The Enlightenment, or The Age of Reason, from approximately 1650 to 1800 was an important period in the development of democracy. Prior to the Enlightenment, it was commonly believed that the nature of the world could be best understood by the study of scripture, meditation, and reflection in one's own mind. The Enlightenment established the idea that the natural world is best understood through close observation and reason. Several political philosophers from The Age of Reason examined human behavior in the context of nature and society. From their observations, they developed theories about human nature and the need for and purposes of government.
One well-known Enlightenment philosopher was an Englishman named Thomas Hobbes. In 1651 he wrote Leviathan, which described his belief that in nature, people would be in a constant state of conflict and insecurity, looking out only for themselves and their interests. His theory suggested that government is necessary to give people peace and security. The trade-off for these benefits would be surrendering some of their natural rights.
Another influential figure during the Enlightenment was British philosopher John Locke. During a self-imposed exile in Holland, a country that tolerated the free expression of religion and thought, he wrote Two Treatises of Government. Published in 1690, the Treatises rejected the claim that kings and queens had a "divine right" to rule. Locke believed instead that governments were created among naturally free people as social contracts and that rulers derived their authority from the consent of the governed. He argued that the government must act for the good of everyone and that people had the right to rebel if it failed to protect their "self-evident" natural rights of life, liberty, and property. This "right of rebellion" theory had a strong influence on American Patriots eager for independence from England.
Similar to Hobbes, Locke held that people have certain natural or "self-evident" rights, such as life, liberty, and property, which the government must respect. He understood that a government with great power might be tempted to abuse its power. To avoid this temptation, Locke proposed that government should be divided into different branches, each branch having only the power needed to fulfill its function.
More than 80 years after Locke published his views on human nature and government, Thomas Jefferson incorporated many of them into the Declaration of Independence. Locke's ideas about limited, democratic government, the right to rebel, and the opportunity to pursue natural rights clearly influenced Jefferson then and continue to influence government workings today.
In his 1743 work, Social Contract, French political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau echoed Locke's assertion that government should act for the good of all people. Like Hobbes, Rousseau believed that in nature, people would languish. They would be so focused on survival and protecting themselves and their things that their lives would never be fulfilling. He argued that living in a society provides people the security and freedom to develop new skills, which in turn strengthened the society and led to growth.
Rousseau also believed the people could retain their freedom within the workings of democracy and promoted the idea that people must participate in society if they want to share in its benefits. In other words, people have a social responsibility and civic duty to be involved in their governance. This idea of social responsibility is evident in the United States. At the local level, communities have citizens' police advisory boards and school boards, and at the international level are the Peace Corps and the Red Cross.
Other influential ideas from Rousseau's Social Contract include freedom of religion and the separation of church and state. These two concepts have undeniably affected democracy in the United States. Their weight is evident in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, which forbids both the establishment of a national religion and government interference in people's worship practices.
Hobbes's, Locke's, and Rousseau's political works were relevant not only during the Enlightenment period but also for today and years to come. Their observations and opinions will continue to feed debates about human nature and how people should be governed.
Copyright 2006 The Regents of the University of California and Monterey Institute for Technology and Education