The Foundations of Government

The “Enlightenment” or the “Age of Realization” was an age of great advancement and reform for all of Europe and beyond. Great advancements were being made in the fields of science, philosophy, mathematics, and logic. Most people attribute these achievements to the social critics of that time, also known as the philosophers. These philosophers were controversial thinkers and pioneered the intellectual movements of the 1700’s. They stood up for what they believed in, although they were constantly criticized and censured by many other people.

Such philosophers include Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Aristotle, and Montesquieu. Although their beliefs contradicted, they were all working to change what they thought was wrong with their present government. They were four men who disagreed about almost everything, and yet they were working towards a common goal. Thomas Hobbes was born in London, England in 1588. He was educated at Oxford University in England where he studied the classics. In 1651, Hobbes wrote his most famous book, Leviathan. In this book he argued that most people were born evil and could not be trusted to govern themselves.

He thought that a ruler needed to have complete control over his people to govern efficiently. His idea was to have something to force the people to obey their ruler at all costs. He called this document the Social Contract. He thought that giving power to an individual would start a “war of every man against every man” and make life “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. “Although these thoughts may seem to label Thomas Hobbes as a supporter of an authoritarian government, he favored a representative democracy.

He coined the phrase, “voice of the people,” but he thought that this “voice” should be vetoed if a ruler deemed it proper. John Locke was born in 1632 at Wrinton in Somerset, England. He opposed the views of Thomas Hobbes and thought that people were born neither good nor evil. He believed that people’s characters were solely based on their experiences and their environment. He also believed that people could learn from their experiences and change their characters for the better. He believed that people had three Natural Rights- life, liberty, and property.

In Locke’s eyes, the purpose of the government was to protect the people’s Natural Rights. He thought that if the government was not doing this job, that the people had the right to overthrow it. Although it may seem that Locke would support a democracy, he was not a democrat. He believed that laborers were of a lower status that the middle and upper classes and had no place meddling in the affairs of the government. He believed that the poor had neither the education nor the inclination to make political decisions responsibly.

This was a popular belief of the time. Many of Locke’s political ideas, such as those relating to natural rights, property rights, the duty of the government to protect these rights, and the rule of the majority, were later embodied in the United States Constitution. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born in Geneva in Switzerland in 1712. He thought humans were naturally good, but are corrupted by society, and therefore humans should not be in society, but in small groups in nature.

He believes in equal rights and unalienable rights which are thoughts in the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. Aristotle believes that everything in the universe has a goal in life. He thinks that the goal of a human life is to achieve happiness and that happiness is different for every person. Aristotle felt that through the four qualities of wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice, a person could be led to happiness. Baron de Montesquieu was in Born in Bordeaux, France in 1689 as Charles Louis de Secondat.

Although he was born to a wealthy family, he was placed in the care of a poor family during his childhood. He studied science and history in college, eventually becoming a lawyer. After his father died he was placed under the care of his uncle, Baron de Montesquieu. When his uncle died, Charles Louis de Secondat acquired his title and his fortune. He believed that all things were made up of rules or laws that never changed. To him there were three types of government: a monarchy, a republic, and a despotism.

He argues that the best government would be the one in which power was balanced among three groups of officials-and idea he called “separation of powers. ” His ideas became the basis for the United States Constitution. Each of these enlightenment thinkers has a different view about people and about life. The United States mainly based their government and Constitution on Montesquieu’s “separation of powers” but the United States didn’t just take the ideas of one philosopher, they took different ideas from each and adapted them to work for the United States which ultimately worked out for the best.


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