Seventeenth Century Europe


The seventeenth century saw a continuation of the processes and ideas begun during the Renaissance, with a growth in religious dissent and in the number of Christian denominations, together with much religious persecution and warfare. Atheism was uncommon and persecuted, but criticism of organised religion and traditional religious beliefs was widespread, often coupled with radical political ideas.

The English Civil War typified this in some ways. Partly motivated by religious fervour, with the Puritans opposing the power of the King and the “popish” elements in the Church of England, it saw a proliferation of radical religious groups such as the Diggers and the Levellers, who wanted religious, political and social reforms. There was no parallel expansion of religious tolerance – each sect was confident that they had found the truth and they were not inclined to tolerate each other. Many of these groups were seen as socially disruptive and heretical, and were persecuted. The religious leader George Fox (1624 -91) is a typical example of the radical questioning and desire for reform and change seen in seventeenth century England. He rebelled against the formality and dogma of the established church, wanting a much more personal belief system. He formed the Society of Friends (also known as “Quakers”) whose meetings contain no ritual. Fox spent time in prison for his beliefs, and his followers were persecuted. Many of them emigrated to form a Quaker colony in Pennsylvania.

The beheading of Charles I marked the end of unquestioned acceptance of “the divine right of kings” – the idea that kings were appointed by God and therefore must not be opposed – and a weakening of the traditional authority of religion. England became more democratic, with Parliament taking over the Crown’s authority (and retaining much of it even after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660), though it was not a tolerant or free society.

The arts and sciences

Theatre was banned under the Puritan regime in England, but the Restoration in 1660 ushered in a more relaxed attitude to the arts. Drama became thoroughly secular, and women were for the first time allowed to perform on the stage. Aphra Behn was able to earn her living by writing.

Just as writers like Montaigne had done a two centuries earlier, European philosophers and thinkers continued to question the orthodoxies of their day, some of the most notable being Hobbes, Descartes and Spinoza

Scientists built on the method and discoveries of their predecessors. The work of Isaac Newton (1642-27) influenced science and thought profoundly, whilst William Harvey (1578-1637), who discovered the circulation of the blood, put physiology on a more scientific course.

The Eighteenth Century: the “Age of Enlightenment” or “Age of Reason”

The eighteenth century was a period of intellectual discovery and ferment in Europe, with dissent (religious, political, and social) becoming more open, despite widespread censorship and the risks of punishment. A few enlightened rulers, such as Frederick the Great of Prussia, were patrons of radical writers and thinkers, fostering the growth of new ideas. The radical campaigner, Thomas Paine, influenced the French and American revolutions which took place at the end of the century, and Mary Wollstonecraft pioneered feminist ideas in her writings.

Religion and Philosophy

Though still unusual and generally disapproved of, religious scepticism became more common in eighteenth century Europe, partly as a consequence of the development of a more scientific view of the universe.

The Scottish philosopher, David Hume wrote sceptically about miracles (in Section X of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 1748) and about religion in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion(published, perhaps wisely, posthumously in 1779).

In France, the “philosophes”, a group of radical and free-thinking philosophers were highly influential. They expressed their liberal, materialist, empiricist and naturalist ideas, and their sceptical attitude to religion, in the Encyclopedie (compiled between 1751 and 1765). Their ideas influenced the course of the French Revolution, especially its anti-clericalism and attempts at secularisation, but they would have detested the intolerance and excesses of the Terror (see Voltaire).

In Germany, the philosopher Immanuel Kant revolutionised the studies of metaphysics and ethics. Although a religious believer, he offered a rational basis for morality, and has exerted a powerful influence on later philosophers.

The arts

At the end of the century, the Romantic movement in the arts began. In some ways, in its reverence for feeling above reason, it was a reaction against the scientific and philosophical ideas of the day which are so appealing to humanists. But a new attitude to nature, one of awe and wonder, typified in the poetry of William Wordsworth, was a lasting legacy of the Romantics and one with which many humanists sympathise.

Edward Gibbon’s historical writing on early Christianity was controversial and influential.

For teachers

Humanist Perspectives 1 and Humanist Perspectives 2 (BHA) contain more concise versions of humanist history, together with pupil pages on a range of issues designed for easy photocopying and much useful information for teachers.