Prior to 1789, also known as the Old Regime, ideas about natural law and human being’s nature had remained the same for hundreds of years. These ideas were however challenged in the years leading up to 1789 and the French Revolution by enlightened people known as Philosophes. Philosophes like Voltaire, Lady Mary Montagu, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Galileo Galilei believed in a new meaning for natural truth and human reason. These new ideas challenged the existing social, political, and economic order determining how a country and its people operated.
Before the enlightenment was a time when individuals had no real say in politics religion and science. A structured society existed composed of two distinct ruling bodies, church and state. Within this was another order of society or estates where individuals fell socially and economically. They were either a part of the first estate, the clergy, who provided spiritual guidance, the second estate, the nobility, who provided leadership and protection or the third estate, the peasantry (commoners) who worked the land, paid most of the taxes and provided goods and services for everyone else (Allport Lecture 2).
Although there were different levels of society they all relied on each other in some way or another, some more than others. The only way for an individual to move from one class to another was through marriage. One individual, the king, ruled this society with absolutism. The king got this right to rule from god, which was considered his divine right. In order to maintain this structured society, the noblemen, those in the upper estates, swore allegiance to the king. This allowed them to preserve this law and order and to oppress the people of the lower classes.
They instilled fear and did not provide for adequate education of the peasants, which resulted in an inexperienced working class, which did not fight back. However, this old regime began to be challenged by Enlightenment individuals and ideas. People like Voltaire, Lady Mary Montagu, Rousseau and Galileo Galilei began to think for themselves instead of following an absolutist system. In Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary, he talked about toleration of religion and the normalization of torture.
He believed that religion was made up to take advantage of people and at the same time it, “Created a religious sector that wished to annihilate all others” (Berenson 138). He urged individuals to tolerate one another, “because we are all weak, inconsistent, subject to mutability and to error” (Perry 40). In addition, Voltaire believed that torture had become something that was normalized in society. Voltaire tells a story about a man whose job it is to torture individuals. The man tells his wife who at first is appalled when she hears what he does.
The second time the woman begins to find it interesting and by the third she is used to it. This sort of behavior Voltaire believed brings, “Woe to a nation which, long civilized, is still led by atrocious ancient practices! ” (Perry 40). He felt this to be barbaric and ancient. Voltaire challenged this way of punishment during this time period by calling it uncivilized. He believed that great modern societies such as those of Europe in the 1800’s should not practice torture, let alone allow it to be normalized.
Like Voltaire, Lady Mary Montagu, whom Voltaire praised for her intelligence and willingness to learn from others, also challenged society and the way people at this time thought. Lady Montagu was born and raised in England and moved to Constantinople with her husband. She wrote letters from this different country about her status in society there as compared to her status back in England. She challenged popular beliefs and ideas. She wrote that in Turkish society women were free and had a voice rather than being treated as their husband’s property.
In addition, unlike the Old Regime where women had to dress in tight dresses all done up with makeup, she could dress more freely and comfortably. Moreover women were fully in charge of all servants and household duties. This letter from Lady Montagu closes with her saying, “the mankind do not differ so widely as our voyage writers would make us believe” (Perry 29). This challenged the ideas and the status quo of the time. People began thinking about a different way of life.
Just because everyone seemed to go along with the old practices and culture did not mean that it was right. Lady Montagu wanted to bring these new ideas and practices of more rights for women back to Europe. Jean-Jacques Rousseau unlike many of the enlightenment thinkers of the time disagreed with the progression of humans and society. In his book the Discourse on Inequality, Rousseau states, “men in a state of nature, having no moral relations or determinate obligations one with another, could not be either good or bad, virtuous or vicious” (Perry 35).
Rousseau is saying that there is no in between, individuals are either good or bad in their natural habitat. He goes on to say, “compassion is a natural feeling, which, by moderating the violence of love of self in each individual, contributes to the preservation of the whole species” (Perry 36). This means that in order to preserve humanity individuals must stop perpetuating the violence and selfishness which can be seen in the absolutist monarchs like King Louis XIV and the nobility who continued to oppress individuals and keep society from changing.
Rousseau like some other individuals saw the bad in society when under this oppression he felt that individuals where better off under no hierarchy with god at the top. This idea comes from the enlightenment views that the world is not perfect. Galileo Galilei challenged popular belief of his time by stating that the earth is not the center of the universe. In his letter to the Grand Duchess Chritina De’ Medici, Galileo is ultimately contradicting the Church and the political status quo of the time about the way the solar system works.
Galileo says, “The supreme Pontiff always has the absolute power of permitting or condemning them; However, no creature has the power of making them be true or false, contrary to what they happen to be by nature and de facto” (Perry 27). Here Galileo is encouraging people to think for themselves, which is a new Enlightenment idea, by challenging the church which at the time was a political as well as religious power. Instead of agreeing with the long held doctrine of the church, what Galileo said is that they were wrong and the earth is not the center of the universe.
This was a revolutionary idea, which threatened the power of the church. Galileo goes on to say, “So it seems more advisable to first become sure about the necessary and immutable truth of the matter, over which no one has control… This would imply a loss of freedom of decision…” (Perry 27). Galileo is ultimately saying that it does not matter what the church says, if it is wrong then it is wrong. If someone forces you to believe a falsehood, meaning the church, then it takes away your freedom as a human. The Enlightenment became a time in which people began to think for themselves and to challenge the old ideas.
The first great enlightenment thinkers didn’t realize how revolutionary their ideas really were. However what they ultimately inspired was one of the greatest political revolutions in European history. Philosophes like Voltaire, Lady Mary Montagu, Rousseau and Galileo were all a part of this inspiration and all challenged in some way the political status quo in pre-1789 Europe. These individuals were only some of the many people who during a time of uncertainty and no knowledge of freedom, thought for themselves and changed society for the better.