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Extent of Changes in English Society Because of the Enlightenment

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Enlightenment in English Society

‘No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’ – Thomas Hobbes 1588- 1679

The Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, and the invention of the printing press all led to free-thinking, reasoning and questioning of authority, religion, science and our place and roles within humanity. This in turn led to the period of history known as the Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment or what some call the ‘Age of reason’ was a 17th and 18th-century European intellectual movement that transformed and challenged society’s ideas, traditions and preconceptions through transforming our understanding and knowledge of the universe and the world around us.

Knowledge itself is power- Sir Frances Bacon, Meditationes Sacrae (1597)

So to what extent did the Enlightenment change English society and culture? During the Enlightenment, England it seemed became the blueprint for how intellectual, political, scientific and social growth and ideas were done. The English Civil war can be seen by some as where ideas of The Enlightenment first began to emerge. On one side we had the royalists, aristocrats and gentry landowners who supported King Charles I and his right to rule independently without Parliament. On the other side we had the Parliamentarians who were mainly tradesmen and smaller landowners who disliked Charles religious and financial policies. The execution of Charles I and the defeat of his son caused Parliament a political problem as England was now a republic and how could a revolution be preserved when the majority of England’s population disliked it?

The Civil war, the restoration of the monarchy and the glorious revolution of 1688 led to many changes within Parliament and the monarchy. The signing of The English Bill of Rights which created a constitutional monarchy where Parliament's power is elevated and the King and queen act as heads of state but their powers are limited by law was created after the revolution. It is thought that the English Bill of rights was the inspiration for the 1789 U.S Bill of Rights.

So who were the great thinkers of the English enlightenment, whose ideas influenced and changed society, its traditions and ideals?

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)

Thomas Hobbes was a historian, scientist and political philosopher who advocated the idea of the absolutism of the sovereign. In 1640 due to the long Parliament and his views and championing of royal absolutism Hobbes escaped to France where as well as tutoring The Prince of Wales (later Charles II) in mathematics he became conversant with a group of philosophers that included Descartes. In his 1651 masterpiece Leviathan, he set out his doctrine of the foundation of states and legitimate governments. Leviathan was written during The English Civil war and is considered as one of the earliest examples of social contract theory and argues for a social contract and rule by absolute sovereign. Hobbes believed that the monarchy was the best government on the grounds of reasoned right and not divine right. Many were influenced by Hobbes philosophies such as Immanuel Kant and John Locke.

John Locke (1632-1704)

Although Hobbes and Locke’s ideals lay in the social contract theory, they differ in their opinion on the absolutism of the sovereign. Locke explains in his work The Second Treatise of Government that he believed that sovereignty resided within the people and he believed in a constitutional monarchy, he believed a contract could exist between the monarchy and its subjects in some form.

In his philosophies Locke advocates religious toleration even though in his Letter Concerning Toleration, he contradicts his assumptions of religion being a matter for the individual and that places of worship are voluntary organisations, by denying tolerance to the intolerant (namely Catholics who he did not like). It seems as though Locke contradicted himself a lot, his philosophy of natural rights states that individuals have the right to protect their life, health, liberty and possessions. If this was his philosophy why was he an investor (through the Royal African Company) of the English slave trade, and in the constitution he drafted for Shaftesbury why did he give a master complete power over his slaves?

Locke’s idea that the duty of the government is to protect the natural rights of its people in his work Second Treatise of Government were said to have greatly influenced Thomas Jefferson as he drafted the Declaration of Independence.

Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727)

Sir Isaac Newton came to be the figurehead that best represented Britain during the Enlightenment. His contributions and theories to the sciences and scientific method by showing how the world and universe works, have been used by many scientists and thinkers and are still used and taught today in schools all over the world. Other Philosophers saw Newton as the man that embodied the spirit, thoughts and ideas of the Enlightenment. Voltaire an ardent admirer was instrumental in popularising Newton’s theories in France. As Peter Gay wrote “the propagandists of the Enlightenment were French, but its patron saints and pioneers were British: Bacon, Newton, And Locke….”

Had God intended Women merely as a finer sort of Cattle, he would not have made them reasonable - Bathsua Makin, an essay to revive the ancient education of gentlewoman, 1673

We know a lot about the men whose ideas shaped and changed English society and culture during the Enlightenment but what about the women who contributed as well? Modern history is seen as starting around the 1500s and at that time women’s roles within society were different to what they are now, women during the Enlightenment were not seen as equal to men. Although there has always been strong women throughout history, it has not always been linear, without those women who pushed against society’s expectations of them would the modern world be what it is today? Wealthy women during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries used their homes as places of intellectual debate or employed tutors so as to pursue their academic interests. Others might have become patrons to those men who became renowned for their discoveries, ideas and philosophies. A lot of other women may have helped a husband, brother or another relative by helping to carry out research on their behalf thus being able to engage on a seemingly practical level while indulging in their own intellectual needs.

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Mary Sidney Herbert; Countess of Pembroke (1561-1621)

Mary Sidney Herbert also known as the Countess of Pembroke was the wife of Henry Herbert, Earl of Pembroke one of the richest men in England. Mary received an outstanding education for a women of her time and became a patron to many, turning her home into a literary and scientific centre that became known as the ‘Wilton Circle’. In her laboratory that she had a Wilton house she developed medicines and invisible ink, showing she was a woman of many intellectual talents. Mary became regarded as one of the most significant poets by authors of her time such as John Bodenham in his verse miscellany, Belvedere.

Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (1623-1673)

Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle was a philosopher, writer of biographies, fiction and poetry as well as a scientist, who when publishing her works did so under her own name and not anonymously like most women of her time did. Margaret was viewed as being eccentric and was unfortunately known as ‘mad Marge’ due in part no doubt to her behaviour (she was accused of using obscenities in her speech and of being very flirtatious) which would have been seen as unbecoming and unladylike for the time. A lot of her work was not well received, Samuel Pepys made fun of her and confided in his diary that she was ‘Possessed of a dress so antic and a deportment so ordinary that, I do not like her at all’ and some scholars have argued that her views were odd or even childish, while others have claimed that they were shaped by her gender-based status as a scientific outsider.

Elizabeth Tollet (1694-1754)

Elizabeth Tollet was a poet whose poems not only covered a wide range of topics from religion, through to philosophy, science, and women’s education but also have proven invaluable to reconstructing her life. Her poem Hypatia is seen as a feminist protest poem and the opening lines seem to reflect a view of women being oppressed and seen as nothing more than vapid servile homemakers until old age renders them useless.


What cruel laws depress the female kind,

To humble cares and servile tasks confined!

In gilded toys their florid bloom to spend,

And empty glories that in age must end;

Elizabeth was also, according to Patricia Fara, new Newtonian women who; ‘As a Woman who wrote about Newton and incorporated scientific imagery in her poetry, she provided an unusually early example of an eighteenth-century woman who were starting not only to learn about natural philosophy but also to affect its inclusion into polite culture’

At a time where women were not allowed entry into university, through her poetry Tollet was able to educate other women about the natural world even if she did publish her poetry anonymously to protect her reputation.

Although I have focused on women during the Enlightenment more than the men I do feel that events leading up to the seventeenth and eighteenth century had already started to provide the means for an intellectual and scientific movement. Social norms were starting to change, the church and the monarchy were no longer as powerful as in previous centuries, the Enlightenment thinking of understanding and improving the world saw fears of witchcraft decline with the last person to be sentenced to death for witchcraft in England in 1712.

More prominent members of English society already had a voice (mainly a male Aristocratic voice) and a platform from which to pursue their ideas. Lesser members of society were starting to become more open to exploring ideas through reading, writing, discussion and public debate. No longers were intellectual discussions and pursuits confined to the universities and houses of the wealthy, instead of coffee houses, societies and clubs and other public establishments that had sprung up, gave all members of English society a chance to be seen as each other’s equals. In England over 300,000 books were published between 1660 and 1800, reading became a source of liberation, writers no longer relied on the patronage of the wealthy. In 1771 the first newspaper, the Norwich post was printed followed by other newspapers and in 1744 the first magazine the Female Spectator was published, written by and for women.

Things that distinguished each social class from the other became less clear than before; ‘visitors found it unsettling that in coffee houses, parks theatres or pleasure gardens such as the famous Vauxhall and Ranelagh they could not judge the status by outward appearance, and so risked encountering social inferiors’. The changes that were happening must have left our European neighbors bewildered but in turn with the Enlightenment, England started to become a country whose ideas, ideals, government, religious tolerance and liberty in turn laid the foundation for the French revolution and for American independence.

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