Enlightened Absolutism

During the 18th century, in the age of the Enlightenment, some European rulers who had embraced the idea of absolute monarchy became interested in Enlightenment philosophy. These rulers believed in the absolute rule of the sovereign, but they also advocated the ideas of the Enlightenment, and in some cases even corresponded with major Enlightenment thinkers.

Frederick William II, king of Prussia, had a personal relationship with one of the most famous Enlightenment thinkers, Voltaire. Voltaire had tried to persuade Frederick William to keep out of the War of the Austrian Succession, but to no effect. In fact, he was later sent back by France to encourage him to redouble his efforts when the tides turned agianst . Frederick William himself was concerned with judicial reform and religious toleration, both of which were encouraged by the Enlightenment.

In Russia, Catherine the Great also had a correspondence with Voltaire, in addition to a friendship with Diderot. Diderot was the famous contributor and editor of the Encyclopédie, the most significant work of the Enlightenment. Catherine the Great instituted a new education policy, but it was not widely taken advantage of because the population was hesitant. She also encouraged religious toleration, extending it to Catholics and Jews. Under Catherine Church lands were made into government lands, and the offices of the clergy were paid by the crown, ensuring their allegiance. Catherine engaged in judicial reform as well, which, although not a great victory, did succeed in abolishing torture.

Under Joseph II in Austria many Enlightenment ideas, especially those having to do with religion, were promoted. His mother, Maria Theresa, banned the Jesuit order and used their seized wealth to fund schools. Joseph instituted a program of religious toleration that was the most extensive of any Catholic country of the time. He also passed the Edict on Idle Institutions, which suppressed one third of all the monasteries in Austria. Joseph reformed the legal system, punishing the Aristocracy in a manner similar to the commoners and making these punishments better fit their respective crimes. He eased the condition of the serfs, but they reverted back to their previous state when he died. He also started a compulsory education system to foster greater patriotism.

These countries are some examples of the phenomena of “Enlightened Absolutism” which spread across Europe in the 18th century. In some cases, the rulers of these countries had correspondence and even friendship with prominent Enlightenment thinkers. The ideas of the Enlightenment, including religious toleration, social and legal reform, and a greater reliance on reason above religion were all promoted in this form of absolutism.

The War of the Austrian Succession

During the mid 18th century, the king of Prussia, Frederick William II, took advantage of an opportunity to grab lands in Austria. The Holy Roman Emperor, Charles IV, was without male children, so he brought about the Pragmatic Sanction which ensured that his domains could be inherited by his daughter, Maria Theresa. Frederick William I, the father of Frederick William II, had agreed to this. However, Frederick William II had a claim to Silesia, which belonged to Austria. The acquisition of Silesia would make the Prussian territories more continuous. In addition, Frederick William was maintaining an extremely costly 100,000 strong standing army that was doing nothing, so why not put it to use? He had to overcome the problem that his father had approved the Pragmatic Sanction, so he got someone to write an argument against it that he even said was totally absurd. Frederick William invaded Austria in 1740, and began the War of the Austrian Succession. Austria found itself with no friends, so it turned to the Hungarians for assistance but they provided only a little over 20,000 men when they promised 100,000. Eventually the Austrians seemed to be gaining the upper hand and Prussia slacked off a little, so France stepped in and encouraged them to continue in their efforts. The war was concluded with the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748 in which Austria gave up Silesia to Prussia. The Austrians never got over the loss of Silesia, and this animosity lead to the Seven Years’ War which in turn led to the Diplomatic Revolution.

French Materialists

A product of the French Enlightenment, mechanism (or materialism) was a philosophy that centered around the idea that man was simply a machine, incapable of being held morally accountable for his actions. The materialists believed that there was no spiritual aspect to the human body, and that morality was totally unnatural. La Mettrie, an important materialist thinker, wrote a book titled The Human Machine that said the greatest virtue is self love, and that the pursuit of pleasure the greatest occupation. Helvetius, another French materialist, attempted to create laws of humanity that governed what humans do and why they do it. He also believed that people have no free choice between right or wrong. Called the personal enemy of the Almighty, Baron d’Holbach thought that crime and moral degeneracy were just mental imbalances, and not manifestations of good or evil. These ideas were directly influenced by the period of the Enlightenment, and most especially the French Enlightenment.

Heliocentrism and its Proponents

During the late middle ages, the prevailing theory of the solar system was based on a geocentric model, in which the earth was the center of the universe. According to this model the earth was surrounded by spheres, in which were the planets, the sun, and the stars. The planets were perfectly spherical and orbited in perfect circles at a constant speed. However, this model ran into difficulties. For example, at certain times of the year the orbit of mars and the other known planets seemed to reverse in direction, so epicycles were added to account for these faults in the model. Eventually over 80 epicycles were added to the geocentric model.

The 15th-16th century astronomer, Nicolaus Copernicus, published in his work, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, a theory in which the sun was at the center of the universe. Copernicus was hesitant to publish this work for fear of ridicule by fellow astronomers, but finally decided to do so in 1543. The heliocentric model  was a better way of accounting for the motion of the planets, and Copernicus was able to reduce the number of epicycles. Johannes Keplar expanded in the 17th century by saying that the orbits of the planets were not perfectly circular, but elipses, and that the planets increased in speed when they approached the sun.

Galileo Galilei was an Italian astronomer who had great influence over modern science. He overturned the objection to the heliocentric model that stated that if the earth orbited the sun, then the moon would be left behind, by observing that moons also orbited Jupiter. He also observed that the moon had large craters scattered about it, overturning the theory that the planets were perfectly spherical.

Galileo urged the members of the Church to reinterpret Scripture to come into accordance with his theories, which made him unpopular with them. The Church was also under pressure to deny the findings of Galileo because the Protestants, the primary enemies of heliocentrism, were using  the Church’s indecision on the issue to claim that the Catholics were not in accordance with Scripture. It was not necessarily the idea of helicentrism that the Church rejected, as Pope Gregory XIII used Copernicus’s ideas to reform the calendar. Virtually all condemnation disappeared after Galileo’s death, with his books being removed from the banned list in the 18th century.

These men contributed greatly to our current understanding of the universe. They, through observation and calculation, were successful in overturning the Aristotelian and Ptolemaic theory of a geocentric solar system.

The Enlightenment

The Enlightenment was a period in the 17th and 18th centuries in which new ideas came onto the scene that centered around skepticism of all inherited knowledge and emphasized the use of reason. However, the employment of reason in this period fell short of accomplishing the great things that had been done in the period of the Scholastic philosophers.

This skepticism was partially due to the fact that new discoveries were being made in the scientific revolution  that had overturned many ideas of the past. This led people to become suspicious of the theories of the past. Since the Ptolemaic model of the solar system that had been firmly planted in the minds of the people had crumbled in the light of new technology and discoveries, what can be said about the other fields of science? Religion also came into the line of fire of the Enlightenment thinkers, who believed that there is a creator deity, but there should not be any ritual or ceremony surrounding its worship.

Reason was emphasized greatly in the Enlightenment as the thing that makes man unique among the creatures. However, among these champions of reason the use of it to prove the existence of God and other things that were generally delegated to faith was not emphasized. The ultimate triumph of reason, the ability to prove that which was thought to be believable only to the spirit, the existence of God, was neglected. In the 13th century the Scholastic philosopher and theological giant, Thomas Aquinas, did just that: prove that God must exist according to human reason. However much the Enlightenment glorified the use of reason, it ultimately detracted from it by neglecting to affirm that it was capable of proving that which Scholastic philosophers had done five centuries before.

The Enlightenment championed reason and skepticism of inherited ideas, as well as much of religion. One of the key works of Enlightenment literature, the Encylopédie, used veiled language to detract from and undermine Catholicism. Although it was an advocate of human reason, the Enlightenment failed to use reason to its greatest potential. This period was very important in the history of Western Civilization as, among other things, part of the catalyst that sparked the French Revolution.

Oaths in ‘Don Quixote’

In the book, Don Quixote, an old man in the 16th century became obsessed with tales of chivalry and knight-errantry. He eventually abandoned his family and his estate to pursue his delusion of being a knight, vanquishing evil and winning the love of his lady. In truth knighthood in the medieval sense had died out long before, and Don Quixote was embracing a culture that was extinct. At the end of his life he renounced his oath of knighthood and came to his senses, realizing that he had been completely mad.

Don Quixote had an estate and a small family, along with a few friends. Locked away in his library he devoured book after book on chivalry until he was totally obsessed. He eventually resolved to leave his family and his property to become a knight, and travel around righting wrongs to win the love of his lady. In truth he hardly knew this woman, who was simply a local farm-girl. He gallivanted off in search of someone to dub him a knight. He eventually found himself at an inn, which he saw as a castle, and was dubbed by the innkeeper who was just playing along. What followed were a series of misadventures in which Don Quixote went about trying to destroy what he thought were villains, but in truth were just normal people and objects. Perhaps most famous is the case of the tilting at windmills, in which Don Quixote charged at what he thought were giants, but turned out to be windmills.

Don Quixote lured a peasant, Sancho Panza, to be his squire with promises of wealth and fortune. Sancho also abandoned his family, breaking his obligation to his wife an children. Eventually it seemed as though Sancho was just as mad as Don Quixote, playing along with his flights of fancy to such an extent that it seemed impossible to think otherwise.

Don Quixote’s oath of knighthood was at odds with the oath of his state of life, that is, as the head of his household. On his deathbed, Don Quixote finally realized that the books of chivalry he had once been enthralled by were nonsense and a waste of time. He realized that he had wasted the latter half of his life pursuing ridiculous dreams. He renounced his knight-errant oath and re-embraced the original oath that he had abandoned. It was almost too late, but he finally realized the errors of his ways.

Cycle of Death in Macbeth

In Shakespeare’s classic play, Macbeth, the violence that started with the murder of King Duncan morphed into an uncontrollable loop. Murder after murder took place, justified only by the previous ones. Macbeth found himself in an inescapable cycle when he committed his act of treason. His only way out was for the score to be settled and for him to be killed.

The witches in the beginning of the play were the ones who seeded the idea of treason into Macbeth’s head. Macbeth was already Thane (a form of Anglo-Saxon nobility) of Gladis, but the witches predicted that he would be the Thane of Cawdor as well. In addition they said he would be “king hereafter”. Macbeth was puzzled because he knew who the Thane of Cawdor  was and that he did not hold that title. However, this had all taken place during a war with the invading Norwegian king, and Macdonwald, the original Thane of Cawdor, had defected to the Norwegian side. For that he was stripped of his title and executed. A fellow Scotsman informed Macbeth of what had happened, and that he was the new Thane of Cawdor. This got Macbeth thinking; if the witches’ first prediction came true, than what about the second? It now seemed feasible that he could become king.

Macbeth’s thoughts that were inspired by the witches were greatly amplified by his wife, Lady Macbeth. She was an extremely ambitious woman, and she encouraged her husband into committing the act that he was already contemplating. He held a party at his estate, at which the king and his guardians attended. After everyone was asleep Macbeth resolved (with the help of his wife) to kill Duncan. Then the string of violence began. He had to kill the two guardians because he intended to blame them for Duncan’s murder. His plan was to admit to killing them in a fit of rage for having killed the king, which he did. The cycle had started, and there was no way of stopping it.

After the killings, Macbeth remembered something else the witches had said which troubled him. They had said to his close friend and cousin, Banquo, “Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none”. This meant that Banquo’s heirs would be kings even though Banquo himself would not be one. Macbeth worried that all he had done succeeded only in paving the way for the heirs of Banquo. He resolved then to murder Banquo and his son, Fleance. At this point Lady Macbeth consoled her husband by saying “what’s done is done”. Banquo was killed, but Fleance managed to escape. Lady Macbeth was wrong in her statement because it was not done. The killings would continue when Macbeth felt threatened by Macduff and killed his family to lure him back to Scotland. The killings would have continued had not the witches’ prophesy turned against him and he was slain by Macduff.

Lady Macbeth’s remark, “what’s done is done”, was not accurate. In fact, what was done could not ever be undone. The only thing that broke the cycle of murder was the retribution of Macduff in the killing of Macbeth.


buffon_1707-1788George-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon was a French naturalist during the period of the French Enlightenment. He studied at a Jesuit school where he showed a proficiency for mathematics. He is also considered one of the founders of Paleontology.

Buffon was skeptical of the classification system of Linnaeus, the famous naturalist. He particularly disagreed with the idea of grouping animal species into families. Buffon believed that the earth was formed from a piece of the sun that was torn off, and that the moon was torn off from the earth by centrifugal force. The age of the earth was estimated to be around 75,000 years which was a considerable figure since the prevailing theory of the creation of the world ranged from about 4000 to 6000 BC. He changed his estimation to 3,000,000 years but he retraced it for fear of being misunderstood.

He thought that all animals sprung from common ancestors over great periods of time. The quadrupeds, Buffon said, sprang from 13 original species that were present from nearly the beginning. These 13 all sprang spontaneously as soon as organic molecules appeared. According to Buffon, most of these species disappeared, adapting and changing in accordance to the change in their environment. He explained that the reason large creatures have little variation is because they reproduce slowly. Likewise, the reason that small mammals and birds have so many types is because they are reproduce prolifically.

Buffon also studied the human species, determining that the distinguishing characteristic of man is reason. According to Buffon, reason stemmed from language, and language stemmed from society. Society, he said, was necessary because, unlike other species, man requires a great deal of nurturing and upbringing. Elephants, the most intelligent of the animals, are as such because they have a form of society. He also said that the very first humans had black skin, and that humans and animals have the same origins.

Theology and religion were completely absent from his studies, even though three of his brothers went into the Church and two of whom became distinguished. Buffon was an interesting if not extremely important scientist of the French enlightenment, and it is interesting to read his theories and to follow his reasoning, even if it was false.

Frederick William

During the 17th century, after the Thirty Years’ War, the Holy Roman Empire became far more decentralized than it had previously been. The Duchy of Brandenburg-Prussia, within the Holy Roman Empire, had been totally decimated by the war. This Duchy was in terrible condition when Frederick William inherited it in 1640. However, he inherited at an opportune moment because the kingdom of Sweden was overextended. In order to gain more power and land, Frederick William would need a large army. In order to maintain a large army, he would need money from taxes. He bribed the Junkers (local nobility) to approve his new taxes by offering to reduce the peasants to serfdom. Eventually, his army grew so large that he would no longer need to bribe the Junkers; he would only have to threaten them. The army grew to a whopping three percent of the population. Frederick William promoted religious toleration, and allowed people to come in to his territory who had been previously persecuted. He policy saw Brandenburg-Prussia thrive, and his actions allowed Prussia to be elevated to a kingdom under his successor, Frederick I.

Peter the Great

Tsar of Russia from 1689 to 1725, Peter the Great wanted to introduce Western ideas and customs into what he believed to be a backward country. Peter traveled the world, trying to find the best way of doing things, and gathering information on western ideas.  However, much of the Russian population had been very suspicious of the West. Topeter_der-grosse_1838 make things even more difficult, Peter’s father, Alexei I, had encouraged the shunning of Western dress and the embrace of facial hair among the men. Peter now told his subjects to embrace that which his father had shunned, ordering them to shave their beards or else pay a tax. Peter also wanted to update his military because Russia had suffered an embarrassing  defeat at the hands of the Swedish. Only 8000 Swedes defeated 40,000 Russians at a battle in 1700. Peter’s plans for the military would require funds. He dredged up old taxes and invented new ones in an attempt to raise money, which stressed the people even more. In 1709, Peter crushed a Swedish invasion with his new and effective military. He also further secularized the Eastern Orthodox Church by appointing a layman as administrator after the death of the Patriarch in 1700. Peter Eventually turned the control of the church over to a committee of clergymen in 1721. He was ruthless, torturing and killing anyone who stood in his way, including his only son that survived into adulthood. Peter the Great was a figure who wanted to bring Westernization to Russia, and would not allow anything to get in his way.