During the Renaissance, two movements gained traction in Europe. Both were a consequence of the reintroduction of the art and ideas from Ancient Greece and Rome after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Exposure to once-lost knowledge and the achievements of the pre-Christian ancients encouraged an intellectual awakening to a world beyond religious devotion.
First, Humanism took root: this was the point of view that human beings have intrinsic value and that our interests, experiences, and ideas were worthy of notice. Humanist artwork began depicting pre-Christian scenes and figures from ancient history or the works of Homer. The Italian Renaissance saw the emergence of portraiture for well-to-do commoners and the first celebrity artists, who signed their works and commanded hefty fees. Later works by Vermeer and Rembrandt elevated the common man and prosaic scenes of everyday life to subjects worthy of commemoration.
The Renaissance also gave rise to the Scientific Revolution. By rediscovering of the Hellenic and Islamic worlds, European thinkers began to look on nature as a realm that could be explored by human inquiry. The empiricism of thinkers like Descartes proved a more effective way of acquiring knowledge of the physical world than superstition and philosophy.
The pivotal invention of the Renaissance would turn out to be the printing press, which worked as an accelerant for the spread of ideas throughout Europe. Literacy soared, and with it, the rise of public opinion. As the sixteenth century wore on, people began to study and analyze the structure and hierarchy of society. In 1517, Martin Luther published his Ninety-five Theses and triggered the Protestant Reformation. While the Catholic Church excommunicated him, Luther escaped a heretic's death at the stake because the spread of his ideas via the printed page created safe havens for him in Northern Europe. The Reformation reached its violent conclusion with the end of the Thirty Years War in 1648, when the Peace of Westphalia established that the ruler of each state could choose the religion of his people.
With the religious questi0n somewhat settled, Europe saw a period of economic flourishing brought about by the creation of vast new seaborn trade networks. The rise of the mercantile system saw a tremendous flow of wealth into Europe and the transition of European economies away from agriculture and resource extraction and toward manufacturing and trade. The population of Europe begin to explode after 1700, just as the standard of living was rising. Europeans were in better health and had more money and more leisure time—a combination of factors that made them more ambitious and less satisfied with the status quo, thus setting the stage for the Enlightenment.
The Enlightenment was the culmination of movements that had been underway since the Renaissance: secularization, scientific inquiry, and the desire of people to be free to enjoy their lives. The Industrial Revolution initially grew out of the desire of common people to afford new manufactured or imported luxuries. It started with farmers tinkering with their systems of crop rotation to increase yields. Over time, first farming and then manufacturing began making use of new inventions that substituted wind power, then steam for muscle energy. Encouraged by increased profits, early capitalists began reorganizing the workplace, creating the factory system.
The same ideas that things could be done better, that new methods or tools could be found, and that human knowledge could be expanded had been driving scientific progress (which in turn fueled industrialization) for decades. During the Renaissance, however, Europe concerned itself with studying what the ancients already knew. During the Enlightenment, the pioneers of modern science began seeking out new discoveries. Franklin's studies of electricity gave rise to Davy's discovery of new elements by means of electrolysis. Priestly and Lavoisier discovered that neither water nor air were elements but mixtures of gases that they managed to refine. The Four Elements theory of Aristotle was dead, joining the Ptolemaic conception of an Earth-centered universe. Newton formulated laws that described the motion of bodies everywhere in the universe.
The eighteenth century became an era when reason gained supremacy. To the leaders of the Enlightenment, there seemed no limit to what the human mind could discover or accomplish. Not surprisingly, these same thinkers came to hold a dim view of the past, of medieval superstitions and feudal social systems. For many during the Enlightenment, God was transformed from an angry father figure into a divine engineer, a watchmaker who designed the universe, set it in motion, and was now content to sit back and watch.
That such intellectual ferment produced a series of revolutions should not, therefore, be surprising. Louis XIV famously quipped during the seventeenth century, "The state? That's me." For centuries, Europeans had been subjects living on the property of sovereigns and nobles, trusting in the clergy for their salvation. They were not patriotic in the traditional sense, nor were they encouraged to be. After the Thirty Years War, Europe discarded mercenary armies in favor of trained professional soldiers, who lived apart from the common people, loyal to the king, not the country. Wars were limited contests fought over scraps of land, begun and ended by princes—matters that needn't concern the common man.
The American colonists during the latter half of the eighteenth century didn't see themselves as subjects. They had been left to attend to their own affairs for too long to feel dependent on Parliament or the king. Moreover, the spirit of the Enlightenment gave rise to a new conception of self—the citizen. To the likes of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the nation was defined by and belonged to the people who lived there. Moreover, these citizens had rights simply by virtue of being human. These rights were inherent, or "were endowed by their creator," and—most importantly—were not granted by monarchs. The American Revolution added one vital principle to this formulation: that governments existed only to protect these rights and that people owed no allegiance to a government that violated them.
The French Revolution was both indirectly caused by and a spiritual successor to the American Revolution. Aiding the American rebellion bankrupted an already broke Bourbon Monarchy. Eventually, the need for money caused Louis XVI to convene the Estates General, a meeting of representatives from all three Estates: nobility, clergy, and commoners. For decades, the first two estates had steadily been discredited by the writings of Enlightenment Philosophes like Voltaire. Moreover, King Louis and his wife, Queen Marie Antoinette, had become subject to relentless mockery in the press. The French commoners, who were about ninety-seven percent of the population, had thus come to hold all traditional structures of power in contempt—a sure recipe for revolution.
The Third Estate first found its voice, then its power at the Estates General of 1789. After thwarting the king's attempt to dissolve the body, the Third Estate revolutionized French society, ending the privileges of the first two estates, abolishing all feudal dues, and reorganizing the map, then the calendar. The legal reforms of 1789 would give rise to much of the modern French state, just as the Constitutional Convention of 1787 remains the charter for the American social system. The problem is that France wasn't the colonies. French society had a large segment of destitute citizens living in Paris and the surrounding countryside. In 1792, the highly radicalized French peasantry took control of the Revolution, beginning a period of chaos and bloodshed that would last for the next two years.
The American and French Revolutions would set the stage for more revolts still to come. They birthed ideas of citizenship and nationalism, animating the people to fight for their rights and demand more of government. In time, nearly all of Europe's monarchies would be toppled or become powerless institutions.