by ProfDave, ©2022

De revolutionibus orbium coelestium” (“On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres”) by Copernicus, first printed in 1543 (Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

(May 10, 2022) — What was early modern Europe like?  What were things like in 1648?  What were the physical consequences of the Renaissance and Reformation?  First, the relative unanimity of thought and belief had been shattered.  While people still feared and suspected people with different beliefs, the Prince/King now determined the religion of his territory and pretty much gave up the effort to coerce the consciences of his neighbors by force of arms.  The end of religious warfare brought new wealth and material concerns.  The printing industry had produced an explosion of knowledge and secular learning over the last two centuries.  There was a rediscovery of the ancient classical roots of Europe and of Christianity.  A new rationality, individuality and diversity were being popularized.

But life in the 17th century was still basically medieval.  The same cow produced power, milk, and meat in the countryside – and not very well.  Agriculture was limited by the lack of manure, power, tools, and crop rotation.  But new crops were on the way: clover, turnips, potatoes and corn (from America).  Most people lived in small towns and villages.  Poverty was the normal condition of the masses: about 75%.  They lived in one- or two-room huts made of local materials.  Everything they used was made locally – mostly in their own house.  Their diet was bread, cheese, and beer.  In good years the average family spent one-third of their income on bread and infant mortality was about 23% (half the children lived to maturity).  But there were bad years when war or climatic conditions interfered with the crops.  There were four years during the 17th century when bread prices tripled and two when they quadrupled.  People died like flies and infant mortality soared to 70%.  Diseases such as diphtheria, whooping cough, measles, influenza and smallpox often killed 10-15% of the local population.  Plague and famine were fading but still recurrent.

Within the walls of towns and cities, conditions were even worse: crowded and unhealthy.  There were no public sanitation or streetlights and very little police or fire protection.  Small shops employed about half the population.  These were regulated by guilds: semi-religious craft organizations that regulated entry, training, methods and materials, quality and prices.  Merchant and business success depended more upon securing privileges than upon initiative.

A commercial revolution now became apparent that had begun as early as the 12th century but had been interrupted and masked by war and plague.  Capitalists were borrowing money to invest and to make money.  The East India Company was established in London in 1600, the Dutch United East India Company in 1602.  Governments were borrowing money to buy power – and service their debts.  To fund these debts and investments, international banking houses such as the Fuggers of Germany and the Medici of Florence were being joined by state banks:  Amsterdam 1609, Sweden 1657, and England 1694.  New world markets and products, population growth, and inflation all came at once.  In the century 1550 to 1650 inflation was 500%, then it leveled off as bullion from Bolivia and new mines in Silesia were absorbed by exploding demand.  The silver, by the way, did not stop in Spain, but quickly went to investors in London and Amsterdam – then on to China for luxury goods.

Moving into the eighteenth century, a generation of relative peace saw a spectacular increase of ships and trade, money and credit, and stock speculation.  There were wild swings of boom and bust as princes tried to fund their debts by expedients and speculative schemes.  Through it all, however, a new class of upper bourgeoisie (officeholders, bankers, and lawyers) was becoming increasingly wealthy, important and self-conscious.

What was revolutionary about the Scientific Revolution?  Isaac Newton stood on the shoulders of a scientific endeavor that began in the Middle Ages.  The science of the last millennia had been based on Aristotle.  “The Philosopher,” as he was called, understood the material world on the basis of qualities rather than quantities.  Things behaved according to their nature and purpose and were understood by deduction.   Things behaved with purpose: “Nature abhors a vacuum” and “water seeks its level” are surviving truisms.  Medieval thought subsumed all science under theology.  There were four elements.  Earth and water seek the center of the earth, fire and air leap upward.  The universe was spherical.  Heavenly bodies were attached to spheres around the earth, perfect and unchangeable.  This made a lot of sense philosophically but was shattered by experimental method and the development of mathematics.  An exception was William of Occam, who separated reason and revelation, science and theology into separate realms.

In early modern times, no one earned a living at science.  It was primarily a hobby of clergymen, who expected the majesty and character of God to be revealed in his creation.

Nicolaus Copernicus (Wikimedia
, public domain)

Copernicus (1473-1543), a Polish priest who studied the heavens, issued his ­Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies in 1543, positing a heliocentric (sun-centered) universe.  He saw unity, simplicity, and beauty in the concept of the sun at the center of universe, like the Heavenly Father with “his children, the planets” circling around him.

Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), a Danish nobleman, built an astronomical laboratory to accurately measure the movements of heavenly bodies.  Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), his assistant and heir, used Brahe’s measurements and his own mathematics to demonstrate the truth of Copernicus’ theory and to discover three laws of planetary motion (1609-1619): 1. The planets move in elliptical (not spherical) orbits, 2. Their velocity varies with distance from the sun, 3. Their distance from the sun is proportional to their year (T2=D3) – all mathematically expressed.

Galileo (1564-1642) used the newly invented telescope (1609) to prove Copernicus’ system, not by authority, but by the observation of creation.  He fell afoul of the Roman church, not because he was a good martyr of science, but because he was unnecessarily offensive right in the middle of the counter-reformation.  His Dialogue on the Two Systems was published posthumously in 1632.

Two other figures contributed to the revolution of thought that was to come: Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and Rene Descartes (1596-1650).  Bacon’s Novum Organum, 1620, advanced an empirical scientific method.  Knowledge was to be induced from experience rather than deduced from authority.  It was a voyage of discovery.  Descartes, on the other hand, took a more rationalistic approach.  He used the method of honest but radical doubt to find that which cannot be doubted: “I think; therefore I am.”  He then built, by deductive logic, the certainty of God’s existence, the accuracy of sense data and everything else on this (what he thought to be) irrefutable foundation.  

What impact did Newton’s Principia have on Western thought?  Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1721) was the culmination of this movement.  He built on Bacon’s method and the discoveries from Copernicus to Galileo.  In particular, he developed calculus (about the same time as Pascal) to describe three laws of motion: inertia, acceleration, and action/reaction.  In his Principia, 1687, he displayed the universe as uniform and mathematically describable.  It was a vast and intricate machine governed by fixed laws available to human knowledge.  This view of the cosmos dominated science until Einstein.

How bright was the Enlightenment?  Who were the philosophes and why were they important?  What was their relationship to real science?  To the Church?  No, they were not – for the most part – real philosophers, but popularizers of science and social criticism.  The equivalent of our modern talk show hosts, these talented writers, critics, and socialites took it upon themselves to publish the new ways of thinking in French – the new language of culture.  They were particularly dazzled by Newton and had boundless faith in nature (including human nature) governed by mechanical laws and understood by reason.  All should be orderly and harmonious.  They attempted to apply general principles to particular facts, a critical spirit to the foundations of institutions, and to reveal and apply the scientific laws of human society.  In general, their principles were: 1. The universe is intelligible, governed by fixed and rational laws.  2.  All questions are subject to science.  New observation trumps old wisdom and the concrete supplants the abstract and the ideal.  3.  Mankind is perfectible through education, and ignorance is worse than sin.  They were profoundly optimistic, anticipating unbroken progress towards a secular millennium.  The Greeks and Romans were mere children compared to moderns.  For the first time in the West, the intellectual elites looked forward, not backward.  Education was salvation, freedom was the capacity to communicate and reason, and democracy was an end, but not yet a form of government. 

Their relationship to the church – particularly to the Jesuits – was not very positive.  Though some were themselves clergymen and others mystics, they tended to see the institutional Roman Catholic church as a bastion of the old regime and the old ways of thinking – an enemy of progress.  Few were publicly atheists (without religion, the servants might steal the silver), but deism was common.  God was a cosmic watchmaker who built the world-machine, ordained its laws, and stepped back to let it run.  Prayers and creeds were of questionable value.

Portrait of Voltaire by Jacques Augustin Catherine Pajou (1766-1828) (public domain)

We must not imagine the Enlightenment as a popular movement – at least not at first.  It grew out of salons and drawing rooms, often hosted by prominent women, inhabited by the rich and well born.  Among this leisure class, if you will, certain figures like Voltaire (1694-1778) attained rock-star status.  But their works were read by a widening circle of business and professional elites.  One of these was The Encyclopedia edited by Diderot (1713-74).  It contained articles on every conceivable subject from a “modern” point of view.

Particularly fruitful were the political ideas of the Enlightenment period.  The view of the Middle Ages had been that the state was the private property of the sovereign.  Bossuet, for example, held that the monarchy was sacred, paternal and absolute.  During the Renaissance, Machiavelli had taken a pragmatic and rather scientific approach.  The Prince must do whatever he has to do to advance his realm, looking to historical precedent rather than moral principle for guidance. The eighteenth century concentrated power and responsibility in the personal management of the king.  “L’etat c’est moi,” said Louis XIV (“I am the state”).  It was now public property, not private, and the monarch exercised responsibility and stewardship.  To God or to the people?  That was the question addressed in early modern times.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), writing in the time of the English revolution, developed the idea of a hypothetical “social contract.”  Life in the state of nature, he wrote in Leviathan, was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”  To bring order out of that primal chaos, mankind surrendered their power to a ruler, giving him the right to rule.  Thus, the monarch derived absolute power from the people (or God through the people).  The problem was that everything depended on the virtue and effectiveness of the ruler.  If he failed, that contract could be revoked!  The English executed Charles I.

John Locke (1623-1704) wrote his Second Treatise on Government in 1690 in justification of “the Glorious Revolution” in which the English Parliament invited the invasion of William of Orange (on behalf of his wife Mary II) to replace James II Stuart as king.  His power was explicitly derived from the people.  The “contract” involved mutual obligations.  When abrogated, the people had the right to depose the government.  The people possessed natural rights to life, liberty, and property.  This is the law of the world-machine and the God who made it.  Sound familiar?

Enlightened Despotism was a name given to regimes all across Europe.  Kings, Emperors and Princes of all sorts corresponded with the philosophes and toyed with enlightened reforms.  Their sincerity and effectiveness is debatable.  For example, Frederick II, the Great, of Prussia (1740-86), called himself “the first servant of the state,” but plunged Europe into war.

Portrait of Jean-Jacques Rousseau by Maurice Quentin de la Tour (Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) was a different kind of philosophe.  He pushed beyond reason to nature and intuition – and beyond constitutional monarchy to direct (or mass) democracy.  In his Origin of Inequality (1755) and Social Contract (1762) he (unlike Hobbes) idealized the state of nature: “the noble savage” free, equal and happy.  All contemporary society was oppression.  In the ideal state “the people” would be sovereign (not the monarch or parliament).  They would surrender their liberty (self-interest) to the “general will” (common good) and that would be true freedom.  They might have to be “forced to be free.”   In his novel, The New Heloise, he suggested a new kind of education in which the child should be allowed to grow up free and natural, self-directed.

In Rousseau, the French Revolution and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) came the end of the Enlightenment as a movement of rational scientific criticism of society.  From East Prussia, the Critique of Pure Reason (1781) did away with rationalism with reason.  This powerful work showed that space and time, cause and effect, and – by implication – all the rules of logic – are mere categories of the mind.  We cannot know, he argued, if the data of our senses or reason itself is real or self-generated.  Certainty was to be a thing of the past.

Works Consulted:      

            Ashley, Maurice.  Great Britain to 1688.  Ann Arbor, MI: University of

Michigan, 1961.

Barzun, Jacques.  Classic, Romantic and Modern.  New York: Doubleday,


Bronowski, J. and Mazlish, Bruce.  The Western Intellectual Tradition

New York: Harper & Row, 1962.

Friedrich, Carl J.  The Age of the Baroque; 1610-1660.  New York: Harper

& Row, 1962.

Ogg, David.  Europe of the Ancien Régime.  New York: Harper & Row, 1965.

Williams, Raymond.  Culture & Society.  New York: Harper & Row, 1966

Wolf, John B.  The Emergence of European Civilization. New York: Harper

& Row, 1962.

David W. Heughins (“ProfDave”) is Adjunct Professor of History at Nazarene Bible College.  He holds a BA from Eastern Nazarene College and a PhD in history from the University of Minnesota.  He is the author of Holiness in 12 Steps (2020).  He is a Vietnam veteran and is retired, living with his daughter and three grandchildren in Connecticut.

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