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Natural Law, Scientific Revolution and Age of Genius

Updated on June 27, 2015

The 17th and 18th Century

Part I

1. Define the idea of “natural law” that was generally accepted throughout Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries

This was a system of right and or justice that was held as common for all people in the west during the seventeenth and eighteenth century. These unwritten laws held that man had the ability to make moral judgments (using reason to analyze social and personal human nature) and in so doing, arrive at binding rules of moral behavior. In Europe, the idea of natural law was born out of a need for a theory of natural law that was common to all societies as well as to counter moral skepticism that had started emerging in most parts of the continent. Given that there was a growing division that was majorly influenced by religious and differences and colonial wars, Europe needed a moral basis that would act as the binding force of the international law across Europe and natural law appeared to be the ideal choice. Considered inherent in nature and having a universal application, the natural law was regarded as the most ideal law that would help determine whether the conduct of an individual were right or wrong.

2. Briefly explain what is meant by the “scientific revolution” that took place in seventeenth

Century Europe and how it marked a departure from ancient and medieval philosophy.

During the seventeenth century, the scientific revolution brought about significant changes and an emergence of modern science during this period. With scientific revolution, there was a greater understanding of the physical world as well as the natural man. Primarily being an epistemological revolution, the scientific revolution played a crucial part in changing the thought process of man, and is therefore also regard to as an intellectual revolution. As a result of the scientific revolution, press printing allowed people to read for themselves for the first time, which helped in changing their process of thought. This not only led them to feel the need to explain the nature of the world around them as well as human nature, but also to question their religious leaders and philosopher. Scientific revolution therefore overturned not only the authority of the church, but also that of intellects such as Aristotle, Galen and Ptolemy. With the people able to read and question medieval philosophy, they found out that experimentation that the revolution had brought proved more favorable and reliable enough and thus abandoned the medieval scientific philosophy, which was not founded on valid methods and experiments.

4. Who were the major “physiocrats” or “economists” during the Age of the Enlightenment and what issues did they agree and disagree?

Referring to themselves as the economists, Physiocrats considered themselves as having been the first to consider the problem and issues of economy on a national platform. During the enlightenment, the major physiocrats included François Quesnay and Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot. According to the Physiocrats, the entire society would ultimately benefit of everyone was free to pursue their own economic self- interests. Moreover, they were of the opinion that the government should not impose regulations on the economy, and thus stay clear of free play and natural economy (laissez-faire economics). Moreover, they felt that the wealth of nations was solely founded on the value of their respective land development/agriculture. In addition, they agreed that products from these lands (agricultural products) should have a high price in order to improve the wealth of the nation.

For this group, the good people of people of value were the agricultural laborers since they tended the land and strived to grow crops, which would in turn benefit the nation. For this reason, other groups such as the merchants, artisans and those who lived in the city were labeled as the sterile category, and were not considered to create value.

Part 2

1. Discuss why the seventeenth century in Europe is called the “age of genius”, and explain the major developments in science and philosophy that took place together with the most influential contributors and their works

The seventeenth century is widely regarded as a time of significant creativity in sciences, arts, philosophy as politics. With a significant development of science as well as scientific thoughts, the century became regarded as the age of genius. A variety of scientists in various arenas set out to make a wide range of discoveries that would change the world in ways that had never been seen before. For instance, Robert Boyle made a discovery that pressure of a gas in a closed container is inversely proportional to the container, Giovanni Borelli focused his efforts in lenses, and Galileo Galilei defined various mathematical laws while Isaac Newton went on to articulate the law of gravity. These are just among a few of the scientists and inventors who made discoveries that propelled science. The seventeenth century also brought with it the age of reason in philosophy having succeeded the era of Renaissance philosophy. It was in this age that starting from Rene Descartes and Baruch Spinoza, unified systems of logic, ethics, epistemology and metaphysics among a few others were brought in to light. These and other philosophers paved the way for other philosophers such as John Locke, Immanuel Kant and Thomas Hobbes, who have made significant contributions in the field of philosophy as a whole.

Through the contribution of scientists and inventors, there were major discoveries that were appropriately applied in mining, agriculture, business and even navigation. This gave ground for more innovation and advancements in technology all aimed at making work easier and generating higher revenues. In philosophy, individual philosophers were motivated to think for themselves and question those in authority (religious and intellects). This gave birth to various schools of through reason including rationalism and empiricism among others.

In conclusion, it is safe to say that the age of genius was in deed as age that brought about remarkable changes that had neither been seen nor would ever be seen again. The people were finally able to think for themselves, question the status quo and put their reasoning, skills and talents to the test. It is from this age that further advancements in technology and philosophy can be seen today.

Compare and contrast the positions expressed by Thomas Hobbes and John Locke regarding natural law and government, and discuss the influences that their works had on the development of political thought both during their own time and later.

Today, John Locke is widely regarded as one of the major founders of the liberal political philosophy, which is the philosophy of limited government and individual rights. On the other hand, Hobbes held a negative view on the natural law, pointing out that anarchy and civil wars were as a result of the preference of both natural and divine laws over the sovereign. In his opinion, established laws were better than the traditional higher law doctrines. For this reason, he motivated the people to accept and abide by the established laws not matter how oppressive they seemed.

Although the two were social contract theorists and natural law theorists, they differed significantly on both natural law and government. Where as Locke felt that a ruler who seeks absolute power should be removed from power forcefully given that the people has the right to do so, Hobbes insisted that there can be no breach of the social contract (covenant on the part of the sovereign). In this case, the king/government is always right given that it acts according to the law, and therefore can do no wrong. In Hobbes opinion, the people enter in to a social contract and thus concede their rights to the government for their life. In such a case, they are simply to be governed and should abide by the laws. However, Locke disagrees and explains that men, by their nature have rights, and can therefore confront the government. The civil society, according to Locke, and contrary to Hobbes precedes the state (morally and historically). Moreover, it is the society that creates order (not the government) and grants legitimacy to the state. For this reason, the society has the right to confront the government.

In conclusion, Hobbes, like Socrates, does not believe that people have the capacity to live in a democracy. He therefore explains that like sheep, the people are in need of a strong government/king, which has the necessary knowledge to rule and protect the people. However, Locke suggests that it is the people/society, who gives legitimacy to the government, and therefore the government can not assume absolute power over them since power belongs to the people.


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