Monday, May 18, 2009

The Political Effects of Absolutism on The Enlightenment

The Enlightenment. A time of culture, philosophy, and change. Great strides were taken in the medium of oil on canvas, and many technological advances, such as the steam engine, were made. But most interesting are the political changes. Nations were formed, and rebellions were fought. In fact, for a period of its length, a remarkable number of rebellions were fought. The French, Dutch, and Americans all revolted in this period. Even more remarkable, every single one of these rebellions were fought for democracy against absolutist monarchs. I highly doubt this is a coincidence. Ironically, democracy would have never become so widespread if not for Absolutism.

A Brief Background of Absolutism: Monarchical Absolutism is a system of government that reasons that a Monarch is given the right to rule by God, and therefore only answers to God, and no man can challenge his authority. The Monarch is theoretically immune to corruption, since his wealth is tied to that of the country. However, Louis XIV (left,"French History Timeline." French History Timeline. 21 May 2009. ), one of the most famous examples of absolute monarchy, provides some insight into the flaws with this system. For instance, there is the obvious possibility that the heir to the throne is simply incompetent, and Louis showed this by bankrupting France with wars. And some expenses, such as the massive Palace of Versailles, could be justified to be beautifying the country, while really just draining the funds for themselves. However, it was a good solution to end feudalism, and finally unite a country, but it proved only to be a stopgap before the people revolted ("Absolutism, European."Encyclopedia of World History. 3rd. 2008. Print.).

A Brief Background of the Enlightenment: The Enlightenment was a movement in the 17th and 18th century that stressed freedom of thought, expression, and scientific experiments. Some cornerstones of their beliefs were tolerance of religion, that religion should be based on reason, and believing only what your senses told you. In other words, do not look up the writings of a thousand year old Greek scientist, but perform your own tests. ( Hooker, Richard. "The European Enlightenment: The Philosophes." The European Enlightenment. 6/6/1999. 13 May 2009 As a result of these beliefs of free thought and government by consent, democracy was reborn in America and the Netherlands (France was taken over by Napoleon). Another product were the philosophes, French philosophers who defined the movement and came up with its driving theories, such as Francis Bacon, who came up with empiricism (picture below, Solar Navigation, "Francis Bacon." 2006. 21 May 2009). Or Descarte (below, right "RENE DESCARTE." Oregon State. Oregon State. 21 May 2009.), who came up with the scientific method (a form of empiricism).

So now that we know what these two eras are about, how did the Age of Absolutism affect The Enlightenment? Well, let's look at a historical example; the creation of the United States of America. The War for Independence started as a cry to be heard. The colonists, led by George Washington (above, "George Washington Picture and Biography." 22 May 2009) reasoned that if they were to pay taxes, they should have a right to be at least represented in Parliament. This is an example of government by consent. And why did the Dutch revolt? Excessive taxation by an uncaring ruler. The same as the American Revolution. During the Enlightenment, the fatal flaw of absolute monarchy became obvious. What if an incompetent or a insanely prideful monarch was born? The only way to remove them was by rebellion. And we see these prideful and incompetent kings in James, who refuses the colonies the smallest rights even though he knows they are on the brink of rebellion, or Phillip II, who taxes an already religiously rebellious territory to death, and lastly Louis the 16th, who is completely unaware of the common people's growing angst against the nobility.

But there had been incompetent and overly disciplinary rulers before that had kept power, right? So what is so different about this age than from the others before, that so many rebellions would happen in so little time. Again, we must look back into the Age of Absolutism, and even the Middle Ages. During both these eras in human history, the people were told to believe, do, and think what they were told by the Pope, such as Gregory, pictured top right (Corbett, Andrew. "Christian Thinking Resources." 2004. 21 May 2009) and later the state ("Politics in the Enlightenment." Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica. 13 May 2009 .). If they needed an answer to a scientific question, they consulted ancient Greek scientists. But as soon as this idea of empiricism was created, people started testing ideas for themselves, and when they tested theories, they realized that the people whose every word they had been hanging onto were lying or just wrong. Needless to say, word hanging dropped to an all time low. So once the common man realized that a king is not, in fact, infallible, they began to see that since that is not true, a state can easily be ruined by one unbarred, incompetent ruler. So they reinvented democracy to get rid of the old system.

Have you ever shaken up a bottle of soda? All it takes is the tiny motion of removing the cap and it explodes. That is essentially what happened in the enlightenment. Pressure had been building up for years, and finally, with the discovery of empiricism, a burst of knowledge came forth. So the Age of Absolutism shook up the soda, preparing for an era of change. On a side note, it has been mentioned in this essay that democracy was created to replace absolutism. It seems as if there is a pattern that most forms of government are made to replace another. For instance, absolutism was made in the first place to get rid of feudalism. And communism was made to replace democracy. And hasn't there been a pattern of explosions of learning and periods of intellectual... disuse. Following the Greek golden age of culture was the intellectually dry Middle Ages, promptly followed by the Reformation and Renaissance, times of great learning. Then came the Age of Absolutism, where again learning was not common. But the pressure built up, and the explosion of knowledge was called The Enlightenment.

Works Cited
"Absolutism, European."Encyclopedia of World History. 3rd. 2008. Print.

"Age of Absolutism Review." 13 May 2009 .

Corbett, Andrew. "Christian Thinking Resources." 2004. 21 May 2009

"French History Timeline." French History Timeline. 21 May 2009 .

Gay, Peter. Age of Enlightenment. Time Inc., 1966. Print.
"George Washington Picture and Biography." 22 May 2009

Hooker, Richard. "The European Enlightenment: The Philosophes." The European Enlightenment. 6/6/1999. 13 May 2009

"Politics in the Enlightenment." Encyclopedia Brittanica. Encyclopedia Brittanica. 13 May 2009

Staloff, Darren. The Politics of the Enlightenment and the American Founding. New York: Hill and Wang, 2005. Print

"RENE DESCARTE." Oregon State. Oregon State. 21 May 2009

Solar Navigation, "Francis Bacon." 2006. 21 May 2009

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