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Europe In Retrospect

by Raymond F. Betts

The Old Order

A general maxim was repeated in the palaces of Europe: state power depended on economic power. The wealth of the national treasury was a major determinant of the political role the state could play in European affairs. From this maxim developed the theory of mercantilism. Variously practiced and explained from Spain, to France, and on to England, the theory is best summarized in the seventeenth-century phrase "favorable balance of trade." The state should conduct its economic affairs so that it exports more than it imports, so that it is not dependent on the economy of other countries. Once such a favorable balance is achieved, the national treasury will overflow, the industries of the country will be very active, and skilled workmen will be available for those many technical services a state needs both in times of war and peace. Extended to world terms, mercantilism justified colonies: they would be a source of raw materials and a place in which to market finished products. If trade were "exclusive"-- bilateral between "mother country" and colony--then the colonial territory was an assured, regular market.

In government as well as in commerce, obviously, power was being defined as wealth, the accumulation of economic resources by which to live more comfortably and to command more authority. When the French king Francis I said in the sixteenth century that he wanted to find some "silver bullets," he was referring metaphorically to the silver mines of Peru which were controlled by his enemy, Spain. Such precious metal in the treasury and goods in the warehouse now counted as much in political calculations as did soldiers in the line. The science of "political economy," or early economics, was a seventeenth-century creation, and an indication of the close relationship now accepted between power and wealth.

The Enlightenment
In retrospect, the ferment and change that appeared to be most noticeable in the eighteenth century and that seemed to be of greatest concern to the then European elite were intellectual, a sort of revolution of the mind, with one universal model displacing another. The paternalistically structured world of the Christian Middle Ages, with God in judgment and the world in constant obedience to Him, persisted through the Renaissance and the Reformation. Even though the unity of the Christian church was shattered and the authority of the priesthood questioned or denied, there continued strong belief in a divinely ordered world, wondrous in its ways and therefore beyond the range of human understanding.

With the so-called Newtonian revolution of the late seventeenth century, the world order was reformed. The world was soon conceived as being a grand clockwork mechanism, with God the master clockmaker. The instrument of His creation operated in set and discernible ways. All physical motion, like the swing of the pendulum which regulated the clock, obeyed certain natural laws. And because these laws were natural--regular, universal, and consistent--they were subject to rational analysis. In brief, the soon widely held assumption was this: man could understand the universe because it was natural and he was rational. Moreover, he might be able to control, even reorder his environment, once he had knowledge of it.

The new scientific attitude of the time depended upon observation, analysis, classification, occasionally experimentation. In the eighteenth century the great Swedish botanist Carl von Linnaeus (1707-1778) began his ordering of the plant kingdom into genus and species. Captain Cook set out on three different expeditions to explore the natural life forms of the Pacific Ocean. Across the Atlantic, Benjamin Franklin engaged in well-known experiments with that curious phenomenon, electricity.

Translated into terms and issues of the social world, the new scientific attitude inspired the thought that human progress was possible. If, as was now asserted, society was a human, not a divine creation, it could be reordered so that mankind could more easily engage in "the pursuit of happiness."

The word "enlightenment" clearly described the new mood of eighteenth-century intellectuals. According to then contemporary philosophers, the shadows of meaningless tradition, the darkness of ignorance and superstition would be dispelled in the light of reason. A "party of humanity," as one historian has described the men of the Enlightenment, sought to know and appraise critically all aspects of earthly existence.

These men were the philosophes, the popularizers of the new thought, who sought to convince the educated public by means of the written word. Utilizing in particular the essay--the form of writing that attempts formal definition--they set about to define and reform the world in which they lived. Primarily under the editorship of Denis Diderot, the French philosophes worked on that monumental undertaking, the Encyclopaedie, a compendium of all knowledge, practical as well as abstract. Between 1751 and 1772, the work appeared in print, an effort greeted with universal praise.

Even though there were thinkers who were not so optimistic about the possibility of human control of earthly destiny, the men of the Enlightenment were generally in agreement that "men are born free" and have the "right to the pursuit of happiness." What these two catch phrases--which were actually used in French and American revolutionary declarations--meant was a rather new definition of the human condition, of human nature and social purpose.

Environment is the key word, although the eighteenth-century thinkers used the term "experience." Their general argument reads like this: born in ignorance but with the rational proclivity to overcome it, the human being and his mind resemble a clean blackboard, a tabula rasa, upon which experiences are inscribed by the senses. This idea was largely derived from the sensationalist psychology of the late seventeenth-century English thinker John Locke (1632-1704), who asserted that our senses, and particularly the sense of sight, are our source of knowledge about reality.

As for the social situation proposed by the philosophes, it had a decided utilitarian quality about it. Practical men as well as thinkers, the philosophes were, in the main, social reformers. Within their number, it was the Frenchman Claude-Adrien Helvetius (1715-1771) who most clearly developed the notion of utilitarianism--what would later be defined as "the greatest good for the greatest number." According to this thought, programs of reform should be directed toward the betterment of society as a whole; they should be "for the public good."

It is not hard to find in the ideas of the Enlightenment the basic propositions of modern liberal, even democratic, government, notably the ideas of personal freedom and public well-being. But the message of the Enlightenment was not social revolution; it was reform. As aristocrats and bourgeois, the philosophes were removed from the harsher conditions of life that the menu peuple, the "little people," endured. Some philosophes did have a pleasantly rustic view of the common man, but most were both socially and intellectually removed from the daily concerns of the vast majority of the population. In these circumstances, it is not surprising to find that the philosophes looked for reform from above, not below.

If they had philosopher-kings, they were the so-called "enlightened despots" of the eighteenth century. These monarchs, who still ruled absolutely with little check on their power, often expressed an interest in bureaucratic, institutional, and even social reform. Before the word gained popularity in the twentieth century, "efficiency" was what they were after: the better management of their lands, the increase in general wealth, the intensification of state control over regional and provincial governments. Furthermore, they sought to break down internal tariff barriers, to introduce new agricultural methods, and even to relieve the worst effects of a still persistent serfdom.

When Peter the Great (1672-1725), the Russian emperor, traveled to Holland to learn shipbuilding techniques and when he forced his noblemen to shave their beards so that they would more resemble their Western European counterparts, he was giving expression to later Enlightenment ideals--if in his own way. Furthermore, when Joseph II (1741-1790), emperor of Austria and one of the most famous enlightened despots, freed his serfs between 1781 and 1789, divided his empire into like-sized administrative units, and required that all his subjects affix house numbers to the outside of their residences, he was also giving full expression to Enlightenment ideals. No doubt the most well-known of the enlightened despots was Frederick the Great (1712-1786), king of Prussia, who turned his state into a very efficient military and bureaucratic machine, from which the modern caricature of the Prussian as a ramrod-erect executor of orders has been chiefly derived. Frederick once said, "I am the first servant of the state," a far cry from Louis XIV's "I am the state"--and a suggestion of the reforming spirit of the enlightened despots.

Grouping together the many changes of institution and attitude that were discernible in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the contemporary observer of that ancient scene sees the outline or the pattern of the modern world. True, most matters were in sketched form: suggested, vaguely defined, tentatively essayed. The Old Order still held, and to an individual on his way to London or Paris in the spring of 1788 that order seemed secure enough. Only with the revolutionary period of rapid political and industrial change would the alterations be vast and profound.

Still, the pattern of change was there. Economically, the bourgeoisie was assuming primacy, the generator and controller of the nation's wealth. Politically, the state was reforming, with the rudiments of modern bureaucracy in place and with the tendency toward centralization of authority already evident in a country as important as France. Culturally, a new climate of opinion was felt, with the principles of political liberty, of human progress, of social equality in the air. Spatially, the city was moving to the forefront as the attractive center of the "good life" and as the focal point of political activity. Finally, to speak of European affairs, say in 1776, one had to look abroad to the New World or eastward to India and Southeast Asia. The French Revolution would hurry these changes along, and the Industrial Revolution would add entirely new dimensions to them.

NEXT:  Chapter Two: The French Revolution

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