Enlightenment Roots – Government


The people want to be free; it is a noble ambition, for mankind are not made to be the slaves of one man; but with a nation populous, great, witty, and giddy, what will be the end of that revolution?
(Casanova’s memoirs, ‘To Paris and Prison’, Chapter VII)

It was inevitable that the challenge of Enlightenment thinkers would have a political impact.  The philosophies and theologies that underpinned people’s perception of the universe had direct judicial and institutional consequences about how society should be governed.  To be able more clearly to judge the nature of that impact, however, we need to consider the character of government as it was understood prior to the challenge of the Enlightenment.

Medieval Political Ideas

Up to the 1500s the nation state did not exist.  Pre-Enlightenment Europe was a shifting patchwork of dynasties, dukedoms, empires, kingdoms, republics and city states.  It was a place where the legitimacy of any particular ruler or mode of governance was a locus of ideological dispute.  From where did a ruler (or ruling body) derive their right to govern?  What was the nature of the relationship between ruler and ruled? How constrained was a ruler’s authority?  To what extent was a ruler themselves subject to the law and judicial institutions?

Key resources that informed the debate around what constituted legitimate government included the Bible, ancient scholars and custom.  The Bible described a world that was ruled by kings or emperors, in which subjects must obey even wicked rulers.  As all power came from God then this was a religious duty and to rebel against your king was to be disobedient to God (and so face damnation).  The power of kings was only limited when their demands came into conflict with those of God. Later Christian theologians, however, such as William of Ockham in the fourteenth century, did argue that on rare occasions a ruler could be rightfully overthrown, for example when they became a despot. Ancient pagan authorities such as Aristotle also allowed that in some circumstances rebellion might be justified.  For him the members of a political community, i.e. its citizens, (which did not include all of its residents, for example, women or slaves) formed a partnership that sought their common good, was stable and based upon law rather than the individual desires of a particular ruler.  Kingship, for Aristotle, could produce the best form of government but risked the danger of tyranny.  The least harmful government would be one that would allow citizens to hold its leaders accountable.  In the Carolingian Empire, most notably under Charlemagne in the eighth century, a ruler was a religious figure who had a duty not only to enforce the law but to obey it.  Laws were established partly by royal decree but also according to custom, which implied that rulership was to some extent based upon the consent of the governed.

From the twelfth century, distinctions were made between different kinds of law and rights.  Natural law, for example, would be similar to individual human rights today in that it transcended the law of specific communities and, being rooted in the moral, religious and biological nature of the human race, recognised, in a fundamental sense, the equality of all its members. For example, self-preservation would be an essential moral right (not least because it was the basis for exercising all other rights).  That a man should have authority over a woman could be underpinned religiously by the primacy of Adam over Eve.  The authority of a parent over their child (even into adulthood) could be grounded in biology.  Natural rights could be overridden, but there would have to be good reason.  As well as natural law, there was the law of nations, which was more expedient and mutable, and the divine law of God, which was eternal and immutable.

Central to any form of government was the need for a system of institutions and laws to regulate property use and ownership, which in turn raised questions about the status of property.  The Bible sanctioned individual property rights (including slavery) but also rights to hold property in common (as illustrated by monastic communalism, itself linked to Biblically derived beliefs regarding voluntary celibacy and the fellowship of Christ and his disciples). Property was a gift from God that should be treated, to some extent at least, as a common good.  It was generally held, therefore, that there should be a limit to the extent to which anyone should own property purely for their own use. In effect, the rich man was a steward and had a duty to manage his property in a way that benefited society as a whole. Ownership of property was not regarded as an absolute right that allowed an individual to use or restrict its use as they saw fit.  For example, it was generally held to be legitimate, on the basis of natural law, for an individual to make use of the property of another in the case of dire need.

Inevitably, the boundaries of rights and legitimate authority were keenly patrolled and subject to interpretation.   One area of controversy was papal fullness of power which contended that the Pope had whatever power was possessed by any other authority in the Church, a claim disputed by those who argued that bishops obtained their authority directly from God and were not mere agents of the Pope.  Another controversy was sparked in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries by theologians such as Giles of Rome who asserted the right of Popes to intervene in secular affairs on the basis that the universe was structured as a single hierarchy and that all earthly authority flowed via the Pope from God.  This, unsurprisingly, was challenged by advocates in favour of secular authority.  Marsilius of Padua, drawing upon Aristotle, argued that power was ultimately derived from the people and that a people could only have one ruler with whom that power was entrusted.  Moreover, he pointed out that as Christ forbad the clergy from being involved in secular affairs then a ruler could not be a member of the clergy.  Indeed, Marsilius went so far as to maintain that the Church was subordinate to secular government.

The Challenge of the Enlightenment

Overlapping with the early stirrings of the Enlightenment, we see the development in the seventeenth century of the political theory of the divine right of kings and the growth of absolutist states, archetypically the France of Louis XIV, and with it the origins of the modern nation state.  Theologians such as Jacques-Benigne Bossuet argued that monarchs received their authority directly from God, cutting out any middle-men. In this way, involving as it did the exchange of local autonomy for political stability, absolutism was able to resolve to some extent the generations of religious strife that had followed upon the Protestant Reformation.  Such absolutist states were characterised by increased centralisation of power, bureaucratisation and a diminution of competing sources of authority as might have previously been wielded by the aristocracy, local gentry and the Church.   However, at the same time that religion was being tied more closely to concepts of monarchy and power, society as a whole was becoming less dominated by the Church.  Growing affluence through trade as well as the expansion of professional groups, partly as a consequence of the development of centralised nation states, was creating an increasingly secular environment.  One sign of this was the loosening of the grip of the clergy and religious institutions upon scholarship and the shaping of a new intellectual climate.  From this space emerged three seventeenth-century philosophers who were to lay the foundations of Enlightenment political thought.

The first of our three founders was Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1679). He studied at Oxford but not the scholasticism of medieval Christianity that dominated European universities (and which was to continue to do so until the end of the eighteenth century).  Hobbes, instead, decided to go his own way, and spent his time examining the classical authors of antiquity.  After Oxford, he become a tutor to the son of William Cavendish, Baron of Hardwick, which allowed him to pursue his philosophical interests unimpeded by religious orthodoxy and dogma to a degree that would have been unthinkable had he taught at a university or been a member of the clergy.

Hobbes argued that humans could only know material things and could only know them through their senses.  What’s more, for Hobbes, these material things obeyed fixed mechanical laws.  There could be no such thing as free will as all events required a prior cause and so, in this sense, were determined. This was a direct challenge to scholasticism and key doctrines of the Christian faith.  His rejection of claims to any understanding of immaterial things was also a challenge to Descartes.  He responded to Descartes’ ‘Cogito ego sum’ (‘I think therefore I am’) with ‘I think, therefore matter is capable of thought’.  Consistent with these ideas was his rejection of moral absolutism.  He replaced free will with a causal mechanism based upon pleasure and pain and it was this mechanism which drove the behaviour of living organisms.  Morality thus became an aspect of human behaviour which was contingent upon people’s social and physical environment, not the immutable creation of a divine being: the good is that which we perceive to promote our well-being; the bad is that which we perceive to promote our suffering.  Part of the power of Hobbes system of thought lay in its coherence and although scholars of the time rejected his conclusions they recognised the strength of his arguments and were forced to confront and debate them.

For Hobbes, the authority to govern was derived not from God but from man, by means of an implicit social contract.   In his great work on political philosophy, Leviathan (1651), he contemplated what life would be like in a state of nature, i.e. without government or laws or arbitration (unusually for his time, he specifically included women in his analysis and maintained that women could be sovereigns).  He pointed out that in a society where men and women pursued what was conducive to their own individual well-being without fear of certain punishment, they would do so even if that involved harming their fellow man.  The consequence would be a ‘war of all against all’. Having both witnessed the English Civil War and read Thucydides’ ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’, Hobbes was under no illusion as to the horror of such a state of nature and concluded that to live in peace men and women not only had to relinquish to a supreme authority their freedom to act but that this authority should have absolute power and required total political obedience.  According to some readings of Hobbes, consistent with his argument in favour of absolute governmental authority, subjects had no right to rebel under any circumstances.  Others, however, maintain that he did allow subjects the right to resist on the grounds of self-preservation.

Another key seventeenth-century thinker was the Englishman John Locke (1632–1704).  Locke was an empiricist who believed that our mind was a blank slate and that all of our knowledge and ideas were acquired through experience of the world.  He was also a theist who believed that man understood good and evil by interacting with the environment that God constructed.  Being based upon evidence of the external world, however, our knowledge could only ever be probable as there was always the possibility of discovering new evidence that would change our ideas.

Locke’s highly influential political ideas were expounded in his Two Treatises of Government (1689) and Letters Concerning Toleration (1689–1692).  He drew on the older traditions of natural law and natural rights which people possessed independently of membership of any political community and which, he asserted, acted as a moral constraint upon government action.  For Locke, these included rights to life, liberty and property.  He maintained that these were distinct from, but nonetheless consistent with, divine law.  Locke also adopted a social contract model but unlike Hobbes he drew the conclusion that if government failed to promote the public good and failed to protect people’s rights then its subjects had the right to resist and replace it.  He held in favour of majority rule, the separation of executive and legislative powers, against churches having coercive power over their members and against the state having the right to compel an individual to follow any particular religious doctrine.  Unsurprisingly, the revolutionaries of America and France were to draw heavily upon Locke’s ideas.

Born the same year as Locke, our third great seventeenth century philosopher whose writings A Theologico-Political Treatise (1670) and A Political Treatise (1677) had significance for the direction of political thought was the Dutch scholar Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677).  A rationalist of Sephardic Jewish descent, opposed to superstition and also opposed to Descartes’ mind-body dualism, Spinoza’s conception of God was abstract to the degree that he was accused of atheism. Spinoza contested orthodox Abrahamic beliefs that God was transcendental or intervened directly in the affairs of man.  Like Locke, he favoured religious toleration.  He was a determinist who denied free will and asserted that reality was governed by one set of rules: the physical and mental worlds were not distinct phenomenon.

Like Hobbes and Locke, Spinoza saw government as a necessary evil to prevent anarchy. Unlike Hobbes he did not specify any particular kind of government as being optimal although he did suggest that democracy was most conducive to individual freedom (while, at the same time, being the most unstable form of government).  Spinoza challenged Locke’s contention that individuals possessed natural rights.  For Spinoza, where men existed outside of any governing authority, moral concepts such as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ were meaningless.  Individuals would simply do what they had the power and capacity to do if they perceived (and these perceptions might not always be rational and true) that a greater compensating benefit would accrue to them.  In a state of nature, might was right.  Thus, when individuals accepted a governing authority they were not transferring their moral rights to the state but their use of power (again, because they perceived that they would obtain a greater compensating benefit).  A consequence of this purely power relationship was that individuals were under an obligation to respect any government only as long as they did not have the power to disobey it.  Likewise, a sovereign’s actions were only restrained relative to the power at their disposal and by what they perceived to be beneficial to themselves.  There was no moral or constitutional limit.

As we move into the eighteenth century these ideas become developed and refined.  In 1748, Montesquieu (1689 – 1755), French scholar and political philosopher, published his highly influential The Spirit of the Laws. Montesquieu was critical of moral and religious absolutes and emphasised the importance of different cultural modes in determining social practice (an area he had explored in an earlier work called The Persian Letters published in 1721).  He argued that the best form of government was one elected by the people and in which the powers were divided into three parts (the executive, the legislative and the judicial).  Each part would act as a check upon the power of the others and in so doing diminished any threat to individual freedom.  It was this system of a separation of powers which was to be adopted as the basis for the US constitution through the agency of James Madison, (who was also one of the principal advocates of the separation of church and state).  Montesquieu outlined the dangers for democracy of factionalism (one of the reasons Madison baulked at the idea of democracy) and the need for such political communities to value public good above private interest.  Another French philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778), also influenced by Montesquieu, in 1762 published The Social Contract, where he argued in favour of direct democracy.  Unlike Locke, who emphasised the limits of governmental authority over individual freedom, Rousseau placed his emphasis on the need for the individual to be actively involved in political life, echoing the ideas of Aristotle. Scottish philosopher Adam Smith, with his publication of The Wealth of Nations (1776), applied the Lockean principal of limited government to the economic sphere, favouring free trade and minimal state interference in the market place.

In the work of Hobbes, Locke and Spinoza we can see the intellectual underpinning of a number of key ideas which have evolved to form the foundations of modern western democracies: the use of a social contract model with which to explore the relationship between the individual and the state (and with it, the implication that the authority of the state relies upon the consent of the governed); that subjects have a right to rebel; that the individual has basic human rights; that man is subject to fundamental psychological drives, such as pleasure, pain and a desire for self-preservation; that moral codes are relative; that there should be religious toleration; that a political community should not be constructed by trying to discern the intentions of God; that religion is subordinate to the state; that the primary purpose of the state is to restrain men’s destructive impulses and thereby ensure security for themselves and their possessions.  To this final idea can be traced the roots of libertarian traditions, realised most powerfully in the political and economic culture of the US.  This was in contrast to the more interventionist philosophies of utopian thinkers such as Plato who asserted that the purpose of government, at least in part, was to improve man’s essential character.

Casanova was born on 2nd April, 1725.  There had already been one revolution, the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which in England had put to bed any claims that the sovereign had a divine right to rule unrestricted by the ‘ancient rights and liberties’ of their subjects.  But on the continent absolutism prevailed and further afield America was a patchwork of colonies governed by Europe. By the time of his death on 4th June, 1798, however, he had witnessed two more revolutions, that of France and America, and the collapse, at least in the west, of the old political order, including his beloved Serenissima.  The world that Casanova had known when he was in his irresistible prime was disappearing and, resent and resist it as he might, there was no going back.

The revolutionary spirit and Casanova’s mode of being are radically opposed. There can exist between one and the other only a mutually exclusive rapport. And insofar as the Revolution rejects the Ancien Regime in its entirety, so does Casanova defend it without restriction. He, who several times was its victim (but who each time managed to escape incarceration), goes so far as to affirm it: “happy time of lettres de cachet, you are no more…”
(Chantal Thomas, ‘Casanova and the Revolution’)

Note: references to Casanova’s memoirs relate to the revised unabridged Arthur Machen English translation (Gutenberg project)

Dave Thompson (2018)


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