The Thirty Years’ War

Another major change in Europe prior to the Enlightenment was an increased questioning of the justness of absolute monarchy. For centuries, the common citizens of Europe had little or no role in their governments. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however, developments occurred that caused the authority of European divine right—the idea that monarchs were infallible because their titles were granted by God—to weaken. Perhaps the most immediate catalyst of the Enlightenment in this regard was the Thirty Years’ War, which broke out in 1618 when Bohemian Protestants revolted against their incoming Catholic king. The ensuing battle between Protestants and Catholics spread into Germany, and over the course of the next thirty years, nearly a third of the German population was killed.

The First Enlightenment Thought

The atrocities that the German public endured over those three decades inspired leading European thinkers and writers to decry war as an institution. Czech reformer John Comenius (15921670) questioned the necessity of war, emphasizing the similarity of man by writing that “we are all citizens of one world, we are all of one blood.” Meanwhile, Dutch thinker Hugo Grotius (15831645) wrote that the right of an individual to live and exist peacefully transcends any responsibility to a government’s idea of national duty. Grotius’s desire for humane treatment in wartime was expressed in his On the Law of War and Peace (1625), which proposed such wartime policies as the declaration of war, the honoring of treaties, and humane treatment of war prisoners.

Comenius’s and Grotius’s antiwar sentiments were the first developments of the Enlightenment in the sense that they went against tradition and took a humanistic approach to the atrocities in the world. Grotius was perhaps most significant for defining the God-given duties of man and then showing how war infringed upon them, thus “proving” that war is wrong. Comenius, for his part, went so far as to question the idea of nationalism and the obligation one has to give one’s life for one’s country.

Individualism, Relativism, and Rationalism

Ultimately, from this slew of scientific, cultural, social, and political developments in Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries emerged three fundamental ideas that encompassed everything the Enlightenment would stand for. First among these was individualism, which emphasized the importance of the individual and his inborn rights. The second, relativism, was the concept that different cultures, beliefs, ideas, and value systems had equal merit. Finally, rationalism was the conviction that with the power of reason, humans could arrive at truth and improve the world.

These three ideas reveal the fundamental concepts that would pervade the Enlightenment—man’s ability to reason, to look past the traditions and conventions that had dominated Europe in the past, and to make decisions for himself. Moreover, these ideas represented the separation and autonomy of man’s intellect from God—a development that opened the door to new discoveries and ideas and threatened the most powerful of Europe’s long-standing institutions.

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