The Renaissance of the 16th century was a transition from one age to another. The Medieval period was over; humanity had regained certain skills and scientific knowledge that had been lost. This set the stage for the philosophical era known as the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment did not produce one set of principals, or ideas, but a cluster of diverging ideas and theories. Many of these theories based their logic on science and reason. The central, focus, of the Enlightenment was the fundamental attack on the principals of the old age, the Medieval period. Writers questioned the principals of government, the validity of God, and others the basics of society. The Enlightenment's core purpose was to question the cornerstones of the old order and found a new order on logic, reason, and science. This article will examine several of the most prominent thinkers during the Enlightenment period.
John Locke is widely regarded as the founder of modern liberalism. His work was critical in the development of political philosophy, and many of his ideas would be incorporated into the American Constitution and Declaration of Rights. Tabula Rasa: the blank state was one of Locke's cornerstones, in philosophical thinking. Locke believed that everyone was born with no ideas or memories, and through experience ideas and the consciousness would form. Locke argued that property was a universal right of man and could be acquired through labor. This idea would later be critiqued by Karl Marx. The idea of property as a universal right was almost implemented into the Declaration of Rights; Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. Thomas Jefferson originally planned to use the word Property instead of The Pursuit of Happiness. Locke believed that the people of a society formed a social contract with their government. Their government was an equal partner with the people in the social contract. And, if the people were being abused, it was the right of the people to form a revolution. This principal was another driving point in the American Revolution.
Thomas Hobbes like John Locke was an English philosopher during the Enlightenment period. Hobbes believed that government should be ruled by a King, who should have absolute power. Despite, these beliefs, Hobbes was instrumental in developing Western political theory during his lifetime. He believed that individuals had rights and that men were equal. Hobbes novel Leviathan argues that mankind needs to have an absolute, central power, to avoid anarchy and civil war. This power has to be absolute in nature. Part of the reason, behind the writing of Leviathan was to develop a thesis on how humanity needed a King, but on the other hand it was to justify kingship in the midst of the English Civil War. He argues that society exists beneath a central authority, and theorizes that people must cede their rights for protection from the sovereign.
Adam Smith was a Scottish philosopher and the driving theoretician behind modern capitalist principals. The Wealth of Nations is considered by many historians to be the first modern work on economics and outlines the major principals, necessary for a capitalist state. In Wealth of Nations Smith argues that society should promote competition of labor. Labor will compete and it will give individuals who control the means of production, the opportunity to choose labor at the lowest price. By using competitive labor, and choosing labor at the lowest price, Smith argues will allow nations to expand markets. The Wealth of Nations was highly instrumental because of these reasons and helped to develop economic theory that Western Society incorporates today.
The last Enlightenment thinker I will examine is Thomas Paine. And, to be clear, there are hundreds of scientific, religious, economic, historical, and law theoreticians I could examine in this article. But, I believe these four to be of the most influential Enlightenment thinkers. Thomas Paine was one of the founding fathers of the United States, he was an inventor, revolutionary, author, and pamphleteer. Most notably, he developed one of the greatest arguments for revolution in the pamphlet Common Sense. Common Sense was one of the principal arguments of the American Revolution and advocated the foundation of a separate nation in North America, independent of a foreign crown. One of the controversial books he wrote, near the end of the Enlightenment was the, The Age of Reason. This work promoted freethinking and deism over institutionalized religion. He also argued for a minimum income and developed his opinions on the origins of property in Agrarian Justice. Some characterize Paine as an atheist, but I believe that he was a true, Enlightenment thinker, and based his arguments concerning religion on science and reason.
Thomas Paine was instrumental in the American Revolution. Locke and Hobbes were instrumental in developing and defining modern Western political theory, and Adam Smith was perhaps the most notable of these four for developing Capitalist economic theory in Wealth of Nations. There are many more that I could mention for contributing to the Enlightenment and re-shaping the old cornerstones of the Medieval Age. But, all of these men helped develop the principals and fundamental elements to the societies we live in Today.