The Enlightenment continued a trend that began during the Renaissance. During the Middle Ages, Europe had been dominated by the Church. Feudal monarchs, like later absolute rulers, looked to the Church to justify their royal authority. The Renaissance placed a new emphasis on secularism and individual achievement.

The Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment also stressed science and natural law rather than religious authority. Enlightenment thinkers turned away from absolutism and divine right toward democracy and individual rights. Their ideas would encourage revolutionary leaders in Europe and the Americas. Though Christianity would remain a strong force in western culture, most governments became increasingly secular. The French Revolution in particular would see a radical decline in Church influence on government.

Hobbes and Locke on the Role of Government

During the 1600s, two English thinkers, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, set forth ideas that were to become key to the Enlightenment. Both men lived through the upheavals of the English Civil War. Yet they reached different conclusions about human nature and the purpose and proper role of government.

Hobbes Argues for Powerful Government

In 1651, Thomas Hobbes outlined his ideas in a work titled Leviathan. In it, he argued that people were naturally cruel, greedy, and selfish. If not strictly controlled, they would fight, rob, and oppress one another. Life in the “state of nature”—without laws or other control—would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

To escape that “brutish” life, said Hobbes, people entered into a social contract, an agreement by which they gave up their freedom for an organized society. Hobbes believed that only a powerful government could ensure an orderly society. For him, such a government was an absolute monarchy, which could impose order and compel obedience. Not surprisingly, Hobbes had supported the Stuart kings in their struggle against Parliament.

Locke Focuses on Natural Rights

John Locke had a more optimistic view of human nature. He thought people were basically reasonable and moral.

Further, they had certain natural rights, or rights that belonged to all humans from birth. These included the right to life, liberty, and property.

In Two Treatises of Government, Locke argued that people formed governments to protect their natural rights. The best kind of government, he said, had limited power and was accepted by all citizens. Thus, unlike Hobbes, Locke rejected absolute monarchy.

Locke proposed a radical idea about this time. A government, he said, has an obligation to the people it governs. If a government fails its obligations or violates people's natural rights, the people have the right to overthrow that government. Given these ideas, Locke supported the overthrow of James II in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. In Locke's view, the king deserved to lose his throne because he had violated the rights of the English people.

Locke's idea would one day influence leaders of the American Revolution, such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. Locke's idea of the right of revolution would also echo across Europe and Latin America in the centuries that followed.

Illustration of an oversized crowned man holding a scepter and sword, whose body is shaded in with smaller figures of many people, looming over a city.

This illustration from Thomas Hobbes's book Leviathan reflects his belief in a powerful ruler. The monarch rises above all society, just as the mythological Leviathan, or sea monster, rises above all the seas.


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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments