2.3: The Other Side of the Coin: The Perfect Formula for Society

Especially with the case of the Universal Law of Gravitation, Science was seen as the ultimate way to describe every facet of life and of living. If such a law can be applied to all physical objects, why can’t such laws be discovered to describe all people and all societies?

The social sciences were born from the understanding that the same critical thinking and observational focus could be applied to people’s behavior—not just the behavior of stars, or gases, or animals. With the spirit of questioning and of Reason, we can see this as the flip side of the coin of the Scientific Revolution. The Enlightenment’s contributions to social thought are just as evident—especially in the United States and other revolutionary societies born from the Enlightenment’s ideals.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679): Social Contract Theory

Thomas Hobbes lived through some of the most chaotic times in England’s monarchy. The English Civil War was an even more unstable period than the wars of religion started by Henry VIII. For a brief time, the idea of the king (not to mention the king’s head) was eliminated completely. Hobbes’ view of human nature is therefore pretty bleak. In his book Leviathan (1651), he argues that human society is ultimately no better than animal societies—in fact, it might be worse.

What is necessary in order for us to keep from “letting our beast out of the cage” is for us to have a good social contract. This concept really changed the way that citizens viewed their position in society. Instead of power coming from the top down, Hobbes viewed power as coming from the bottom up: citizens give up absolute freedom to do whatever they want when they live in an organized society. In return, they receive protection, security, and peace of mind from living in such a society. The only reason that people do not “go crazy” is that “the man” is watching over them. (This is very similar to the Panopticon idea.)


The big change in this view: Just like any written contract, a social contract could be “ripped up” by both parties. If the ruler did not want to rule his people, he could give up his power. But, on the flip side, if the people felt the social contract under a particular ruler was unfair, they could “rip it up” as well. Citizens could at any time have a revolution and place a new leader in power. (This was the case during the English Civil War and also a decade or so later when the monarchy was restored.)

Hobbes changed the way people view the world just as much as Copernicus did. Instead of viewing themselves as lowly citizens who have no role in society, citizens now saw themselves as the center of the social universe. Under this viewpoint, people always have the ability to choose what kind of society they live in. [For the record, this is not always the same as democracy: if people support a dictator, then they will give up their rights to the dictator (as we’ll see later with the rise of fascism before World War II).]

John Locke (1632-1704): Adding Necessary Requirements to the Contract—Natural Rights

Hobbes’ view reflects his dark time in English history. Similarly, Englishman John Locke a generation or two later would reflect the more optimistic time of the Glorious Revolution. Why was the revolution “glorious”? The people of England booted out their unpopular king, James II, and invited William of Orange and his wife Mary to be co-rulers of England in 1689. Soon afterwards, William and Mary signed the English Bill of Rights (1690), guaranteeing certain rights for all citizens.

Locke’s view embraces this idea of switching rulers and “writing” new contracts to ensure that citizens receive better treatment. Locke states that there are some rights which are naturally a part of being a human being. Any ruler cannot just take away any of these rights for a large number of citizens without risking a revolution from his/her people. These rights are called natural rights, and for Locke there are three main ones: 1) right to life, 2) right to liberty, and 3) right to property. If any of these are unjustly violated by a ruler, then the people have the fourth right: 4) right to rebel against their ruler and form a new contract with a ruler who respects the natural rights. (This is just what happened during the Glorious Revolution.)

By stating that these rights were “natural” to the human race, Locke gave citizens guidelines to form and improve societies. Thomas Jefferson notoriously plagiarized Locke in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence. (Though, he did switch out Right #3 to the more unclear right to “the pursuit of happiness.”)

However, just as Hobbes had done, Locke leaves this version of the social contract open to interpretation: How does one define “liberty” in Right #2? Surely it cannot be “liberty to do whatever you want,” or else we’re back to the animal society that Hobbes warned us to avoid.

Voltaire* (1694-1778): Social Critic to the Extreme

*Arouet was his real last name; Voltaire was just a pen name.

The Frenchman Voltaire helped fill in some of these blanks in defining natural rights by speaking out for speaking out. Voltaire was very controversial during his time period for the witty, satirical way in which he attacked European society. For instance, in his satire Candide (1759), he points out that Europeans’ views about liberty directly contradict the slavery that Europeans practiced around the world (more about this in Chapter 3). Voltaire insisted that everyone in society should speak their minds and that no one should be censored by the government or Church or anyone else. Voltaire famously said, “I do not agree with a word you say but will defend to the death your right to say it.” This right is called the freedom of speech.

Perhaps most boldly expressed by Voltaire during this time period is an even more controversial right: the freedom of religion. Voltaire insisted that anyone could practice any religion s/he pleases, as long as that practice does not harm others. Therefore, not only Catholics and Protestants should co-exist but also “infidels” (“unfaithfuls”) like Jews and Muslims could/should live in peace in European society. Even more shocking than this view was Voltaire’s support of an atheist’s right to deny the existence of God.

As cutting-edge as his views were at the time, Voltaire’s views became incorporated into the foundation of American government after his death: in the American Bill of Rights (1790), freedom of speech and freedom of religious practice are directly guaranteed in the First Amendment.


Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797): News Flash—Women Are Humans, Too

Similarly ahead of her time was Mary Wollstonecraft, a women’s rights supporter. Wollstonecraft’s views in her book A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) argued that Locke’s natural rights should extend not just to males. Women, as the “other half” of society, were considered second-class citizens, even in the Enlightenment. Wollstonecraft’s arguments for female education in all areas, including law and medicine, were very bold for her time. In the Western world, this type of female education would not be widespread until the late 20th century. In some areas of the world, young women are still prohibited from pursuing education in these professional fields.

While Wollstonecraft was one of the few to argue for women’s education, women were still occupying more of a central role in culture. Though in the Renaissance there had been many influential female patrons, during the Enlightenment women organized salons featuring scientists and philosophers from all disciplines (in effect, a Renaissance room). These hostesses would often engage in (and lead) discussions of key Enlightenment ideas, making the connections between the sciences and social sciences that we have seen.

Side-notes: Music changes from formal to social

At the salons of Europe, the background music changed as well, in order to express the increased intellectual energy of the time period. Before the Enlightenment, more formal music was written for Church and noble patrons—this musical style is now called baroque. During the Enlightenment, however, the neo-classical movement used a much more dynamic, expressive style to demonstrate the increased energy of (upper-class) society. This increased expressiveness would later open the doors for the Romantic movement in the 19th century, as we’ll see.

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