Scientific Rationalism and the Growth of Democratic Ideas

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  • 1:38 Natural Law & Natural Rights
  • 3:07 John Locke & Social…
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Instructor: Nate Sullivan

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

In this lesson, we will learn about scientific rationalism and the growth of democratic ideas. We will see how the rationalism of the Enlightenment helped give rise to modern concepts of democracy.

Rationalism in the Enlightenment

Is anyone familiar with the term 'rationalism?' It means pretty much what you'd expect it to mean. When we talk about a person being 'rational,' we mean that person is using reason. 'Think rationally,' basically means to think clearly, using reason or logic. So, rationalism is the view that regards human reason as the primary means of discovering knowledge and determining what is true or false. Rather than emotions, experience, or religious doctrine, a rationalist would rely on reason and logic to make sense of the world. Sometimes rationalism is called scientific rationalism, but it means basically the same thing.

Rationalism was a major theme of the Enlightenment. What was the Enlightenment, you may ask? The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement emphasizing reason, science, skepticism, and individualism that took place between the 17th-19th centuries. René Descartes and Baruch Spinoza were two well-known rationalists of the Enlightenment.

Enlightenment thinkers felt superstition was harmful to society and sought to improve society through reason and science. Many Enlightenment thinkers also tended to be skeptical of authoritarian government, and tended to favor democratic ideals. In fact, the Enlightenment helped popularize democracy. That is what we will be covering in this lesson: how the rationalism of the Enlightenment helped the growth of democratic ideas.

Natural Law and Natural Rights

Many Enlightenment thinkers held to a foundational view they referred to as natural law. Natural law is basically the view that the universe and everything in it operates according to principles that are discernible and found in nature. This is a little bit tricky, so let me explain. Don't think of nature here as the outdoors. We're not so much talking about 'Mother Nature,' as much as we are 'human nature.' For example, human beings eat food because it is 'natural' for them to do so. People fall in love because that is part of their 'nature.' People want to have liberty because that is their 'nature.'

With natural law comes the idea of natural rights, or rights that every human being is entitled to. In our time, we call these civil rights. You know, everyone has the right to be treated equally regardless of race, sex, class, etc. Yep, this concept goes all the way back to the Enlightenment and Enlightenment rationalism. The Enlightenment thinkers regarded natural law as stemming from either God himself or nature in general, or sometimes both. Whew, this is some heavy stuff! Basically, I just want you to remember that natural law regarded liberty and freedom as 'natural.'

John Locke and Social Contract Theory

One of the most influential Enlightenment thinkers was John Locke. John Locke was an English philosopher who is often considered the 'Father of Classical Liberalism.' Okay, before we go any further, let me explain something here. Classical liberalism is way different from the liberalism we think of today in terms of liberal vs. conservative. Classical liberalism is essentially the concept that government should be limited so that it does not infringe upon individual freedoms. Classical liberalism provides the foundation for modern democracy.

Now 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 basically 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 the 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.

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