors of Christianity that abounded in Europe at the time, but now, the State held the first loyalty. The state made war, the state protected the people, the state governed daily life, and the state secured the very existence of its citizens. Hobbes proposed that the best form of government was one where all aspects of government, legislative, legal, military, etc... were consolidated into a single absolute authority, otherwise, if those elements were scattered among other entities, then chaos, and civil war could happen, resulting in chaos.

At the time, this was a radical idea, essentially the notion of an enlightened dictator using the "essential rights of sovereignty" could properly rule the state, and secure the basic rights of people. 2 Absolutism took Europe by storm. In France, Louis XIV consolidated his entire government at the massive palace at Versailles, the better to monitor and control the actions of his subordinates. He made war, and expanded the glory and power of France. In Brandenberg-Prussia, absolutism established a strong central authority that controlled rebellious towns, stripped away authority from petty lords, established the Junker class, and demonstrated the power of a standing army.

The story was the same throughout Europe, as the rising tide of the nation state eliminated or weakened parliaments, advisory councils, and the power of lesser nobility. The end result, was the beginning of modern Europe, and modern notions of national identity. The church's grasp on mortal power was weakened, and the state took precedence in daily life. While this had a great number of advantages; a single ruler commanding entire armies was vastly superior to the ragtag bands of armies loyal to a single noble, that were mashed together to form a national army in time of war, there of course is always the darker downside to absolute power, namely its powerful ability to form tired cliches about how it corrupts absolutely.

Louis XIV's excesses are well known, although tempered by his reasonably effective reign. But each state, and each ruler was different. Some had to battle civil unrest, such as occurred within Prussia, while others had to deal with massive empires, such as Russia, which made consolidating all power difficult at times. An absolute monarch was the literal final word on most things. Judicial pronouncements could not be appealed, there were no higher authorities to seek redress of grievance too, citizens and lesser nobles lost their voice, and many of their powers and rights.

While it looked good on paper, absolutism required an enlightened monarch, and a willingness to actually carry through with the theoretically noble and useful theories that drove absolutism. In the end, absolutism's death knell was born of its predictable excesses. Disenfranchised persons and groups ultimately rebelled against a firmly entrenched all or nearly all powerful nobility, and sought a return to more democratic ideals, and a greater voice in leadership. The raw brutality and violence of the French Revolution is a classic example of the end of an absolutist state. Still later, the Russian Revolution of 1917 serves as a useful bookend for the collapse of European absolutism, although it could be argued that Europe really didn't shake that habit until the closing years of the 20th Century.

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