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Within the scope of this research, we will explain the most important results of applying the idea of freedom in the eighteenth century European society. The ideals of enlightenment, which were advocated by numerous contemporary philosophers, scientists, artists and politicians alike, were based on the concept of freedom, which applied to every sphere of public life. While some historians suggest that freedom was not a part of development path in the eighteenth century European society, it is apparent that it played a crucial role in the region’s development, which is proved by numerous factors in social, political, scientific and other spheres.
Enlightenment is the most useful single term to describe the dominant trends of the eighteenth century. A distinction is usually made between the Early Enlightenment, in roughly 1715-48, and the Mature Enlightenment, of the following decades. (Spielvogel 2005) Europe was mainly affected by the latter. In a sense “Enlightenment” amounted to a popularization of the intellectual and scientific achievements of the seventeenth century as epitomized by Locke, Descartes, and Newton. To Immanuel Kant it represented a maturing of man and a challenge to use reason. Indeed, the saying “sapere aude” (be bold to be wise) became a watchword, and belief in progress a rallying cry. (Spielvogel 2005) With such key words as freedom, virtue, happiness and humanity a new hope for mankind arose in contrast to the despair bred by wars and famines of the preceding age.
To its supporters, the spreading of light was a crusade against prejudice, irrational tradition, obscurantism, and oppression which they saw in the past. The world ruled by laws of nature appeared as a huge mechanism with God as the Great Watchmaker or Architect. Skepticism towards metaphysical speculations and religious dogmatism combined with abhorrence of fanaticism and often led to an anti-clerical stance, for the church was surely an integral part of the old regime. Yet for all the inclination toward secularism, even neo-paganism, new forms of religiosity arose, for instance Pietism or Deism. Just as the Jesuits had been in the vanguard of Catholic Reformation so the nascent Freemasonry became the champion of Enlightenment. Its role in East Central Europe proved particularly important, and the first lodge in the Habsburg monarchy appeared in Bohemia. (Spielvogel 2005)
In the age when belief in freedom and free inquiry was in the forefront of the intellectual movement, learning and education were seen as of special importance. Indeed, the century witnessed the rise of scientific societies, academies, and new educational systems. A growing number of publications culminating in the great Encyclopedic of Diderot and d’Alembert spread the new ideas. The French were in the lead and the names of Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Rousseau naturally come to mind. The appearance of Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws in 1748 may be taken as the opening date of the Enlightenment properly speaking. (Spielvogel 2005)
The eighteenth century was in many respects a glittering age that left a magnificent cultural heritage. Arts and architecture saw a transition from baroque and rococo to neoclassicism; literature developed new genres. The sophisticated and cosmopolitan society of the salons where manifestations of sensibility and sentimentalism reigned made Talleyrand speak wistfully of the douceur of life under the ancient regime. This culture was epitomized by the music of Mozart that had lost none of its greatness and appeal with the passage of time. Of course, there was a darker side. This was also a century of lax morality, corruption, brutality, and misery. In a society that was marked by decay, adventurers and charlatans like Casanova and Cagliostro thrived, moving from Paris to Warsaw and Rome to Bohemia.
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The impact of the new ideas was facilitated by the existence of great unresolved problems in political, social, and economic spheres throughout Europe, and even beyond. The American, French, and Polish Revolutions appeared to contemporaries as an unavoidable denouement. Yet the European picture was characterized by a good deal of diversity. There was the demographic expansion, even explosion in many countries. The English population grew from 6 to 9 million during 1720-1801, that of France from 18 to 24 million, in 1780-9. Hungary’s population doubled between 1720 and 1790 (from 4.1 to 8.5 million); the Czech lands had a 75 percent increase in 1670-1750. (Spielvogel 2005)
With the first censuses in East Central Europe in Bohemia (1754), Hungary (1784), and the Commonwealth (1791) we can speak of statistics with some assurance. (Spielvogel 2005) But demographic trends were not everything. Toward the end of the eighteenth century the small country of England entered on its road to power with an agricultural and then an industrial revolution that widened the distance between the island and the continent. The accumulation of capital was obviously a precondition for such a take-off. It seemed obvious to contemporaries that the state should serve as a vehicle of progress, but the form of its government was an object of disagreement. Montesquieu praised the English limited monarchy, believing, erroneously, that it was based on separation of powers. (Spielvogel 2005)
Voltaire advocated a strong monarchic government: the rulers imbued with the principles of Enlightenment acting as philosopher-kings. Rousseau seemed to favor a republican commonwealth, and unlike most people in the West liked the Polish liberum veto, for it truly demonstrated that the “general will” was more than a mere sum of votes. Perhaps Voltaire summed up best the existing alternatives: “For a state to be powerful,” he wrote, “the people must either enjoy a freedom based on law or be ruled by a strong and unchallenged government.” (Spielvogel 2005) These alternatives seemed particularly pertinent for Europe.
It was up to the government to develop an efficient bureaucracy, to maintain a standing army, assure a uniform system of general taxation, introduce a modern educational system, preside over legal reforms, and raise the living standards in the country through increased productivity and output. Enlightened absolutism was, in the words of the Hungarian historian D. Kosary, an attempt on the part of “states of the more backward European periphery to attain the level of the more developed part of Europe…while remaining in the framework of feudalism.” (Spielvogel 2005) By feudalism the author means the landowning aristocratic regime based on privilege of birth. Kosary tends to reject the interpretation according to which enlightened absolutism was either a revolutionary attempt by the bourgeoisie or alternatively a means of defense against bourgeois ambitions.
Under this scheme the conflict between the monarchy and the noble nation appears to be one over modernization, of progress versus regression. It is too easy, however, to oversimplify this complex issue. First of all, not everything that enlightened absolutism stood for can be subsumed under modernization. Second, enlightened absolutism was not the only way toward progress, for there remained the alternative mentioned by Voltaire: “freedom based on law.” (Spielvogel 2005) It may be described as enlightened constitutionalism in a monarchic or republican version, or briefly, enlightened liberty. An example of it was provided by the Polish constitution of May 3, 1791, and strivings in the same direction in Hungary. (Spielvogel 2005)
The concept of nationhood acquired a very different connotation when expressed in spiritual and cultural terms by such German Romantics as Johann Gottfried Herder. Each people could emerge from the state of barbarity and become a nation solely through the culture of the native tongue, he wrote. Three elements entered into this process: the consciousness of linguistic and ethnic community, a historical consciousness, and the consciousness of a historical mission. (Spielvogel 2005) Just as freedom was essential for the individual, so it was for the social group. Nations were really individuals writ large, which looked both to their members and to humanity. As a Hungarian historian put it: “Freedom in capital letters is the word most often found in European poetry, and in general terms this always meant the freedom of the nation.” (Spielvogel 2005)