Fire and Light: How the Enlightenment Transformed Our World

Fire and Light: How the Enlightenment Transformed Our World

by James MacGregor Burns


View All Available Formats & Editions
Usually ships within 6 days


"With this profound and magnificent book, drawing on his deep reservoir of thought and expertise in the humanities, James MacGregor Burns takes us into the fire's center. As a 21st-century philosopher, he brings to vivid life the incandescent personalities and ideas that embody the best in Western civilization and shows us how understanding them is essential for anyone who would seek to decipher the complex problems and potentialities of the world we will live in tomorrow." —Michael Beschloss, New York Times bestselling author of Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America, 1789-1989

"James MacGregor Burns is a national treasure, and Fire and Light is the elegiac capstone to a career devoted to understanding the seminal ideas that made America - for better and for worse - what it is." —Joseph J. Ellis, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winning author Revolutionary Summer

Pulitzer Prize-winning and bestselling historian James MacGregor Burns explores the most daring and transformational intellectual movement in history, the European and American Enlightenment

In this engaging, provocative history, James MacGregor Burns brilliantly illuminates the two-hundred-year conflagration of the Enlightenment, when audacious questions and astonishing ideas tore across Europe and the New World, transforming thought, overturning governments, and inspiring visionary political experiments. Fire and Light brings to vivid life the galaxy of revolutionary leaders of thought and action who, armed with a new sense of human possibility, driven by a hunger for change, created the modern world. Burns discovers the origins of a distinctive American Enlightenment in men like Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, and their early encounters with incendiary European ideas about liberty and equality. It was these thinker-activists who framed the United States as a grand and continuing experiment in Enlightenment principles.

Today the same questions Enlightenment thinkers grappled with have taken on new urgency around the world: in the turmoil of the Arab Spring, in the former Soviet Union, and China, as well as in the United States itself. What should a nation be? What should citizens expect from their government? Who should lead and how can leadership be made both effective and accountable? What is happiness, and what can the state contribute to it? Burns's exploration of the ideals and arguments that formed the bedrock of our modern world shines a new light on these ever-important questions.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250053923
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/25/2014
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 1,135,273
Product dimensions: 5.49(w) x 8.23(h) x 1.07(d)

About the Author

JAMES MacGREGOR BURNS is the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning author of Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox and Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom. He is the author of more than two dozen other books, including The Deadlock of Democracy and Leadership, which remains the seminal work in the field of leadership studies. He is the Woodrow Wilson Professor of Government Emeritus at Williams College and lives in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

Read an Excerpt




The Revolution in Ideas

A century after Martin Luther unleashed the Reformation in Wittenberg, strife between Catholics and Protestants was reaching a terrible climax. The Thirty Years’ War engulfed Europe in brutal and chaotic conflict. Mercenary armies of competing emperors and popes, princes, dukes, and archbishops roamed Europe, pillaging towns and villages and slaughtering civilians. They destroyed food stocks and spread plague. Some regions lost more than half of their population. And even as the frenzy of all-against-all conflict gripped the continent, bloody civil war mounted in England that would end in a king’s execution and rule by Protestant zealots. Many Europeans despaired that the Apocalypse was at hand.

It was in this world of violence and fear that the first, frail lamps of the Enlightenment were lit. The early philosophers witnessed the devastation, testimony to the desperate need for new thinking, for a revolution in ideas about humankind. The question was simple and stark: How could people be secure in their lives, empowered to make choices conducive to their peace and liberty and happiness?

But those early philosophers were scarcely secure in their own lives or free to publish their writings. Apart from the deadly hazards of war, they faced persecution for their ideas. It could come from Catholics or Protestants or, in Benedict de Spinoza’s case, his fellow Jews. It might appear as the wrath of kings or of generals or the fury of a mob intent on lynching. Exile, freely chosen or not, could swiftly become dangerous as political winds shifted and sympathetic rulers changed their minds. The Catholic Inquisition condemned heretics like Galileo Galilei, while the church’s Index Liborum Prohibitorum condemned their works. Censorship operated throughout Europe; any petty dukedom might have its own list of banned books. And it took a brave printer to publish an author whose writings had been denounced publicly as blasphemous and dangerous. The massed attacks of priests and preachers, of traditionalist academics and government officials, meant that some of the most challenging works of philosophers were suppressed or hidden and unpublished in their lifetimes. This left their ideas to the mercies of fate or to loyal, tenacious followers willing to risk their own liberties and lives to bring them to the public.

In its early years, for the Enlightenment to take root and thrive, its leadership and its ideas had to survive.


Few men of the Enlightenment were as disputatious as Britain’s Thomas Hobbes. He provoked controversies in matters ranging from God’s responsibility for the sins of man to fine points of Greek and Latin grammar to mathematics, including his attempt to square the circle. Like so many of the great intellectuals of the age, he was a polymath, putting his stamp on nearly all the cutting-edge issues, with an intellectual leadership characterized as much by the enemies he provoked as by the followers he won. Unlike other Enlightenment philosophers—and here was a prime source of controversy—Hobbes had a remarkably grim view of human nature, one that saw men plunged into a violent anarchy, redeemed only by their power to reason and thus create for themselves safety in civil society. Hobbes indirectly offered reason an exceptional tribute by suggesting it could rescue men from utterly desperate conditions.

Hobbes’s difficult early years fed his combativeness, as well as his bleak view of what men were and how they lived. Born in 1588, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, he was brought up in an impoverished home ruled by his father, a poorly educated, quarrelsome curate who was given more to bouts with alcohol than churchly duties. Excommunicated after slandering another clergyman and facing new charges for brawling in a churchyard, Thomas Hobbes Sr. fled into obscurity. Happily, young Hobbes had a prosperous uncle, a glover able to put his young nephew through Oxford. Hobbes entered the university at the tender age of fourteen.

Shy and sickly, he had to compete with classmates two or three years older, in classes usually taught in Latin. He was no grind, absorbed more by catching jackdaws at his window than by attending dull classes, but he was presentable enough on graduation to be sought out by members of the Cavendish clan, a wealthy and powerful family with grand estates at Chatsworth and Hardwick. Hobbes was hired to tutor William Cavendish, heir to the first earl of Devonshire and only two years his junior, and he remained closely tied to the family for the rest of his long life, eventually tutoring William’s son and heir, serving as an agent in their political intrigues and a propagandist for their causes, becoming virtually a member of the aristocratic family.

The Cavendishes were bulwarks of the monarchy and its Church of England, created after Henry VIII’s rejection of papal authority. For a long time, Hobbes echoed their devotion, but he was motivated not by doctrinal faith, or piety, or self-interest. In an age when the old foundations of authority were being dismantled, he proposed a new, even sterner justification of power: the preservation of order against man’s instinct for selfishness and violence.

Aristotle and two millennia of pagan and Christian followers had held that “the polis belongs to the class of things that exist by nature, and that man is by nature an animal intended to live in a polis.” But for Hobbes, men were not naturally social creatures. The human being was an animal driven selfishly by appetites, by passions, above all by “a perpetuall and restlesse desire of Power after power, that ceaseth onely in Death,” devoted to assuring “for ever, the way of his future desire.” Not naturally social creatures, men sought their own selfish ends at any cost. Their original state was lawless, a “War of every man against every man,” violent disorder, total insecurity, and fear. Far from “contented,” human lives in that state could be nothing but “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Hobbes’s terrifying portrait of the “state of nature” did not rely on the doctrine of original sin, nor was its alternative the city of God. He considered himself a scientist, and, like many of the Enlightenment’s most innovative thinkers, his “natural philosophy” aimed at a unified body of scientific thought, from fundamental principles of matter and motion to geometry, mechanics, physics, to moral and civil philosophy. Hobbes refused to acknowledge theology as a science and ridiculed churchmen who offered authoritative views about God, describing them as a “Confederacy of Deceivers” who endeavored to control men “by dark, and erroneous Doctrines, to extinguish in them the Light, both of Nature, and of the Gospell.” In his own doctrine, “the good,” the summit of ethics classical and Christian, was nothing more than “the common name for all things that are desired” and these were “relative to person, place, and time.”

But while Hobbes showed that men were powerfully inclined to pursue immediate goals, he also believed that they were capable of acting on long-term interests. In the Enlightenment, the highest quality of human beings was not their resemblance to God but their capacity to reason. For Hobbes, reason was what distinguished men from beasts; it gave humans the power to control and guide the passions. It also distinguished civil society from the chaos of the natural state. Men were motivated to join together in a social compact by fear and the desire for self-preservation. They reasoned that by sacrificing an anarchic freedom, they would gain the safety of laws.

Hobbes imagined that civil society was conventional, the product of an agreement among men to submit to government. But given his gloomy view of human nature, how could government achieve its main end, “the procuration of the safety of the people”? As he warned, “Covenants, without the Sword, are but Words, and of no strength to secure a man at all.” Obedience to the laws, if not given freely, must be coerced. Or as philosopher Alan Ryan summarized it: “The sovereign in effect says to us, ‘If you submit, I will not kill you.’”

Hobbes was no democrat. To allow men a voice in their own government was to invite conflict, factionalism, and perhaps a relapse to the anarchy of nature. For similar reasons, he objected to any group or allegiance that might stand between sovereign and citizen and dilute the latter’s submission to the former. He was suspicious of aristocracies and universities and guilds—even those of beggars—that might challenge the authority of the sovereign.

As for the church, it should be under the complete control of the sovereign power; otherwise it would establish “Supremacy against the Soveraignty, Canons against Lawes, and a Ghostly Authority against the Civill.” In Hobbes’s commonwealth, it was not private belief that counted but conformity in conduct, a willingness, as political scientist Patricia Springborg put it, “to profess what is commanded” by the sovereign as “commander of the faithful.” Conscience was free, a personal matter, but speech was public and subject to control. “The tongue of man,” Hobbes warned, “is a trumpet of warre, and sedition.”

So dire was the state of nature, he reckoned, that men would sacrifice everything except their lives to escape it. His was a profoundly pessimistic view of men, medieval in its gloom, lacking the faith in human progress that would drive and inspire other Enlightenment leaders. But the medieval church and its philosophers had at least offered the possibility of grace and ultimate salvation. For Hobbes, there was only the eternal struggle against the darkness and disorder that were the work not of the devil but of men themselves, written in their nature. Yet his justification of civil society and his account of its formation by the consent of the governed became cornerstones of Enlightenment thought, adopted by such diverse thinkers as Spinoza and Locke and Rousseau as well as American and French revolutionaries.

*   *   *

Through the Cavendishes, Hobbes had met Francis Bacon, whose proposal of a new empirical science to replace the arid abstractions of medieval scholasticism gave the Enlightenment its characteristic methods of inquiry and reason. Born in 1561, Bacon was well connected in the courts of Elizabeth I and James I and held an array of offices before reaching the pinnacle as lord chancellor in 1618, about the time Hobbes met him and, according to biographer John Aubrey, served as his secretary. Bacon was a lord, a courtier, a statesman, a polymath, yet he had the revolutionary idea that the search for truth began with the humble station of a fact. For millennia scientists and philosophers had trod in the path of Aristotle, beginning with their conclusion, the assertion of a “truth,” and then seeking proofs for it. “In the manner of spiders,” Bacon wrote, they spun “webs from their own entrails.” Science and philosophy had been left to the “blindness of traditions, the swirling bluster of arguments, or the turbulent waves of chance”—to everything but “experience marshalled and well-grounded” in fact. Fact was reason’s raw material, from which the scientist or philosopher could reach more and more general truths, ascending “the proper ladder by successive, uninterrupted or unbroken steps, from particulars to lower axioms, then to middle ones, each higher than the last.” Ultimately, they would arrive at what Bacon considered the grand prize, knowledge of the laws that govern the physical world. And knowledge was power: “the sovereignty of Man lieth hid in knowledge … which kings with their treasure cannot buy, nor with their force command.”

This powerful man did not disdain the gritty work of gathering facts. Indeed, according to a story Hobbes told Aubrey, Bacon died of it. Traveling in a coach through snow one day in March 1626, Bacon suddenly was struck by the question whether “flesh might not be preserved in snow, as in Salt.” Stopping the coach, he went to a poor woman’s house nearby and bought a hen. After the woman gutted it, Bacon stuffed the bird with snow. The outcome of the test is not known, nor has a connection between this experiment, the chill the snow gave him, and Bacon’s subsequent illness been proven. The fact, at least as attested by Hobbes, is that the father of the modern scientific method died two or three days later.

Following Bacon, Hobbes built his own general ideas up from observations and experience, including, doubtless, his own profound fears of violence, dissolution, and death. The battles of the Reformation continued to rage, and in Protestant England, they grew ever more intense, with the threat of aggression by Catholic Spain, the nearly successful attempt in 1605 by Catholic extremists to blow up the king and Parliament, and the rising tensions between Crown and Commons, a power struggle embittered by sectarianism. All this threatened to destabilize Hobbes’s world. In 1640, as Parliament undertook to examine “the prerogative of the king,” Hobbes felt “a disorder comming on” and feared that, owing to his own defense of monarchical power, anti-royalist enemies would persecute him. He found haven in France, where, for a decade, while England exploded into a civil war that climaxed with the beheading of Charles I in 1649, Hobbes enjoyed his most creative period, culminating with the publication of his masterwork, Leviathan, in 1651. A special vellum copy of the book was presented to the late king’s heir, Charles II, also in French exile.

But Hobbes was nothing if not a realist. Leviathan’s description of the religious establishment as a “Kingdome of Darknesse” that seduced men “by abuse of Scripture” made him enemies in Charles’s Anglican circles, as well as among the powerful French clergy, who reportedly sought his arrest. In 1652, Hobbes returned to England, where the old royalist soon enough made peace with Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan Commonwealth. And why not? Cromwell met the two critical conditions of a sovereign—he had the power to protect the people, as Charles over in France did not, and he had the consent of the people, which, even if gained through force and fear, was valid. Even monarchists owed the Commonwealth obedience.

The consistency of Hobbes’s stance failed, of course, to impress the royal court and its clerics after Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660. Though he had come safely back into the Cavendish fold, Hobbes was denounced from the pulpit as an atheist and denied membership in the Royal Society for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge, created by the king after the Restoration. The Royal Society would become one of Europe’s greatest vehicles of enlightenment, a place for leading scientists to discuss experimental results and new hypotheses. But so soon after the Civil War and Restoration, even members sympathetic to Hobbes were inclined to be cautious. They may have respected his ideas, but they feared his notoriety, while Aristotelians and religious conservatives rejected him on principle. Hobbes, naturally, gave as good as—or better than—he got, jeering at the Royal Society’s cult of laborious experimentation, the waste of “the expense of machines of difficult manufacture, just so you could get as far as Hobbes had already progressed.” Why, he asked arrogantly, continuing in the third person, “did you not use the principles he established?”

Hobbes continued to write, argue, and criticize well into his final years. He was ninety when a crisis erupted that was all too reminiscent of the prelude to the Civil War. In 1678, after Charles’s heir apparent, his brother James, announced his conversion to Catholicism, a “Popish Plot” was alleged—a scheme by the pope and the king of France to have Charles murdered and James raised to the throne. It was all nonsense, but James’s opponents demanded that he be excluded from the succession. William Cavendish, the vehemently anti-Catholic grandson of the William who was Hobbes’s first student, asked the old tutor whether, if a “Successour to a Crown, be for some reason or other which is notorious, incapable to protect the people,” the king was not obliged to eliminate him from the succession “upon the request of his subjects?” The prospect of uncertainty in the succession returned Hobbes to his deepest, most recurrent nightmare. In his last word on politics—echoing his warning in Leviathan three decades earlier—he told William that the king’s dying would mean a dissolution of the sovereign power, with the people becoming “a multitude of lawless men relapsed into a condition of war of every man against man.”

In the warm Cavendish embrace, Hobbes was safe from such a fate. A few months later, he was “suddainly striken with a dead Palsie,” a stroke, and within a week he was dead, at age ninety-one. It was, by the standards of his time, a peaceful death. There was “nothing remarkable or extraordinary” in his passing, wrote a Cavendish secretary, disappointing those who were sure that God would exercise his wrath against the freethinker on his deathbed.


Bene vixit, bene qui latuit—to live well is to live concealed—was the motto René Descartes adopted for himself. Though he would become a master of enlightenment, even literally, as a tireless student of optics, much of his life remained in shadows. He dissembled to friend and foe alike—conduct he raised to a philosophical issue, contending that it was a “good thing to demonstrate the freedom of the will” by evading “a clearly perceived truth.” He insisted on his Catholic orthodoxy even as his writings undermined the church’s authority. Not even his closest friends knew until much later that Descartes, who never married, had a daughter by a serving maid, and that the girl’s death at the age of five caused him “the greatest sorrow” of his life.

After her death, Descartes packed up his belongings and moved on, as he would so often. His astonishing itinerancy gave the impression of a man on the run—he moved at least thirty-five times before his death in 1650 at the age of fifty-four, through a great arc of his native France, Holland, Germany, Italy, and finally Scandinavia. Sometimes, he gave out his new address to no one, as though he meant to disappear.

In his origins, Descartes seemed eminently respectable. His father was a physician and councillor in the parlement of Brittany, while on his mother’s side was a host of merchants and officials. But that first household broke up a year after his birth with his mother’s death. Farmed out to a grandmother, he would see his father only rarely. At ten, he was sent to board at the Jesuit college in La Flèche, whose curriculum was decidedly old school—mainly Greek and Latin classics Christianized. Year after year the boys studied Catholicism’s favorite pagan, Aristotle, whose philosophy was used to demonstrate such things as the existence of God and the soul’s immortality, as well as serving as the ground for Christian moral philosophy.

The Counter-Reformation, the Catholic Church’s ferocious response to the Protestant revolution, was in full swing. Orthodoxy and obedience to authority were the orders of the day, not only by external show but in the recesses of the soul. Students were not allowed to forget their original sinfulness, which could be overcome by a disciplined self-reformation, the self-control needed to bring themselves in total accord with the doctrines of the faith. The aim was to create a militant caste of Catholic theological warriors.

But Descartes left La Flèche at age eighteen and drifted, suffering from the melancholia that would afflict him the rest of his life. After two years of legal studies at Poitiers, he enlisted in an actual army—the Protestant Dutch army, allied with France against Spain. He later described the travel and experiences of these years as liberating him from the confines of his Jesuit education, from the “many errors which may obscure our natural light and make us less capable of heeding reason.” Still, the idleness of army life among uneducated soldiers frustrated him.

What shook Descartes from his aimlessness was a chance meeting in late 1618 with a Dutch mathematician, Isaac Beeckman. Descartes had displayed a gift for mathematics at La Flèche, but Beeckman reignited his interest in the subject, opening his eyes to the possibility that arithmetic and geometry could become the basis for a mechanics that might reach all phenomena, from optics to falling bodies to the sounds of music. After working for several months on mathematical and mechanical problems under the older man’s guidance, Descartes resumed his waywardness, traveling through war-torn Europe to join a Catholic army in Bavaria. But in the search for a mathesis universalis, Descartes had glimpsed his true vocation.

*   *   *

One night in the winter of 1619, Descartes dreamt three dreams that motivated his enlightenment. The first was a nightmare of phantoms and howling winds, the second a thunderclap that woke him. The third featured an encyclopedia, a book of poetry where he found the question, Quod vitae sectabor iter?—What path in life shall I follow?—and verses a stranger gave him that began, est et non: it is and is not. The first two dreams Descartes interpreted as a rebuke for his past life, while the third pointed forward—the encyclopedia suggested universal knowledge; est et non the black-white opposition of truth and error.

The last dream confirmed the path Descartes had already begun to follow—broadening the mechanical studies he had undertaken with Beeckman to the pursuit of a unified knowledge that encompassed all the sciences and offered the same certainty as mathematics. The quest for incontrovertible truths would become an obsession, a search for “clear and distinct” ideas that would act as building blocks for greater, more complex truths. The way to such ideas was inward, through intuition, which in turn fed the constructive work of reason. The first criterion and test of truth, Descartes emphasized, was the individual mind.

Despite this breakthrough, the following years found Descartes again wandering obscurely through Europe, as though he had lost the thread of his thought. It was only in 1625, when he settled in Paris, that he began to consolidate the insights of 1619, publishing Rules for the Direction of the Mind in 1629. For the first time, he was living among peers in a city that, despite censorship, was a hotbed of ideas, especially among the caste known as “libertines”—skeptics and freethinkers out to shatter the intellectual chains of the past. They were the first generation of the Enlightenment in France.

Though he profited from collaboration with Parisian thinkers, Descartes left the city abruptly in the winter of 1628 for the Netherlands, where, he said, he could work without distraction. That work was staggering in its ambition, a complete body of philosophy to be called Le Monde—and that was only the first part, which ranged from algebra to cosmology to the nature of fire and light; in fact, the work’s subtitle was to be Traité de la Lumière. Another work, L’Homme, was to extend the study to the human body and mind. What united these disparate phenomena was Descartes’ dismissal of the multitude of Aristotelian principles used to explain nature—the active “forms” and inert “prime matter,” the four elements of earth, air, fire, water, the four qualities of dry, cold, hot, moist. His mechanistic account was more economical, recognizing only a single essence shared by all phenomena—extension, the property of occupying space, which included size, shape, and motion. The physical world was made up of particles in motion, change explicable in terms of the laws of motion. Applied to the human body, as Descartes did in L’Homme, his theory explained how the functions of “this machine” followed “entirely from the disposition of the organs—no more nor less than do the movements of a clock or other automaton, from the arrangement of its counterweights and wheels.” He demonstrated how the machine could “sneeze, yawn, cough, and make the movements necessary to reject the various excrements.”

The human body as a kind of self-regulating hydraulic contraption—was there nothing more to be said for man? The machine-model encompassed not only heartbeats and digestion but also the senses, imagination, memory, and “common sense.” Everything that remained and that was not mechanical belonged to the “rational soul,” with which Descartes promised to conclude Le Monde. But before he could do so, a mighty event shook him to the core.

*   *   *

The Inquisition in Rome had fired a blast at mathematician and astronomer Galileo Galilei in 1616, forbidding him to teach or defend heliocentrism, the Copernican theory that Earth revolved around the sun. Invoking its authority “to control petulant minds,” the church relied on a scrap of scripture and the views of a second-century Egyptian astronomer to insist that Earth stood where God had put it, at the universe’s still center, around which all other celestial bodies turned. In 1633, the Inquisition struck again, now condemning Galileo for violating the earlier edict, forcing him to recant and making clear that heliocentrism could not be discussed even as a hypothesis.

Though Galileo did not share the fate of another heretical cosmological speculator, Giordano Bruno, whom the Inquisition burned at the stake in 1600, Descartes was appalled and frightened by the condemnation. His own cosmology in Le Monde was Copernican and “so closely interwoven in every part of my treatise that I could not remove it without rendering the whole work defective.” Yet he was unwilling, “for anything in the world,” to maintain these ideas against the Inquisition, which left him little choice but to suppress his masterpiece and “forfeit almost all my work of the last four years in order to give my obedience to the Church.”

The man who had jotted the motto in an early notebook, “The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom,” had written little of theology. Where scholasticism mingled or blurred the natural and supernatural, Descartes had drawn a bright line between them. God in his mechanistic philosophy was transcendent, independent of the world, and therefore beyond human understanding. Even so, Descartes had claimed in 1630 to have proof of God’s existence as certain as “any proposition of geometry; but I do not know whether I would be able to make everyone understand it the way I can,” and therefore he thought it wiser “not to treat of this matter at all than to treat of it imperfectly.” Galileo’s trial, though, clarified the stakes of “imperfect” philosophy; Descartes knew that he had to get it right.

It was paradoxical that one of the most radical thinkers in Western philosophy, who was doing so much to prove that every part of the world could be subject to human reason, should be so determined to embed an abstract, unknowable God fully into his physics. It was no less paradoxical and startling that he should begin a new search for truth not with a profession of faith but by rejecting “as if absolutely false everything in which I could imagine the least doubt”—the evidence of the senses, the proofs of reason, even God—“in order to see if I was left believing anything that was entirely indubitable.” He noticed “immediately” that he himself, the one with this thought that all was false, necessarily was something.

Cogito ergo sum—I think, therefore I am—no skepticism could shake the certainty of his own existence.

Descartes’ faith in subjective intuition as the foundation of knowledge had been evident since his dreams of 1619. But the stark rejection of any authority except the mind, with all certainty built up from the new cogito, was revolutionary. Just as Copernicus had replaced Earth with the sun at the center of the cosmos, so with the cogito, as the authority of God yielded to the thought of man, an idea that would become a first principle of the Enlightenment.

But did Descartes believe it? He immediately followed his discovery of the cogito with a proof of God’s existence. His mind was able to imagine a being more perfect than himself, Descartes wrote, only because the idea had been implanted by a more perfect being: “that is—to explain myself in one word—by God.”

Certainty about God was second only to certainty about self. But the circularity of his logic, with its dubious premise, pointed to Descartes’ difficulties in finding a meaningful role for God. Earlier, he had described reason as constituted by the “clear and distinct” ideas that were basic to knowledge. Now, reason was an inborn power given to men by God. Before, clear and distinct ideas took their truth-value from self-conviction, from intuition. Now, they became entangled in Descartes’ struggle to drag God back from the edge of irrelevance. As biographer Stephen Gaukroger noted, “Descartes must use the doctrine of clear and distinct ideas to prove the existence of God, and then use God to provide a divine guarantee for these clear and distinct ideas.”

Descartes’ God remained ultimately unknowable to human beings, with their finite “rational souls,” faint reflections of the “uncreated and independent thinking substance” that was God. But he increasingly pushed divine authority to the fore, as the ultimate guarantor of both individual minds and the whole of creation. Even as he proved the power of radical doubt, he tried to lay new foundations for the doctrines of faith. Even as he pioneered a new route to human self-determination via the cogito, he fell back into medieval terms to defend God against his own revolutionary insights. He had taken scholasticism to task for its faulty reasoning and reliance on empty “qualities” and “essences.” Didn’t his own version of God fit this bill? His straining efforts to salvage divine authority had the paradoxical effect of shoving God deeper into the shadows of a world penetrated by the light of reason.

*   *   *

Despite—or because of—his claims to orthodoxy, Descartes’ radical metaphysics made him the most controversial philosopher at a time when the devastating Thirty Years’ War was elevating sectarian bitterness to new heights. Protestants saw him as a new-style Catholic apologist, while Catholics condemned him as a heretic, undermining the church’s traditional teachings and authority. He faced the fury of that “troop of theologians, followers of scholastic philosophy,” he wrote in 1647, who “seem to have formed a league in an attempt to crush me by their slanders.” At the same time, Descartes was gaining passionate followers drawn by his stance as what historian of the Enlightenment Peter Gay called, “the bold, persistent, skeptic who liberates himself” from traditional philosophy “to stand forth as a model to his fellow men.” Yet as schools of Cartesians formed, first in the Netherlands and France, they divided over interpretations of the master’s philosophy. At times they pressed their new and controversial faith so fervently as to draw the attention of church or public authorities. Descartes found himself dragged into quarrels incited or exacerbated by his followers. The fire grew so hot on the continent that, even as Thomas Hobbes was fleeing England for France, Descartes thought of moving across the Channel, where he imagined that he would be well received by the Catholic-leaning Charles I.

Not only conservatives inveighed against Descartes. Even disciples were puzzled by and divided over, for instance, Descartes’ dualism—what became notorious as the “mind-body problem”—with doctrinal hairs split as finely as in any of the theological controversies that wracked Christianity. How could the insubstantial mind or soul be joined with the purely material body in what Descartes called “true substantial union”? There were perhaps as many answers to that question as there were Cartesians and anti-Cartesians. But none was simpler than Thomas Hobbes’s: abolish dualism. “A thinking thing is something corporeal,” Hobbes wrote flatly in response to Descartes’ Meditations in 1641; understanding of the proposition “I am thinking” depended “on our inability to separate thought from the matter that is thinking.”

To Descartes, this was absurd—how could inert matter think? As for his proof of God’s existence through man’s imagination of a more perfect being, Hobbes was no less dismissive: “We do not have an idea of God,” therefore the whole of Descartes’ argument collapses. Descartes replied: “We do have an idea of God,” therefore the whole of Hobbes’s objection collapses. Perhaps unsurprisingly, at a time when intellectual disputes could escalate to mortal combat, a real enmity arose between the two radicals. They were jealous men, prickly over the priority of their ideas. To Hobbes, Descartes’ great failing was that he was not a Hobbesian. He ought to have stuck to geometry, Hobbes said—“his head did not lye for Philosophy.” Descartes feared both being overshadowed by Hobbes and seeing his own carefully calibrated materialism tainted by association with Hobbes’s infamous ideas. They quarreled when they met in 1648 and never saw each other again.

At least the conflict between Hobbes and Descartes pointed forward to struggles that would clarify the meaning and direction of the Enlightenment, as would the conflict after Descartes’ death between Cartesians who defended his method of intuition and rationalism as the path to truth and the champions of Newtonian empiricism. But Descartes’ decision to apply his philosophy to transubstantiation, the Catholic belief that consecrated bread and wine was transformed into the body and blood of Christ, proved an embarrassment to his cause. He had long steered clear of doctrinal issues, but now he was eager, as he wrote to the head of the Jesuits in France, to address “a topic where it is notoriously difficult to reconcile philosophy with theology.” The new materialism, along with Protestant disdain, had made the nature of transubstantiation controversial—Descartes to the rescue! But his subtle and complex explanation, characteristically dividing the bread and wine into their divine and material elements, did not satisfy the orthodox, who rejected his methods while doubting his motives and sincerity—as did a disgusted Hobbes, who claimed to know it “was absolutely against his opinion and donne meerly to putt a compliment on the Jesuites.”

Ultimately, Descartes’ Christian apologetics, with their medieval taint, would be forgotten, while his Copernican revolution that put human beings and their thinking power at the center of philosophy and science, as well as his example of skepticism, gave decisive impetus to the Enlightenment. He served as a starting point even for those philosophers who would eventually turn away from his thought, such as the British school of empiricists. But Descartes’ meddling in the transubstantiation controversy drew him into a complex battle involving Catholics and Protestants, assorted heretics, and Cartesians that came to threaten the unity of the Netherlands. It ended with Descartes being summoned in 1643 to the town council of Utrecht on charges of slandering a Protestant clergyman, a firebrand who accused him of being a Jesuit spy. Threatened with expulsion and the burning of his books, Descartes was saved only by the intervention of friends in high places.

Nevertheless, Cartesianism had become a European sensation. Even those who could make neither head nor tail of it cheered it as the vanguard of enlightenment or condemned it as, in the words of the authorities at the University of Angers, a new heresy “injurious to Faith, the Sovereign, and the State.” Louis XIV agreed, banning its teaching in French universities. The transubstantiation controversy gave the Inquisition its excuse to put Descartes’ works on its Index Liborum Prohibitorum in 1663, with the proviso donec corrigantur—until they are corrected.

By then Descartes was beyond correcting. He had died in Sweden in 1650 sheltered by a young queen who had acquired a liking for his philosophy. His material remains proved nearly as itinerant as the man himself. Buried temporarily in Sweden, his body was returned to France in 1667—the royal court forbade a funeral sermon at the reburial—and over the next century and a half his bones were repeatedly exhumed, moved, and reburied. Perhaps fittingly for this dualist, at some point his skull disappeared. Later, in 1821, a skull labeled Descartes’—literally, carved across its forehead—was bought at auction in Sweden and eventually put on display in Paris’s Museum of Natural History. A French newspaper called it la précieuse relique.


In the thick of the battle over Cartesianism in the Netherlands was a young man who made his living grinding lenses for spectacles, telescopes, and microscopes. A descendant of Marranos, Spanish Jews who had been forcibly converted to Christianity, he was excommunicated in 1656 at age twenty-four by the leaders of Amsterdam’s Jewish community for questioning the Bible’s authority, doubting that Jews were God’s chosen people, and other “abominable heresies.”

Baruch Spinoza, who after his expulsion changed his name to Benedict, was guilty as charged. For years, he had been making it clear that he would think for himself, and with that liberation of mind Spinoza pioneered a radical path to enlightenment and freedom for all. Born in 1632, the son of a prosperous merchant and leader of the community, he had studied at its school for boys, learning Hebrew prayers, poring over Torah and Jewish philosophers. A rabbi there, seeing Spinoza’s ardor for knowledge, introduced him to secular literature, classical and medieval. But far from confirming him in the Jewish faith, as the rabbi had expected, these studies opened new worlds beyond its confines. Spinoza went on to study with Franciscus van den Enden, a respected teacher of Latin but also an ex-Jesuit, religious skeptic, and political radical. After his father’s death in 1654, the young scholar came to live with Van den Enden and even courted his daughter, the only romance recorded in his book of life. He was then a merchant, too, running his late father’s business, but what ignited his intellect were ideas, the search for truth, for what he had already identified as the highest knowledge, “the union that the mind has with the whole of Nature.” From that vague thread, Spinoza would determinedly weave a whole fabric of thought more radical than any philosopher of the Enlightenment. But first he needed an alternative to his lost Jewish faith. He found it in René Descartes.

It did not take long for Spinoza to master Descartes’ thought and then to begin teaching it to a student from the University of Leiden, a Cartesian center. Spinoza’s text was the Principles of Philosophy, a late work that brought together Descartes’ ideas in textbook form—Descartes had hoped it would displace the Aristotelian tomes that monopolized university curricula. Spinoza was preparing an exposition of the Principles, urged on by friends who admired the lucidity of his explanations of Descartes’ thought. He even, according to one friend, “superseded Descartes with his distinct and probable ideas.” The result was Descartes’ absorption into Spinoza’s own emerging “geometric” style of reasoning. Like Descartes, Spinoza set philosophical certainty as his goal; the problem, as Spinoza saw it, was that Descartes hadn’t gone far enough. Spinoza would use mathematics as the model, but with greater rigor. Borrowing from Euclid, he began with definitions, axioms, postulates—his version of clear and distinct ideas that were indubitably true—and used them to demonstrate a mounting series of propositions, each incontrovertible because built solely of such elements. It made for forbidding reading, a severity of order that Descartes could scarcely have envisioned. It was the master on the disciple’s terms.

*   *   *

Spinoza was not the kind of man to remain anyone’s follower for long. Among the errors he found in Descartes, the most consequential inevitably involved religion. His anxiety to remain orthodox had led Descartes to violate his own enlightened principles and thrown him off the path to truth, Spinoza thought. To accommodate free will and the immortal soul, the Frenchman had invented a realm separate from nature—“a dominion within a dominion,” Spinoza called it, as though “man disturbs, rather than follows, the order of nature.” Even more absurd, in Spinoza’s eyes, was Descartes’ attempt to solve the mind-body dilemma that came of that separation. Locating the “seat of the soul” in the brain’s pineal gland, Descartes hypothesized that the insubstantial mind communicated with the material body via “animal spirits,” tiny particles that traveled back and forth between mind and body. To Spinoza, this was an example of the foolishness and falsehood that religion led even men of genius to adopt.

As his confrontation with Amsterdam’s Jewish leadership had shown, Spinoza was not for compromise. He passionately believed that religion was the greatest impediment to enlightenment, worse than ignorance because it imposed falsehoods on people, handed down by theologians and ministers and typically backed by governments whose censorship denied dissenters the freedom “to say what we think.” Moreover, he held religion to account for the wars that had been racking Europe for decades, for “spreading contention among men and in fostering the bitterest hatred.”

His proposal was revolutionary—to make a “straightforward study” of religion, using the natural light of reason, in order “to free our minds from the prejudices of theologians and to avoid the hasty acceptance of human fabrications as divine teachings.” In what would become the Theological-Political Treatise, Spinoza subjected the Bible to unprecedented scrutiny, examining it not as a divine artifact but as an historical document. It was a part of nature, he insisted, to be studied as all other phenomena were, with rational inquiry. In Spinoza’s light, the Bible appeared as an often-indiscriminate mass of superstitions, fictions, and well-intentioned but dubious claims of knowledge of God’s mind. The book did not teach knowledge but obedience to authority. Miracles, for instance, were vivid stories made to strengthen people’s faith and so to secure their submission. As events they were impossibilities—“Nothing happens in nature that does not follow from her laws.” Impossible, too, was an anthropomorphic God, a God “in the likeness of man” that had “mind, heart, emotions, and even body and breath,” a God that was interested in human affairs, that had made the world for man or had a plan for the world or man.

To those who nevertheless maintained that the Bible was God’s word, Spinoza replied in the Treatise that “instead of God’s Word, they are beginning to worship likenesses and images, that is, paper and ink.” No one before Spinoza had so rigorously examined scripture as just that—paper and ink—and his example of biblical criticism would become a powerful weapon in the Enlightenment’s long struggle to come to terms with religion.

*   *   *

Though Spinoza followed progress in science closely and won praise from leading scientists of the day for the excellence of his microscopes and telescopes, he would not be found dissecting rabbits and eels and live dogs as Descartes had done. Descartes was foremost a man of science who sought a unified and certain explanation of the phenomenal world through the acquisition, organization, and exposition of knowledge. Spinoza was above all a moral philosopher, consumed by the search for truth about human life, human relationships, human communities, and by the faith that the truth would set men free. The critical method and high-intensity reasoning were his tools.

After error and falsehood were swept from the Bible, then, what truth remained? Spinoza found this one: “To love God above all, and one’s neighbor as oneself”—so simple that even the “most sluggish mind” might grasp it by “the natural light that is common to all, and not any supernatural light, nor any eternal authority.” The Bible itself was unnecessary—a person who knew God by the natural light and pursued “a true way of life, is altogether blessed.”

Spinoza was no atheist, but the God he enjoined people to know resembled no divinity in the Western tradition, and indeed seemed scarcely knowable. It had a body, but that body was all of nature; its substance was the substance of the world—“Except God, no substance can be or be conceived.” Spinoza’s God indeed was identical with nature, both in its active, generative aspect (natura naturans) and in its passive, receptive form (natura naturata) as both cause and effect, both creator and creation. Even in creation, though, God did not act with free will or a purpose but strictly according to the laws of its nature—“Things could have been produced by God in no other way, and in no other order than they have been produced.”

As Spinoza piled up his geometric propositions, as they rose to dizzying heights of abstraction, his God must have bewildered even the most unorthodox and sophisticated readers. Was this a God for the new age, with theology as natural philosophy? Was Spinoza conflating the search for the truth of God with the work of mathematicians and geometers, cosmologists and botanists, who day by day were dispelling the obscurities of the Middle Ages with new beams of enlightenment?

And what place was there in Spinoza’s faith for human beings? The God of Judaism and Christianity had a special relationship with men and women. They were singled out from the rest of creation—as sinners to suffer but also to know God’s love and reach salvation. Even Descartes had bent his system to acknowledge an immortal soul, distinct from bodies. But Spinoza afforded human beings no such privilege. While he distinguished minds from bodies, they were equally wholly inside nature, determined like the rest of creation and like God by infinite chains of causality which could not be altered or broken because “the laws and rules of nature, according to which all things happen, and change from one form to another, are always and everywhere the same.” Any hope or promise otherwise was a man-made illusion—there was no escape from nature.

Such was the hard reality of human existence, yet for Spinoza, it was no cause for despair—rather, it opened new and less delusive paths to self-realization. Enlightenment was the key—the use of reason to fulfill the injunction that Descartes had planted as the root for modern thought: Know thyself. Spinoza identified the passions, sensual life, as the great obstacles to self-knowledge, agents of passivity and “Bondage.” To control them rather than be controlled by them was a rational discipline, liberating men to mount the stages of knowledge. Unlike Descartes, Spinoza put no limit on the reach of human understanding. Reason had the potential to grasp everything that was in nature, including, crucially, one’s own place in it—that is, one’s relationship to God. The coming to terms with the realities of existence was the road to truth. If we understand that we are “part of the whole of nature, whose order we follow,” then “we can want nothing except what is necessary, nor absolutely be satisfied with anything except what is true.” Spinoza described the ultimate of truth, of understanding “things under a species of eternity,” as “the intellectual love of God,” a state of blessedness and liberation. No philosopher would make so intoxicating a claim for enlightenment, nor make enlightenment so central to human salvation.

*   *   *

After his excommunication in 1656, Spinoza lived in Amsterdam four more years, apart from the Jewish community. Following Descartes, as a preliminary to a great, systematic work, he began an explanation of his methods, but abandoned it before he left Amsterdam in 1661 for the small village of Rijnsburg. This was scarcely a hermitage. The village was famed for its tolerance; not long before it had been the center of the Dutch “Collegiant” movement. Dissenting from the dogmatics and hierarchies of the established churches, Collegiants met on Sundays for their own unstructured, preacherless but intellectually intense meetings. In Amsterdam, Spinoza had befriended a number of Collegiants and may even have attended their gatherings. Rijnsburg, moreover, was near Leiden with its university, which Spinoza had attended for a time and where he still had friends. In fact, he was hard-pressed by the stream of visitors to the village, some from afar. It testified to the liveliness and strength of the informal networks that linked intellectuals across Europe that Spinoza, who had as yet published nothing, was already renowned as a thinker, worthy of a pilgrimage by a leading disseminator of information among European scientists, Henry Oldenburg, a German who had recently helped to found the Royal Society in London and served as its first secretary.

Spinoza was embarked on an array of projects, including the analysis of Descartes’ Principles, which he published in 1663 as the first and last work that appeared under his name in his lifetime. He was drafting a Short Treatise, another attempt to clarify his philosophical methods, and in 1662, he began the masterwork that would expound his entire system of thought, the Ethics. The next year he left Rijnsburg for Voorburg, another small village but quieter, near The Hague.

The theological turmoil of these years had their counterpart in Dutch politics. A decade earlier, Johan de Witt, a graduate of Leiden, had become “Grand Pensionary of Holland,” which, despite the peculiar title, meant that he was, in effect, ruler of the Netherlands. A lawyer whose real passion was mathematics, De Witt was the most powerful liberal in Europe, devoted to fashioning a secular republic that assured free thought and religious toleration. Not surprisingly, though he successfully wound down a damaging war with England and restored the nation’s finances, he aroused an equally determined opposition among royalist supporters of the House of Orange and from the Dutch Reformed Church.

Spinoza greatly admired De Witt, though not without reservation, and in 1665, when renewed warfare with England emboldened the opposition to demand the transfer of power to the Prince of Orange, Spinoza decided to come to his defense. Putting aside the Ethics—by now he had nearly a complete draft—he undertook the painstaking examination of the Bible that would form the backbone of his “natural history of religion.” But the Theological-Political Treatise, as the title indicated, also contained Spinoza’s political science, which he had already begun to outline in the Ethics, and to which he would return in the later Treatise on Politics.

Spinoza started, as he had learned to do from his studies of Hobbes, in the lawless state of nature where men’s lives, whipped along by appetites and passions, were better fitted for animals. To get what he wanted, “natural” man would press “by any means, by force, deceit, entreaty,” taking “as his enemy anyone who tries to hinder him.” Nothing was prohibited except “those things that no one desires and no one can do.” But self-interest would teach natural man that he could find greater security—from attack or in fulfilling needs—in a commonwealth, where he would have the protection of laws. In exchange, the commonwealth would require the complete surrender of his “sovereign natural right” and submission to the principle that what the government “decides to be just and good must be regarded as having been so decided by every citizen.”

So far, Spinoza was closely tracking Hobbes, but as with Descartes he was no mere follower. The breach came over the best form of government, with Spinoza rejecting Hobbesian absolutism, pointing out that coercive rule would rapidly lose legitimacy—and risk dissolution—when people became convinced that it was acting against their interests. Hobbes made no provision for legitimate dissent, Spinoza noted, yet independent thought—“freedom of judgment”—was impossible to suppress entirely. A commonwealth based on nothing but apathy and servility “may more properly be called a desert.”

Spinoza had a more optimistic view of men removed from their natural condition and therefore of politics than Hobbes, imagining a state whose true purpose was liberty, a state that would promote the lofty values of his moral philosophy, “a truly human existence,” powered by reason, “the true virtue and life of the mind.” The best state in that case was one that few men of Spinoza’s time even dreamt of—democracy, because it approached “most closely to that freedom which nature grants to every man.” Government by the people encouraged—required—free thought and speech, and, as philosopher Henry Allison wrote, “more than any other form of government has a vested interest in the rationality of its subjects.” But Spinoza understood that most men, though capable of it, did not live by reason. What if a majority passed laws that were valid but unjust? Well, the citizen had “no right to decide what is fair or unfair, moral or immoral,” and no matter how unjust the laws, “he is bound to carry them out.” But was that not to sacrifice free judgment? And if self-interest was the basis of the state, why, as Allison asked, “should rational subjects obey laws that they know to be counter to their true self-interest?”

Spinoza created an unsatisfactory syllogism that linked greater rationality to greater freedom and therefore to greater obedience to the sovereign and its laws. If that didn’t work, the rational man would realize that obedience, however irksome or painful, would be the lesser of two evils—the other being the dissolution of the political order, a return to the state of nature. That would make Spinoza’s democracy a modest advance over Hobbes’s coercive absolutism since reason, rather than brute force, would bring complete submission to the majority’s commands. As it did in Spinoza, this dilemma of effective and just government would reflect conflicting strains in Enlightenment thought about human nature, one more optimistic, the other more pessimistic. Reconciliation of the twin imperatives of democratic government—majority rule and the protection of minority rights—would bedevil philosophers and statesmen for centuries, not least the authors of the American Constitution.

*   *   *

Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise appeared after five years of intensive labor, in 1670, and, though it was published anonymously, his authorship quickly became notorious for the Treatise’s unprecedented, uncompromising assault on religion. Howls of outrage burst from Calvinists, Cartesians, and Collegiants alike. To the Synod of South Holland, it was “as vile and blasphemous a book as the world has ever seen.” The synod at The Hague condemned it as “idolatry and superstition.” Spinoza himself was denounced as a monster, satanic, even as the Anti-Christ. A flood of refutations poured from the presses, even as the heavy machinery of censorship swung into motion. As for Thomas Hobbes, he was amazed by—perhaps a bit envious of—Spinoza’s courage, saying that the Treatise “cut through him a barre’s length, for he durst not write so boldly.”

And what of its intended beneficiary, the Grand Pensionary? His enemies tried to bind Johan de Witt to “the fallen Jew Spinoza”—even claiming that he had read the Treatise in manuscript and approved it—but, though he checked the attempt to ban the book, De Witt kept his distance from Spinoza, reportedly letting him know that “his excellency did not want to see him pass his threshold.” De Witt would have frowned on much of the book, in any case. His liberalism, great in comparison with other European leaders, shone meagerly against Spinoza’s blasts of radical Enlightenment. De Witt’s toleration did not go so far as to deny a privileged position for the Dutch Reformed Church, the religious establishment Spinoza abhorred. And De Witt was no democrat. His power base was the oligarchy that had long dominated commercial and political life at The Hague. Majority rule would have had no attraction for him—the continual agitation of royalists and clergy had long since turned the majority of the Dutch bitterly against him.

The depth of that hatred was revealed in the summer of 1672, the “disaster year” in Dutch history, as the Netherlands faced French and German invasion as well as the prospect of a new war with England. The whole country was radeloos, redeloos en reddeloos—desperate, irrational, and past recovery—and the Dutch blamed De Witt for their plight. When the Orange Prince William III was named to the vacant executive position of stadtholder, De Witt resigned. Two weeks later, he went to the prison at The Hague to see his brother, Cornelis, who had been arrested on trumped-up charges and then acquitted but not yet released. A mob enraged by the acquittal broke into the prison and killed both men, and then hung them by their feet from a scaffold and tore their bodies to pieces.

Spinoza was so horrified and outraged by the grisly murders that he prepared to go to the site and leave a placard that read, Ultimi Barbarorum—You are the worst barbarians. He might have shared the fate of the brothers had his landlord not locked the door to keep him in. But for all the rage that continued to be directed his way in the Netherlands, regard for Spinoza abroad, colored perhaps with curiosity, only grew. In 1673, the elector palatine tendered him a professorship at the University of Heidelberg, and that same year, he was promised a French pension—if he dedicated a book to Louis XIV. He declined both offers, but his contact with the French at Utrecht, which their army occupied, led to Spinoza’s own confrontation with a mob when he returned to his house at The Hague. Suspicious that he was a spy or traitor, the crowd worked itself up to a state of threatening to smash into the house and murder him. Bravely he went out the door and managed to calm the mob with assurances that he was a loyal republican with the welfare of his country at heart.

But two years later, in 1675, when word spread that he would publish the completed Ethics, the old calumnies were heard again, along with rumors that the new work was more dangerous than the Treatise, that Spinoza would try to prove that there was no God. Ominously, theologians lodged complaints with the government, which was controlled by Orangists determined to crack down on republicans. Courageous though he was, Spinoza had had enough of vitriolic controversy; he abandoned his plan to publish the Ethics.

By then, his health was in decline, lungs irreparably harmed by years of inhaling glass dust from the lenses he was grinding. He took his illness with customary stoicism for the most part, like the free man who, in his description, “thinks of nothing less than of death, and his wisdom is a meditation on life, not on death.”

He died in February 1676, only forty-four years old. Soon after, a friend sent his writing desk, crammed with unpublished manuscripts including the Ethics, to Amsterdam, where other friends prepared them for publication. Editions of his work, in Dutch and Latin and under his own name, appeared the next year.


John Locke, the most consequential of Enlightenment philosophers, was a latecomer to the vocation. Born the same year as Spinoza, 1632, he was nearly forty before he attempted a systematic work and in his late fifties before any of his major treatises were delivered to the presses. A slow worker, his thoughts gestating for decades, Locke filled large notebooks with ideas and citations, writing draft after draft with such extensive changes that they scarcely seemed the same work.

Locke’s hesitation to publish had yet another source—an aversion to controversy, worsened by his habit of escalating “trifling quarrels” into bitter, long-lived tempests. Hypersensitivity to criticism ill-served the man who talked of his “unmedleing temper” and claimed to desire nothing more than “to passe silently through this world,” yet who was meddling in—actually overturning—received opinion in almost every way that counted.

The gradual tug of Locke’s thought was in ever more radical directions. It was this evolution, endpoint uncertain, that most accounted for his late appearance in print. Grandson of a rich merchant, son of a man who defied Charles I, a scion of the landed gentry, Locke was a conventionally minded, not very distinctive scholar at Westminster and Oxford. Though impatient with the Aristotelian curriculum, complaining that it was “perplex’d with obscure Terms and stuff’d with useless Questions,” Locke himself, in his teaching at Oxford and early writings, was a model of scholastic form and substance. He was no less conservative in his opinions, boasting that “there is no one who can have a greater respect and veneration for authority than I” and welcoming the restoration of Charles II as a reestablishment of “the happiest state” and “the purest church.”

It was experience that changed John Locke’s mind, as he haltingly emerged from Oxford’s ivory tower. A “Bachelor of Medicine,” he had his first sustained encounter with the Enlightenment in the form of Robert Boyle, experimentalist extraordinaire who would become known as the father of modern chemistry. Boyle gave new direction to Locke’s medical studies at Oxford. Locke for instance put to use Boyle’s air pump to reconsider inherited notions about respiration. He also helped Boyle collect data, though an attempt to take a barometer into a lead mine to measure the pressure underground was frustrated by miners who disbelieved Locke’s explanation of his purpose—and by women who in their fear took Locke and a friend for “Conjurers.”

Boyle also gave Locke an important push by inspiring him with his own fascination with the new natural philosophy. He opened his library to the young man and Locke plunged in with pleasure. He was particularly struck by the physics of Descartes, whose methods differed so radically from the Aristotelianism he had been fed at Oxford. Though he “very often differed in opinion” from Descartes, he told a friend that it was the Frenchman’s work that first gave him “a relish of philosophical studies.”

Locke’s life of study and contemplation was transformed when in 1667 he entered the great world as companion to an aristocrat immersed in high-level power struggles. His patron and friend, Anthony Ashley Cooper, a baron and later first Earl of Shaftesbury, was one of the most accomplished and turbulent politicians of the day, serving as chancellor of the exchequer and lord chancellor.

Locke plunged into the turmoil of parliamentary life in London despite the heavy smog that aggravated his asthma and would shorten his life. Besides serving as Ashley’s secretary and advisor, he held the small offices of Secretary of Presentations, which involved him in ecclesiastical matters, and Secretary and Treasurer of the Council of Trade. He was a minor participant in—but the closest observer of—a conflict that began to intensify rapidly in the early 1680s until it threatened again to plunge the “happiest state” into civil war. Ashley was an early leader of the Whig faction of aristocrats and leading citizens opposed to the succession of Charles II’s brother James, heir apparent and open Catholic. When Ashley and his fellow Whigs failed to obtain a parliamentary act excluding James from the succession on religious grounds, they turned to planning for insurrection, laying a succession of plots. Not one of them thrived, but Ashley felt enough heat from the government that he escaped to Holland in 1682, where he died soon after. Locke was so closely identified with Ashley and associated with other plotters that a year later he, too, departed for exile in Holland.

*   *   *

Exile stimulated Locke to bring to fruition the many works he had been preparing for decades. His distinctiveness as a thinker blossomed on the other side of the Channel. Like most other philosophers of the Enlightenment, he gave a central place to the glowing idea of reason, but his account of it was more qualified, better grounded in empiricism. Though Descartes helped introduce him to the power of rational thought, the Englishman was alive to its limitations, that it would approach the truth only when combined with experience, which included the crucial factor of education. Experience “must teach me, what Reason cannot.” In experience, Locke wrote, “all our Knowledge is founded; and from that it ultimately derives it self” and “supplies our Understandings with all the materials of thinking.” But even with all those materials, the mathematical certainty about the whole world that Descartes sought was impossible. “Our Business here is not to know all things, but those which concern our Conduct,” Locke concluded. “If we can find out those Measures … we need not be troubled, that some other things escape our Knowledge.”

Here was Locke’s pragmatic, “common-sense” philosophy in a nutshell, whose spirit of modesty and accessibility would give the Enlightenment a new breadth of reach and influence. In France, it would challenge Cartesianism and win over such philosophes as Jean le Rond d’Alembert. In Locke’s thought, d’Alembert wrote admiringly, “the principles of metaphysics … are the same for the philosophers as for the general run of the people.”

This reasonableness of temper and empiricism in method were, in fact, Britain’s distinctive contributions to the Enlightenment’s search for truth. English empiricism had roots in Francis Bacon’s championing of induction and was taken further by the experimental work of Locke’s mentor Boyle. The towering figure in this British scientific tradition was Isaac Newton, who pronounced in his greatest work, the 1687 Principia,hypotheses non fingo”—“I feign no hypotheses”—meaning that his physics would be based not on metaphysics but on observation and experimentation. And like Locke, Newton acknowledged that not all phenomena were explicable by mechanical science. He did not know, he said, the cause of gravity; “it is enough that gravity really exists and acts according to the laws we have set forth and is sufficient to explain all the motions of the heavenly bodies and of our sea.”

Locke became well acquainted with Newton after his return from Holland in 1689, and the two thinkers worked in occasional and informal tandem. The question of their influence on one another has been much debated. Probably the Principia helped confirm Locke in his long-held methodological conclusions—delightful confirmation, with all the wonders Newton was able to expose by applying those methods. Both were admirers of Descartes and both turned away from him in a common direction. Of course, to the imagination, Newton was the greater figure, a man who had puzzled out two of nature’s grandest mysteries, gravity and light, whom William Wordsworth would portray as “voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone.” Alexander Pope’s verse memorialized him as a demiurge, a divine emanation:

Nature, and Nature’s Laws lay hid in Night,

God said, Let Newton be! and All was Light.

But for d’Alembert, Locke was Newton’s equal, the creator of metaphysics—philosophy—just as Newton had created physics.

*   *   *

Locke’s methodological empiricism was closely related to his thoughts about human nature, especially the mind. His most radical contribution was his dismissal of innate ideas—of right and wrong, of good and evil, of original sin or the existence of God. He saw them as impositions by “Dictators of Principles” and “Teachers of unquestionable Truths,” who demanded that men suspend their own “Reason and Judgment” and accept as “an innate principle” anything the authorities decided would make them more easily governed.

Descartes had discovered the foundation of knowledge in the total skepticism that led to the cogito. For Locke, it began in the mind of a newborn child, a tabula rasa—“white Paper, or Wax, to be moulded and fashioned as one pleases.” The mind had inherent capacities or potentials, including for reason. “We are born to be, if we please, rational creatures,” although “it is use and exercise only that makes us so.”

Locke’s model was of a radical equality—all human beings born with equally unfurnished but equally potential-laden minds. “Ancient savage Americans,” he wrote, were alike to any European in “natural Endowments and Provisions.” Day laborer and country gentleman differed not in their “natural parts” but in the “different scope” of their lives, the range of education and experience responsible for “furnishing their heads with ideas.” Locke asserted that “of all the Men we meet with, Nine Parts of Ten are what they are, Good or Evil, useful or not, by their Education,” including all aspects of environment and experience. Education was decisive though not final—the human mind never entirely lost its plasticity as it responded to new ideas and experiences. The laborer could, even as a grown man, obtain enlightenment, though the overcoming of lifelong habits might be difficult. Meanwhile, the gentleman of “freer fortune and education” might, if he neglected his understanding, descend to “brutish stupidity.”

No single idea of the Enlightenment was so laden and sweeping as this. If people could transform their minds, they could change their lives, and together with others they could change their communities and beyond. Against the fixity and fatalism that underlay the authority of state and church, Locke put this potential, this humble seed, in the human mind with world-altering possibilities. For centuries, people were understood—and understood themselves—to be born corrupt, damaged by sin, torn between dueling impulses toward good and evil, and threatened with eternal damnation. Locke wiped the slate clean; he gave people the possibility of starting the world anew.

His idea of mind forever altered the way education was thought of, including the hated scholastic “cramming” of his own experience. But though it followed from Locke that every child, equal at birth, knowing nothing of rank or station, should have a right to education, it would be more than a century before the principle of universal education began tentatively to take hold against the resistance of the “Teachers of unquestionable Truths.” The shaping of the human mind became at the same time more important and more complex, as well as more contested. Even Locke’s greatest admirers, like Voltaire, seemed to miss the point, doubtful that education really could be beneficial to the low-born, those Voltaire called the canaille, or pack of dogs.

*   *   *

That there were vast disparities even within the same society, differences that in some cases created human beings others scarcely recognized as such, was indisputable. But what if one rejected the conventional thought that such inequalities were inevitable—natural—because people were born unequal, with sometimes radically different mental furniture? Could any political order allow men and women to realize the possibilities glimpsed in Locke’s thinking about natural human equality?

Just as he was less pessimistic about human nature, so the men and women in Locke’s state of nature were less brutish than Hobbes or even Spinoza portrayed. Indeed, these natural humans might live reasonably together in a “State of Peace, Good Will, Mutual Assistance, and Preservation,” though war could break out at any moment. Locke described it like this: “In the beginning all the World was America.”

Why, then, should people join together in a civil society? After all, governments were also known to wage war, sometimes against their own citizens. But in Locke’s state of nature, the insecurity and fear that would drive people together centered directly not on life or liberty, but on property, or what he also called “estates.” Property, for Locke, was more than a means of subsistence; it was the product of labor, which was the “unquestionable Property of the Labourer” and which, by taking and transforming something from nature, “annexes” it, thereby excluding “the common right of other Men.” Civil society, then, was created “for the Regulating and Preserving of Property.” Of course, in Locke’s imagined “America,” property was little more than what people were able to produce for their own consumption, suggesting a rough and enduring equality. But in real civil society—in Locke’s England, for example—property was not distributed equally, especially with the “Invention of Money.” Was the natural right to property unlimited, protecting any amount of all types of property, including those that had no meaningful relation at all to a person’s own labor?

The ambiguities of Locke’s various remarks on the issue have led many to see him as, for better or worse, the first great apologist for capitalism, for the unlimited accumulation of wealth secured by nearly absolute property rights, for the virtual identification of property with life and liberty. Others, noting Locke’s comments on the communal origins of property—as a grant from God to all men collectively—and what he called his bold affirmation of the “Rule of Propriety,” that “every Man should have as much as he could make use of,” claim him as a proto-socialist, or at least a redistributionist who would ensure that everyone had a stake in society.

The challenge in evaluating Locke’s views on property was to reconcile them with the egalitarian thrust of his theories of mind and, even more, with the faith in individual freedom so powerful that his entire body of work might be seen as a multifaceted brief for human liberty. His dismissal of innate ideas liberated men from inherited burdens, while the blank page of the mind offered wide opportunities for self-realization. A foe of fanaticism, Locke challenged the coercion of established churches. “Whatsoever may be doubtful in religion, yet this at least is certain, that no religion which I believe not to be true, can be either true or profitable for me,” he wrote in A Letter Concerning Toleration. “… The care of each man’s soul, and of the things of heaven, which neither does belong to the commonwealth nor can be subjected to it, is left entirely to every man’s self.” Toleration, he held, should be extended to the different Protestant sects, as well as to pagans and Muslims and Jews. But Locke himself tolerated some intolerance—toward Catholics with their allegiance to Rome and toward atheists because they had no religion to be tolerated!

But more than religious liberty or liberty through property was to be written into the Lockean state. By denying that kings were divinely authorized or were sovereign, that government was their property, or that people’s rights depended on their grace and favor, Locke struck blows at the pillars of absolutism. In their place he envisioned a civic order founded on the consent of the governed, in which the people, possessed of inalienable natural rights to “Lives, Liberties, and Estates,” were sovereign and government was responsible to them for action or inaction. That meant, contrary to Hobbes, that the people retained the right and power to dissolve their government and create a new one.

Such principles would secure a government of laws that in turn allowed people to live in freedom. For Locke, liberty was not a merely negative value, defined by an absence of infringement by government or other people. As a natural right possessed by all, it obliged government to create conditions for its enjoyment and enlargement, though what that meant in practice would be debated for centuries. Still, liberty was a means, not an end. The greatest good, Locke thought, was happiness. “The businesse of men” was “to be happy in this world by the enjoyment of the things of nature subservient to life health ease and pleasure and by the comfortable hopes of an other life when this is ended.” Locke doubted that men could reach such an equable state in this life, beset as they were by “a constant succession of uneasinesses.” Moreover, there was no single road to happiness, no authority to prescribe it. True to the individualism that pervaded Locke’s philosophy, each person had to find his or her own way. But the “highest perfection” of human nature lay in the effort, in the “careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness.”

*   *   *

Locke’s Dutch exile ended after James II, who had succeeded his brother Charles in 1684, was toppled from the throne five years later by an invasion from the Netherlands commanded by William III, the same Prince of Orange who had displaced Johan de Witt in The Hague two decades before.

The Glorious Revolution, as it came to be called, was a Whig triumph. Attempted invasions in earlier years, with little more than tacit Dutch support, had failed miserably. In one case, an English spy made note of “John Locke, previously the secretary to Lord Shaftesbury,” aboard an invasion ship at the port of Amsterdam. Whigs had courted and cajoled Dutch leaders, with a delegation of senior aristocrats from across the Channel finally persuading William to save England from “Popery and Slavery.”

After his takeover, William summoned a Convention to resolve constitutional issues raised by the events—in his words, to “lay the foundations of a firm security for your religion, laws, and your liberty.” The questions included the status and power of the king. After the struggle with James and remembering the war provoked by James’s father, Charles I, the Convention was determined to settle this once and for all and did so on a Whig principle: the king was not sovereign but a constitutional monarch, elected not by God but by the British people.

Locke was invited to share the spoils of victory, reportedly offered the position of envoy to Austria or Prussia. He turned down the flattering proposal with a list of reasons, but he didn’t mention that he was then seeing to the publication, at last, of his major works. In 1689 and 1690, he published the Letter Concerning Toleration, the Two Treatises of Government that contained his political science, and An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. A few years later came another masterpiece, Some Thoughts Concerning Education, and The Reasonableness of Christianity.

It was a great, late harvest, a testament to his own evolution through experience and a fitting end to a century when the intellectual life of Europe had been utterly transformed. But the practical implications of the revolution in ideas had scarcely been tested. That would be the work of the next century.


Copyright © 2013 by James MacGregor Burns

Table of Contents

Introduction - Enlightenment as Revolution 1

Chapter One - The Revolution in Ideas 12

The State of Nature 14

The Triumph of Reason 22

The Freedom of Thought 33

The Light of Experience 46

Chapter Two - Rule Britannia? 57

The Widening Gap 60

Imperial Rulership 75

The Scottish Enlightenment 86

Chapter Three - Revolutionary Americans 100

An American Enlightenment 104

Creating the Revolution 111

Self-Evident Truths 117

The Egalitarian Moment 125

Chapter Four - France: Rule or Ruin? 133

Royal Paris 137

The Philosophes and the People 143

The Unmaking of a King 151

Leading by Legislating 157

The Madness of the Factions 165

Chapter Five - Transforming American Politics 173

The Life of the Nation 176

The Liberty of a Person 184

The Happiness of the People 188

The First Transformation? 195

Chapter Six - Britain: The Rules of Rulership 199

The Inside Game 201

The Revolution That Wasn't 207

The Fractured Debate 214

Chapter Seven - Napoleonic Rulership 221

Le Grande Farce 223

Power: The Supreme Value 230

The Abdication of the People 236

Restoration? 244

Chapter Eight -Britain: Industrializing Enlightenment 248

Ideas as Capital 251

The Tyranny of the Machine 257

Property and Poverty 261

The New Radicals 267

Chapter Nine -France: The Crowds of July 273

The Liberal Revolt 276

Tribunes of the People 282

Republican Revivals 293

Chapter Ten - America: We Are All Republicans 297

Leadership by the Virginia Gentlemen 299

A Wind Blows in from the West 306

Liberty and Equality 313

The American Experiment 326

Chapter Eleven -Britain: The Fire for Reform 331

Strategies of Reform 313

Ideas as Weapons 340

Stumbling toward Reform 346

The Dawning of a Liberal Party 355

Chapter Twelve - The Negative of Liberty 361

People as Property 363

The Canker of Bondage 371

Chapter Thirteen - The Transformation 380

The Liberal Triumph 383

The Clash of Ideas 387

A New American Enlightenment? 395

Notes 404

Customer Reviews