These thinkers can be regarded as the forerunners of modernism. They were responsible for many changes in European history. We will study in brief about prominent of them i.e. Locke, Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu.
An English philosopher (1632-1704), Locke is known mostly for his ideas of the right to life, liberty & property. He is also known as the father of liberalism and has inspired both the European Enlightenment and the Constitution of the USA.
The times of Locke are also regarded as the ‘dark age’. Marked by lack of scientific temper and powerful church (religion). The spirit of questioning was discouraged and even punished at times. The Church-owned around 1/3rd of the total land in Europe and could even impose taxes on land.
The Church gave legitimacy to the rule of kings by the idea of ‘divine right to rule’. The Church could pass laws or grant pardons to those convicted of crimes. The Church often issued ‘a letter of comfort/indulgence’ which could grant pardon, upon payment of certain fees.
Enlightenment / Renaissance / Reawakening brought back the spirit of questioning. There were numerous scientific developments that questioned the age-old assumptions.
Copernicus proposed a Heliocentric (sun at the centre of the universe) model which was in contrast with the geocentric (earth at the centre) model proposed by the Church. He was imprisoned and died eventually. Galileo further invented Telescope & proved that Copernicus was correct.
Newtonian Physics, the theory of gravitation, Koch’s germ theory of diseases etc. These findings questioned the traditional teaching of the Church. The hegemony of the Church was slowly falling apart.
Science and society are quite interlinked. Scientific developments affect society to a large extent. Locke’s theory of property is a background for the labour theory of value. He tried to answer important questions like why the State exists? What is the need of the state? etc.
Locke suggested that In the ‘state of nature’ (primeval life), people came together to create a state. The state was the result of voluntary association of people to protect their pre-existing natural rights through a social contract. Right to life, liberty & property are such natural rights and the state cannot violate them.
If the state fails to uphold this responsibility, it could be overthrown by people to establish a new political state.
We find the ideas of Locke in the American Declaration of Independence which says that it is the responsibility of the state to protect life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. Article 19 and 21 in the Indian Constitution also base themselves on similar ideas.
‘Without Rosseau, there would not have been a French revolution’Napoleon
Born in France and a resident of Switzerland Rousseau’s discourses on inequality, social contract etc. are the cornerstones of modern political and social thought. As Rousseau suggests, under the social contract, people constructed states to ensure their well-being. If the state fails to ensure well-being, then it can be overthrown. Both Rousseau & Locke questioned the divine right to rule professed by the Church.
(1694 – 1778) French
Voltaire introduced the thoughts of Newton and Locke to France. He believed above all in the efficacy of reason. He believed social progress could be achieved through reason and that no authority—religious or political or otherwise—should be immune to challenge by reason.
He speculated a nexus between the ruling class and the priestly class. And suggested for its destruction. Voltaire argued for the need to limit the vast powers of the Church in political and economic affairs. In his words, ‘The ills of Europe can be chiefly attributed to the ideas and teachings propagated by the Church.’
Thus he gave birth to European ideas of secularism i.e. separation of state from religion, freedom of religion, freedom of speech.
1689 – 1755
Montesquieu is the principal source of the theory of separation of powers, being implemented in many constitutions throughout the world. In his words, there is no greater tyranny than that which is perpetrated under the shield of the law and in the name of justice.
His works inspired the declaration of rights of man, citizen (1789) and the constitution of the USA. Montesquieu argued that the ills of Europe were due to a lack of separation of power and their concentration in the hand of one authority. Therefore separation of powers & checks and balances is required.
It was suggested that the separation of powers might result in a constitutional breakdown. However, it has become a basis of contemporary politics.