Political Philosophy of the Enlightenment


Why is any political authority justified? What is the proper role of government? Who should be involved in governmental decision making? How much are individual and social well-being interconnected? Political philosophy of the Enlightenment is not just important for the shift it brings in the mainstream answers to such questions but also for the shift it brings in the general approaches to answering such questions. Importantly, too, these shifts did not only affect theory. Rather, the new political systems set up after the Enlightenment came to reflect the dominance of the newly assessed values.

The politics of the Middle Ages reflected views that became dominant in Antiquity — namely that social hierarchies were natural and that social order depended upon individuals accepting their rightful places as members of their classes in these natural hierarchies. Like the Ancient Romans, the regimes of the Middle Ages also viewed civic duty as an extension of one’s religious duty. While the Medieval Catholics did not go so far as the Ancient Romans in seeing Caesar as god, they did see the Holy Roman Emperor as holding power by divine right. The emperor, who was generally considered first among equals, served as a defender of the faith, seeing his role as to secure the material and spiritual well-being of his subjects. This translated into work to secure the Orthodoxy throughout the empire.

The standard answer as to how politics was justified was through Divine Right. But of course there were naturalistic philosophical arguments for this as well, based largely on the view that if each assumed their rightful place in the natural hierarchies, the well-being of the whole and each of its parts would be achieved. The proper role of government was to assume the role of the head of the body politic and to lead for the well-being of the subjects of the Kingdom. In the theologized political thought of the age, the well-being of each would be served if each assumed his or her rightful place in the divinely sanctioned political order. There should in fact be no conflict between the good of the individual and the good of the Kingdom. Of course, we know that life is never so simple as theory may make it sound. Various political theories of the time made a place for that and for criticism of the rulers for failing to govern according to the natural law. Yet in general this was a period in which obedience, though taking a subsidiary role to faith, hope and charity, was still a much emphasized virtue — often as a sign of one’s faith.

The most influential of the Enlightenment thinkers proposed a radical break from this early political theorizing. The social contract tradition was especially important. The thinkers of particular significance include Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), John Locke (1632-1704) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). Here I will very provide a general overview of the main features of social contract thinking.

The most important shift in the social contract tradition is in their assumptions about human nature and their processes for justifying political power. The general assumption during the Middle Ages was that inequalities are natural. As Hegelians later pointed out, a kind of metaphysical equality may have been assumed in that in the final analysis God would judge all equally. A King or a feudal fief might both be condemned to hell or enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Nonetheless hierarchical political forms were assumed to be necessary for the common good and unalterable. Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau do not question that some hierarchies are justified, but they do take greater strains to justify them than had become typical in the Middle Ages, where this inequality increasingly was assumed as a starting point. The starting point of the social contract theorists, by contrast, is that we are by nature equal. Each of the social contract theoreticians suggested that we begin our political thinking by imagining a “state of nature,” that is, a state of things in which their is no political power. Here, they propose all are equal. In Hobbes, they are also free to do whatever they wish, fully unconstrained by a moral law.  Hierarchies and moral constraints are only introduced after a social contract in which individuals give up freedoms and accept authority of some over others for their own perceived individual benefits. Locke and Rousseau do not share Hobbes’ view that this state of nature is one in which there are no moral obligations. But they do share his view that it is a state in which equal human beings exist without hierarchies. They both also, more than Hobbes, begin to emphasize various “rights” that individuals should enjoy regardless of the political regime that comes to prevail. This focus on individual rights that should be respected is another of the most important features of the Enlightenment political thought — and one that increasingly effects the governments that are founded in and after this period. There is among these thinkers dispute over which rights are basic. Hobbes only upholds as fundamental a right to life. Locke adds to life, both liberty and property, and then begins to expand on that. Rousseau questions much that property is such a basic right. But we begin to see, in especially the latter of these two thinkers, arguments that no political system should infringe on some basic realm of freedom of the individual. Locke and Rousseau also are among the first in the modern era to assert a greater value of democracy. While they both will justify hierarchical relationships in society, they justify them in reference to the advantage they bring for the individuals who live within hierarchical systems; and they highlight limits to the powerful.  I will discuss these political philosophers in detail elsewhere. Here my point is merely to underline in very general terms how their thinking expresses main tendencies of the Enlightenment.

In both theoretical and practical matters one can see the Enlightenment as giving ascendency to the role of the individual. As thinkers from Bacon to Kant argue, individuals should think for themselves, not be bound to traditions and authority. Further in the political philosophy of the period the basic equality of individuals is also emphasized. In light of this basic equality, individuals are increasingly seen as having a domain of individual rights that can not be breached for a greater social good. Or rather, the social good is increasingly thought to be best protected by assuring a realm of individual rights. In addition, at least Locke and Rousseau increasingly argue for measures to ensure that individuals can participate in their political systems. Their thought shows the ascendency of democracy in this period and is influential on the founders of democratic political movements, Locke’s influence being particularly strong in England and the United States, Rousseau’s stronger on thinkers of the French Revolution.


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