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Influence of the Enlightenment on Democratic Thought

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  • 0:02 Democracy 101
  • 0:46 Democracy & the Enlightenment
  • 1:40 John Locke & Social…
  • 3:26 Enlightened Absolutism
  • 4:09 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, former middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will learn about the impact the Enlightenment has had upon democracy. We will see how the Enlightenment helped shape modern democratic thinking.

Democracy 101

We are fortunate to live in a democratic age. For those of us who live in the United States, we are fortunate to live in a democratic country. For thousands of years, various people groups lived under oppressive governments and had no voice in who ruled over them. Before we go any further, let's just make sure we define democracy. Democracy is a form of government in which citizens hold power and exercise that power through electing leaders - you know, 'a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.' In a democratic state, the people choose their leaders.

Democracy and the Enlightenment

You have probably learned that the Ancient Greeks were one of the first civilizations to implement democracy. This is certainly true, but modern democracy is also strongly rooted in Enlightenment thinking. Enlightenment thinking, what is that? Some kind of Eastern mysticism? Nope. The Enlightenment, as some of you may already know, was an intellectual movement emphasizing reason, individualism, skepticism, and science that took place between the late 17th to early 19th century. The Enlightenment had an enormous influence on democratic thinking. Enlightenment philosophers typically stressed individual liberties and often tended to be skeptical of authoritarian governments and institutions.

John Locke and Social Contract Theory

One of the most important Enlightenment figures to address issues of government and politics was John Locke. John Locke was an English philosopher who is often considered the 'Father of Classical Liberalism.' Okay, let me explain something here. Classical liberalism is totally different from the liberalism we think of today in terms of liberal vs. conservative. Classical liberalism is basically the concept that government should be limited so that it does not infringe upon individual freedoms.

So anyway, back to John Locke. John Locke was a super influential philosopher, especially concerning matters of politics and government. Locke formulated the view of tabula rasa, which, in a nutshell, asserts that at birth the human mind is a 'blank slate,' and is completely moldable. Locke was also instrumental in formulating the social contract theory. Social contract theory perceives the relationship between government and the governed as a sort of binding contract: the governed (which are the people) give up a small degree of their freedom in exchange for government protection and services.

Central to classical liberalism is the idea that if government breeches this 'social contract,' the people have the right to step in and install a new government. Sound familiar? Yep, the Declaration of Independence was greatly inspired by social contract theory. John Locke was hugely influential among America's 'Founding Fathers.'

Enlightened Absolutism

The Enlightenment helped spread democratic thinking throughout Europe. Of course, we know in Europe at this time most countries were ruled by a king or queen. This type of government is called a monarchy. An absolute monarchy is a government in which the king or queen has absolute power. Makes sense, right? Enlightenment thinking resulted in something that has commonly been called enlightened absolutism. Basically, this means that even though a king or queen technically had absolute power, they embraced the ideals of the Enlightenment and normally gave their subjects liberal rights.

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