Research Paper on Early Modern and Classical Liberal Political Thought

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Outline

I. Introduction

II. Challenging the Medieval World: The Protestant Reformation

III. The Emergence of the Enlightenment and the Copernican Scientific Revolution

A. Nicholas Copernicus

B. Origins of the Enlightenment

IV. Liberalism and Social Contract Tradition

A. The Origins of the Social Contract Tradition

B. England and the Battle Between the King and Parliament

C. Thomas Hobbes

D. John Locke and the Rise of Liberalism

E. Jean-Jacques Rousseau

F. Liberalism and the Social Contract Tradition

V. The French Revolution

VI. The Kantian Revolution

VII. Conclusion

I. Introduction

Modern political thought is punctuated by five major revolutions, each of which helped forge a break from the ancient and medieval worlds and which have shape politics and society into the 21st century (Blumenberg, 1987b; Tannenbaum & Schultz, 2004). These revolutions are the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, the Copernican scientific revolution of the 16th century, the French Revolution of 1789, the Kantian revolution in philosophy (marked by the publication of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason in the 1780s), and perhaps most important for politics, the English Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the publication of John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government in 1689–1690 (Ashcraft, 1986). Collectively, these five revolutions ushered in a world politically far different from the one that preceded it. The politics of the ancient and medieval eras was marked by an emphasis on absolute governments that expressed little concern for individual rights and vested unchecked authority in monarchs who often invoked claims of superior knowledge, religion, or appeals to familial metaphors to justify their authority (Strauss, 1953). But the world of modernity was a secular one that constructed limited governments based on individual consent and respect for rights as the cornerstone of political power (Baumer, 1977; MacIntyre, 1984; Riley, 1982; Strauss, 1953).

To tell the story of the emergence of modernity—of the Enlightenment and early moderns and classical liberals—is the task of this research paper. It first contrasts the world of the ancient and medieval eras to that of what has been called modernity. The research paper then describes the five major revolutions that shaped the rise of modernity and the emergence of a new liberal world order that broke decisively with the one that it replaced.

II. Challenging the Medieval World: The Protestant Reformation

The first major challenge to the medieval world was the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, which found its origins in the writings and political movements surrounding German theologian Martin Luther (1483–1546) and the Swiss John Calvin (1509–1564). Both spearheaded what could be described as conservative reactions to philosophical reforms and excesses that had emerged in the Catholic Church beginning in the 13th century (Baumer, 1977; Skinner, 1979b; Tannenbaum & Schultz, 2004).

Up until the 13th century, the writings of St. Augustine had dominated the Church. The once secular writings of the ancient Greeks had all but disappeared from Christian Europe, surviving in the Arabic and eventually Islamic worlds. But translations of Aristotle’s works prepared by Bishop Raymond of Toledo and William of Moerbecke began to emerge in Spain in the early 13th century (Skinner, 1979b). These writings discussed Aristotle’s more secular views on government and his visions of human nature that contrasted with those of Christianity. St. Thomas Aquinas attempted to reconcile Aristotle with Christianity, as did other writers, such as Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) and then Marsilius of Padua (ca. 1275–1343). In various ways, their importation of Aristotle into Christianity often left room for a political dualism that distinguished secular from spiritual rule and allowed for potential limits on the authority of kings (Sabine & Thorson, 1973; Skinner, 1979b).

The growing importation and influence of Aristotle challenged Christian doctrine. Luther and Calvin doctrinally disagreed with the new direction of the Church. For different reasons they challenged the pope’s reading of the Bible, and they sought political sanction and support from local rulers in Germany to protect themselves (Tannenbaum & Schultz, 2004). Luther also disagreed with many practices of the Church, such as the selling of religious indulgences, that is, the forgiveness of sins, for a price. Additionally, kings, whose power was growing, chafed under the popes. Some, such as Henry VIII of England, fought bitterly with the Pope to secure a divorce. Eventually, Luther, Calvin, and many kings came to challenge a key assertion of the Christian world order: papal infallibility (Skinner, 1979b). The Ninety-Five Theses that Luther nailed to the church door in Wittenberg in 1517 encapsulated his grievances with the pope. Finally, Luther’s challenge to papal infallibility questioned the belief that there was only one correct interpretation of the Bible. Instead of the Church’s having one ruler, Luther described the Church as an institution or community of equality. It was of a priesthood of all believers in a world where, in the view of St. Augustine, all were equally sinners. Similarly, John Calvin, in Institutes of the Christian Religion (1535), sought to define the essence of Christian liberty as a spiritual force, thereby seeking to distinguish civil and religious institutions in terms of the scope of their authority (Sabine & Thorson, 1973; Skinner, 1979b; Tannenbaum & Schultz, 2004). Yet despite distinct realms, both types of institutions aimed to help humans serve God. Monarchs thus received directly from God their authority to rule.

What emerged politically from the Protestant Reformation was the first crack in the unified world order of medieval Christianity. There was no longer one uninterrupted chain of being, from God to popes to kings to men. There was at least a dualism in faith. What emerged from this criticism of the pope was that kings were significantly invested with new power and authority. Instead of having to seek their authority to rule from the Church and the pope, increasingly monarchs claimed a divine right to rule, in other words, political legitimacy directly from God. Monarchs thus had even more authority than before. God directly sanctioned their unlimited power to act and the duty of subjects to obey them. Although the average subject might not have noticed much difference from all-powerful monarchs claiming their power from the pope as opposed to God directly, the Protestant Reformation could be seen as opening up space for the justification of independent secular institutions to rule.

III. The Emergence of the Enlightenment and the Copernican Scientific Revolution

The medieval political order was supported by a theology and a cosmology. The theology was supplied by Christianity, the cosmology by Ptolemy (Koyré, 1982; Kuhn, 1992; Lovejoy, 1976). Ptolemy was a 2nd-century Roman astronomer whose book Almagest constructed a model of the universe that depicted the earth at the center, with the sun, the moon, the planets, and the stars all revolving around it. This geocentric model provided a cosmological model that supported the Christian Church in that depicting the earth as the center of the universe meant that God had chosen earth, Christianity, and ultimately the pope to be his direct descendants in terms of exercising authority. In effect, the pope was the head of a religion at the center of the universe that governed over all the earth. God was thus wrapped into the very fabric of the universe.

Over time, the geocentric model proved increasingly difficult to sustain. Astronomical instruments and mathematical models failed to predict adequately the actual movement of the planets and stars across the heavens. There was a disconnect between what Ptolemy’s model predicted and what was observed. It thus became necessary to make the model increasingly more complex in order to describe accurately what was happening in the sky. Eventually the model proved clunky and difficult to maintain (Kuhn, 1992).

A. Nicholas Copernicus

Nicholas Copernicus (1473–1543) was a Polish astronomer who sought to address the problems with Ptolemy’s model. In his 1543 book On the Revolution of the Celestial Spheres, Copernicus attempted to correct the errors of the geocentric model by proposing instead that the sun and not the earth is at the center of the universe. With such a proposal, many of the problems of the older geocentric model were solved, and it was easier to predict the orbits in the sky. One would not think that simply proposing a new astronomical theory would cause a political crisis, but it did. Copernicus was afraid to have his book published until after his death, fearing excommunication from an angry Church. In 1616, the pope declared the book heresy and barred Catholics from reading it (Blumenberg, 1987a; Koyré, 1982; Kuhn, 1992; Tannenbaum & Schultz, 2004).

Signs that the Church would not accept an alternative model of the universe lightly or willingly were reconfirmed with the condemnation of Galileo (1564–1642). It was his observations in the early 17th century of the moons orbiting Jupiter that led him to believe that Copernicus was correct. His run-ins with the Church demonstrated the threat the newly emerging sciences posed to religion, and they were part of the broader movement during the 17th century, known as the Enlightenment (Kuhn, 1992).

B. Origins of the Enlightenment

The Enlightenment was a major intellectual challenge to the medieval order (Blumemberg, 1987a; Tannenbaum & Schultz, 2004). Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), a late- 18th-century philosopher, once wrote an essay titled “What Is Enlightenment?” by saying that its motto was “Dare to know!” (Kant, 1979, p. 54). The Enlightenment was a rejection of accepting truths based on faith; instead it was an appeal to reason and eventually to experience or empiricism to gather knowledge. The Enlightenment was also an appeal to use reason as a tool to gather political knowledge, and to ascertain truth (Baumer, 1977). The Enlightenment was driven first by the reemergence of classical Greek philosophy and eventually by the adoption of new scientific methods of gathering knowledge. Thus, in 1620, Francis Bacon (1561–1626) argued in Novum Organum that one must proceed from new foundations to achieve new certainty of knowledge. Bacon stressed a new method of inquiry, eventually called the scientific method, for studying the world. René Descartes’s (1596–1650) Meditations on First Philosophy (1641) sought to use doubt as a process of arriving at truth by seeking to doubt all until doubt was no longer possible. Descartes’s self-doubting took him back to the question of his own existence. At this point, he arrived at a certainty of knowledge with the exclamation cogito ergo sum, or “I think, therefore I am.” Isaac Newton (1642–1727) developed the basic laws of motion, gravity, and physics in his Principia Mathematica (1687), which portrayed a universe that could be explained by math and science and not by God.

Taken together, Copernicus, Galileo, Bacon, Descartes, and Newton provided a scientific approach to knowledge that was not contingent on God (Tannenbaum & Schultz, 2004). Their works further cracked the unity of the medieval theology and cosmology by evicting the earth from the center of the universe and replacing old knowledge with knowledge based on new rational and scientific foundations. The legacy of these Enlightenment thinkers provided a new way for political thinkers to talk about the world. One could use the tools of reason to challenge the old political order and think about a political order that was secular and rational.

IV. Liberalism and Social Contract Tradition

A. The Origins of the Social Contract Tradition

The Protestant Reformation cracked the singularity of the Christian world but left monarchs in a stronger position than before by investing them with divine right to rule. The Copernican scientific revolution challenged old truths by questioning religious knowledge and truth. Both movements were threats to the medieval order, but they also were in conflict with one another. Inevitably they would collide, and they did so when it came to the power of princes and the duty of subjects to obey them.

The Protestant Reformation gave monarchs a religious justification to rule, yet a persistent problem surrounded the scope of their authority (Skinner, 1979a, 1979b). The divine right of royal power meant that monarchs had unlimited power, but what if it were abused and kings turned out to be tyrants? One early sign of efforts to trim the excesses of kings occurred at Runnymede, England, in 1215, when noblemen forced King John to sign the Magna Carta and recognize some basic rights of the people he ruled.

The Protestant Reformation also sowed some of the seeds of limitation of royal power. While divine right generally meant absolute obedience to the ruler, at least in Protestant states, in countries such as Catholic France, religious minorities experienced religious persecution. French Protestants, known as Huguenots, began to construct constitutional theories justifying some passive disobedience to rulers who exceeded their powers. Francis Hotman’s 1573 Franco Gallia was one of the first tracts to explore this subject. Then in 1579, the anonymously authored Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos forcefully developed the case against tyrants who abused their authority, at least in terms of matters of faith (Skinner, 1979b). The book addresses four questions: whether subjects are obligated to obey rulers if the rulers command anything against God, what means subjects may use to resist, how far subjects may go to resist, and whether neighboring princes can aid subjects in resisting. Vindiciae asserted that monarchs had a duty to support the pure doctrine of God, and should they fail, subjects had a religious duty to resist. In effect, rulers who defied God broke a contract connecting them to God and to their subjects.

Other French thinkers took a different tack to address religious persecution and the power of monarchs. Jean Bodin’s (1530–1596) Six Books of the Commonwealth made the case for religious toleration and the separation of the Church from the state (Keohane, 1980; Sabine & Thorson, 1973). Bodin also developed another significant argument, claiming that sovereignty, or political authority in a society, originated not with the monarch but with the people. The significance of his arguments on toleration and sovereignty was to suggest that kings were limited in their power by the people and that matters of state did not extend to those of faith. Perhaps in recognition of these arguments, in 1598 King Phillip of France issued the Edict of Nantes, which granted Protestants freedom of conscience.

B. England and the Battle Between the King and Parliament

In the 16th and 17th centuries in England, justifications of royal power took place against the backdrop of political battles between the king and a restless parliament. In 1628, the Petition of Right was adopted to limit the royal prerogatives of King Charles I. Then in 1649, Charles, an advocate of the divine right theory, was ousted by Oliver Cromwell, a member of the British Parliament. England was declared to be a commonwealth until the monarchy was restored in 1660. In 1688, the Glorious Revolution led to the removal of Catholic James II and the adoption of the English Bill of Rights in order to protect individual rights against monarchal excesses.

C. Thomas Hobbes

The battle for political power, however, took place not simply in parliament but also in books. Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) was a royalist, a defender of monarchal power. His most famous book, Leviathan (1651), sought to address the disorder caused by the attacks on the monarchy and brought together many of the current intellectual trends. The Leviathan draws on the emerging science and rationalism of the Enlightenment to forge a new theory of royal absolutism premised, not on divine right, but on a different argument that appealed to what has come to be called social contract theory (Hampton, 1988; Rawls, 2007; Riley, 1982; Strauss, 1952; Wolin, 1960).

A basic assumption of politics dating back to the ancient Greeks was that politics and the state were natural (Strauss, 1953). In other words, both had always existed, and there was never a time when a presocial situation existed, one with no government or political authority. The significance of this argument, especially as it evolved in the medieval Christian world, was that if government was natural and had always existed, then it was simply natural that people had to obey the law and their rulers, especially if the latter were sanctioned to rule by God. Political sovereignty, to use Bodin’s term, was situated with the rulers and not the people. Monarchs were sovereign; they had political power, not the people, and therefore the people had no ability to limit an abusive ruler. But if, as Bodin suggested, sovereignty belonged to the people, then monarchs received their power from God indirectly, through the people, so long as the people did not abuse that power. This at least was the argument in the Vindiciae. The Vindiciae envisioned political society as similar to a contract that linked the people to the king and to God. If the king broke the contract, then the people had a right to remedy that breach.

Thomas Hobbes and other political writers extended this contract metaphor. They sought to explain the origin of political power by imagining a distant past when no government existed at all (Pateman, 1988; Rawls, 2007; Strauss, 1952, 1953; Tannenbaum & Schultz, 2004; Wolin, 1960). In Leviathan, Hobbes (1651/1998) imagined a state of nature, a presocial situation, well before government or civil society existed. In that state of nature, individuals existed as isolated creatures. But the creatures Hobbes described were like machines in motion, seeking to stay in motion. Moreover, Hobbes ascribes to humans a basic psychological impetus: “a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of power after power that ceases only in death” (p. 161). In this state of nature, all humans have one basic right, a right to self-preservation and to pursue power. But in pursuing both, conflicts emerge, especially because there is no government to keep people in line. For Hobbes, the state of nature is thus a state of war, in which life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (p. 100).

Hobbes explained that the desire for self-preservation leads individuals to forge a social contract. This is a contract among individuals to turn power over to some individual to exercise absolute power to enforce laws and keep order. Individuals in a state of nature thus relinquish, by way of their consent and a social contract, power to an absolute ruler to keep the peace. Government is thus an artificial machine or entity given the power to keep the peace. It is no more than simply the sum of the individuals who make it up. This image is aptly captured in the original book cover for Leviathan, which depicts a monarch drawn in such a way that he is composed out of the sketches of a multitude of individuals (Sabine & Thorson, 1973; Tannenbaum & Schultz, 2004; Wolin, 1960).

The power of Leviathan resides in its argumentative force and logic (Strauss, 1952; Tannenbaum & Schultz, 2004). It is an account of royal power devoid of religion and appeals to divine right. Instead, it draws on rationalism and the empiricism and science of the Enlightenment to construct a theory of human nature, society, and government that does not rely on any references to God. It is a mechanistic view of humans and society, much like the vision of the universe described by Newton’s laws of motion. It appropriates the newly emerged social contract tradition to defend an old proposition, royal absolutism (Wolin, 1960).

D. John Locke and the Rise of Liberalism

But not all defenses of the monarchy veered in the direction that Hobbes took. Others relied on traditional appeals to God and the Bible to assert royal prerogative. One famous effort to do that was Sir Robert Filmer’s1680 Patriarcha (Ashcraft, 1986). Several traditional metaphors were often used to justify political power, especially monarchial authority. One claim was the idea that kings were like fathers (Schochet, 1975). By that, if fathers were the heads of families, governments could be viewed as large families over which kings ruled. Moreover, in the 17th century (and earlier), fathers in families were viewed as having unlimited power over their wives and children. Thus, for Filmer, if kings were like fathers and they had absolute power over the family, the same would be true with kings over governments. Second, Filmer defended monarchial power with biblical references, often by invoking the Fifth Commandment—“Honor thy father and mother”—to support monarchial rule (Schochet, 1975). The book of Genesis was also invoked to defend royal power. Genesis describes Adam as given dominion over the world, and that grant of authority was interpreted to mean that government was natural and that Adam and his descendants had absolute power over all. Overall, Filmer’s Patriarcha combined biblical, familial, and other metaphors to defend royal absolutism.

Perhaps the most famous effort to refute Filmer and to defend limited monarchy is found in the writings of British political philosopher John Locke (1632–1704). His 1690 Two Treatises on Government is a response to Filmer that refutes claims for absolute monarchial power and justifies both parliamentary authority and a revolution to limit the authority of the crown (Cranston, 1957; Skinner, 1979b). To undertake this task, Locke also invoked social contract reasoning or metaphors to make an argument about government and society. Like many of his contemporaries, Locke sought to explain the origin of society. This included discussing why laws exist, why they should be obeyed, and who should be entitled to rule a country.

But Locke was writing at a time when the power of kings was being questioned and parliaments and popular governments were beginning to develop. Like Hobbes, Locke began his claims about government by assuming a presocial state of nature (Rawls, 2007; Riley, 1982). This state of nature is a condition of natural liberty in which all are free and equal. No human laws or rules exist in this state of nature. This does not mean that there are no rules of justice. Locke talks about the existence of natural laws or rule of justice. More important, he indicates that individuals in the state of nature possess certain natural rights. These rights include the right to defend oneself, to defend other rights, and to act in ways to preserve oneself and one’s possessions. But the most important natural rights for Locke, in the Two Treatises, draw linkages between property, liberty, and government (Ashcraft, 1986; Cranston, 1957; Macpherson, 1962). Although Locke describes a state of nature as one of perfect freedom and a place where individuals have natural rights, these rights are unclear. Moreover, while in the state of nature, one may come to acquire possession of items; again, the exact rights to these objects are occasionally uncertain. Others may try to take them. Left unchecked, the state of nature can turn into anarchy or a state of war. Individuals enter in a social contract to protect their natural rights. The social contract, civil society, or government gives clarity to natural rights, including the right to property. The preservation of property rights is the chief goal of civil society.

Property for Locke refers to one’s life, liberty, and estate. The goal of the social contract in creating civil society is protecting property (Macpherson, 1962). The law gives legal meaning, status, and protection to property. Thus, on one level, the social contract is one that seeks to protect preexisting natural rights. These are rights that all individuals possess. In creating a government or civil society, individuals reach an agreement among themselves to create an authority that will protect and enforce their rights. The contract is not between the king or the government and the people (Pateman, 1988; Skinner, 1979b; Tannenbaum & Schultz, 2004; Wolin, 1960). The contract is among the people and it defines the scope of powers and authority of the government. The people contract among themselves and literally give a contract to the government to act on their behalf.

In structuring a government to protect the rights of the people, several points are important to stress. The first is the concept of consent. Whereas in a monarchy, in which people do not choose to be ruled or, rather, do not give consent to a king to rule over them, government, for Locke, is all about consent (Riley, 1982). That is, the authority to act and, with that, the duty to obey the law are premised on the idea of consent. But does this concept of consent mean an active, explicit form of consent on every major decision made by the government? The answer Locke provides is no. Here he invokes two concepts, the idea of tacit consent and that of majority rule, arguing that entrance into civil society and therefore the obligation to obey the law are not based on an expressed consent. One can tacitly consent to obeying the law and entering civil society. Tacit consent may be premised on the benefits one enjoys in society. In effect, the very fact that one benefits from the law means that one is consenting, at least tacitly, to the legitimacy of the rules.

Does consent mean that for government to be legitimate, the people have to agree all the time with everything the government undertakes? Again Locke’s answer is no, and here he introduces the concept of majority rule, whereby assemblies or parliaments may vote by majorities to act on behalf of the people. The concept of majority rule is crucial for Locke (Ashcraft, 1986). Once an initial social contract is formed among the people and the government is instituted, unanimous consent (or at least express consent) is not required. Instead, society may act if a majority of the population or parties to the contract (or the government) supports an idea. Government and civil society then are premised on a notion of majority consent or expression. In essence, this is the concept of a popular government in which the people are ruled through majorities and not on the whim of one individual (king) or a minority (aristocracy).

With the joining of tacit consent and majority rule, the question of minority rights arises. Could not a majority of the population vote to enslave the minority or to strip them of their property rights? This is the classic problem of a popular government. Locke has several solutions to preventing this tyranny. First, recall that the rights to property are natural, meaning that these natural rights; operate as outside limits on what the government can do. Government is instituted so that it can protect these natural rights; one cannot create a government that would seek to deny or suppress these rights. Second, the entire concept of the social contract is meant to address this problem. Specifically, one would presume that no individual would consent to creating a civil society that would suppress or limit rights. Instead, the very notion of the contract and consent should also operate as a mechanism that checks abuses. But finally, there is a third mechanism to limit abuses, the notion that government or government officials are trustees for the people, seeking to act in the people’s best interest.

In order to make the argument that government serves as trustees for the people, Locke draws some parallels between government and parents. Recall that monarchies were defended at this time by contending that kings were like fathers who have absolute rule over their wives and children. The family was thus viewed as a minimonarchy. Locke challenges that notion of the family. First, Locke argues that parental power over children is not absolute and natural but instead is a guardian relationship. By that, he meant that parents cannot do what they want with their children. Parents’ powers over children are limited, with parents’ serving as a “temporary government” over their children until the children reach adulthood. Locke also redefines the marriage relationship, describing it as voluntary. The family, then, is not natural but a product of convention (contract), with the powers of the father limited to looking out for the best interests of the wife and children (Schochet, 1975).

If the father’s power is limited to that of being a guardian, and if the family is the metaphor for the government, then the role of political leaders is one of a limited, guardian relationship. In effect, government is to serve the public good and protect property (life, liberty, and estate). What if government breaches that trust? Near the end of the Two Treatises, Locke reserves to the people the right to decide when the government has abused its trust and therefore when they should change the government. In effect, Locke describes a right not only for individuals to create a civil society and government but also a right to revolt to dissolve it. The people decide when it is time to change government (Skinner, 1979b).

Emerging out of Locke’s writing is what has been called a political theory of liberalism (DeRuggerio, 1964). This theory of liberalism should not be confused with the notions of conservative or liberal that are popularly invoked in politics and the press today. Instead, what is called Lockean liberalism is a set of values committed to individual rights, limited government, and the belief that individuals are sovereign, that is, that they can create or end a government, whether by elections or more extraordinary means. Emerging out of Locke’s Two Treatises are ideas such as consent of the governed, majority rule, respect for minority rights, and the ideas that government officials are trustees looking out for citizens and serving the public good. Locke’s rethinking of government based on consent shifts the notion of political authority away from justifications resting on religious or biblical authority. In the Two Treatises as well as in his other writings, such as A Letter Concerning Toleration (1679), Locke also endorses religious toleration, further strengthening the notion of a separation of Church and state.

E. Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Locke was not the only writer to invoke a social contract theory for describing the origins of government. Jean- Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) was a social contract theorist who tried to explain the origin of society by appealing to an ancient compact reached among individuals (Riley, 1982; Tannenbaum & Schultz, 2004). This compact created the institution of property, but in contrast with Locke, property for Rousseau was not depicted in a positive light. Instead, property, along with all of society and government, were described in his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality (1755/1964) as a trick by the rich and powerful over the poor. Rousseau expressed this idea as follows:

The first man who, having enclosed off a piece of land, got the idea of saying “This is mine” and found people simple enough to believe him was the true founder of civil society. What crimes, what wars, what murders, what miseries and horrors would someone have spared the human race who, pulling out the stakes or filling in the ditch, had cried out to his fellows, “Stop listening to this imposter.” (Second Discourse, p. 141)

For Rousseau, the original social contract and the property that it created were the first step in the gradual and eventual enslavement of individuals. Elsewhere in the Second Discourse, Rousseau sees the first step in the creation of property as leading to even further social conflicts and distinctions, such as family inequalities. The question for Rousseau was thus how to take humans off this path, which started with a fall from their state of natural equality and led them into the inequalities they experience in civil society. As Rousseau (1762/1977) would state later, in his most famous book, The Social Contract, “Man is born free, but he is everywhere in chains” (p. 49).Although in nature humans were free and equal, social institutions such as private property take away this natural freedom. Rousseau argued in The Social Contract that a genuine contract among the people is the only legitimate basis for forming a government (Rawls, 2007). Yet, he states, government still faces a basic problem:

How to find a form of association which will defend the per son and the goods of each member with the collective force of all, and under which each individual, while uniting himself with others, obeys no one but himself, and remains as free as before. (p. 60)

The primary task of The Social Contract is reconciling government with individual freedom (Sabine & Thorson, 1973; Shklar, 1969). Rousseau accomplishes it with a social contract that gives up natural physical freedom for moral or civil autonomy. Individuals are free when they live according to laws they have consented to or constructed for themselves. They achieve freedom when, according to Rousseau, their individual freedom conforms to the general will. All citizens are expected to obey the general will, the laws made by a lawgiver chosen by the people. Rousseau’s arguments thus appear to declare a very broad notion of democracy that entrusts to the people the authority to rule and make laws for a society. But what if the people err? Can individuals disobey the law? The Rousseau of the Second Discourse calls for revolution or rebellion if the contract is a false one premised on fraud, but the Rousseau of The Social Contract states that individuals may be “forced to be free,” or be compelled to follow the law in order to promote the type of government and freedom he advocates.

F. Liberalism and the Social Contract Tradition

The social contract tradition, especially as articulated by Locke and Rousseau, strongly criticized royal power. Together they placed the origins of political power in the people. It was through a contract that the people expressed their sovereignty, their authority to define the legitimate ends of government. The notion of a social contract is at the root of concepts such as constitutionalism, limited government, majority rule, and respect for individual rights. The social contract tradition, especially through Locke, formed the basis of what has come to be called the liberal tradition (Rawls, 2007; Riley, 1982). Liberalism, expressing this commitment to individual rights and a limited a popular government, is one of the major theories or philosophies of modern political thought (DeRuggerio, 1964). Liberal social contract theory has been an important tool for many political thinkers, including those of the present, to defend theories of political authority that respect rights. In the 18th century, another notable liberal, Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797), appealed to liberal social contract theory in A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) to extend its claims to women (Sapiro, 1992; Tannenbaum & Schultz, 2004). Thomas Paine (1737–1809) drew on liberal values, both in his 1776 Common Sense and in his 1791 Rights of Man. The former called for an American revolution from England, and the latter defended the French Revolution of 1789.

But not everyone in the 18th century or even today agrees with all the values of liberalism and the use of a social contract to define political authority. David Hume (1711–1776) was an important British philosopher best noted for his Treatise of Human Nature (1739), a major book on epistemology and knowledge. He also penned numerous political essays, some of which criticized the social contract tradition. He argued that contracts were not the basis of political authority. Instead, mere habit or custom gave rise to government. But Hume did concur that rules of justice and authority were conventional, not natural, and thus he sided with many claims used traditionally to support political authority. Additionally, some contemporary scholars such as Carol Pateman (1988) and Charles Mills (1997) have argued that the social contract tradition was exclusive, that is, it excluded women and people of color from the social contract, and thereby it created a sexual and racial contract that defended sexism and racism. Finally, Okin (1979) and Lloyd (1984) see a male-centered or misogynist bias in the employment of Enlightenment reasoning.

V. The French Revolution

England was not the only country to oust kings. The French Revolution of 1789 was the fourth major revolution to help define modernity, and it was launched in the spirit of Rousseau, liberalism, and the social contract tradition.

The French Revolution is considered one of the most significant political events in modern European or Western history (Baumer, 1977; Horkheimer & Adorno, 1972). The mass demonstration beginning the French Revolution commenced on July 14, 1789, now known as Bastille Day. This was the day that the Bastille Prison, used by the king to jail political and other prisoners, was attacked by the people. The prison was a symbol of royal abuse. With the chant of “Liberty, equality, and fraternity” as its motto, the French Revolution deposed, at least temporarily, the monarchy of France and beheaded both King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette. In its place was instituted a people’s government with a parliament-like body that made laws for the country.

The French Revolution was significant in at least a couple of ways. First, it was the dismantling of a powerful monarchy by the people. It was in many ways the capstone, or coming together, of many of the ideas that had been articulated about state and society beginning with the Vindiciae if not earlier. It was a secular revolution of the people, expressing the view that royal power could be limited and ultimately dethroned by the people in the name of their own rights (Keohane, 1980). Second, the French Revolution, coming just a few years after the American revolutionary war, appeared to set the tone for a rethinking of political authority in Europe. It foreshadowed the end of absolute monarchies, divine right, and the rise of constitutionalism and individual rights. Eventually, by 1848, revolutions by peoples across Europe would oust other monarchies, paving the way for modern democratic societies governed by parliamentary bodies that eventually would be elected on the basis of universal suffrage.

But not all viewed the French Revolution favorably. Irishman Edmund Burke (1729–1797) criticized it in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). He argued that the revolution undertaken in the name of reason, Rousseau, and the universal rights of men was destructive. Unlike the American revolution, which he supported as a defensive effort to protect rights, he considered the French Revolution an example of the destructive power of abstract reason gone wild. He rejected claims that the social contract was the origin of society, seeing instead the forces of history and tradition as the basis of what holds a society together. A true social contract holds the past, present, and future together. The French Revolution had destroyed that contract, revealing a host of problems. According to Burke, the error of the traditional contract theorists was in believing that all individuals were equal and that they had rights that included the right of revolution in order to create and express their other rights. In contrast with Locke and Rousseau, Burke maintained that a natural aristocracy existed that was best suited to rule and that the best way to protect rights was generally to obey tradition and authority (Sabine & Thorson, 1973).

VI. The Kantian Revolution

The last revolution to frame the Enlightenment and early modern political thought is the Kantian one, named after the German (Prussian)-born philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804; Blumenberg, 1987a; Kuhn, 1992; Tannenbaum & Schultz, 2004). Kant’s revolution is one of reason and rationalism. It is a coming together of several political and philosophical positions into a theory that both encapsulated and transformed modernity. Kant is probably best known for his Critique of Pure Reason (1787/1965), a major book on philosophy and knowledge, but he also wrote on moral, ethical, and political philosophy.

Kant’s primary contribution is in philosophy. He sought to overcome a gap between two theories of knowledge that had emerged during the Enlightenment as alternatives to faith (Tannenbaum & Schultz, 2004). One theory was that all knowledge was based simply on reason, and the other theory that all knowledge was empirical or based on the senses. Previous writers such as Descartes thought logic or rationalism was the font of all knowledge. Locke and Hume were empiricists who argued that all knowledge was based simply on ideas derived from experiences of the world. The problem with this theory was that no one could prove empiricism correct—how could one empirically show that ideas in our head corresponded to objects that exist around us? Conversely, pure rationalism could not be proved correct. How could mere logic or reason give humans knowledge of the outside world? Kant (1787/1965) invokes Copernicus’s switch from a geocentric to a heliocentric model of the universe as a way to address this problem:

Hitherto it has been assumed that all our knowledge must con form to objects. But all attempts to extend our knowledge of objects by establishing something in regard to them a priori, by means of concepts, have, on this assumption, ended in failure. We must therefore make trial whether we may not have more success in the tasks of metaphysics, if we suppose that the objects must conform to our knowledge. . . . We should then be proceeding precisely on the lines of Copernicus’ primary hypothesis. (p. 22)

Using the Copernican analogy, Kant argues that our empirical experiences of the world are filtered or conform to categories of understanding that are innate. In effect, there are limits to human understanding.

The significance of Kant’s arguments is that there are certain things that cannot be proved, such as the existence of God. Thus, Kant’s arguments dramatically question any ability to invoke religion or theology to sustain theories of political obligation or authority. Kant’s arguments render assertions about natural law and an ultimate cosmology as grounds for politics impossible to defend, thereby finally killing off the great chain of being, from God to popes to kings to men. Moreover, if people wish to preserve political and philosophical truths, they may have to assume they are true or act “as if” they are true because it may be impossible to prove their validity by simple appeals to reason (Blumenberg, 1987a).

Kant’s arguments have other political implications. He rejects the ideas that a historical social contract ever existed and that it was the basis of political obligation (Rawls, 2007; Riley, 1982). He believed, however, that the idea of the social contract, although not a historical reality, serves as a regulative idea for the commonwealth, an ideal to which the constitution and all laws must aspire. It, along with human freedom, are ideas that act as both goals and assumptions defining human political society. Moreover, Kant’s social contract, as well as his moral philosophy, draws heavily on Rousseau. Freedom, or autonomy, is defined as individuals’ acting according to laws that they will for themselves. This concept of moral freedom serves as the basis of a constitutional government that protects individual rights.

The significance of Kant’s revolution is that it not only used reason to question old truths (an important characteristic Kant shares with other Enlightenment writers) but also showed the limits of the new ways of knowing. Kant’s writings reveal the powerful force of modernity: It both enabled a capacity to be skeptical of and question old political truths, dogmas, and authority and provided the building blocks for a new order, a redefined political authority premised not on divine right and religion but on individual rights and limited government.

VII. Conclusion

Friedrich Nietzsche (1887/1967), a 19th-century German philosopher, once wrote, “Since Copernicus, man seems to have gotten himself on an inclined plane—now he is slipping faster and faster into—what? Into nothingness?” (p. 155). This statement well captures the sentiment and import of early modern political thought. Five revolutions taking place between 1500 and 1800 dismantled the ancient-medieval world of Christian unity. It destroyed a political theory of an essentially absolutist Christian state, re-creating a new one premised on a secular vision of a constitutional government committed to individual rights. This is the core vision of political liberalism.

The project of the Enlightenment or modernity would continue to develop and build on liberalism in the 19th century. For example, political thinkers such as Jeremy Bentham, James and John Stuart Mill, and Benjamin Constant, among others, would transform liberalism into the moral economic theory of utilitarianism (Halevy, 1955), and Karl Marx and his followers would push the theory toward socialism. These theories and others were indebted to the arguments that the thinkers of the Enlightenment produced.

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