It is difficult to categorize this period of time. The labels we use are not accurate. Is it the Age of Reason, the Age of Enlightenment, the Age of Revolution? In many ways it was a time of great improvements in the human condition, but in other ways it was the beginning of the destruction of traditional western society and government. The scientific revolution changed our world view. A world view simply means the ideas and assumptions about the world in which we live. For instance the Navajo world view is not the same as the Afrikaans world view. A world view changes with time, politics, religious attitudes, or inventions. The world view of western civilization changed immensely during the eighteenth century.

The most important force responsible for changing the world view during this time was the scientific revolution. Modern science crystallized during this time. Science became a precise knowledge of the physical world and was based upon a union of experimental observation and sophisticated mathematics. The renaissance idea of humanism and its ceaseless search for the knowledge of antiquity stimulated the growth of the scientific community and encouraged the development of scientific study. Renaissance patronage, especially in Italy, supported the sciences just as it had the arts. Wealthy families paid for scientific investigations. As scientific inquiry increased, new inventions proliferated. Navigational problems were lessened with the new ability to fix longitude and insure safe and accurate sea travel. The telescope, the barometer, the pendulum clock, the microscope and the air pump added to our knowledge almost immediately.

Scientists gained material and psychological rewards for these efforts. Science became competitive, which increased the discoveries even more. Modern scientific method developed. This method sought to establish general laws of nature on the basis of precise observations and experimentation. It did not base its conclusions on tradition or on established sources, or on ancient texts or authorities.

This was also the age of enlightenment. The most important idea of the enlightenment was that methods of science could be used to examine and understand all aspects of life. Nothing was to be accepted on faith. Everything was to be tested and tried by reason and critical thinking. This caused clashes with the church which based its teachings on the authority of the scriptures and faith. Another important idea of this era was the study of the human condition and the belief that it could be improved. This idea of “progress” stimulated thoughts about the problems in society. Who was to blame for them and who could change them? The idea of human progress was tackled by writers such as Descartes and Locke. Descartes taught that all people are born with certain basic ideas and ways of thinking. Locke insisted that all ideas are derived from experience. He believed that the human mind is blank at birth, a tablet on which environment writes the individual’s understanding and beliefs.

The rediscovery of Classical Antiquity increased in the 18th century. In 1711 the first excavations of the cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii began. Scholars like Johannes Wincklemann began to study archeology. Early archeologists ruined many digs by repeatedly using poor methods. Their discoveries were discussed and published throughout Europe. Lord Elgin began to work on the acropolis at Athens, Greece, and took many of his finds home with him to London. New building projects of this time took on classical Greek forms and Greek clothing became all the rage. The reading of classical history produced ideas of virtuous behavior that they called “exemplum virtutis.” The aims and ideals of the Roman Republic became very important. These included freedom, opposition to tyranny, and valor.

Eighteenth century Europe was growing in economic prosperity, technological improvements, and increasing government employment. In 1776 American-revolutionaries proclaimed independence from the British. When a peace treaty was signed in 1783, a new world order was instituted. Citizens could now begin to govern themselves, without the oppressive control of a king or a Parliament. It was the fruition of the enlightened mind. With all of these changes in society, traditional aristocratic governments could not remain unchanged. Some kings chose to gradually transfer power to parliamentary governments. This placated the demands of the common people enough to forestall violent revolution. Other kings would not relent, and they paid the price.

When Louis the XVI came to the throne in France in 1744 he mistakenly followed the path of his grandfather and kept the wealth and political power in the hands of the aristocracy. This offended the rising middle class and the poor, who were now more aware of the other events in the world because of the circulation of more books and newspapers and the rise in education. In 1788 the French economy collapsed after a disastrous harvest and a steep rise in the cost of food. Riots broke out in Paris and in rural districts. The people organized into a National Assembly and passed the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.” It was based on the American Declaration of Independence. It claimed divine right “in the presence and under the auspices of the Supreme Being” to overthrow the king, who was deposed and imprisoned. The king was eventually executed, after a very close vote (360 to 361), in the National Convention. Things did not go smoothly for the French rebels. Control of the government changed hands many times. The “Reign of Terror” was a bloody period in which thousands were sent to the guillotine. Contrary to popular belief, 707 of those killed were rebellious lower and middle class citizens who were suspected of political agitation.


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PPSC HUM 1023: Modern Civilizations by Kristine Betts and Kate Pagel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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