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Enlightenment Ideas and Politcal Figuers of the Era

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Intro to European History


Enlightenment Ideas and

Political Figures of

The Enlightenment Era

The Enlightenment of the 18th century was an exciting period of history. For the first time since ancient Grecian times, reason and logic became center in the thoughts of most of elite society. The urge to discover and to understand replaced religion as the major motivational ideal of the age, and the upper class social scene all over Europe was alive with livid debate on these new ideas.

A French playwright who went by the pseudonym Voltaire is the most recognized and controversial Enlightenment author. Because of his trademark acidic wit, he was forced to flee the country after giving offence to a powerful nobleman. He spent the next two years in England where he came in contact with the pivotal Enlightenment idea of religious freedom and the freedom of the press. When he returned to France, he had some scathing things to say about the less than enlightened policies followed by the French monarchs, especially concerning religious intolerance. Because his ideas were generally offensive to the ruler of his country, the need to be able to leave France quickly to avoid prosecution was a consideration when deciding where he should live, which eventually was on the Swiss boarder. There he continued to treat on society and anything else that caught his imagination.

Along with Voltaire were many other Enlightened thinkers, or philosophes, as they came to be known. A man by the name of Rousseau was also a very influential personality. His essays mainly treated on social inequality and education.

An Italian by the name of Cesare Beccaria also discussed society, but more in terms of social control and matters of crime and punishment. He was an opponent of torture, capital punishment, and of any punishment that was done to excess or didn't fit the crime that warranted it. He arrived at his conclusions through the logic that was so popular of the day. An excellent example of this logic is in this phrase concerning capitol punishment: "Is it not absurd, that the laws, which detest and punish homicide, should, in order to prevent murder, publicly commit murder themselves?" Rational arguments such as these permeated Enlightened conversations and didn't fail to be noticed by many of the great national rulers of the day.

One monarch who seemed to be particularly inclined to the Enlightenment philosophies was Emperor Joseph II of Austria. After the less enlightened reign of his mother, Empress Maria Theresa, he was able to finally institutionalize many of the ideas he had been mulling over and thinking about for years. His mother, being a staunch Catholic, saw little use for such trivial issues, but once Joseph finally attainted complete control over the empire, his reforms were widespread. Possibly to spite his mother, one of the first thing he did as emperor was seize much of the land occupied by various monastic sects, which he accomplished through his Edict of Idle Institutions. True to his Enlightened nature, he promptly turned the seized lands into schools and other institutions of learning. He abolished the death penalty, made everybody equal in the eyes of the law, and ratified legislation that called for complete religious toleration. He even attempted to make the Jews living in Austria more acceptable to society as a whole. He had only limited success on this front, but the attempt itself was a drastic step for a monarch of any country to date. He made great progress economically as well. Joseph II ended the monopolies that had unnaturally influenced his economy for decades and eliminated stifling internal trade barriers. After all was said and done, he had created around 11,000 laws in an attempt to transform his country into an embodiment of Enlightened ideals. Has he himself put it once, "I have made Philosophy the lawmaker of my empire, her logical applications are going to transform Austria."

Despite his hopes, the reforms set forth by Joseph II were not as successful as he had hoped. He angered the nobles by releasing the peasants from serfdom, and the peasants were similarly distressed over the newfound freedoms which they had no experience dealing with. His reforms were simply too broad and too drastic to be consumed in their entirety, and shortly after the turn of the century most of the above said changes had been repealed.

Another historic leader of the period



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