The Enlightenment for AP European History

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Updated on Apr 25, 2014

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The Enlightenment Review Questions for AP European History


The Enlightenment refers to an eighteenth-century cultural movement whose proponents argued that society and its laws should be based on human reason rather than on custom or tradition. Its roots can be traced to the late seventeenth century, when political writers like John Locke began suggesting that there were natural laws that govern human behavior, which could be discovered through reason. In the eighteenth century, intellectuals known as philosophes developed a program for reforming society along the lines of reason, which they initially hoped to implement by educating the powerful rulers, or enlightened despots, of Europe. Later in the century, when enlightened despotism seemed to have failed, Enlightenment ideals began to be applied in more revolutionary contexts.

New Ideas About Natural Law, Human Nature, and Society

Galileo had argued that God gave man two "books" to guide him in his quest for knowledge: the Bible to show him how to find salvation, and nature to teach him about the mind of God. Isaac Newton had shown that, through the rigorous application of empirical observation and reason, man could discern the laws that God had created to govern the natural world. Their eighteenth-century successors, the philosophes, argued that the same process could lead to knowledge of the natural laws that govern human behavior. Accordingly, the Enlightenment view of society rested upon certain assumptions about the "natural state" of human beings.

Thomas Hobbes

One assumption about human nature that was foundational to Enlightenment thought was the belief that human beings could discern and would naturally follow their own self-interest. Thomas Hobbes, the author of Leviathan (1651), asserted that self-interest motivated nearly all human behavior. Specifically, Hobbes argued that human beings were naturally driven to quarrel by competition, diffidence, and glory. Hobbes therefore concluded that "without a common power to keep them in awe," the natural state of man was one of war.

John Locke

More typical of Enlightenment thought about human nature were the ideas of John Locke. In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689–1690), Locke argued that humans are born tabula rasa (a blank slate). This contradicted the traditional Christian notion that humans were born corrupt and sinful, and it implied that what humans become is purely a result of what they experience. Accordingly, Locke argued that an educational and social system that taught and rewarded rational behavior would produce law-abiding and peaceful citizens.

Locke shared Hobbes's belief in self-interest, and its importance in Locke's thought can be seen in his influential theory of private property that also appears in the Second Treatise. Locke argued that God created the world and its abundance so that man might make it productive. To ensure that productivity, God established a natural right to property. Private property is created, Locke argued, when an individual mixes a common resource with his individual labor. For example, when an individual does the work of cutting down a tree and crafting the wood into a chair, he has mixed a common resource with his individual labor to create something that did not exist before. That creation is his private property and, therefore, his incentive to be productive.

Adam Smith

A typical eighteenth-century example of self-interest as natural law can be seen in the work of Adam Smith, who applied Enlightenment ideals to the realm of economics. In Wealth of Nations (1776), Smith argued that there were laws of human labor, production, and trade that stemmed from the unerring tendency of all humans to seek their own self-interest. The economic laws that Smith identified, such as the law of supply and demand, are all by-products of human self-interestedness. Smith asserted that the sum total of these natural economic laws functioned like an invisible hand that guided the economy. Efforts by governments to alter the natural laws of an economy, such as putting a tax or tariff on foreign products, would ultimately fail, Smith argued. Accordingly, Smith and his followers advocated a hands-off, or Laissez-faire, economic policy.

Mary Wollstonecraft

In 1792, the English philosophe Mary Wollstonecraft published The Vindication of the Rights of Women, in which she argued that reason was the basis of moral behavior in all human beings (not just men). From that basis she went on to assert that the subjugation of women in European society was based on irrational belief and the blind following of tradition, and she challenged all men of reason to acknowledge the equality and human rights of all men and women.

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