Contemporary Western political thought owes a great deal to the Age of Reason, also known as the Enlightenment, which is considered to have begun in the late 17th Century and continued on into the early 19th Century. It marked a major transformation in political thought in Europe, as well influencing the sciences and arts. It was a movement grounded in rationalism, which was interpreted broadly, but which represented a serious rejection of political autocracy, science and arts influenced by religious and political considerations,
John Locke (1632-1704) was an influential political theorist whose writings, particularly The Second Treatise of Civil Government and Consequences of Lowering Interest, were noteworthy for their politically liberal and eminently rational approach to government and its role in society. As he wrote in The Second Treatise, “To understand political power right, and derive it from its original, we must consider, what state all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man.” Of particular interest for today’s debates on foreign policy and immigration, Locke wrote that “. . . if by the law of nature every man hath not a power to punish offences against it, as he soberly judges the case require, I see not how the magistrates of any community can punish an alien of another country.”
A cynical view was provided earlier by Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), who authored a major treatise widely read in universities today, The Leviathan, in which he suggested that “For such is the nature of man, that howsoever they may acknowledge many others to be more witty, or more eloquent, or more learned; Yet they will hardly believe there be many so wise as themselves: For they see their own wit at hand, and other men’s at a distance.” Hobbes was influential in establishing the “realist” school of thought that would centuries later find voice in Hans Morganthau’s (1904-1980) classic Politics Among Nations. Again, note the contrast with Locke’s view on the nature of man in the following quote by Hobbes: “For to accuse requires less eloquence, such is man’s nature, than to excuse; and condemnation, than absolution, more resembles justice.” Both men were early and highly influential figures who helped to usher in the Enlightenment, but represent different ends of the rationalist spectrum.
While the extent to which the Enlightenment influenced the Founding Fathers of the United States remains debated, it is known that central figures, particularly Thomas Jefferson, read widely from those figures and adopted political philosophies similar in intent. As Jefferson noted, “enlighten the people, generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like spirits at the dawn of day” and, of course, “an enlightened citizenry is indispensable for the proper functioning of a republic.”
The Enlightenment is felt every day in Western democracies. While unscientific or autocratic influences in politics, science and the arts remain a part of the day-to-day discourse in American councils, the rationalism grounded in the Enlightenment has largely prevailed, and remains a central tenet of American government and society today.