In 1859, Charles Dickens wrote these lines:



"IT WAS the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way- in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.



Dickens was writing in the 19th century, but he was writing about the 18th century, and his words capture the general outlines of the period well enough. The 18th century, as we have seen, was a time in which the Enlightenment came into its own. During this period, the ideas and attitudes of the Enlightenment influenced, and were influenced by, nearly every sector of society. Politics was one of the most obvious areas of Enlightenment - states centralizing themselves, though often it was the Eastern European states of Russia, Prussia, and Austria that took these ideas to their farthest, and rarely were the Enlightenment ideas they used more than a thinly disguised pretext for increasing the power of the state at the expense of other sectors of society. In fact, this is not at all inconsistent with the Enlightenment project. Individualism became the great theme of the age - as Kant put it:


"Enlightenment is man's release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage s man's inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-incurred is this tutelage when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! "Have courage to use your own reason!"- that is the motto of Enlightenment.


It was in this period that a group of ragged, but well-read, colonists in North America created a document that, in part, read, "We hold these truths to be self-evident:
That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." These words were, as much as Dickens and Kant, a reflection of the new realities of the times in the late 18th century. Enlightenment, in the sense of a broad social, economic, and cultural change of the time, had brought new ideas that were not just intellectual, but were changing and disrupting society.
In the 18th century, thinkers known as philosophes, mostly popular writers who explained new ideas to the public in salons and books, were discussing important new ways of understanding society. At the same time, a new group of people, whose position in society was not yet clearly defined, but who were earnest, and frugal, and earned large amounts of money, came to define themselves, and to begin the process of creating a place in society where none had existed before. There was more food than ever before, and cleaner cities, with less disease and better medical knowledge, which led to a growing population. This growing population did not, for the first time, experience a catastrophic correction on the order of the great plague or major destructive wars, or even starvation on the level of past famines. In this sense, because life was so good, it got very bad for the lower classes - still the mass of people living in Europe. The change in infant death rates led to "family overpopulation" as sexual habits that had been practiced over centuries to maximize the number of children suddenly produced more children who survived, and thus had to be fed. Better medical care meant more injured and aged people lived where they had not previously, but were not capable of providing for themselves. New wealth in the hands of the bourgeoisie and the nobles led to a constant inflation of land prices, and old inheritance patterns among the laboring classes led to ever-greater division of land. This made the viability of small farms less than marginal, and contributed to a constant flow of economic refugees into cities, where, often with no work and no salable skills, they swelled the ranks of the homeless to an unprecedented degree. In the 18th century, a growing divergence of capability between the "haves" and the "have-nots" created massive changes in society. The idea of happiness as a goal of personal and family life, the move toward private life - even the concept of a private space in which family and individuals led their lives, meant new home designs, new concepts in child-rearing, and a new emphasis on love and partnership in marriage. This new emphasis on the private and the individual also led to growing "life in the shadows" - in which extra-marital sex reached new and record proportions. Activities such as going to the toilet, lovemaking, and even nose-wiping became private affairs, shadow activities that one did not show to others - though they had been public activities in the past.
These things were the result of, and the cause of, political, social, and economic theories that both explained and motivated change. In fact, the story of the 17th century is really one of a century-long disruption in all of the areas described above, as ideas changed, and lifestyles began to adjust to those ideas.
One of the first, and most important, changes to occur in the 17th century was a modification in the concept of law, its purpose, and its administration. Reflecting the public nature of society in past centuries, the law had been perceived and enforced as an instrument for the security of the collective. In the 18th century, under the influence of philosophes such as Baron Montesqueiu, David Hume, and Cesare Beccaria, the law became a mechanism to promote social welfare and provide for individual security and justice - very much as we perceive it today. In line with Enlightenment principles of rationalism and centralization, it had to be revised, standardized, and generally applicable. Even Russia, under Catherine the Great, tried to implement Beccaria's principle that the accused was innocent until proven guilty, and that the burden of proof thus rested with the state. This revolutionary implementation of the rights of the individual superseding those of the republic (res publica - the public property of all, i.e. the state) was radical and unprecedented. For John Locke, whose ideas defined the age and its revolutions, the inviolability of private property and individual rights was the central reality of the state - in a sense the public was based on the private. This idea was stunning, but it was only a part of the great change that encompassed the 18th century.

Voltaire (1694-1778)
Two of the favorite targets of the philosophes were organized religion and the state - particularly those elements of the state, including nobles and kings, that they saw as not embodying the principles of the Enlightenment. The most vociferous critic of the period, who attacked these three pillars of pre-Enlightenment society most vociferously, was Voltaire, a French intellectual who had wrestled his way through an education and into polite society by the sheer power of his razor sharp mind, having come from the lower class. Voltaire was a social critic, and found that he preferred the achievements of English society to those of his native France. After spending some time in England, Voltaire returned to France and publicly praised English government, scientific achievements, and the freedom of thought he found there and contrasted this with the backwardness, as he saw it, of France. He published the Philosophical Letters Concerning the English Nation in 1734, and made a splash heard round the world. Voltaire, a stormy, egotistical personality, spent his life in controversy, living with the Marquise du Chatelet and her husband, though he was not of noble birth. He was a vocal critic of the nobility and of royalty, spending time in the Bastille twice, and getting himself arrested in Frankfurt while on an official visit to Prussia, having been invited by Frederick the Great. His chief legacy to the century was his novel Candide, in which he elaborated on his final theme, and one that is quintessentially Enlightenment in nature: "we must cultivate our own garden." Voltaire encompassed the growing sense of national identity and the need by the bourgeoisie to help themselves up in the public sphere, and the increasing emphasis on the individual and on privacy with this one simple statement, and it struck a solid chord.

David Hume (1711-1776)
David Hume, a Scottish philosopher, made his own contributions to Enlightenment expectations of government and for life. In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748) Hume put forth his own system of critical thought. Hume destroyed the Cartesian view of the universe by arguing that the existence of neither thought nor material could be proved. This meant, for Hume, that there could be no certainty in the universe, and the only thing that truly existed was perception. This, of course, was very close to relativism, and in his tract, Hume made it clear that he saw no way that Christianity could be empirically true. "A miracle," he wrote in his Enquiry, "is a violation of the laws of nature," and as such, to believe that a miracle has occurred, even an eye witness must suspend his/her belief in the laws of nature. However, without seeing the miracle as impossible, it is impossible to call it a miracle. Thus the idea of a miracle is its own negation. When accused of being an atheist, Hume's response was that he had no way to prove absolutely that there was no God, and thus he had to allow for the possibility of God's existence as well as the possibility of there being no God..
Hume's thought, in the best tradition of the ideas of Kant, above, as to what Enlightenment is, emphasized the role of the individual in weighing evidence and making decisions.

Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron Montesquieu (1689-1755)
In 1721, Montesquieu published a novel (which was a new form of literature, invented during the 18th century) entitled Persian Letters. The ingenious and yet untried device in the novel was to make the narrator someone from outside the European world - in this case, a Persian ruler who becomes a traveler for the very purpose of learning about the world. In this way, Montesquieu was able to show Europeans themselves - a look in the mirror - from the point of view of an outside observer. This turned the world upside down, and allowed for a great number of witty and critical scenarios. It was also a great seller because of its mildly erotic content, again set in the outside - this time in the Persian ruler's harem - where various acts not accepted in European society might be described.
Montesquieu's greatest contribution, however, was not the Persian Letters, but the torturous, long, difficult Spirit of the Laws published in 1748 to immediate acclaim. In it, Montesquieu classified government into categories and sub-categories, making each a clear subject for observation, inquiry, and comparison with its counterpart in a different type of governmental system. Each class of government had its own particular spirit that was critical to its maintenance and continuation as an effective entity. His goal was to use history in a scientific war - to demonstrate the success of moderate governments, and to show how moderation could be achieved and maintained. Montesquieu was a great champion of the idea of separation of powers, so that each branch of a government could check the other, making abuses of power nearly impossible. His ideas were, more than any other, directly influential on the governmental system designed by American colonists after 1776.
Montesquieu was more than just a broad theorist, however. He was also an advocate of legal reform. He advocated the abolition of torture, and suggested that the law needed to be independent of government, so that it could be impartial, incorruptible, and just.
Like the other Philosophes, then, Montesquieu saw private life as the most important and subordinated the power of the state to that of the people.

Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas Caritat, marquis de Condorcet (1743- 1794)
Condorcet was a mathematician and logician whose contributions to the Enlightenment were many and concrete. He was the first to call what he did Social Science, and he spent time on statistical analysis of voting patterns, and social systems.
Condorcet's most valuable contribution to philosophy was his discussion of progress and theory of the progress of human thought. Condorcet also thought that other areas of human thought should be made to reach a certain level of progress - in which careful enquiry could explain all human problems and suggest their solutions. This was a statement that was tailor made for the middle class. It accepted the idea of the perfectibility of human kind, and our ability to change the world for the better (an argument dear to the hearts of capitalists, a part of whose program and morality was that business would make the world better and more equitable). It also put forward the sense that progress was inevitable - that humans were on a slow, and inexorable path toward perfection, and nothing could be done to stop it.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Rousseau, a Swiss philosopher and philanderer, was concerned with social relations and social responsibility. His best known thesis, and one that most certainly appealed to the middle class, was his Social Contract. In it, Rousseau argued several critical points. First, like Locke, he argued that government derived its power from the people in the form of a contract. This contract would be designed by all to create a society that would maximize the rights of individuals by asking each to give up only the most useless rights - the right to kill or steal, for example. Rousseau's ideas came with a price. To maintain maximum social freedom, he explained, one had to live by the contract, and also take responsibility for enforcing the contract. In other words, duties clearly accompanied rights, and there was no sense of privacy. Society was the contract, and if there were problems with the enforceability and success of the contract, then the offending parties AND the contract itself - society - had to accept responsibility and adjust to new realities. Rousseau also was a champion of another 18th century idea that would come to a head in the 19th century - education. For Rousseau, like society, education had to both support society, and be supported by it. Only in responding directly to the needs of each individual could an education really be successful in creating someone who could exercise rights and perform duties to an effective degree.



John Locke
John Locke was really the father of the Enlightenment, being born in the late 17th century, and writing very early in the 18th. Locke was a revolutionary as much as Beccaria or Hume. His treatises on government and society came to have nearly as much influence as Voltaire. Locke's most important contribution was his idea that children are born with minds that are essentially clean slates - with no behavioral systems attached to them, no morals, no scruples, etc� Locke suggested, then, that the way in which you furnish the child's mind will effect her/him for the rest of life. This became a powerful argument for education reform, and also made a suggestion that was not lost on the middle class - that bloodline had absolutely nothing to do with capability. It thus became easier for the middle class to claim the right to find its way into the peerage, as people were all essentially born equal, and their education and socialization was assumed to have everything to do with who you are. In a sense, if you want something, you can educate yourself and the go and get it. This positive attitude combined with the upper class and middle class sense of economic growth and increasing political power to make a very heady atmosphere, and the sense that one could "be happy" if one pursued one's goals relentlessly and that success was up to the individual.

The Nobility
The 18th century was no less stratified than Europe at any other time in its history prior to 1700. That stratification would not even be seriously challenged until the 1790's. Even the nobility, however, was not a monolithic class, but a highly stratified group of people. The upper nobility in nearly every nation retained privileges, the ear of the monarch, and in some cases, including Austria and Hungary, feudal rights to labor service, manufacturing and land tenure as well. The local nobility in Spain, England, Prussia, and Russia served as the inhabitants of the lower house of the local legislative assembly, and as officers in the military. Most of these appointments, even as legislators, were controlled or heavily influenced by the monarch specifically, meaning that government was neither representative of the whole masses, nor particularly responsive to the needs of the masses. However, it is likely at least partly the case that the concentration of power in the hands of the nobility helped, rather than hindered, the project of the Enlightenment. Members of the nobility usually had a common outlook on life, and while they often disagreed with each other on fine policy points, their unity helped them to effectively centralize governments on the Enlightenment model. Their money (though many were already going bankrupt) required them to live an ostentatious lifestyle, suitable for one who runs the country. Doing this, and attempting to keep at the forefront of social and cultural trends.