AGE OF REASON: Europe (17th.)

Europe 1614

17th century Europe was characterized by the questioning of traditional beliefs. In philosophy Descartes used doubt as a method. In religion the Protestant Reformation challenged the centuries long dominance of the Catholic Church. The new sciences questioned the geocentric model. Political conflict saw the rise of absolutism and the dawn of colonialism in trade.

Political power struggles ensued between the federation of small states called The Holy Roman Empire. These were territorial disputes, but they also involved religious elements due to the Reformation. The Habsburg dynasty and France were two bigger contenders.

Absolute rule by the king had caused a Civil War (1642-51) in the UK and, as winners Parliament abolished absolutism. In 1661 the French King Louis XIV declared that he was an Absolute Monarch by divine right, calling himself the Sun King. He took control of the government and centred it round himself, strengthening the army and the navy. In 1660, he married Maria Theresa, the daughter of Philip IV of Spain and in 1667 invaded Holland, claiming his Habsburg wife's inheritance. Louis moved the seat of government from Paris to Versailles in 1682. By isolating political leaders in his palace, the king strengthened his control over France.

The Reformation of the previous century had created religious divisions between Protestant and Catholic communities, fueled by Protestant challenges to the Pope's authority and disagreement over religious practice. The principle of Cuius regio, eius religio, meaning that the state ruler chose the state religion, engendered conflict within the states. The Edict of Restitution, issued by the Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand II, requiring the return of Catholic Church lands seized by the states, provoked religious tensions. The thirty years' war, involving the divided Holy Roman Empire states and neighbouring countries broke out in 1614 and lasted until 1648. It evolved from religious disputes into a political struggle between nation States to rule over Europe.

Commerce in 17th century Europe grew significantly due to the opening of new trade routes. The route to Asia was opened up by the Dutch East India Company and the British East India Company which exchanged spices, silk and tea for European products such as textiles, gold and silver, porcelain, glassware and firearms. This led to the rise of a rich merchant class which disputed the establishment.

The trade route to Africa went in search of gold, ivory and slaves. The transatlantic route to the Americas brought sugar, tobacco and silver to Europe. A highly profitable triangular trade route was established between Europe, Africa and the Americas, based on colonialism. Africans were bought and transported across the Atlantic as slaves to the Americas where they were sold to work on sugar, cotton and tobacco plantations. The profits were then reinvested to buy raw materials which were transported to Europe and manufactured, which encouraged industrialisation. The money was used to buy more slaves and complete the triangle. As European trade increased the banking and financial systems were formed.

In 1660 The Royal Society was founded in the UK to advance scientific investigation. Its motto was 'Nullius in verba’ (‘take nobody’s word for it’). This summarised their empirical philosophy of discovering new knowledge by direct experience, instead of relying on traditional wisdom. Copernico and Kepler had already established the heliocentric vision of the universe which was later followed up by Galilei. Newton developed the principles of modern physics and the law of motion. Yet, most universities in Europe, including Newton's alma mater, Cambridge, still had an aristotelian conception of nature which was based on a geocentric view of the universe.

In philosophy the 17th century continued to move away from faith-based reasoning and medieval model of scholasticism. Instead, philosophical systems, such as rationalism and empiricism, were followed. Philosophical liberalism also led to an interest in political philosophy. The fundamental change was epistemological: the debate about how we know. Some responded by involving God and others were based on human reasoning.

René Descartes redirected the interests of medieval philosophers, busy with theology, towards reflections that escaped from the ecclesiastical confines. He had begun to formulate a new concept of nature as an intricate, impersonal and inert machine.

In his work Metaphysical Meditations (1641), and Discours de la Métode (1637) written in Latin, he began to doubt everything as a method, including scientific conclusions, the existence of reality and his own body. (He argued that reality may be a dream - an idea shared by authors earlier in the century such as, Cervantes and Shakespeare.) Descartes thought the only thing he could trust was his own doubt. To doubt he thought that there must be something that doubts: himself. He concludes: 'I think therefore I exist.'

Descartes's goal in his Metaphysical Meditations argued for the existence of God. Once accepted, he concluded that the outside world must exist. He then studied the existence of the soul and concluded that the mind and body were separate entities but that they interacted in the pineal gland at the base of the brain. However, he was not convinced by this answer and spent the rest of his life searching for a better one. Descartes revolutionized medieval thought by questioning it. However, he does not seem to have found a way to escape from the religious content of that world or its language, Latin.

Blaise Pascal opposed Descartes's rationalism and British empiricism as insufficient to determine the important truths. He was attracted to Jansenism a branch of Protestantism that emphasized original sin, the depravity of humanity and the need for divine grace and predestination. He had a mystical religious vision in 1654 and his major work on religion Lettres Provinciales was published in the following years. He attacks Catholic casuistry, especially that of the Jesuits, who, according to him, justified moral laxity using complex reasoning. Louis XIV ordered the burning of the book and Pope Alexander VII condemned it.

His most influential theological writing was Pensées (1670), considered a masterpiece of the French language. He used the contradictory philosophies of Montaigne's skepticism and stoicism to confuse believers into embracng God. This was confirmation that Pascal relied on revelation and faith for his religious beliefs, rather than reason and intellect. This linked him to medieval rather than modern traditions of thought. His argument for belief in God, known as 'Pascal's Wager', is: if we believe in God and He exists, God will reward us after death, but if he does not exist we will not have lost anything. Pascal proposed this thesis as proof of rationality:

“Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.”

Thomas Hobbes saw politics as a secular discipline, separate from Aristotelian theology and metaphysics. He had a pessimistic view of humanity as self-centered and competitive, rather than benevolent.

His influences were rooted in the deterministic science of the time (Galileo, Newton, Boyle, Hooke ...) and the certainties of mathematics. He visited Galilei and came back convinced that the physical world could be systematized using the new science of dynamics, including the human body and mind and all of civil society.

His masterpiece Leviathan (1651) presented his model of the founding of legitimate states and governments based on theories of social contract. It was written during the Civil War in the UK (1642-1651), a struggle for power between Parliament and the King. As a monarchist Hobbes was concerned with demonstrating the need for a strong central authority and avoiding civil conflict. In Leviathan he developed ideas already expressed in his De Cive (1642).

He postulated that life without government would be like a state of nature that would lead to conflict and poverty. To avoid this state of war and insecurity, humans enter into a 'social contract' and establish a civil society. Everyone gives up their natural rights for their protection and abuses of power by authority are the price of peace (although in exceptional cases rebellion may occur). He rejected Lockes' separation of powers arguing that the King must control the civil, military, judicial and ecclesiastical powers.

His ethics was based on adapting to the situation: if there is no political authority, you have to manage yourself; if there is a political authority, your duty is to obey it. (This is exactly what Hobbes did when the monarchy lost the civil war - save himself by fleeing to Paris.)

John Locke presented the fundamental principles of his epistemology in An Essay on Human Understanding (1690). He argued for empiricism: all our ideas, simple and complex, are based on our experience and sensory stimuli. Our knowledge is, then, severely limited in scope and certainty. We cannot know the inner nature of things, only their behavior and the way it affects us. It is a modified skepticism.

However, it does not mean that everything is unreal. Locke already distinguished between 'primary' and 'secondary' qualities of reality. The primary qualities of an object, such as the solidity and occupation of space exist independently of the perceiver. The secondary ones, like the color, differ according to what you perceive. For example, if we jump in front of a red bus whose primary qualities are solid and take up space, it will cause injury and possibly death. The way the bus appears to us is a controlled hallucination; the bus itself is not.

Locke published his Two Treatises on Civil Government (1690) anonymously to avoid controversy. The first presented arguments against the divine right of kings (root cause of the civil war of the 1640s). The second treaty supported Hobbes' 'social contract' by underlining majority rule. Locke ruled out absolute power and supported the separation of powers.

Nicolas Malebranche initially followed Descartes's rationalism and opposed the British empirical school. However, as a priest, he wanted to synthesize Cartesian thought with Augustinian thought to demonstrate the active role of God in the world. Following Descartes, he believed that human knowledge came through immaterial ideas or mental representations. But, like Augustine of Hippo, he also argued that all ideas only existed in God. These ideas are independent of our finite minds and when we access them we understand objective truth.

Malebranche's great innovation in De la recherche de la vérité (1674-75) was his explanation of how universal divine ideas could also serve as immediate sensory objects in the individual human mind. It suggests that while the conception of ideas is pure and direct, their sensory perception will depend on each individual. (Is that why we can have different opinions about the same object?)

Malebranche's ideas had an influence on Berkeley's pure idealism because they made the last step toward denying the existence of material substance. Leibniz was also inspired by his correspondence with Malebranche to design the pre-established theory of harmony as an alternative to that of Malebranche himself. Hume agreed with Malebranche that there can be no causal relationship between different entities, but he tried to explain it by analyzing the human mind instead of looking to God.

Baruch Spinoza was a Dutch Jew. In Ethica Ordine Geometrico Demonstrata, (1677) he disagreed with Descartes stating that mind and body were two names for the same reality. In fact, all reality was a single substance and God and Nature were two names for this same reality of the universe.

He postulated a deterministic pantheism that left no room for free will or spontaneity. We are only free to know that we are determined. (There is a parallel with the predestination of Lutheranism.)

His Ethics demonstrates points in common with stoicism because both philosophies teach how to reach happiness. He disagreed with the stoic idea that reason could dominate emotion. He argued that only one emotion can be dominated by another emotion and that knowledge of passive (not understood) emotions could transform them to active (understandable by reason). (Freud would work with this same hypothesis 200 years later.)

In 1694 Mary Astell published A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, for the Advancement of their True and Greatest Interest by a Lover of Her Sex, Part I. Part II was published in 1697. The author was a convinced cartesian and founded all knowledge on reason, not the senses. Her proposal for the advancement of women in society was to encourage them to develop their rational capabilities and master their sentiments and passions.

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz contributed to the metaphysical debate in his Monadologie (1714), a dualistic idealism programmed by God. The material world would consist of appearances of the real world. (It is similar to the modern idea of ​​the energy composite universe.)

In an attempt to explain Descartes' problem of mind-body interaction, Leibnitz denies causation because everything is prefixed by a God or Almighty Being. (This has a parallel in Spinoza's determinism and Lutheran predestination.)

God is also used in his Principles of Nature and Grace founded on Reason to argue that there was an explanation for everything and an answer to all questions. When asked about God, he replied that His existence was necessary and logical. (Hume and others would argue this claim.)

In art and architecture the classical, restrained styles of the Renaissance developed into more the complicated Baroque style which was ornate and dramatic.

The Baroque style in architecture featured imposing buildings, elaborate ornaments and huge domes. The Catholic Church, together with the Absolute Monarchies, favoured Baroque architecture which aimed to impress. Some examples are: St Peter's Basilica in Rome, the Palace of Versailles in France, The Royal Palace of Madrid and St. Paul's Cathedral in London 

In Italian art Caravaggio created dramatic effect through the use of light and shadow. Bernini sculpted several Baroque works in Rome such as the fountain in the Piazza Navona and the Baldacchino in St. Peter's Basilica. In Spain the court painter Velázquez created the Las Meninas masterpiece. It is a complex composition using a mirror effect and a central area which draws the viewer's eye into the work of art. He also uses light coming from the left to cast shadows and contrasts the bright characters and the dark background:

The Dutch Republic was freed from Spanish rule in the 17th. century and enjoyed a burst of economic and cultural power. More trade led to the rise of a rich merchant class which opened the market for the Dutch Golden Age of painting, celebrating national identity.

The members of the new merchant class took to the fashion of commissioning portraits of themselves to hang in their homes and businesses. Group portraits were also in vogue. Unsurpringly the artists of the time turned to portrait painting.

During the Dutch Golden Age, portraiture rose in popularity. With the new trade routes delivering an awareness of exotic cultures and foreign interests, members of the new merchant class enjoyed commissioning imaginative likenesses of their selves to display in their homes, and companies and other professional organizations would also acquire group portraits.

Frans Hals (1582-1666) was the master portrait painter of the Golden Age. He adopted a lifelike style of portraiture depicting sitters in relaxed, informal poses instead of looking at the viewer. He replaced the traditional serious expressions of portraits with figures smiling or grinning. In contrast to the smooth brushwork finish of contemporaries he created a rough texture on his canvases which added vitality and movement.

The Laughing Cavalier by Frans Hals

Rembrandt van Rijn (1607-1669) produced psychological studies in his portraitures, which also included a depiction of Christian devotion. He painted landscapes and his portraits covered many types: historical, biblical and mythological. It was no longer fashionable to illustrate biblical scenes but Rembrant's Christian devotion led him to continue painting this genre.

The artist painted many self-portraits. They constitute a visual biography of the artist and are depicted in a sincere, direct style, with no frills:

He was reputed as a great etcher, which allowed his prints to circulate widely throughout Europe. 

Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) was influenced by Caravaggio in his early period, which centred on religion and mythology. In later works his influence was Rembrant, though he did not paint self-portraits. 

Most of his artwork depicts real people in domestic scenes, from a maid pouring milk in the kitchen to rich merchants in their big houses. However, there is no narrative in his paintings, which concentrate on the here and now.

The subjects in Vermeer's paintings are illuminated through a deft use of light and shadow. The idea that he used a camera obscura has been studied and may explain this use of light and shadow. In the 17th. century this instrument was a closed room in which the painter worked:

Use of the camera obscura intensified the shadows and light. Vermeer used this style particularly in his later paintings like The Lacemaker and Girl with the Red Hat where the play of light and shadow brings the subject to life.


The literary conflict in the 17th. century mirrored the cultural evolution created by philosophy: looking to the classics in the Renaissance tradition or aspiring to change through experiment. 

In the British Isles the Ancients/Moderns battle was called "The Battle of the Books" by the Irish clergyman Jonathan Swift. Along with Alexander Pope and John Arbuthnot, he sided with the Ancients, using satire as the genre of choice. William Wotton replied on the side of the Moderns. This was a literary tendency paralleling the work of the Royal Society which demanded simple, natural language suited to rational discourse. It was established in poetry and theatre by Dryden and in prose by Milton.

In France this struggle divided the Ancients who styled their work on the Greco-Romans the Moderns who embraced a native style.

Boileau thought that future great works depended on past tradition (The Ancients), as present writers stood on the shoulders of previous giants. He predicted that contemporaries such as Pierre Corneille, Jean Racine and Molière would be recognised as geniuses in the future.

The French Modernes had Perrault as representative who claimed works conceived to the glory of the Sun King Louis XVI must be as perfect as the Absolutist King was and better than anything previous. The Moderns in France were mostly followers of Descartes. Thus a new crop of writers was encouraged who were zealously Catholic and celebrated the Monarch. The Académie, literary salons and the devout party were on his side, as well as many writers now long forgotten. 

In Spain the conflict was between culteranismo, florid expression, Latinisation, influence by the classics and conceptismo which chose and epigrammatic style.

Culteranismo had its leading light in the complicated imagery and grammar of Louis de Gongora. His style was so extreme that the word gongorismo entered the language to signify literary affectation.

Conceptismo was adopted by Quevedo and Gracián. It was defined by the latter as:

"an act of the understanding that expresses the correspondence between objects".

It features a search for conciseness in expression, layering several meanings in few words. Quevedo used an ironic style and satirical wit, similar to that of Swift later.

More information:

Luis de Góngora (1561 – 1612)

Francisco de Quevedo (1580 -1645)

Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1679)

René Descartes (1596 – 1650)

Lorenzo Bernini (1598 -1680)

Diego Velázquez (1599 – 1660)

Pedro Calderón de la Barca (1600 – 1681)

Otto von Guericke (1602 - 1686)

Pierre Corneille (1606 – 1684)

John Milton (1608 – 1674)

Evangelist Torricelli (1608 – 1647)

Anne Bradstreet (1612 – 1672)

Jean-Baptiste Poquelin - Molière (1622 – 1673)

Blaise Pascal (1623 – 1662)

Christiaan Huygens (1629 – 1695)

Baruch Spinoza (1632 – 1677)

John Locke (1632 – 1704)

Anton van Leeuwenhoek (1632 – 1723)

Johann Joachim Becher (1635 -1682)

Jean Racine (1639 – 1699)

Isaac Newton (1643 – 1727)

Gottfried Leibniz (1646 – 1716)

Denis Papin (1647 – 1712)

Alessandro Scarlatti (1660 – 1725)

Stephen Gray (1666 – 1736)

Antonio Vivaldi (1678 - 1741)

Johann Sebastián Bach (1685 – 1750)

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