Enlightenment and Progress

Historians have long debated over the main catalysts contributing to Europe’s shift to modernity in the 18th century. Some scholars assert that ideas were the main force for the progress achieved in the Enlightenment efforts, while others view certain social and economic forces as being the primary reasons for transformation of Europe’s Old Regime into a more modern world (Smith, Week 4).

Section 1: Catalysts for Progress and Enlightenment in 18th Century Europe

Historian Isser Woloch’s thesis in Eighteenth-Century Europe: Tradition and Progress, 1715-1789 on this topic states that, “If the social order provided the stable foundation of eighteenth-century Europe, demography and economy provided the dynamic for change.” Furthermore, Woloch describes four specific developments that served to spur on a momentous shift toward progress and a more modern era: Europe’s rising population numbers, increased agricultural productivity, increased commerce, and improvements in textile manufacturing (Woloch 113).

 Increased Population

Europe’s surge in population was due largely to a drop in the death rate during the second half of the 18th century.  A prolonged period of instability preceded this point in time, which was characterized by big shifts in population due to starvation (crop failure), war and disease. France was especially susceptible to such deprivation, whose famine crisis persisted until the Peace of Utrecht in 1713. Similarly, a large percentage of Holy Roman Empire population expired due to instability and deprivation during Thirty Years War until its end with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. This vulnerability to famine and its subsequent casualties were due largely as a consequence of Europe’s close dependency on a single resource – grain – as its primary food source.  In this “cycle of privation,” crop failures would cause a spike in the cost of grain and a surge in unemployment rates to a level that made this critical food source unattainable for the common people. This lack of nutrition also led to the spread of disease (Woloch 114, 115).

In the second half of the 18th century, however, Europe experienced an unprecedented population growth, increasing its census count from 140 to 190 million. This population explosion was especially prevalent in areas with a larger amount of undeveloped land area and fertile soil for agriculture and growth. Better health and longer lives did not occur as a result of better hygiene, because in the area of overall cleanliness, there was not much, if any, evidence of improvement. “More reliable and better food supplies,” however, gave rise to significantly longer lifespans and health for European citizens (Woloch 116, 121).

Although there was a net increase in population, this surge in populace was kept in check by other factors; this likely aided Europe in avoiding its previous hazards of overpopulation, such as plague and starvation. New methods of contraception, as well as the religion-based practice of chaste behavior until marriage ensured that “the natural increase in population” over time “would be restrained.” The controlled and steady nature of this population growth produced a phenomenon known as the demographic transition, which was evidenced most notably in France during the last part of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century. Thus, better food sources, sufficient numbers of surviving heirs, longer lifespans, and contraception led to Europeans who lived healthier, more affluent lives (Woloch 126).

Increased Agricultural Productivity

The increased size of Europe’s population also provided a constant source of labor, tax revenues, and consumers for the upcoming economic growth factors of the 18th century. These factors transformed the potential of a healthy European economy through agriculture and industry into reality. In areas where land was fertile and plentiful, a boom of agricultural productivity occurred. Farming peasants, especially landowners, profited greatly from the steady increase of crop prices by increasing their agricultural production and local sales. In a self-perpetuating cycle of supply and demand, these productive peasants stimulated the economy further by requiring more textiles and sustenance to support their increased agricultural efforts. It could even be argued that the increased proliferation and affluence of Europe’s commoners were leading factors in the industrial transition to modernity through the economic stimulation and innovative technology that resulted from their increasing and consistent demand for manufactured goods (Woloch 117, 118, 128).

Increased Commerce

Several factors led to an economic stimulus and stability in Europe’s 18th century. The allure of investment and prospecting in colonial trade provided upfront capital for new international and overseas trade companies such as England’s South Sea Company and France’s Company of the Indies. Although these investments proved to be unrealistic in the face of the eventual collapse of these market shares, such practices ushered in an unprecedented era of credit and currency mobility.   Both private and public banks began issuing paper bank notes and loans to governments and companies, and currency took on a new facet of fast-paced transferability between individuals, businesses and nations. Innovations in banking, such as taking deposits, effecting transfers and issuing bank notes were especially successful in the mechanisms of Dutch and French banking institutions (Woloch 129, 130).

Woloch asserts that wholesale merchants who were engaged in overseas trade and speculation were the most important stimuli in Europe’s economic success and growth during the 18th century. The higher profit potential of the time gave these merchants reason to travel further abroad for trade and risk more investment capital. A significant element which contributed to this higher profit margin was the expanded acquisition of European colonies abroad. New markets in the East and West Indies, North and Latin America, as well as West Africa offered significant sources of revenue, valuable natural resources, agricultural lands, and slave labor. New crops could be cultivated in these areas that were not agriculturally feasible in Europe: Tobacco, tea, spices, fine cloths, coffee, dyes and sugar were plentiful luxuries among tropical and island colonies like India, Martinique and Barbados. Conversely, these tropical locations depended heavily on their European mother countries for nearly everything else, such as grain and timber. Fur, leather, precious metals, sugar, tobacco, hides and fish were brought for trade in European countries from occupied areas of the Americas (Woloch 130-132).

All of this economic stimulus was backed by the discovery of additional silver and gold mines in Europe and abroad, especially in the Americas. This influx of precious metals restored value to the previously declining coinage of the 17th century. With the inherent value of coinage restored to the European economy, a kind of monetary stability was achieved (Woloch 113, 129, 133).

Europe’s exploitation of resources abroad did not end with goods and agriculture; slaves – especially those acquired from Africa – were the main labor force behind plantation crops in several European colonies, including Brazil, the Caribbean and the Americas. This new, cheap labor source supplanted the previous system which used the local populace to people this workforce of indentured servitude in a practice of increasingly dehumanizing and ferocious brutality. Many merchant sea voyages at the time consisted of a 3-legged journey, in which goods were acquired at New England or England, then traded in Africa for slaves, at which point the slaves were sold at the last stop in some colonial holding. Despite the humanism principles espoused by 18th century philosophers and scholars, this slave-based maritime mercantilism had countless supporters in Europe and its colonies due to its very lucrative proceeds in the form of goods, money and naval power. Such was the thoughtlessness of this enterprise that the horrific and deadly conditions for slaves on these long sea voyages accounted for a typical eleven percent loss through death of the slave cargoes (Woloch 134-137, 140).

Improvements in Textile manufacturing

Innovations in agricultural practice, animal husbandry and manufacturing provided the efficiency essential to economic stimulus, as well. The domestic textile production system of England, in particular, which was based in the efforts of artisan guilds and local distribution, was replaced by dramatic innovation, in manufacturing during the 18th century. Europe’s increasing demand for textiles was answered by supply through colonial exports and made possible through slave labor.  Technologies such as the flying shuttle, iron-smelting and the water frame were implemented. Britain was particularly well-suited for such industry and innovation, as the spirit of innovation which infused its farmers and landholders toward agricultural endeavors and progress also infected proponents of manufacturing and textiles. Thus, technological innovation, pioneering spirit, economic stability, a surplus and variety of natural resources, slave labor and organizational prowess caused Britain to be at the forefront of the European industrial revolution of the 18th century (Woloch 144-146, 148).

Section 2: Ideas which Supported Progress in 18th Century Europe

While a combination of economic and demographic factors led the transition of Europe to modernity, the ideas of its people contributed to these significant reforms, as well. While much of the common populace remained illiterate and uneducated, a new era began to take shape in the institutions of higher learning, salons and scholarly circles of the continent’s intellectuals and elite. Europe’s philosophes, comprised of people from all classes of society, paved the way for an increasingly forward-thinking and reason-based point of view that gave the 18th century’s industrial revolution its moral and intellectual basis for social reform.   Thus, the tide of European civilization would turn from an era of tradition to one of progress (Woloch 113)(Smith Week 1, 5, 6).


Although a devout Christian himself, Pierre Bayle’s writings on disbelief in traditional Christian beliefs introduced a crucial vein of skepticism in Enlightenment scholars. Bayle’s argument was founded in the assertion that while God’s grace could lead to salvation, intellectual endeavors such as reason and empirical evidence could bring man closer to God. Bayle considered morality to be a virtue that was distinctly independent of faith. Bayle’s ideas gave a sort of focal point to the course of the Enlightenment, which favored rational thinking to achieve goodness and morality, rather than the religious fanaticism and abuses of power which had historically characterized Church practice (Woloch 189) (Smith Week 6).


John Locke’s ideas took the philosophy of “deist ideas beyond” mere “theological debates (Woloch 190).” Building on the works of Blount and Bacon – particularly Blount’s ideas on the superior authority of God’s omnipotence in the natural world – Locke authored a pamphlet called The Reasonableness of Christianity. In it, Locke outlines his argument for fundamental tenets of Deist philosophy, namely the fallacy of the Bible, man’s capability of morality through reason, and the benevolence of God. Overall, these refined views on Christianity allowed for rational thinking in place of strict dogmas without alienating the devout. Subsequently, Blount’s assertions on the importance of objective thinking and scientific observation of the natural world gave rise to brilliant scientists and mathematicians, such as Isaac Newton (Woloch 190, 191)(Smith Week 7).



Following Blount’s and Lock’s work on Deism, as well as Bacon’s Novum Organon, Newton introduced explanations for the mechanics of the physical world which did not attribute these phenomena to any superstition or divine power. Newton was reluctant to postulate any hypothesis as to the origin of the physical world. It was Georges Buffon’s great work, the Natural History of the Earth, which outlined the basis for understanding the physical world as having evolved from a common ancestor. This theory, based in empirical observation rather than church doctrine of the Creation, was concluded to be in-keeping with church doctrine if such were interpreted “metaphorically rather than literally (Woloch 191).”

Religious Toleration

            Locke’s brand of empiricism rested in the argument that certain topics, such as theology, could not be empirically proved or disproved by anyone. This led to his subsequent assertion that humans in society should be willing to tolerate each other’s ideas, despite their differences.  This idea of religious toleration – in conjunction with the ideas of Biblical fallacy and the unreliability of Christian doctrine – resulted politically in the divorce of power between church and state, as “no political ruler” could then “claim a religious basis for power (192).” This division furthered the first of the two main goals of the Enlightenment: religious toleration (Smith Week 3).

The Separation of Powers

            In the spirit of these philosophical reforms, Montesquieu championed the cause for the separation of powers in government, advocating “the Aristotelian ideal of balance and regulation (Woloch 194)” through a system of checks and balances. He was best known for the implementation of this practice in Britain through the division of the crown’s executive power among the House of Lords and House of Commons, which in turn provided a basis for the current system of checks and balances found in the government of the United States today. This separation provided a foundation for the second of two main goals of the Enlightenment: establishment of a representative government (Smith Week 3).

Social Contract          

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s theories on Social Contract between a government and its constituents imply responsibilities on the part of both parties involved in the social contract. According to Rousseau, a government’s motivation and its strength rest in its inherent aim to represent its people. In return, this ideal and homogenous constituency, comprised of humans who are born free, must also fulfill responsibilities to preserve their own freedom. These responsibilities include participation in political matters and preservation of this freedom through selfless sacrifice and commitment to a common cause for the greater good of man. The most famous product of this endeavor by Rousseau is the famous depiction of Inalienable Rights as detailed in the United States’ “life, liberty and property” clause of its Declaration of Independence. Ironically, the very premise for this theory was made possible through the distinctly non-homogenous society of Rousseau’s time. This theory, along with the dreams of other philosophes, are significant in that they describe a type of utopia of extreme societal potential which had been previously unimagined (Woloch 198-201).

Though they are absolutely significant and alluring, ideas alone cannot transform the course of human history. While philosophy and social tenets prepare the initial framework and spirit of a society for change, it is ultimately the actions of talented and focused individuals working in collaboration with one another which effect progress through change. Humankind is wont to dream, scheme and make plans for the future in hopes of a better life, but these are merely seeds which must be sown in a fertile field of potential to be ultimately cultivated by the executors and entrepreneurs of that fecund age.

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