Political Theory from the 15th to the 18th Century Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Political Theory from the 15th to the 18th Century

Western European political philosophy underwent radical changes in the early modem period, which spanned the late Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment. In the 400 years from 1400 to 1800, the political notions fundamental to twentieth-century Westerners—individual rights, the nation-state, the social contract—took precedence over the faith in monarchy that had defined the political world of the Middle Ages. Changes in the concepts of political organization reflected and were reflected in changes taking place in many aspects of European life including religion, economics and production, science, and transportation.

The Europe of the late Middle Ages, in 1400, was still largely a continent of powerful monarchies whose peoples believed that the source of political power stemmed from divine right, ordained by God. Many of the nations we recognize today were not yet united, but loosely connected duchies and provinces. The Catholic church ruled Europe virtually unchallenged, shaping political and economic issues with its extensive power. The great age of imperialism was just arising, led into existence by the explorations and conquests made by a powerful Spanish government.

By 1800 a very different world had emerged. Catholicism lost vital battles in France, Germany, the Netherlands, and England, where Protestant sects redefined the individual's relationship to God, sometimes implicitly redefining the nature of hierarchy as well. When English Dissenters challenging the Anglican Church in the seventeenth century executed King Charles I, they irrevocably damaged the belief in divine kingship. The Industrial Revolution and imperialism matched pace with religious upheaval, causing farreaching shifts in economic and class structure. A merchant and civil class—the bourgeoisie—used its new economic muscle to challenge the traditional social and political dominance of the aristocracy; an embryonic industrial working class, with its all-too-apparent poverty and degradation, led to questions about the appropriateness of subordination and obedience. Medieval notions of hierarchy were further undermined by discoveries by such scientists as Galileo Galilei, Nicolaus Copernicus, and Johannes Kepler, whose ideas changed the worldview from a belief in a universe governed by God's will, to acknowledgment of a mechanical universe.

While different historians emphasize different strands in this dense fabric, each thread contributed in some way to a political world that looked quite novel after four hundred years of change. A revised image of the individual, and of the individual's relationship to power, took its most dramatic form at the end of the eighteenth century, when the American Revolution threw off England's monarchy altogether and when French citizens beheaded their king and created a parliamentary government. Many philosophers sought to explain the breadth and complexity of the forces at work, a few of whom have become representative of modern political philosophy, including Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, and Edmund Burke. Their works, all hugely influential, struggled with a remarkably consistent set of questions about human society and political power. What is political power?, they ask. What is its source? What is the individual? Is he naturally prone to cooperation and moral behavior or to isolation and violent self-preservation? How did the social contract come into being? What are its parameters?