The scientific revolution
brought the importance of the individual to the forefront as never before. Copernicus
explained the apparent “mysteries” of nature
, through mathematical expression
. Almost anyone with a knowledge of these basic concepts
-expect perhaps in Newton’s case, where his equations became so complex
that even his contemporaries had trouble understanding them- one could construct and replicate the observational experiments necessary to deduce the motion of the universe
as well as the world around them.
Prior to the scientific revolution, the church held a monopoly on the view of the universe, which was based on Aristotle and Ptolemy’s contention that the Earth was the center of the universe and the moon and the planets were perfect spheres held in their epicycles by the crystalline spheres. The church supported this theory through scripture and adopted it into canonical law. Church law is not easily disputed, As St. Ignatius Loyola stated in his Spiritual Exercises: “To be right in everything, we ought always to hold that the white which I see, is black, if the Hierarchical Church so decides it….” Since the church was the voice of God on earth, to attempt to disprove the word of the church is to speak against the word of God. Such an offense was considered heresy, which was often punishable by death.
Copernicus, a Catholic priest, didn’t publish his work until just before his death. He knew the gravity (no pun intended) of his work and acted accordingly. Later Kepler took those theories and proved them mathematically. In the early 17th century, Galileo dared to refute the theologians and scholars directly. Galileo went directly to the people and told them, in essence, that they no longer needed the church or anyone else to help them decipher the universe. The same forces that acted on the earth acted on the heavens. The heavens and the earth were made of the same matter. By the time he was arrested in 1632 it was too late. The word was out: he had taken the earth out of the center of the universe, but he had ironically placed man at the center of it.
Descartes’ idea of the universe as a clock was immensely empowering. The clock is man made. If one part of the clock breaks, simply take it out and fix it. It can be taken apart and put back together with the right tools and the necessary skills. This metaphor reduced all of existence to a mechanical system that could be dismantled and examined. It also viewed God as a clockmaker, thereby creating God in man’s image, not vice versa.
The scientific revolution gave the individual the tools and systematic intelligence to investigate the universe and break it down into fundamental parts easy to examine. Towards the 18th century, scholars began to wonder if these tools could be used to examine human nature in the same way. If there are constant, unchanging laws of the world around us and the behavior of matter, are there not laws which govern the behavior of people and of the society in which we live? Also, if the scientific authority could be challenged through observation and experimentation, could not society’s authority also be challenged? These new ideas spawned a new kind of faith: the faith of logic.
Just as all matter has a natural state that it strives to remain in, so the individual has a natural state of freedom which no one can violate without his consent. The individual has the inalienable right to his person and to whatever is the fruit of his labour. Every individual is created in this natural state, making the individual free and equal to all others. When all people in a society agree to be subject to the authority of a government, they are again equal in their subordination. They enter into this agreement for the protection of their “lives, liberties and estates” (Locke “Second Treatise of Government”). Rousseau calls this agreement “The Social Contract” and states that by entering into it the individual sacrifices his natural liberty for what he calls civil liberty. This civil liberty is no liberty at all, for by entering into the social contract “every individual gives himself up entirely” (Rousseau “The Social Contract”). However, since every person in a society gives up their rights, they are left equal in their lack thereof.
Inadvertantly, Smith perpetuates this pessimistic idea by discussing the division of labor. “…by reducing every man’s business to some one simple operation, and by making this operation the sole employment of his life, necessarily increases very much the dexterity of the workman” (Smith “The Wealth of Nations”). This statement may indeed be true, but it defines the individual not by who he is or by what he can accomplish, but by what one operation he can do best. If a smith is good at making nails, then for the good of the economy he must continue to do that and only that, leaving no room for diversity or growth on the part of the laborer. Smith contradicts Rousseau, stating that men live in a state of natural liberty as subjects of the sovereign. In fact, he seems to infer that the sovereign is burdened with the duties of protecting society from internal and external strife and the propogation of public works and services; such things are not the duties of the people and therefore they are “freer” than the sovereign.
In essence, these two movements were the beginning of the end of arbitrary authority. It’s difficult to imagine a time when asking “why” was taboo, but it was once the case. The idea that there were no more “mysteries” was literally earth-shattering. It marked the end of mysticism - although many philosophes believed in such things, hence the formation of the Freemasons – and it began the age of reason, where empirical evidence reigned. The rise of the importance of the individual in society produced both inestimable progress and measureless destruction.