Seventeenth Century Enlightenment Thought
As a historical category, the term "Enlightenment" refers to a series of changes in European thought and letters. It is one of the few historical categories that was coined by the people who lived through the era (most historical categories, such as "Renaissance," "early modern," "Reformation," "Tokugawa Enlightenment," etc., are made up by historians after the fact). When the writers, philosophers and scientists of the eighteenth century referred to their activities as the "Enlightenment," they meant that they were breaking from the past and replacing the obscurity, darkness, and ignorance of European thought with the "light" of truth.
Although the Enlightenment is one of the few self-named historical categories, determining the beginning of the Enlightenment is a difficult affair, as we noted earlier in this module. Not only can we not easily find a beginning to the Enlightenment, we can't really identify an end point either. For we still more or less live in an Enlightenment world; while philosophers and cultural historians have dubbed the late nineteenth and all of the twentieth century as "post-Enlightenment," we still walk around with a world view largely based on Enlightenment thought.
So in the spirit of not dating the Enlightenment, we will simply refer to the changes in European thought in the seventeenth century as "Seventeenth Century Enlightenment Thought," with the understanding that our use of the term may invite criticism.
The main components of Enlightenment thought are as follows:
á The universe is fundamentally rational, that is, it can be understood through the use of reason alone;
á Truth can be arrived at through empirical observation, the use of reason, and systematic doubt;
á Human experience is the foundation of human understanding of truth; authority is not to be preferred over experience;
á All human life, both social and individual, can be understood in the same way the natural world can be understood; once understood, human life, both social and individual, can be manipulated or engineered in the same way the natural world can be manipulated or engineered;
á Human history is largely a history of progress;
á Human beings can be improved through education and the development of their rational facilities;
á Religious doctrines have no place in the understanding of the physical and human worlds;
There are two distinct developments in Enlightenment thought: the scientific revolution which resulted in new systems of understanding the physical world (this is covered in a later chapter), and the redeployment of the human sciences that apply scientific thinking to what were normally interpretive sciences. In the first, the two great innovations were the development of empirical thought and the mechanistic world view. Empiricism is based on the notion that human observation is a reliable indicator of the nature of phenomena; repeated human observation can produce reasonable expectations about future natural events. In the second, the universe is regarded as a machine. It functions by natural and predictable rules; although God created the universe, he does not interfere in its day to day runnings. Once the world is understood as a machine, then it can be manipulated and engineered for the benefit of humanity in the same way as machines are.
These ideas were steadily exported to the human sciences as well. In theories of personality, human development, and social mechanics, seventeenth century thinkers moved away from religious and moral explanations of human behavior and interactions and towards an empirical analysis and mechanistic explanation of the laws of human behavior and interaction.
The first major thinker of the seventeenth century to apply new methods to the human sciences was Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) whose book Leviathan is one of the most revolutionary and influential works on political theory in European history. Hobbes was greatly interested in the new sciences; he spent some time in Italy with Galileo and eagerly read the work of William Harvey, who was applying the new physical science methods to human physiology. After the English Civil War, Hobbes determined that political philosophy had to be seriously revised. The old political philosophy, which relied on religion, ethics, and interpretation, had produced what he felt was a singular disaster in English history. He proposed that political philosophy should be based on the same methods of exposition and explanation as were being applied to the physical sciences.
When he applied these explanatory principles to politics and states, he arrived at two radical and far-reaching conclusions:
á All human law derives from natural law; when human law departed from natural law, disaster followed;
á All monarchs ruled not by the consent of heaven, but by the consent of the people.
These were radical ideas. In the first, Hobbes believed that human beings were material, physical objects that were ruled by material, physical laws. Everything that human beings feel, think, and judge, are simply physical reactions to external stimuli. Sensation produces feeling, and feeling produces decision, and decision produces action. We are all, then, machines. The fundamental motivation that spurs human beings on is selfishness: all human beings wish to maximize their pleasure and minimize their pain. As long as political philosophy is built on some other principle, such as morality, the human inclination to selfishness will always result in tragedy.
Since all human beings are selfish, this means that no person is really safe from the predations of his or her fellow beings. In its natural state, humanity is at war with itself. Individuals battle other individuals in a perpetual struggle for advantage, power, and gain. Hobbes argued that the society was a group of selfish individuals that united into a single body in order to maximize their safety-- to protect themselves from one another. The primary purpose of society is to maximize the happiness of its individuals. At some early point, individuals gathered into a society and agreed to a "social contract" that stipulated the laws and rules they would all live by.
Human beings, however, could not be trusted simply to live by their agreements. For this reason, authority was created in order to enforce the terms of the social contract. The creation of authority, by which Hobbes meant a monarch, transformed society into a state . For Hobbes, humanity is better off living under the circumscribed freedoms of a monarchy rather than the violent anarchy of a completely equal and free life.
Using this reasoning, Hobbes argued for unquestioning obedience of authority. In a twist of fate, however, both his methods of inquiry and his basic assumptions would form the basis of arguments against absolute authority.
Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) was a Jewish philosopher living in the Netherlands who applied the new sciences to questions of ethics and philosophy. His most famous work, the Ethics, attempts to use a system of demonstration first outlined by Francis Bacon and fully theorized by Ren Descartes that begins with certain definitions and draws from these consequent axioms and corollaries. His basic definition of good ("The highest good of the mind is knowledge of God and the highest virtue of the mind is to know God") formed the foundation of all of his ethical statements, including some highly controversial statements ("Pity is not a virtue"). The work was extraordinarily controversial, for from his base definitions he derived the notion that God and nature were essentially identical. He argued the same thing that the Greek philosopher Parmenides did almost two thousand years earlier: there is one and only one thing in the universe and that one thing is God. Everything else is simply a part of God. Any proposition concerning the physical is, then, a proposition about the nature of God. For Spinoza the new physical sciences were, by and large, coterminous with theology. This position would be reiterated by Isaac Newton and the deists, who argued that understanding the rational workings of the universe would also mean understanding the rational workings of its creator, God.
Like Hobbes, Spinoza believed that human action was fundamentally mechanistic. Human actions resulted from two things: the external environment and internal passions. The relationship between the environment, passions, and human action was a mechanistic relationship; all human actions, then, could be explained in terms of laws. The fundamental drive that animates all human beings is the effort to preserve themselves and their own autonomy in relation to external things. However, the one area of human activity that is free from the influence of the external environment and human passions is rational thought; the more that thought is disengaged from the external world and human passsion, that is, the more abstract that thought is, the more free the individual. Human freedom, for Spinoza, existed only in abstract thinking.
In political theory, Spinoza argued that human beings fundamentally act in accordance with natural law. Like Hobbes, Spinoza believed that human beings pursue their own self-preservation. In a natural state, the only "wrong" that a human being can commit is an action that results in his or her destruction or downfall. Since human beings cannot preserve themselves in isolation, they form societies by which individual "right" is subsumed under "common right," a notion very similar to Hobbes' social contract. The means by which a society enforces its common right on the individual is "dominion" (in Latin, "imperium"). Dominion takes three forms: dominion by the multitude (democracy), by a select few (aristocracy), or by a single individual (monarchy). The concepts of right and wrong, justice and injustice are only established when the common right is articulated through dominion; that is, when a ruler asserts something as right or wrong, it is then right or wrong (in nature there is no right or wrong, justice or injustice). The relationship between the right (power) of the individual and the right of the dominion is an inverse relationship: the more power that accrues to individuals, the less is available to the dominion; the more power that accrues to authorities, the less is available to individuals. Surprisingly, Spinoza implies that democracy is the best way to balance individual and common right since it more closely guarantees that the beliefs of the multitude will correspond with the beliefs and actions of the dominion.
The last important philosopher, besides Pascal and Descartes, of human sciences in the seventeenth century was John Locke (1632-1704). Locke was steeped in the new physical sciences; he was an avid reader of Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton, and he was a close friend of Robert Boyle, one of the founders of modern chemistry. He also read Pascal and Descartes avidly. He wrote two far-reaching and massively influential works on human sciences, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) and Two Treatises on Government (1690).
The Essay takes as its subject human psychology and cognition; it is, undoubtedly, the first European work on human cognition. Locke applied the new science to explaining the human mind itself and all its operations; he started with a radical definition of the human mind. For Locke, the human mind enters the world with no pre-formed ideas whatsoever. The human mind at birth is a blank, a tabula rasa (erased board). Human sensation: taste, touch, smell, hearing, and especially vision filled the empty mind with objects of sensation. From these sensations, humans eventually derive a sense of order and rationality. All human thought, then, and all human passion is ultimately derived from sensation and sensation alone. In Locke's view, the human mind is completely empirical. Not only is he arguing that the best knowledge is empirical knowledge, he was arguing that the only knowledge is empirical knowledge; there is no other kind.
One of the consequences of this empirical view of humans means that every human being enters the world with all the same capacities. No one is by virtue of birth more moral or knowledgeable than anyone else. Since all moral behavior arises from one's empirical experiences, that means that immoral behavior is primarily a product of the environment rather than the individual. If you accept that line of reasoning, that means that you can change moral and intellectual outcomes in human development by changing the environment. Locke proposed that education above everything else was responsible for forging the moral and intellectual character of individuals; he proposed in part an extension of education to every member of society. This view of education still dominates Western culture to this day.
In the Two Treatises , Locke argued that government and authority was based on natural law. Unlike Hobbes, Locke believed that natural law dictated that all human beings were fundamentally equal; he derived this argument from his theories of human development. Since every human being walked into the world with the same capacities as every other human being, that meant that inequality was an unnatural result of the environments that individuals are forced to live in, a belief that still underlies the Western notion of human development. Human beings have a natural inclination to preserve their equality and independence, since these are natural aspects of humanness. For Locke, humans enter into social contracts only to help adjudicate disputes between individuals or groups. Absolute power, then, is an unnatural development in human history.
For Locke, the purpose of authority is to protect human equality and freedom; this is why social groups agree to a "social contract" that places an authority over them. When that authority ceases to care for the welfare, independence, and equality of individual humans, the social contract is broken and it is the duty of the members of society to overthrow that ruler. This work was published shortly after the Glorious Revolution and clearly reflects the political fallout from that event. It would also serve as one of the central influences in the formation of the American government.
Ren Descartes is perhaps the single most important thinker of the European Enlightenment. At an age most people graduate from college nowadays, he quietly and methodically went about tearing down all previous forms of knowledge and certainty and replaced them with a single, echoing truth: Cogito, ergo sum , "I think, therefore I am." From that point onwards in European culture, subjective truth would hold a higher and more important epistemological place than objective truth, skepticism would be built into every inquiry, method would hold a higher place than practice, and the mind would be separated from the body.
In his book, Discourse on <NOBR>Method ,</NOBR> Descartes outlines his skepticism, his method for inquiring into the truth, and his arrival at his famous conclusion (called the cogito, after the first word in the Latin sentence). However, these achievements obscure the crucial role Descartes played in practically every other area of the Enlightenment. Descartes was a pretty smart fellow who established several patterns for modern Europe to follow: he laid down the idea that the thinking mind was somehow more real than the body in which it is housed (this is called the Cartesian mind-body split); he established that emotions were due to the overall nature of the character of the individual--called Cartesian affect (i.e., emotion) theory: this would become the basis of things like music education, which attempted to develop the character by producing certain emotions in students, a kind of Beethoven emotion work-out; he established the supremacy of the observer over the things he observed.
Born in 1596, Descartes studied under Jesuits, who stressed the method of acquiring knowledge over everything else, even the content itself--unlike other universities which stressed the rote memorization of a massive amount of classical and scientific material. This gave rise to Descartes's life-long obsession with how knowledge is acquired rather than the substance of knowledge itself. Over the course of his career, he wrote on Optics, on Passions of the Soul, and on the human body. But his first and best love was the basic principles of philosophy: How do we know things to be true? How do we distinguish the false from the true? He wrote on this subject over and over again in works like the Meditations on the First Philosophy and The Search for Truth .
However, his most famous and influential treatise on the matter was the roughly sketched and quickly-written Discourse on <NOBR>Method ,</NOBR> intended to be a quick and dirty summary of the philosophy spelled out in detail in the Meditations . In the <NOBR>Discourse ,</NOBR> Descartes lays out all the essential ingredients of Cartesianism: In the first part, he describes how he arrived at a radical skepticism. Suppose the entire world and universe were a lie created by the devil: how could you prove that what you see around you is not a lie? How could you prove that various mathematical truths are indeed true and not some satanic fraud? Descartes finds that when he investigates all the human sciences, he can't prove them to be true against the objection that they might be false. So, he quite literally stops believing in everything, which he outlines in Part II of the Discourse; he refuses to accept anything that might be false. He is, as he says in Part II, going to tear down everything in order to rebuild a more solid structure on which to base his thinking. In Part III, he describes the problems this entails: if you stop believing in everything, including mathematics, how do you live your life? So he sets up some provisionary rules: if you can't be sure that anything is true, then you should accept for the time being what the people around you believe, especially in the field of morals. Once you arrive at certainty, then you can reject what other people say is true, but until then, you need some system of knowledge and morality to live by.
Part IV narrates Descartes' increasing desperation to find some certain truth upon which he can build a solid structure of certainty; while mulling over the problem, Descartes suddenly realizes that the very fact that he is thinking proves that he, Descartes, exists: Cogito, ergo <NOBR>sum ,</NOBR> "I think, therefore I am." For if he didn't exist, he wouldn't be thinking. (Actually, Saint Augustine beat him to this realization: in Against the Academicians, Augustine proves that one can't doubt everything because the mere fact that you're doubting everything demands that at least one thing be true: that you exist, otherwise you wouldn't be doubting.) From this point, Descartes can begin to prove other truths, such as the existence of God. What is so important about the cogito is that it privileges the individual over tradition (Descartes is explicitly rejecting tradition) and privileges the individual's perception of the truth over some objective truth or some commonly shared truth. In other words, the individual subjective experience is the foundation of truth. This notion would radically transform thinking in Europe and the West up through the present day.
The European Enlightenment developed in part due to an energetic group of French thinkers who thrived in the middle of the eighteenth century: the philosophes. This group was a heterogenous mix of people who pursued a variety of intellectual interests: scientific, mechanical, literary, philosophical, and sociological. They were united by a few common themes: an unwavering doubt in the perfectibility of human beings, a fierce desire to dispel erroneous systems of thought (such as religion) and a dedication to systematizing the various intellectual disciplines.
The rallying cry for the philosophes was the concept of progress. By mastering both natural sciences and human sciences, humanity could harness the natural world for its own benefit and learn to live peacefully with one another. This was the ultimate goal, for the philosophes , of rational and intentional progress.
The central ideas of the philosophe movement were:
á Progress: Human history is largely a history of the improvement of humanity in three respects: a) developing a knowledge of the natural world and the ability to manipulate the world through technology; b) overcoming ignorance bred of superstitions and religions; c) overcoming human cruelty and violence through social improvements and government structures.
á Deism: Deism is a term coined in the philosophe movement and applies to two related ideas: a) religion should be reasonable and should result in the highest moral behavior of its adherents; b) the knowledge of the natural world and the human world has nothing to do whatsoever with religion and should be approached completely free from religious ideas or convictions.
á Tolerance: The greatest human crimes, as far as the philosophes were concerned, have been perpetrated in the name of religion and the name of God. A fair, just, and productive society absolutely depends on religious tolerance. This means not merely tolerance of varying Christian sects, but tolerance of non-Christian religions as well (for some philosophes ).
The miracle years for the philosophes occurred between 1748 and 1751: all the outstanding works of the philosophes first saw the light of day during these intellectually exciting years: Montesquieu's Spirit of the Laws (1748), Rousseau's Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences (1750), and, finally, the great capstone of the French philosophes movement, the first edition of Denis Diderot's Encyclopdie in 1751.
None of the philosophes engaged in speculative philosophy or abstract thinking (very much); they were primarily concerned with the betterment of society and human beings so their focus was overwhelmingly practical. This concern was focused on reforming individual human beings and on outdated human institutions and belief systems.
Besides Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the most influential of the French philosophes was Franois Marie Arouet or, as he signed his books, Voltaire. Voltaire concentrated on two specific philosophical projects. First, he untiringly worked to introduce empiricism, as it was practiced by the English, into French intellectual life. Second, he persisted in proselytizing for religious tolerance; in fact, most of his works that we still read today had as their theme religious tolerance.
Empiricism: Empirical philosophy, which was first systematized by Aristotle in the fourth century BC, was reintroduced into Western culture with a vengeance by English scientists in the seventeenth century. Like Descartes, English philosophers such as Isaac Newton began by doubting everything. Unlike Descartes, who developed a non-empirical philosophy to answer that doubt, Newton and his crew based all human certainty on empirical verification through the senses. Voltaire spat all over the French rationalist tradition and worked tirelessly to develop a French philosophy based on empiricism. Although the French solidly remained rooted in rationalism, much of French empirical science owes its origins to the works of Voltaire.
A Treatise on Tolerance : Voltaire had written most of his life on religious tolerance and had gained a large audience. In 1762, however, he was fired into action by the execution of an innocent Protestant in Toulouse. This man, Jean Calas, was accused of murdering his son before that son could convert to Catholicism. Like the OJ Simpson case, this murder created a sensation all throughout largely Catholic France. Calas was inhumanly tortured and eventually strangled, but he never confessed to the crime. When Voltaire heard about this gross miscarriage of justice, he made Jean Calas's case his cause and in 1763 he published A Treatise on Tolerance that focused entirely on the Calas case.
Voltaire's argument was very simple: the most inhuman crimes perpetrated by humanity throughout its enitre history have been perpetrated in the name of religion. Mass extermination, torture, infanticide, regicide: behind just about every abominable human crime lay some religious zealotry or passionate religious commitment. The most vicious crimes, though, are those perpetrated by Christians against other Christians who belong to a different sect or church. Since religion does not admit of certainty, and since so many sects and religions have so many things in common, the Treatise argues that people should be allowed to practice whatever religion they see fit, particularly if it's a Christian religion. Individual governments should not impose religious systems on an entire state. The ultimate argument of the book is that secular values should take precedence over religious values; until that happens, human history will be marked by viciousness and inhumanity.
Candide : Voltaire's most famous book, however, is Candide , a novel which he published in 1759. Although Voltaire is the most representative philosophe of his time, Candide is a strange book in that it attacks many of the assumptions of the philosophe movement. In particular, the novel makes fun of those who think that human beings can endlessly improve themselves and their environment. The main character of the novel, Candide, is set adrift in a hostile world and futilely tries to hold on to his optimistic belief that this "is the best of all possible worlds" as his tutor, Dr. Pangloss, keeps insisting. He travels throughout Europe, South America, and the Middle East, and on the way he encounters terrible natural disasters and even more terrible disasters perpetrated by human beings on their fellow human beings. He learns in the end that the only solution is productive work that benefits those around you.
The baron de Montesquieu concerned himself entirely with political theory. His Spirit of the Laws (1748) sought to explain how different groups of people end up with different and varying forms of government. He argued that climate, terrain, and agricultural conditions largely predetermined both human behavior and various forms of authority. However, Montesquieu also believed that there was a single, best form of government andthat humans could overcome any and all geographical and climatic conditions. For Montesquieu, the best form of human government was embodied in the English constitution after the Glorious Revolution. In particular, the English constitution divided state powers into three independent branches of government: the executive, the legislative, and the judicial. Since no one person or group was in charge, the maximum amount of political and economic freedom was made available to the general population. He called this equal distribution of power "checks and balances," and his theories of government would be the single most powerful influence upon the formation of American government at the end of the century.
Perhaps the single most important Enlightenment writer was the philosopher-novelist-composer-music theorist-language theoris-etc., Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), who is important not merely for his ideas (which generally recycled older Enlightenment ideas) but for his passionate rhetoric, which enflamed a generation and beyond. The central problem he confronted most of his life he sums up in the first sentence of his most famous work, The Social <NOBR>Contract :</NOBR>
"Man is born free but everywhere is in chains."
The central concept in Rousseau's thought is "liberty," and most of his works deal with the mechanisms through which humans are forced to give up their liberty. At the foundation of his thought on government and authority is the idea of the "social contract," in which government and authority are a mutual contract between the authorities and the governed; this contract implies that the governed agree to be ruled only so that their rights, property and happiness be protected by their rulers. Once rulers cease to protect the ruled, the social contract is broken and the governed are free to choose another set of governors or magistrates. This idea would become the primary animating force in the Declaration of Independence , which is more or less a legal document outlining a breach of contract suit. In fact, all modern liberation discourse at some level or another owes its origin to The Social Contract and Rousseau's earlier treatise, The Discourse on Inequality .
Written for an essay contest sponsored by the city of Geneva, Switzerland, in 1754 (Rousseau won the contest), The Discourse on Inequality outlines all the key ideas that were to greatly influence modern culture: a) the idea of the noble savage, that is, the happiest state of humankind is a middle state between completely wild and completely civilized; b) the idea of social contract; c) the nature of human distinctions; d) the criticism of property; and e) the nature of human freedom. As you read this essay, you should get a good handle on each of these topics. In particular, you should compare these ideas to their earlier incarnations (such as Luther's idea of "freedom") and keep them in mind as we explore later ideas in modern human cultures.
Rousseau first argued that civilization had corrupted human beings in his essay, Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences in 1750. This corruption was largely a moral corruption; everything that civilized people have regarded as progress; urbanization, technology, science, and so on; has resulted in the moral degradation of humanity. For Rousseau, the natural moral state of human beings is to be compassionate; civilization has made us cruel, selfish, and bloodthirsty. In the Discourse on Inequality , Rousseau also argued that civilization has robbed us of our natural freedom. While semi-civilized humanity looked to itself for its values and happiness, civilized human beings live outside themselves in the opinions and authority of others. The price of civilization is human freedom and human individuality:
In reality, the difference is, that the savage lives within himself while social man lives outside himself and can only live in the opinion of others, so that he seems to receive the feeling of his own existence only from the judgement of others concerning him. It is not to my present purpose to insist on the indifference to good and evil which arises from this disposition, in spite of our many fine works on morality, or to show how, everything being reduced to appearances, there is but art and mummery in even honour, friendship, virtue, and often vice itself, of which we at length learn the secret of boasting; to show, in short, how abject we are, and never daring to ask ourselves in the midst of so much philosophy, benevolence, politeness, and of such sublime codes of morality, we have nothing to show for ourselves but a frivolous and deceitful appearance, honour without virtue, reason without wisdom, and pleasure without happiness.
In 1762, Rousseau published The Social Contract , which, though it was largely unread when it first came out, became one of the most influential works of abstract political thought in the Western tradition. In the Discourse on Inequality , Rousseau had tried to explain the human invention of government as a kind of contract between the governed and the authorities that governed them. The only reason human beings were willing to give up individual freedom and be ruled by others was that they saw that their rights, happiness, and property would be better protected under a formal government rather than an anarchic, every-person-for-themselves type of society. He argued, though, that this original contract was deeply flawed. The wealthiest and most powerful members of society "tricked" the general population, and so installed inequality as a permanent feature of human society. Rousseau argued, in The Social Contract , that this contract between rulers and the ruled should be rethought. Rather than have a government which largely protects the wealth and the rights of the powerful few, government should be fundamentally based on the rights and equality of everyone . If any form of government does not properly see to the rights, liberty, and equality of everyone, that government has broken the social contract that lies at the heart of political authority. These ideas were essential for both the French and American revolutions; in fact, it is no exaggeration to say that the French and American revolutions are the direct result of Rousseau's abstract theories on the social contract.
It would be incorrect, though, to think of Rousseau as a thorough-going individualist. In fact, Rousseau believed that the social contract, if it were followed on all sides, bound every member of society to obedience to political authority. It was only when political authority broke the basic premises of the social contract and individual liberty was replaced by inequality that Rousseau believed that government should be torn down. Rousseau was trying to figure out a way to maximize individual liberty while preserving order, obedience, and harmony in society. He was really the first Enlightenment thinker to articulate the contractual basis of rights. Rights, or principles of individual autonomy or liberty, are not magical entitlements that come from heaven into this world the moment you pop out of the womb nor are they inscribed in our DNA. Rights and liberties are social contracts. You have rights and individual liberties because the rest of society agrees that you have those rights and liberties . If you don't have a right or liberty, then you must convince everyone to give you that right or liberty. For Rousseau, natural human beings are born completely self-sufficient and self-governing; social human beings are dependent and restricted. The rights and liberties that social human beings get are derived ultimately from a general social agreement. This is one reason, by the way, that the American and French revolutions resulted in "contracts" outlining the rights and liberties of the governed.
also wrote a novel, Emile , which
outlined the best way to educate human beings. His goal was to produce an
education that maximized human potential rather than restricted it. Both
European and American educational ideas were greatly influenced by this work;
the American public school system, established in the first part of the
nineteenth century, drew heavily from Rousseau's educational ideas.
Your translation of Discourse on Inequality is taken from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract and Discourses , translated by G. D. H. Cole (London: J.M. Dent, 1913), pages 207-238.
Women: Communities, Economies, and Opportunities
The status of women during the Enlightenment changed drastically; surprisingly, much of the talk concerning individual liberties, social welfare, economic liberty, and education did not greatly affect the unequal treatment of women. In many ways, the position of women was seriously degraded during the Enlightenment. Economically, the rise of capitalism produced laws that severely restricted women's rights to own property and run businesses. While Enlightenment thinkers were proposing economic freedom and enlightened monarchs were tearing down barriers to production and trade, women were being forced out of a variety of businesses throughout Europe. In 1600, more than two-thirds of the businesses in London were owned and administered by women; by 1800, that number had shrunk to less than ten percent.
While the Enlightenment greatly changed the face of education, the education of women simultaneously expanded in opportunity but seriously degraded in quality. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, education was available only to the wealthiest women, while education was available, in theory at least, to most men. But the education that these select women received was often fairly equivalent in content and quality to the best education available to men. The Enlightenment, however, stressed the absolute importance of education for moral development and the ideal operation of society. So education was extended to the women of the upper and middle classes; however, Enlightenment thinkers also believed that the various intellectual disciplines, such as science and philosophy, were meant only for men. These subjects, then, were closed off to women. Instead women were offered training in "accomplishments," that is, various skills that contribute to the moral development and the "display" quality of a wife: music, drawing, singing, painting, and so on. So while men were learning the new sciences and philosophies, all that was offered to women in education was decorative "accomplishments."
The economies of pre-industrial Europe were primarily based on family economies; the individual household was the fundamental unit of economic production. Within this unit, most of the necessities of life were produced by members of the family. These family economies were, by and large, sustenance economies. In this environment, there was no place for individuals living outside of a family. If someone lived individually, he or she was regarded as a criminal or beggar or worse. For both men and women, then, there really was no alternative, socially or economically, to living within a family.
Women began to function as productive laborers within this family economy at the age of six or seven (sometimes earlier). In agricultural communities, this meant, usually, light farm labor, and in an artisan's family, this meant taking part in the business itself. Women in artisan families were very often trained in the artisanal skills of the family; as they grew up, they became more vital and important to the functioning of the business. On the farm, however, women's labor was considerably less valued, and women almost always left home between the ages of eleven and fourteen to either work on another farm or become a servant in a household.
Very few women could marry without a dowry. If a woman was part of a family, the family would usually make up the dowry. If she was on her own, which was the most typical fate of rural women, then she had to save enough money to pay her own dowry. This dowry went to the husband and was invested in the family economy, whether agricultural or artisanal. That is, the woman was required to invest in the household economy before she could join it.
In general, women's lives were oriented around the economy of the household rather than family. Both the marriage and the children took second place to production within the family economy; this was absolutely vital, for a bad year in the family economy could mean starvation.
Nevertheless, the new urban economies of pre-industrial Europe created low-level, low-wage jobs in various industries. For both men and women, this work was brutish, harsh, cruel, and actually paid less than sustenance wages. While most women stayed within the family economy, several displaced women found themselves as the central labor force of pre-industrial industries. In the illustration below by William Hogarth we see a hemp factory where women are beating hemp into ropes. The labor is obviously difficult and the shop steward of the factory can be seen hovering over the main character with a whip.
We know little of women's communities for the general run of the European population. Women's lives, in general, consisted of unceasing labor. In the middle and upper classes, however, women's communities began to develop a new and revolutionary life. The works of the philosophes began to filter into women's communities and undoubtedly shaped women's self-concepts; in fact, much of the activity of the philosophes was sponsored by women and women's communities. While women found that the presses were closed off to them, they still had an immense amount of influence over the currents and contents of the philosophe movement. A seed was being planted; women's communities were demanding a more central intellectual role in European life. This seed would blossom into the revolutionary feminist works at the end of the century: Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman and Olympe de Gouges' Declaration of the Rights of Women .