What gave the Enlightenment its subversive, politically corrosive character was its critique of institutions and practices which appeared comparatively irrational in the light of modern thinking, argues Neil Faulkner.

Europe in the 18th century was divided into three parts. One was trapped in a feudal-absolutist past. In much of southern and eastern Europe, royal autocrats ruled over traditional societies of landlords and priest-ridden peasants that had barely changed since the Middle Ages.

Another part, mainly in north-west Europe, was being transformed by a dynamic, fast-growing capitalist economy based on commercial farming, maritime trade, new industries, and modern banking. London’s growth is a measure of the change: its population, which had stood at just over 100,000 in 1560, grew to 350,000 in 1640, 630,000 in 1715, and 1.4 million in 1815.

The third part was formed by an intermediate group. Here, feudal-absolutist survivals were interlaced with burgeoning commercial capitalism. France was the supreme example.

France had a growing merchant navy, an expanding colonial empire in India and the Americas, and an increasingly wealthy and assertive urban bourgeoisie.

But France also had a royal autocracy, a powerful Catholic Church, a parasitic class of state-subsidised courtiers, an equally parasitic class of ancient titled landowners, a peasantry weighed down by feudal dues and tithes, and an internal trading system hampered by tolls, duties, and petty regulations.

The growth of French capitalism meant that the contradictions could not have been contained indefinitely. What brought them more rapidly to crisis-point was the French state’s struggle for global supremacy with Britain.

The population of Paris trebled between the mid 16th century and the early 19th: this was a measure of the French economy’s expansion.

But London’s population, in the same period, had grown twelve-fold. Whereas Paris had been twice the size of London in the mid 16th century, it was only half the size in the early 19th: this was a measure of the greater dynamism of the British economy.

The cutting-edge of the problem was military competition between the two nation-states. During the Seven Years War (1756-1763), France lost its empire in India and the Americas to the British.

Rousseau - who wondered whether private property was rationalMilitary defeat was the external expression of a growing crisis in French society. A revolution in ideas was its internal expression. Long before its physical overthrow in the Revolution of 1789-1794, France’s feudal-absolutist ancien régime had been intellectually taken apart.

The inability of the Old Regime to maintain its ideological defences exposed its hopelessly reactionary character. A new wave of ‘Enlightenment’ thinking swept the board. Despots and dukes across Europe embraced ‘rational’ and ‘scientific’ ways of viewing the world with the enthusiasm of new converts.

The price of 17th century counter-revolution (more or less synonymous with the religious ‘Counter Reformation’ in Austria, Italy, Spain, and, to a degree, France) was that Holland, England, and Scotland had become the main locus of intellectual, scientific, and artistic advance by the end of that century.

The ‘received wisdom’ of holy texts was discarded in favour of observation, experiment, and reasoning. Isaac Newton, for example, had the freedom to solve problems in physics that had plagued Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo in earlier attempts to explain how the universe worked.

But the new realm claimed by ‘Reason’ extended far beyond the natural sciences. The Dutch and English Revolutions had rejected the ‘divine right of kings’ in favour of the ‘rights and privileges’ of elected representatives. But if the political order was not ordained by God – if human beings created their own political order – then what form should it take?

The Putney Debates of 1647 had revealed the dangers. People of different station in life might have different ideas about the managing of public affairs.

Those of ‘the lower sort’ might take the view, like Colonel Rainsborough, that ‘the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under’.

Whereas those of ‘higher station’, like Commissary-General Ireton, might have ‘an eye to property’ and contend that ‘no-one has a right to a share in determining of the affairs of the kingdom that has not a permanent fixed interest in the kingdom’.

Little wonder that revolutionary England spawned political philosophers like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke as it grappled with these issues.

But the settlements of 1660 and 1688 eased the tensions. England’s fractured elite struck a deal and closed ranks against the lower orders. As Whigs and Tories, they may have continued squabbling over the spoils of office. But to the rest of society, the unenfranchised working majority, ‘Old Corruption’ presented a united front. Some 200 crimes against property carried a death sentence in 18th century England.

French society, on the other hand, had found no such temporary resting-place. It was here, therefore, that the Enlightenment blossomed. Its greatest achievement was the Encyclopédie (1751-1772), a 35-volume compendium of human knowledge and thought, to which hundreds of leading intellectuals contributed, and which sold some 25,000 copies.

What gave the Enlightenment its subversive, politically corrosive character – irrespective of the relatively conservative intentions of many of its exponents – was its critique of institutions and practices which appeared ‘irrational’ in the light of modern thinking.

Modern thinking meant, of course, bourgeois thinking. Commerce and market-based relationships were dissolving networks of patronage, privilege, and influence. Monetary exchange was replacing entitlement based on inherited rank and estate.

What seemed ‘irrational’ to the new thinkers was the Church and its theology, the ‘divine right’ claimed by kings, and the political supremacy of a decaying class of titled place-seekers.

What of private property itself? Was this rational? Some thought not. Here is Rousseau:

‘The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said “this is mine”, and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not anyone have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: “Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.”

The Enlightenment was a multi-dimensional intellectual movement. But its essence was radical critique, and anything and everything in human affairs that could not give an adequate account of itself in a court of free enquiry was open to challenge.

And this, in the context of late 18th century Europe, riddled as it was with contradictions, filled with hallowed institutions that seemed to many mere monuments to ‘superstition’, was an ideological powder-keg. Especially so when the spirit of Reason reached ‘the lower sort’. Then thrones might totter.

‘A French bastard landing with an armed banditti and establishing himself king of England against the consent of the nation,’ announced one of the Enlightenment’s most radical pamphleteers in reference to William the Conqueror, ‘is in plain terms a very paltry rascally original.’

Things did not improve. ‘Monarchy and succession have laid… the world in blood and ashes… Freedom hath been hunted around the globe. Asia and Africa have long expelled her. Europe regards her like a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart.’

It was January 1776. The voice was that of Tom Paine. His pamphlet – Common Sense – had turned the highfalutin language of salon intellectuals into the everyday talk of alehouse ‘mechanics’. It sold a record-breaking 150,000 copies immediately, and half a million within a year.

Little wonder. Hundreds of thousands of ordinary men and women had suddenly developed a raging thirst for radical politics, for they found themselves now engaged upon a life-and-death struggle to remake the world.

Nine months before the publication of Common Sense in the New England city of Philadelphia, militiamen in neighbouring Massachusetts had opened fire on British redcoats at Lexington and detonated the American Revolution.

Neil Faulkner

Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.

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