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The Early Modern Intellectual World. Its effects on ideas of justice and human rights. BIG QUESTION (based on the theme of the course): How and why did Early Modern thinkers give rise to modern ideas of human rights and justice? . Caution.

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the early modern intellectual world

The Early Modern Intellectual World

Its effects on ideas of justice and human rights


BIG QUESTION (based on the theme of the course): How and why did Early Modern thinkersgive rise to modern ideas of human rights and justice?


The big designation Scientific Revolution has been criticized by historians because it implies revolutionary change when, in fact, the changes were part of a slow process of change that had gone on for centuries. However, there is no doubt, for instance, that the idea of a heliocentric universe replacing that of a geocentric one had huge implications.

further cautions
Further Cautions

It’s important to realize, too, that

  • The discoveries of people like Copernicus and Galileo were embedded in a society that was very busy killing people and engaging in religious wars
  • The ideas of Descartes, Locke, and Hobbes were born in a society that hardly was egalitarian.
  • This is intellectual history and it rides on a social and economic base.
  • Where was justice before this time? Scriptures, afterlife (you get your just desserts in Heaven or Hell; and you can pay penance in Purgatory), and there was law
  • We have just seen a form of justice in the witchcraft trials and pardon tales. Copernicus, Galileo, and others did their work as the trials were going on
scientific revolution an iffy concept
Scientific Revolution (an Iffy concept)
  • One of its questions: How can the world be known when the old system of knowing it collapses?
  • The collapse:
    • Displaced the Earth as the center of the universe
    • Shook faith in God
    • Shook faith in human importance
    • Led to notions of equality over hierarchy (will get to that)
    • Changed ways of thinking but had debt to ancient and medieval thought even as it overturned it
scientific revolution debates among historians
Scientific Revolution Debates among Historians
  • Not one revolution but aseries of revolutions – paradigm shifts – of the same pattern?
    • Nature of universe (16th-17th c)
    • Circulation of the blood (Harvey)
    • Later revolutions in chemistry. biology, nuclear physics
other historians argue
Other historians argue . . .
  • It wasn’t a scientific revolution because that wasn’t the way the scientists themselves saw things
    • They thought they were recovering ancient learning, not making something new
    • They did not make distinctions among fields of study and often worked in more than one
  • The “revolutions” were part of a continuum of thought.
predecessors to the scientific revolution it was part of a continuum

Predecessors to the Scientific Revolution (It was part of a continuum)

The Ancient Greeks

Medieval Thinkers

ancient greeks ideas of the universe
Ancient Greeks’ ideas of the universe
  • believed in abstract perfection (the ideal circle, which never could exist in reality)
  • believed earth was spherical – proved by observation
  • believed the moon, sun, and stars were celestial crystalline spheres – purer and non-earthly while the Earth was material and so not pure, therefore inferior, but Earth was still the CENTER of the universe
  • The earth didn't move
ptolemy 2nd c ad his idea of the universe
Ptolemy (2nd c AD) – his idea of the universe

His model of the universe is based on the ideas of Greek astronomers. It is often called the Aristotelian universe (after the Greek philosopher Aristotle).The earth is in the center, with the moon, sun, and planets in circular orbits around it. The sun is in between Venus and Mars. What does this say about the position of human beings (earthlings) in the universe?

ptolemy s epicycles
Ptolemy’s Epicycles

Why was retrograde motion a necessity in his universe?

medieval notions of nature
Medieval Notions of Nature
  • Everything composed of earth, air, fire, or water, each of which follows its ideal nature
    • earth and water – heavy – moved down
    • air and fire – light – moved up
    • fifth element: aether, more pure than the rest – heavenly bodies ("up“) composed of aether
    • owed something to the ancient Greeks
    • This fits with religion or religion fits with it?
  • Disdain for the earthly and striving for the heavenly, which is the ideal and better and qualitatively different
    • body and spirit two different things
    • God is in the heavens, which are pure
  • Christianity fitted well into the Aristotelian/Ptolemaic universe. Where else should humans, God’s creatures, live but in the center of the universe.
  • Thomas Aquinas (13th century) thought that
    • Reason and faith are not opposites but should work together
    • Humans should investigate nature
from dante s the divine comedy 1265 1321
From Dante's The Divine Comedy (1265-1321)

Aristotle’s ideas still held. The moon, sun, and planets were in the same positions. The planets were named after the ancient gods, though the names were Roman, not Greek.  

Heaven (and God) were outside the fixed stars. Hell was inside of and below earth, with Purgatory above it.

painting of the universe on the third day of creation by hieronymus bosch
Painting of the Universe on the Third Day of Creation by Hieronymus Bosch
  • This is from his famous triptych, “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” c. 1500


The first men we think of as real “scientists” – Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo – lived in the 16th and early 17th century. They took the earth from the center of the universe and replaced it with the sun.

This was the time of witchcraft trials.

How can you explain that?

nicolaus copernicus 1473 1543
Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543
  • Argued that
    • the sun was the center of the universe, not Earth
    • the Earth moved
    • space was big but a place of fixed stars
  • Relied on sense perceptions – What he saw was what you got
  • Displaced Ptolemy's model, except he did not give up the idea that heavenly bodies moved in circles so some aspects of Ptolemy's model still applied

Copernicus’ Universe: The little circle in the center (Sol) is the sun. Earth is the third planet.

copernicus said
Copernicus said:

"At rest in the middle of everything is the sun. For in this most beautiful temple, who would place this lamp in another or better position than that from which it can light up the whole thing at the same time? For, the sun is not inappropriately called by some people the lantern of the universe, its mind by others, and its ruler by still others. [Hermes] the Thrice Greatest labels it a visible god, and Sophocles' Electra, the all-seeing. Thus indeed, as though seated on a royal throne, the sun governs the family of planets revolving around it. Moreover, the earth is not deprived of the moon's attendance. On the contrary, as Aristotle says in a work on animals, the moon has the closest kinship with the earth. Meanwhile the earth has intercourse with the sun, and is impregnated for its yearly parturition. In this arrangement, therefore, we discover a marvelous symmetry of the universe, and an established harmonious linkage between the motion of the spheres and their size, such as can be found in no other way.”

copernicus universe
Copernicus’ Universe

What could have been the cultural effect of his displacing the earth from the center of the universe?

giordano bruno 1548 1600
Giordano Bruno (1548-1600)
  • He said the universe was infinite, a place with many worlds. If God is infinite, isn’t the universe infinite?
  • He rejected the geocentric (Earth-centered) idea as did Copernicus
  • BUT he also went beyond the heliocentric (Sun-centered) model – to him the universe had no center and everything in it moved. The stars were suns.
  • He saw the heavenly bodies as concentric memory wheels. In observing them, the mind would see ideas in every-changing relationships, and this would lead to lost wisdom
  • He was not an astronomer, in the strictest sense of the word, but a philosopher.
Church officials ordered Bruno to recant his ideas, "diverse horrid opinions" which they thought were heretical
  • He wouldn’t do it. So they tortured him. He still wouldn’t recant
  • On February 17th, 1600, he was burned at the stake

Giordano Bruno by Avicenna

johann kepler 1571 1630
Johann Kepler (1571-1630)
  • He discovered that planets move in elliptical orbits around sun
  • So the universe wasn’t “perfect” anymore
galileo 1564 1642
Galileo (1564-1642
  • Showed that the universe moved in non-ideal ways.
  • Used the telescope for direct observation of the heavens – sun spots, phases of Venus – and got a better impression of what they were made of. It wasn’t all that pure and ethereal.

Galileo’s all-too-solid moon.

Galileo’s InquisitionHe abjured his “heretical ideas” and wasn’t killed but placed under house arrest.
why was galileo so controversial
Why was Galileo so controversial?
  • Argued that "in discussions of physical problems we ought to begin not from the authority of scriptural passages, but from sense-experiences and necessary demonstrations; for the holy Bible and the phenomena of nature proceed alike from the divine word . . .It is necessary for the Bible, in order to be accommodated to the understanding of every man, to speak of many things which appear to differ from the absolute truth so far as the bare meaning of the words is concerned. But Nature, on the other hand, is inexorable and immutable; she never transgresses the laws imposed upon her, or cares a whit whether her abstruse reasons and methods of operation are understandable to men.” Link to complete document, a letter to Queen Christina of Sweden, written in 1615:
  • Church position – adherence to Aristotelian universe.
  • Question: Analogy today?
blaise pascal
Blaise Pascal

Pascal, who was French, is difficult to slot into a disciplinary category: he was a philosopher, a mathematician, and a physicist. Probability theory owes something to him as do the ideas of Rousseau (18th century) and the existentialists (20th century). He was a believer in God.

Very famous is Pascal’s Wager: Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us consider the two possibilities. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Hesitate not, then, to wager that He is.Pensees (1670)

a quotation from pascal
A quotation from Pascal

“For, after all, what is man in nature? A nothing in comparison with the infinite, an absolute in comparison with nothing, a central point between nothing and all. Infinitely far from understanding these extremes, the end of things and their beginning are hopelessly hidden from him in an impenetrable secret. He is equally incapable of seeing the nothingness from which he came, and the infinite in which he is engulfed. What else then will he perceive but some appearance of the middle of things, in an eternal despair of knowing either their principle or their purpose? All things emerge from nothing and are borne onwards to infinity. Who can follow this marvelous process? The Author of these wonders understands them. None but he can.”

quotations from pascal
Quotations from Pascal
  • Nature is an infinite sphere of which the center is everywhere and the circumference nowhere.Pensées (1670)
  • Through space the universe grasps me and swallows me up like a speck; through thought I grasp it. Pensées (1670)
  • What is man in nature? Nothing in relation to the infinite, all in relation to nothing, a mean between nothing and everything.Pensées (1670)
  • [I feel] engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces whereof I know nothing, and which know nothing of me, I am terrified The eternal silence of these infinite spaces alarms me. Pensées (1670)
  • The sole cause of man's unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.Pensées (1670)
  • There is almost nothing right or wrong which does not alter with a change in clime. A shift of three degrees of latitude is enough to overthrow jurisprudence. One's location on the meridin decides the truth, that or a change in territorial possession. Fundamental laws alter. What is right changes with the times. Strange justice that is bounded by a river or mountain! The truth on this side of the Pyrenees, error on the other.Pensées (1670)
  • The more I see of men, the better I like my dog. H Eves Return to Mathematical Circles (Boston 1988).
in the new thinking
In the New Thinking
  • The Earth does not represent imperfection and sin any more
  • The universe isn’t “perfect” either. The other heavenly bodies are made of the same “stuff” as Earth
  • The Earth is not the center of the universe
didn t have much effect on the ordinary guy maybe but
Didn't have much effect on the ordinary guy (maybe) BUT
  • Science gained importance in (elite) society.
  • Science was supported by
    • Monarchs
    • Schools – new ones
    • Learned societies
  • More men were attracted to science as a profession. This was partly the fault of the religious wars – why go into theology?
  • Scientists sought to segregate scientific knowledge (knowledge of nature) from religious knowledge
  • Natural philosophy even got into the nature of God and how the world was created
ren descartes 1596 1650
René Descartes (1596-1650)
  • Catholic yet accepted Copernicus’ idas
  • Made up philosophical system that was outside religion
  • Discourse on Method – revolved "to seek no other knowledge than that which I might find within myself, or perhaps in the great book of nature.“ He is the one who said, "I think, therefore I am."
  • He wondered whether the world itself might be an illusion
  • Cartesianism: systematic doubting relies on individual reason
  • implicitly egalitarian: all men (and women) reasonable
thomas hobbes 17th century
Thomas Hobbes (17th century)
  • In Leviathan (1651), he said that humans are selfish – "of the voluntary acts of every man, the object is some good to himself.”
  • He asked the question: What would society be like in "state of nature" (no law, no state)? His answer: life would be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” a "war of every man against every man"
  • Still, he thought people were rational, capable of agreeing to give up their “right to violence.
  • So, according to him, the State (leviathan) is necessary. The power of the state comes from its citizens, but even so, the state should have absolute authority, in return for which it guarantees peace.
  • According to Hobbes, justice is a social construction. Law is dependent on power and justice is what the law says it is.
john locke 1632 1704
John Locke (1632-1704)
  • Believed the individual should use reason to look for truth, should look for evidence, should not depend on authorities BUT also
  • Thought institutions can have legitimate functions beneficial to the welfare of individual and society
locke s an essay concerning human understanding
Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

In the Essay, Locke:

  • Asks: What can we know? What can we now?
  • Presents his idea that a human being is born a blank slate (tabula rasa) and that therefore our ideas come from experience.
locke s two treatises of government
Locke’s Two Treatises of Government
  • Inthe Treatises, Locke:
    • Speaks against the divine right of kings and the absolute monarch – kings should rule with the consent of the community. If they do not, they can be removed.
    • Discusses the idea of natural rights (rights that human beings have just because they are human beings – e.g., the right not to be killed)
    • Advocates transferring some rights to government and keeping others (social contract)
    • Attacked censorship of print
differences hobbes and locke
Differences Hobbes and Locke?
  • Hobbes was pessimistic about human nature, Locke optimistic
  • While both agreed the state exists by consent of governed (voluntarily giving up their rights), Hobbes believed in absolutism, Locke in the right of people to remove an absolute monarch
  • We inherit more from Locke than Hobbes?
enlightenment 1690 1790

As you will see, the historical period we call the Enlightenment was not so much a new enlightenment springing from darkness as a part of an intellectual continuum. How were Enlightenment thinkers different from those who went before them?

preoccupations of enlightenment
Preoccupations of Enlightenment
  • Owed debt to and was intricately involved with Scientific Revolution
    • Man using reason can figure out Nature's laws
    • Man, using reason, can figure out laws of human behavior and society
    • How?
    • observation rather than analogy or received wisdom or principle
    • experience more important than rational speculation
    • particular over general
isaac newton d 1727
Isaac Newton (d. 1727)
  • His Discoveries:
    • Calculus
    • Light
    • Laws of motion (showed how planets moved)
  • Until 20th century we lived in a Newtonian world; in some ways we still do
  • His ideas
    • The universe is made of matter same as earth.
    • The world and universe follow the same laws.
    • Nature has order and meaning – based on reason.
  • Pope (the poet) re Newton: "Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night/God said, Let Newton be! and all was light"
enlightenment religion
Enlightenment: religion?
  • Religious relativism; no one religion is intrinsically better than another
    • skeptics – doubted rather than believed
    • deists – "natural religion"
    • pantheists – natural world = god
  • Reaction against superstition and clericalism
  • Most intellectuals still believed in a supreme being, but not necessarily a Christian God
what is a human being can we know the world and change it
What is a human being? Can we know the world and change it?
  • How can we change human society (and politics) to be more just?
  • Humanity is progressing, humans are moving toward perfectability (hangover from the past?)
  • BUT we are not the center of the universe
the new sciences of man
The New Sciences of Man:
  • Turning the scientific method on human concerns
  • Science of politics recalls Hobbes and Locke
  • In nature, humans are free and equal
  • Government should reflect natural law
  • Reason throws doubt on everything – divine right, for instance
  • Reason says all people have reason, so therefore all people are equal
  • Reason leads to a critique of authority; question, decide for yourself based on what you see
  • Progress: possible because thought is not dependent on old sources (e.g. Bible)
the pursuit of happiness
The Pursuit of Happiness
  • Afterlife to here and now
  • The material world is not BAD
  • You can have both individual good and social good
charles de secondat baron de montesquieu 1689 1755
Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu (1689-1755)
  • Said the forces that created different kinds of states and their laws (republican, monarchical, etc.) allowed changes due to human will
  • human will should reject things like slavery and torture
  • human will can create conditions of liberty
  • separation of executive, legislative, judiciary
  • He expressed here real hatred of despotism, clericalism and slavery
jean jacques rousseau 1712 1778
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)
  • "Man is born free and is everywhere in chains. . ." (Social Contract)
  • Said people in society participate in making law, so obedience to that law is liberty, because it came from each person's will
  • general will, "forced to be free"
  • sovereignty of the people
  • wanted moral reform, renewal of religion, manners
voltaire francois marie arouet 1694 1778
Voltaire (Francois-Marie Arouet (1694-1778)
  • Cultivated by Frederick the Great (Prussia), enlightened despot
  • Influenced by Newton and Locke (man has no innate ideas, tabula rasa or blank slate)
  • Fought superstition and cruelty
  • Author of Candide
    • characters represent something – Pangloss represents philosophy
  • Embodied Enlightenment values but shows end of facile optimism earlier
cesare beccaria 1738 1794
Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794)
  • wanted to reform the criminal justice system, working with a group called the “academy of fists.
  • knew philosophers like Hobbes and Montesquieu
  • wrote On Crimes and Punishments (1764), a protest and argument against torture, the use of capital punishment, inconsistent sentencing, arbitrary judicial power, and more. This book was read by kings and philosophers.

For an excerpt from his book, go to:

enlightenment kings
Enlightenment Kings
  • Legitimacy of royal family, which came from the notion of divine right), but
    • a new sense of public service according to rational principles
    • Abandoning of religion and tradition as justification for their power
  • State power still important
  • Welfare of subject more important than it had been
enlightened despotism
Enlightened despotism

Frederick II of Prussia, Catherine II of Russia, Emperor Joseph II Ended some privilege – e.g. power of guilds

  • Codified laws of state
  • Improved education
  • Softened prison system
  • Abolished or restricted use of torture in criminal cases
  • End of arbitrary arrest and persecution of religious minorities
  • Government exists by will of the people
question again
Question – Again

How and why did Early Modern thinkersgive rise to modern ideas of human rights and justice?