You know one of the most difficult things when reading history, especially an intellectual history, is understanding just how revolutionary the changes during the period are. Living in a time when we have a robot exploring Mars and sending back photos and data; when some speculate that life on Earth arrived on a meteorite; when in our everyday lives with a few keystrokes we can be video chatting with someone on the other side of the world; when interacting with people from other countries, other cultures, other skin colors, other religious beliefs on a daily basis is no big deal; when in a large part of the world people are allowed to think for themselves, question authority, call it to account, make of their lives more or less what they want to; when living in a world like this, it is close to impossible to fully imagine what it must have been like living in the period Hazard covers in Crisis of the European Mind, 1680-1715.
Prior to this period was the Reformation and the Counterreformation. The Reformation itself was monumental. The Catholic Church was a monolithic power in Europe to which even Kings submitted. Luther cracked the edifice but even after that the Catholic Church was still very powerful and though there was no longer a single religion (yes, there have always been Jews and Muslims and a others, but in Europe they had no power) they were all still recognizably Christian and God was in charge of everything. Sure, there was science but science was an attempt to explain the works of God. And when an explanation could not be found it was because God’s ways were mysterious and there was no way we could fully grasp His plans for us.
So when people began talking about Reason and proof, when evidence and logic started to be called on to explain things, this was huge. People began to doubt God’s active involvement in the world and many people doubted the existence of God Himself. Religious belief and unbelief multiplied and, while to challenge God’s dominance was still frowned on by many and could bring persecution in some circles and countries, for the most part no one was tossed into jail or burned at the stake. Once people were allowed to ask questions and seek their own answers instead of having to obey the church, the doors of change were thrown wide open and there was no going back.
It was not easy or smooth going by any means. Nor was there a switch that flipped where one day everyone believed God was all and it was our duty to submit to His will and the next day God was demoted, forced to submit to Reason and the laws of Nature. It was a lurching build up to reach:
Malebranche, who refused to believe that the Almighty would put himself to such endless trouble as these constant interventions would involve, comes on the scene to inform us that God acts by way of general laws, and not by special ad hoc enactments to suit each individual case.
And it wasn’t long after that Spinoza declared religious belief no longer had any effect on conduct. The gloves came off. Spinoza was both lauded and reviled.
The champions of Reason and the champions of Religion were, in the words of Pierre Bayle, fighting desperately for the possession of men’s souls, confronting each other in a contest at which the whole of thoughtful Europe was looking on.
The debates happened very publicly with books being furiously published and translated. Some areas attempted to ban certain books but trade across borders had become so fluid that outright bans were impossible.
John Toland came on the scene and insisted there was no such thing as mystery or the supernatural. Mystery is nothing but superstition and must be stamped out. Science made advances. It was discovered that the movement of comets followed laws and had nothing to do with omens. Geometry became the language of Reason. Then Leibniz and Newton invented calculus and Newton published his book on gravity and the laws of motion.
With Reason making strong headway against Religion and science adding fuel to the fire, with morals separated from religious belief, people began to wonder what was Truth? Happiness? How should one live? Enter John Locke.