Responding to a Free Response Question Question: To what extent did the Enlightenment express optimistic ideas in eighteenth-century Europe? Illustrate your answer with references to specific individuals.
To a great extent , the Enlightenment expressed optimistic ideas in eighteenth-century Europe. This is logical considering the Enlightenment was the intellectual outgrowth of the Scientific Revolution. Enlightenment thinkers possessed a sincere belief in the optimistic idea of progress. These thinkers believed that the scientific method could be applied to society in an effort to understand it more fully. The result, they hoped, would be the means by which society could be improved. Some even believed that society could be perfected through the application of reason. The Enlightenment thinkers also believed in the perfectibility of government as well as religious toleration. Both of these concepts also reflected the optimism of the Enlightenment.
Rousseau was one of the most optimistic Enlightenment thinkers. He believed that the individual was inherently good but that the cruel refinement of society corrupted him. His optimism is evident from his ideas as presented in The Social Contract. In this document he spoke of the general will, a force that is sacred and absolute. He argued that the individual had supplanted the monarch as the true source of power. He also argued that the general will need not be the will of the majority. It could be the will of a far-seeing minority that has a society’s best interests in mind. This idea that the people were the true source of power was empowering and optimistic at the same time. According to his views, people were good and therefore they deserved to have a voice in government.
Diderot’s Encyclopedia also reflects the Enlightenment optimism. It categorically analyzed much of the scientific knowledge that had been obtained up to that point in time. It represented human triumph over nature in that the human mind was able to understand things that it could not understand before. There seemed to be no limit to the power of the mind’s ability to reason and think. In essence, if the human mind set out to understand something, the Enlightenment thinkers felt that it could. This belief in perfectibility even extended to the realm of the monarch. The enlightened monarch or despot came to be the name for a ruler that understood and embodied, at least to some degree, some of the tenets of the movement.
Despite these attitudes, to say that the Enlightenment was wholly optimistic would be an overstatement. The fact of the matter was that the Enlightenment was mainly the realm of the social elite. The common person was little affected by this intellectual movement. In contrast to Rousseau, Montesquieu and Voltaire ridiculed the notion of political social equality. Voltaire rejected the idea flat out, while Montesquieu advocated a system by which the lower classes exercised power, but that power was not equal to the power of the other classes even if the lower classes represented a majority of the population. So perhaps a better statement would be that the Enlightenment was certainly optimistic for the social and intellectual elite. It was far less optimistic for the majority of society for the simple fact that the movement had no effect on them. In terms of a generalization of the movement as a whole, as expressed by the ideas of the Enlightenment figures, the movement certainly was optimistic because it fostered the belief that the human mind could accomplish almost anything and perfect society.