page 1 of 3
The Enlightenment was not limited to innovations in philosophy, literature, mathematics, and science; in countries throughout Europe, it encompassed new thought and developments in a variety of other academic, artistic, and social fields. Most notable among these achievements were developments in economics, law, industrial technology, women’s rights, humanitarianism, and music.
A common complaint among intellectuals in eighteenth-century Europe was that politics was too closely tied to economics. For one, serfdom, which kept peasants bound to disadvantageous feudal contracts, was still prevalent, as was the use of tradition and class hierarchy for deciding occupations. Probably the most disadvantageous development was that of mercantilism, a much-touted economic system that encouraged governments to closely monitor their import-to-export ratio so as to maintain a favorable balance of trade. Under mercantilism, domineering governments exercised an extraordinary degree of control over their respective economies.
The impetus for change arrived when French economist François Quesnay (1694–1774) explained in his Tableau Économique (1758) that a natural order of trade, with limited government intervention, would be much more beneficial to both society and the individual. This idea was subsequently elaborated upon and popularized by Scottish economist Adam Smith (1723–1790) in his landmark Wealth of Nations (1776), which established the nature of economics in three laws: first, that people work more productively when they have self-interest; second, that competition leads to a balanced marketplace; and third, that true supply and demand are a product of free trade.
Smith’s advocacy of this laissez-faire (“hands-off”) economics, as it came to be called, was revolutionary at the time. Simply put, Smith insisted that it is when individuals are most unburdened by trade regulation that they will be most prosperous, because a free system will allow the “invisible hand” of the economy to operate. Smith’s ideas in Wealth of Nations had enormous influence on the Western world and established economics as a science. Numerous modern nations, most notably the United States, implemented Smith’s policies and benefited from considerable economic growth.
The state of European law in the eighteenth century was chaotic, as laws were not always written down and court rulings and sentences were often arbitrary and unfair. Aristocratic privilege and religious affiliation provided safeguards against prosecution, while speaking out against either of those institutions was a sure way to invite prosecution. During the Enlightenment, however, Italian scholar Cesare Beccaria (1738–1794) became a prominent voice in legal reform, questioning in the treatise On Crimes and Punishments (1764) how, in such an enlightened age, such atrocious legal unfairness and cruelty could go overlooked. Beccaria demanded that firm legal codes be established based on reason rather than arbitrary decisions and that trials should be open to the public to ensure fairness. In cases of guilt, punishments should be standardized and never involve torture. Beccaria’s work was highly influential, and he lived to see a number of European countries adopt his ideas. The French satirist Voltaire also contributed to the fight for legal reform, albeit using a caustic rather than scholarly voice to point out injustices.
The Industrial Revolution in the Western world in the late 1800s had its roots in Enlightenment-era Europe. Beginning in the mid-1700s, industrialization truly exploded in 1769 when Scottish inventor James Watt (1736–1819) substantially improved the steam engine, which enabled the development of a primitive factory system. Afterward, Europe saw the number of industry-related patents increase tenfold before 1800. The industrial boom had a number of positive effects: it attracted capitalist investors, who in turn precipitated more growth; it created jobs that provided more stability for families; and, as a result, it prompted population growth.
Take a Study Break!