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9-08-2015, 17:47

Natural rights and their limits in the Enlightenment

The concept of natural rights as defi ned by Locke and other political theorists was enormously important for the eighteenth-century thinkers of the Enlightenment. They prepared translations, commentaries, and popularizations of works of political theory, and rights joined reason as a topic for discussion in academies, salons, and coffeehouses. Denis Diderot, one of the editors of the massive compendium of knowledge known as the Encyclopédie , contributed to critiques of the slave trade, while the French mathematician and philosopher Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas Caritat, marquis de Condorcet (1743–94), called for broader political representation and the extension of human (though not political) rights to women, non-Europeans, and Jews. Their works were read, and ideas accepted, in European communities outside Europe. “All men are created equal,” wrote Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), in the fi rst words of the American Declaration of Independence, “endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Enlightenment thinkers also built on Locke’s ideas about the role of experience and the value of education. The Scottish philosopher and historian David Hume (1711–76) wrote essays and popular philosophical works he titled “Enquiries,” advocating the teaching of analytical skills and a wide array of subjects. Hume was a thoroughgoing empiricist, holding that all ideas are based on experience; ideas about things we have never experienced come simply from combining impressions in new ways. Because all we have are sense impressions, we can never really know the substance of anything, and our “deductions” about the world are really no more than beliefs, ultimately unverifi - able; nature provided models of probability, not absolute certainty. Hume did argue that we are all born with a capacity for sympathy toward others and common sense about the way the world operates and the way we should behave. These “natural” sentiments, combined with education, will allow us to build ethical political and social systems whether or not we can know anything for certain. Condorcet agreed with Hume about the value of education, though he was far less skeptical about people’s ability to achieve true knowledge and more confi dent about human progress. “The number of men destined to push back the frontiers of the sciences by their discoveries will grow in the same proportion as universal education increases,” he wrote in Sketch for the Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind (1794), which will in turn lead to “the general welfare of the human species,” and the “indefi nite perfectibility of mankind.” Science also provided a ready model for philosophical works. In The Spirit of the Laws (1748), which many historians see as the single most infl uential Enlightenment text, Charles de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu (1689–1755), sought to construct social science based on the methods of natural science – experiment, observation, deduction, and rational inquiry. “The material world has its laws,” he wrote, “the intelligences superior to man have their laws, the beasts their laws, and man his laws.” Montesquieu studied governments and societies throughout time and around the globe, trying to deduce general laws from these empirical observations. He asserted that there was no liberty and no assurance of rights without law, and decided that the best form of government was one in which the legislative, executive, and judicial powers of government were separated and held in balance. Montesquieu’s ideas shaped the writing of the United States constitution, and in 1811 Jefferson translated a French commentary on Montesquieu’s text. The Spirit of the Laws was thus infl uential on both sides of the Atlantic, serving as a foundation for later developments in the writing of history and the conceptualization of economics as well as the creation of political systems. While Montesquieu was primarily interested in human laws, others explored the relationship between God’s laws and those of nature. God had fi rst established physical and moral laws in creating the universe, but then, in the minds of many Enlightenment thinkers, he largely left it alone. This idea, called deism, starts with the ideas of Descartes and Newton, but accords God a much less active role than they did; God was the clockmaker, in a widely used analogy, and the clock he created was so perfect it never needed adjustment. The laws of nature would ultimately be discovered, argued many Enlightenment writers, because God, who had endowed humans with reason, would not have made a universe so complex that humans could not understand it. Hume went even further, arguing that our perceiving the world as large and complex does not prove it was made by an intelligent creator, for it could have come into existence by accident. God remained far more than a clockmaker in the writings of other Enlightenment thinkers. Moses Mendelssohn (1729–86), a philosopher, biblical scholar, literary critic, and Jewish community leader in Prussia, accepted Enlightenment ideas about the importance of reason, using these to develop a Jewish philosophy of religion. Though he observed traditional religious practices, he was also part of the Haskalah (a Hebrew word meaning Enlightenment), a cultural movement that advocated reforming and modernizing Jewish education and ways of life. Mendelssohn also advocated civil rights for Jews, and produced a new translation and commentary on the fi rst books of the Hebrew Bible.

SOURCE 28 The Encyclopédie

Written collections of information date back to ancient Greece and China, but the form of the modern encyclopedia, with an alphabetic arrangement, cross-references, many authors, and bibliographies, was set in the eighteenth century. Ephraim Chambers, an English mapmaker, published a two-volume Cyclopaedia, or the Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, in 1728. It sold very well, and a French publisher commissioned two close friends, the writer Denis Diderot (1713–84) and the mathematician Jean le Rond d’Alembert (1717–83), to begin work on a translation. This grew into the twenty-eightvolume Encyclopédie (Encyclopedia or Reasoned Dictionary of the Sciences, the Arts, and the Crafts), written by more than 150 contributors and published over the period 1751–72, with seven more volumes added later. In his article about the Encyclopédie itself, Diderot succinctly captures Enlightenment ideas about the power of knowledge and the responsibility of each generation to pass on what it knows: The purpose of an encyclopedia is to collect knowledge disseminated around the globe; to set forth its general system to the men with whom we live, and transmit it to all who will come after us, so that the work of preceding centuries will not become useless to the centuries to come, and so that our offspring, becoming better instructed, will at the same time become more virtuous and happy, and that we should not die without having rendered a service to the human race … We do not know how far a given man can go. We know even less how far the human race would go, what it would be capable of, if it were not halted in its progress … One consideration above all must not be lost sight of, and that is that if man or the thinking, observing being is banished from the face of the earth, this moving and sublime spectacle of nature is nothing but a sad and silent scene … It is the presence of man that gives interest to the existence of beings … I have said that only a philosophical century could attempt an encyclopedia; and I said this because this work everywhere requires more boldness of mind than is normally possessed in centuries of cowardly taste. One must examine and stir up everything, without exception and without cautiousness … We must trample underfoot all that old foolishness; overturn barriers not put there by reason; restore to the sciences and arts their precious liberty. (Denis Diderot, “Encyclopedia [Philosophy],” trans. Philip Stewart, from Encyclopedia of Diderot and d’Alembert Collaborative Translation Project, at www. hti.umich.edu/d/did. Reprinted in Dena Goodman and Kathleen Wellman, eds., The Enlightenment [Boston: Houghton Miffl in, 2004], pp. 14, 16, 19, 20.) Nature not only provided a model for human society, but shaped it, according to many Enlightenment thinkers. Refl ecting on his observations, Montesquieu decided that there are three basic types of government: despotisms, monarchies, and republics. The last, in which leaders are chosen by the people, was the best, but only possible for people who lived in cold or moderate climates, where people “have a certain vigor of body and mind, which renders them patient and intrepid, and qualifi es them for arduous enterprises.” Especially in places with moderate climate – of which France was the best example – there was “a genius for liberty that renders every part extremely diffi cult to be subdued and subjected to a foreign power, otherwise than by the laws and the advantage of commerce.” By contrast “the effeminacy of the people in hot climates has almost always rendered them slaves … Power in Asia ought, then, to be always despotic, for … there reigns in Asia a servile spirit, which they have never been able to shake off … Africa is in a climate like that of the south of Asia, and is in the same servitude.” 3 This servile spirit extends to domestic relations as well as political ones, for in hot climates women marry at a young age when “their reason never accompanies their beauty … [so that] these women ought then to be in a state of dependence.” In temperate climates, women marry later, so “they have more reason and knowledge at the time of marriage,” though never so much that they should dominate their husbands, for “it is contrary to reason and nature that women should reign in families.” Montesquieu sees dire consequences if Parisian norms for women’s behavior were introduced into the warmer climates of Asia or Africa: Let us only suppose that the levity of mind, the indiscretions, the tastes and caprices of our women, attended by their passions of a higher and a lower kind, with all their active fi re, and in that full liberty with which they appear amongst us, were conveyed into an eastern government, where would be the father of a family who could enjoy a moment’s repose? The men would be everywhere suspected, everywhere enemies; the state would be overturned, and the kingdom overfl owed with rivers of blood. 4 For Montesquieu, the possibility of liberty based on reason was thus infl uenced by climate and gender, an idea shared by many other eighteenth-century thinkers, including Adam Smith. Climate and gender were also related, as can be seen in Montesquieu’s reference to the “effeminacy” of people in hot climates. European travel literature and cultural comparisons based on this literature almost always discuss the scanty clothing of indigenous peoples, which was viewed as a sign of their uncontrolled sexuality. Hot climate – which we would probably view as the main infl uence on clothing choice – was itself regarded as leading to greater sexual drive and lower inhibitions. Indigenous peoples were often feminized, described or portrayed visually as weak and passive in contrast to the virile and masculine conquerors, or they were hypersexualized, regarded as animalistic and voracious (or sometimes both). Racial hierarchies became linked with those of sexual virtue, especially for women, with white women representing purity and non-white women lasciviousness. The world’s three zones – torrid, temperate, and frigid – were both climatic and sexual, with this schema linked to the advancement of civilization. “No people living between the tropics,” wrote Hume in Political Discourses (1752) “could ever yet attain to any art or civility.” Hume considered the differences between groups of people more fully in Of National Characters (1753), and decided that it was not climate alone that shaped these, but skin color: I am apt to suspect the negroes and in general all the other species of men (for there are four or fi ve different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences … Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction betwixt these breeds of men. 5 Such racist ideas were not especially new, as European Christians and Arabic Muslims had used African “barbarity” as justifi cation for the slave trade since the fourteenth century, but Hume rooted his ideas not in religion – whose authority he rejected – but in “nature.” He described his observations as based on empirical study, the same methods used by his contemporaries exploring the physical world, but they were not; Hume spent much time in Paris, but did not leave Europe. In the nineteenth century, however, scientifi c methods of measuring and experimentation were used to affi rm the racial differences Hume (and others) posited. Nature had not only created distinct and permanent differences between the races for many Enlightenment thinkers, but also between the sexes. Women and men who were part of the “Republic of Letters” argued about women’s intellectual capacities, moral virtues, and proper social role. Some, such as Voltaire’s close friend and patron Emilie du Châtelet (1706–40), who translated Newton’s Principia into French, held that women’s unequal and limited education was responsible for women’s lesser contributions in science and philosophy. Condorcet agreed, arguing that “among the progress of the human mind that is most important for human happiness, we must count the entire destruction of the prejudices that have established inequality between the sexes, fatal even to the sex it favors.” 6 Others were less sure, arguing that women’s lack of achievement was the result of a smaller capacity for reason, and that men and women were fundamentally different in their basic natures. Women might have moral superiority to balance their intellectual inferiority, but the proper sphere for demonstrating that morality was the private sphere of the family, not the public world of politics. Even Condorcet sees the primary benefit of treating men and women equally as the “greater happiness of families, and … the spread of the domestic virtues, the first foundation of all other virtues.” The most infl uential voice arguing for women’s and men’s radically different natures was the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who commented that “a perfect woman and a perfect man ought not to resemble each other in mind any more than in looks.” 8 Rousseau was born in Geneva, in French-speaking Switzerland, and came to Paris intent on making his intellectual mark. Success eluded him as a young man, and he grew suspicious of his philosophe friends and the salon hostesses who supported them. He also began to doubt Enlightenment belief in reason and progress, attacking rationality and culture for destroying human freedom and corrupting humanity. In his treatise Emile: Or, On Education (1762), Rousseau calls for education that removes children from the corrupting infl uences of cities, and places boys under a wise tutor who will understand them and guide their interests. Most of the book – which became one of the most widely read books on education throughout the world – discusses the education of Emile, the boy at its center, but the last chapter turns to the education of Sophie, the girl destined to be Emile’s wife. “Woman,” Rousseau declares, “is made specially to please man … and to be subjugated.” Her education was to focus on purity, virtue, and “the cares of her household,” though she should gain some knowledge, for “how [else] will she incline her children toward virtues she does not know?” Rousseau did not use his own children to test his ideas; he had fi ve, by the illiterate seamstress who lived with him and whom he eventually married, but he sent them to orphanages. For Rousseau – as for most early modern political thinkers – marriage was a contract between partners understood to be unequal. In The Social Contract (1762), written in the same year as Emile and one of the most infl uential works of political philosophy in western history, Rousseau also considered contracts more broadly. In contrast to Hobbes and in agreement with Locke, Rousseau saw early human society as basically good; in contrast to Locke, and in agreement with Hobbes, he saw it slowly degenerating as private property increased inequality and competition. At this point, the wealthy and powerful forced the weak to agree to laws and political structures that reinforced their dominance. The only way out of this was for individuals to join together in a social contract, in which they agreed to submit to what Rousseau terms the “general will of the people.” By this he means not a majority vote, but what the community of citizens would unanimously agree to if everyone had complete information, good sense, and public spirit. Objecting to this “general will” would mean someone was putting his or her “particular will” above the common good, so that “whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body.” Because it is the general will that assures freedom from the tyranny of one individual or from chaos, this means that people “will be forced to be free.” Rousseau was clearly not setting out a practical plan for political change, though his ideas were later used by both democratic revolutionaries and dictators, all of whom claimed to be representing the true “general will.” Rousseau’s relationship to the Enlightenment is similarly complicated: some historians see him as a key Enlightenment thinker and others a strong voice against the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment has been seen as both a liberating movement that resulted in the revolutions of the later eighteenth century, and an authoritarian movement that justifi ed racism and European imperial domination. Its legacy is clearly complex. Most Enlightenment thinkers did not advocate political revolution, but were more concerned on a practical level with achieving limited civil rights such as freedom of religion or freedom of expression. Other than a few radicals, Enlightenment thinkers in Europe did not advocate expanding these rights to non-Europeans, men who were poor and uneducated, or women. Nineteenth-, twentieth-, and twenty-fi rst-century movements advocating the expansion of rights to many different groups, however, have found Enlightenment concepts useful.

 

 

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