The leading cultural development of this cosmopolitan century was the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment can best be defined as a set of attitudes and assumptions. Fundamental to them was reason. Over the course of two centuries scientists such as Nikolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), and Galileo Galilei (1564-1620) had come to a greater understanding of physics and astronomy. The culmination of their work came in 1687, when Isaac Newton (1642-1727) published his Principia Mathematica. Here he revealed the law of universal gravitational attraction, stating that every particle of matter in the universe attracts every other particle with a force that is proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between their centers.
The idea that observation and reason could lead to the discovery of principles that were valid for all time and for all places, in the heavens and on earth, had enormous impact. Newton had discovered a law of nature, or natural law. It confirmed and strengthened the growing scientific view that the earth and the universe was material and was governed by mathematical principles. These had not been discovered by faith or biblical revelation, nor did they depend on some ancient authority, like Aristotle. Indeed, many of the observations of Newton and his predecessors challenged the "truths" of ancient philosophy and the Bible.
Newton’s ideas were accepted immediately by the scientific establishment in England and within a generation on the continent. Everywhere educated men sought to discover more natural laws, using observation and reason. A fundamental assumption they shared was that if enough natural laws were discovered and if societies came to base their laws and practices on reason, then many of the ills of society could be vanquished. One major obstacle to this future was the Church, which rightly saw that a mechaniistic view of the universe would undermine the idea of the God of the Bible, a God who violated natural laws every time he created a miracle. A second major impediment was the class-based social and political structure. It conflicted with the Enlightenment idea that men were fundamentally the same and reacted similarly to similar stimuli. Laws promulgated by monarchs or their ministers as they saw fit often appeared irrational. The view of many Enlightenment figures, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke that government was a convenience originally set up by men on a contractual basis, stood in stark contrast to the claim of monarchs that their power derived from God.
In this way the ideas of the Enlightenment were eventually subversive and had a major impact in the French Revolution.
In the meantime, many monarchs accepted the need for reform, especially as it might enrich them or enhance their authority. These developments had a major impact on Italy.
A further discussion of the
Enlightenment and its effects on Italy will be the subject of the first
lecture of Week Two.