Science in Early Modern Europe challenged ancient beliefs while at the same time building upon scientific achievements of the Middle ages.

This scientific revolution corresponds to the period historians refer to as the Enlightenment which is to early modern science and philosophy as the Renaissance is to early modern art, or as historian Merry E. Weisner-Hanks says, “The Enlightenment was a self-conscious intellectual movement in the same way as the Renaissance had been.”[1]

The difference between these two periods is that while the Renaissance was a rebirth of ancient ideas, the Enlightenment was an attempt by intellectuals to discard ancient ideas.


Developments in Science, Mathematics, and Natural Law 

The Enlightenment saw advances in mathematics, astronomy, and the development of what we would recognize today as the scientific method. Francis Bacon (1561-1626) is credited with the development of the scientific method and “rejected earlier claims of knowledge as based on faulty reasoning, and called for natural philosophy that began with the empirical observation of many similar phenomenon.”[2]

The ideas of a helio-centric universe, in which the earth is believed to evolve around the sun, was first proposed by Copernicus and confirmed again, which the help of the newly invented telescope, by Galileo. Isaac Newton developed calculus, “a branch of mathematics that allows calculations involving rates of change, varying quantities, and curved figures, that would ultimately underlie modern physics and engineering as well as mathematics.”[3]

Europe in the Enlightenment was at a crossroads between the ancient past and the modern future, although this scientific revolution was both motivated, and hindered by, social and intellectual features of early modern European culture.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“Who would set a limit to the mind of man? Who would dare assert that we know all there is to be known?” -Galileo

The Public Sphere, Learned Societies, and Conflict with Religion 

The environment of enlightened Europe came about as new ideas found new avenues to be shared and debated. The creation of a “public sphere”, were enlightened ideas could flourish, began as “informal groups of people who gathered together to talk, argue, and debate.”[4]

This took the form of learned societies, private collections of curiosities, and national scientific academies that gave space for enlightened science and philosophy. Our friend Galileo was a member of the Academy of Linceans for example. Many of these societies could face censorship and opposition, however, if their ideas proved to be too controversial. Some journals, books, or published letters were critical of the church or of a government and brought the ire of kings and popes.

Galileo faced much opposition from the Catholic Church for his defense of Copernicus’s Helio-centric theory. The Helio-centric theory that the earth evolved around the sun challenged the religious perception of the Great Chain of Being, an ancient concept that saw the earth as the center of everything with God and heaven reigning above.

Galileo was threatened by the church many times and forced to renounce his beliefs, although this never lasted for long, eventually Galileo was sentenced to life imprisonment and spent the rest of his life under house arrest, but he continued to publish his work nonetheless.


John Locke and Radical Philosophy

Many philosophical ideas of the Enlightenment proved to be controversial as well for they praised the use of reason and rejected the divine right of kings, a view arguing that monarchs are placed on the throne by God through divine intervention. Francis Bacon’s ideas were picked up by fellow thinkers and philosophes and were applied to science, government, and what could be describe as early sociological theories.

John Locke (1632-1704) believed that experiences were the attributors to all knowledge and that humans are equal at birth and only made to be good or bad  through their experiences. Locke argued against the divine nature of kings and believed governments were responsible for the lives and property of their subjects. Weisner-Hanks describes Locke’s opinion as thus,

“Individuals had not formed a contract with their governments to avoid chaos, but simply to better assure protection for their property. Monarchs who did not do this, or who applied their powers in capricious or arbitrary ways, could justifiably be overthrown.”[5]

However, radical ideas like Locke’s could only exist in a state where there was relative little absolutism as any suggestion that a monarch could be overthrown was sure to meet with opposition. Whether new theories were based on science, natural law, or government there were limitations to areas in Europe that did not censor radical ideas.

Sources Cited

[1] Merry E Wiesner-Hanks, Early Modern Europe, 1450-1789, 2nd ed, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 367.

[2] Ibid, 374.

[3] Ibid, 379.

[4] Ibid, 368.

[5] Ibid, 383.