War, Bloodshed, and the Emergence of Enlightenment in Europe

The Stake — etching by Jacques Callot (1633)

The Age of Enlightenment (late-17th c. — c.1789) ranks among the most important periods in European (and ultimately world) history. The grand ideals are well-known: liberty, toleration, classical liberalism, and secular government. These ideals did not, however, find their way into popular discourse through obsession with utopian visions or abstract speculation into the nature of forms in a Platonic sense. Rather, the ideas of the Enlightenment emerged from times of serious struggle. The years in European history from the latter decades of the Renaissance through the mid-seventeenth century were dominated by vicious religious struggles. The metaphysical foundations of late-medieval Europe, represented in the supremacy of the Roman Catholic Church, faced considerable opposition. Catholics and various Protestant sects fought each other on a regular basis. The apocalyptic Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) pushed the violence to such an extreme that the parties involved simply had to find a way to agree to disagree about fundamental religious questions while living in close proximity. The Age of Reason, as the Enlightenment is often known, emerged out of this series of struggles and was further influenced by major scientific developments (which would become known centuries later as the ‘Scientific Revolution’).

A World of Violence

Defenestration of Prague (1618)

Bohemia had been home to Protestant Christians since before the time of Luther — going all the way back to the early fifteenth century with the reformer Jan Hus. By the early seventeenth century, the Holy Roman emperor had allowed the Protestants in the area some degree of toleration. The Emperor Rudolf II von Habsburg had granted this toleration in 1609 (and he was rather reluctant to sign it). Rudolf II’s successors were less tolerant. In 1618, Ferdinand II sent his (Catholic) representatives to Prague Castle and reversed the previous act of toleration. In response, a group of angry Protestants stormed the castle and threw the representatives out the window in what became known as the Defenestration of Prague. The two representatives survived by landing in a dung heap but war was on the horizon.

Between 1618 and 1648, central Europe devolved into a kind of hell on Earth as the major powers took sides and sent their armies into the territory of the Holy Roman Empire of the German nation. In addition to the various German states involved, the following powers also took part: Sweden, France, Spain, Hungary, Denmark-Norway, the Dutch Republic (fighting for its independence) and Transylvania. Cities and towns were sacked, farmland burned, people killed in massive numbers. By 1648, about eight million people lay dead. The war had spiraled out of control with bands of mercenaries roaming the countryside, looking for food to feed themselves. The push for peace in the 1640s was one born of exasperation — the religious issues being fought over would never be solved and the restoration of a pre-Reformation unified church was an impossibility.

The Hanging — etching by Jacques Callot (1633)

Peace talks culminated in the Peace of Westphalia (1648). This laid the groundwork for modern international relations, the Age of Enlightenment, and ended the devastating Thirty Years’ War. This peace refers to a series of treaties between the major powers involved. Over 100 delegations met at different locations and different times in two major cities: Münster and Osnabrück. Within the Empire, the princes were given the right to choose the religion of their respective state, the right of people to practice their faith in private was to be respected, Dutch and Swiss independence were formally recognized, and various specific boundary issues were addressed.

Enlightenment — The Potential of Rationality and Its Limits

With the worst warfare over and the reality/necessity of toleration having emerged from a violent acting out revealing the excesses of rejecting that principle, the potential of reason came to the fore among the educated of Europe. The latter half of the seventeenth century saw important scientific breakthroughs associated with a group of English scholars. Upon the restoration of the English monarchy in 1660, the Royal Society was founded. This was a society in which metaphysical questions were left at the door and men of science free to discuss their experiments. Men like Isaac Newton, Edmund Halley, Robert Boyle, and Robert Hooke made some of the most important scientific observations of their time (or any, for that matter). The Royal Society was built upon the legacy of that great English Renaissance polymath Francis Bacon. Bacon pioneered the scientific method and the philosophic outlook which came to be known as empiricism — placing an emphasis on observation rather than received wisdom.

The ways of thinking explored by scientific minds quickly influenced other areas of study. The seventeenth century did not suffer from the severe compartmentalization of knowledge which plagues so many academic departments nowadays. Additionally, the polymaths of the Enlightenment were much more practically-minded. Indeed, one could say that the academics of today have more in common with medieval scholastic theologians interested in debating how many angels could dance on the end of a pin than on anything practical — think of the absurdities of postmodernism. In the realm of politics, John Locke wrote several treatises on politics, emphasizing the importance of the individual and ‘the right to life, liberty, and property.’ Locke’s philosophy constitutes the foundation of classical liberal political thought — that which puts the individual at the center and seeks to remove unnecessary government constraints.

Just as the Enlightenment on the continent was born out of warfare, so too was that of the English Enlightenment. The seventeenth century saw the execution of Charles I in 1649 after years of civil war, a Puritanical republic which lasted just over a decade, and the restoration of the monarchy. Further political advances were made in the 1680s with the Glorious Revolution, limiting the monarch’s power, enhancing that of Parliament, and setting religious issues related to the royal succession.

The potential and limits of rationality were explored. While blind support of rationality and notions of inevitable progress may have influenced people during the French Revolution, throughout much of Europe the limits of reason were better understood. The Enlightenment was not a movement blind to realities associated with human nature. This can, perhaps, best be appreciated in the Anglo-American world. The founding fathers of the United States constructed a government based, not on the notion of ideal men wielding power justly all the time, but upon the reality of imperfect people, tempted by power, governing. Hence, the importance of separation of powers and federalism. James Madison read widely. Among the most important of those who influenced him was the ancient Roman statesman Cicero, who argued for preservation of the Roman Republic by using the best of the three systems (rule by one, rule by some, and rule by many) to overcome the worst of each of the three systems.

Signing of the Declaration of Independence — the United States was born as an Enlightenment experiment in government, one that remains successful as the American Revolution remains a relevant and impactful revolution over 240 years later

The Age of Enlightenment is a time fundamentally predicated on that which came before. It constitutes an acting out of abstract principles formulated in response to that which (tragically) had to be acted out in the decades before. The ideals of the Enlightenment, untethered from the reality of internecine conflict of previous generations, tended to debase their true value. The deep divides which emerged in early modern Europe had to be transcended, not simply avoided in order to be truly incorporated into a sophisticated worldview that did not fall apart due to being terribly naive. The discourse concerning human rights extended beyond issues of religion to that of who actually would get to enjoy these rights. The history of slavery ranks as another series of struggles which ultimately ended in the spread of equal rights beyond the superficial confines of race. This process emerged out of the Enlightenment as well.

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