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What is the Role of Society According to the Theorists of Enlightenment?

Theorists of Enlightenment cherished liberty and freedom. For them, these were the highest and the most cherished values, and they were critical of despotism for not sufficiently safeguarding these values.

Liberty required, on the one hand, a government in which one has the freedom to depose a tyrannical ruler and, on the other, the option to elect people whom one is expected to obey and be governed by.

A democratic regime based on the principle of popular sovereignty followed from their defense of liberty. Although many of them were skeptical of the possibility of establishing a popular, democratic government, they maintained that power that comes from the “consent of the people” alone is legitimate, and advantageous to society.

Montesquieu added another dimension to the discussion on political liberty. He maintained that liberty entails two elements: 1) a moderate government and 2) not being compelled to do anything other than what one should do. Experience shows that individuals are easily tempted to misuse their power for personal ends.

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It is therefore essential to place limitations upon the exercise o power. Montesquieu spoke of the need to curb the power of each win£ of the government.

“When legislative power is united with the executive power in a single person, or in a single body of the magistracy there is no liberty, because one can fear that the same monarch on senate that makes tyrannical laws will enforce them tyrannically.

Now is there liberty if the power of judging is not separated from that legislative and from executive power. If it were jointed to legislative power, the power over the life and liberty of the citizens would arbitrary, for the judge would be legislator if it were joined to executive power; the judge could have the force of an oppressor.

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All would be, lost if the same man, or the same body of leading men or of the or of the people, exercised all these powers, to make the laws, to carry out public decisions and to judge crimes or disputes among individuals.

Liberty did not however imply the freedom to follow one’s whims or to do that which is not permitted by law. Almost all of them accepted the importance of law. For them, obeying laws was a necessary condition of protecting liberty.

If individuals were to follow their own impulse by infringing the law then there would only be anarchy in society. Political liberty could exist only when individual citizens acknowledge the centrality of law and subject them to its command.

Indeed, the presence of political and civil laws was seen as a continuous reminder to the individual of his duty to his fellow citizens. Some theorists of Enlightenment even represented law as an embodiment of reason.

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For them laws place the necessary restraint upon passions of individuals to violate the natural order and, at the same time, they induce men to channel their sentiments in a direction that facilitates social and civil life in the world.

Individuals, in their view, can enjoy liberty only when public safety is ensured and crimes of all kinds are reduced, if not eliminated. It was regarded to be the task of the legislature to ensure this; in particular, to ensure that crime of all kinds becomes less frequent, even if that means using powerful means at its disposal to prevent disorder in society.

The Enlightenment men accepted that individuals tend overwhelmingly to pursue their own interest and this can be the cause of political disorder. Laws were, for this reason, considered necessary to place certain restraint upon unchecked pursuit of one’s own private interest. They felt that it was equally important to see that punishments for defying the law are in proportion to the evil produced by the act

Marcese di Baccaria in fact spoke of the need to devise a universal scale for measuring crime and for determining the punishment proportionate for it. If we could have a universal scale of this kind, Baccaria believed, it would be possible to measure the degree of liberty and slavery, humanity and cruelty that exists in different nations.

The Enlightenment thinkers favored freedom of enterprise. Adam Smith argued that even though individuals seek this freedom to further their own private gain, nevertheless the pursuit of self-interest is likely to promote the interest of society as a whole.

Freedom of enterprise would lead to growth in production, more employment opportunities, and this would benefit all citizens.

Although these philosophers defended capitalist enterprise and argued that a life of virtue did not entail forsaking commercial society, they created space for themselves away from the world of business, politics and fashion.

In the salons, coffee-houses and taverns of the emerging modern cities they would meet, discuss and express opinions that would be among the most influential ideas of their times.

More importantly, men, and sometimes even women, would meet as friends and as equals. Addison and Steele saw coffee-house conversation as a form of social interaction that “taught men tolerance, moderation and the pleasure of consensus, also taught them to look at their own behaviour with a critical detachment which was difficult to acquire in public life”.

The Enlightenment theorists placed considerable stress on the spirit of critique. For them virtue lay in teaching ourselves to be critical of our beliefs and in learning how to review our opinions in the light of experience.

Cultivating skeptical habits of mind would, according to Hume, help to release men from the bondage of myth and prejudice which corrupts the mind and generates enthusiasm that can stand in the way of human happiness.

Education was to play an important role in this regard. The Enlightenment had tremendous faith in the power of human beings brought up rationally from infancy, to achieve unlimited progress.

They also entrusted the state with the responsibility of changing the structure of laws and institutions, and undertaking the work of reform. Surrounded by a world that was full of promise for a better tomorrow, the Enlightenment thinkers wished to instill the spirit of tolerance and minimize crime and torture.

They were of course aware that knowledge about human nature and society would not automatically create virtue, but they believed that it could certainly shed light upon ignorance and warn us against the misuse of power.

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