Isaac Newton, The Enlightenment and Republicanism

Christmas Day 1642 saw the birth of a baby who would grow up to affect our world in ways unimaginable even to himself.  His name was Isaac (subsequently Sir Isaac) Newton. Why does this interest me as a republican? Because as a giant of the Age of Enlightenment his achievement symbolises a way of thinking which was becoming universal. His birth date was, to some extent, ironic.  For most of his life Newton was a mystic interested in alchemy and the goal of spiritual purification it represented.  Such was the astonishing success of his Theory of Universal Gravitation, however, that by the time of his death in 1726, there are indications that Newton himself had started to consider that a purely mechanical explanation of the Universe was possible.

So what were these new ways of thinking which caused a profound change? The Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th Centuries in Europe entailed the view that an understanding of the world could come from human reason.  Enlightenment thinking influenced almost all areas of human intellectual activity including the emerging sciences, art, philosophy and politics. Vital to the movement was an eagerness to question assumptions, to accept no authority as sacrosanct. As JGA Pocock put it:

 …the Enlightenment generally [was] based on a complete rejection of prophecy, revelation and the Hebrew mode of thought at large.

 J.G.A Pocock:   The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition

What form did this new thinking take in the political arena? Before the Enlightenment, monarchs were considered to be the representation of the eternal truth of god which lay beyond time itself. From this we get the idea of a Divine Right of Kings. The notion of a time-bound head of state was literally inconceivable throughout much of Europe following the fall of the Roman Republic and the rise in dominance of Judeo-Christian orthodoxy. The century before the Enlightenment, however, saw rapid developments in political philosophy by a group of thinkers in Florence, Italy and, to a lesser extent, the ‘Serene Republic of Venice’. This explosion of thought in the late 15th and early 16th Centuries, (of which the most famous contributor today is Niccolo Machiavelli) slowly spread through Europe, fostering the idea that a nation could persist without its head of state being linked to an eternal god. Closely associated was a humanist concept which led to a concern during the Enlightenment with  ending the abuses of church and state.  From now on, liberty, progress and tolerance were to be underpinned by reason. But the move to a separation of Church and State was also attractive to many religious communities. It was all very well the monarch being a representative of god, but what happens if is is not your god? In England this all led to the effective ending of the concept of Divine Right in 1688-9 with the Glorious Revolution and the English Bill of Rights which I have blogged about here. This was only one year after the first publication of Newton’s theory in his Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica.

I consider that the Age of Enlightenment is still with us, a dominant force shaping todays world. Enlightenment is a process combining empiricism and rationalism, a process which is theoretically never-ending.  We are always discovering new facts and devising new concepts. Look at the upheavals caused by the quantum theory in the 20th century which promises to transform the present century with a myriad of new concepts.  So it is with republicanism.  It is not a state or end-point which we can reach but rather a way of setting up our institutions, law and politics which allow individuals and groups to contest decisions. In such a state we are continually on the lookout for abuses of power which inevitably arise and need to be challenged and controlled. Republicanism is the natural outcome of enlightenment.

The Enlightenment was powered by a willingness to contest ideas and where necessary replace them with new, better or more appropriate ideas.  So it is with modern Governments. Aside from the inherent unaccountability of the British Monarchy, the British Government has set about a programme of ending Legal Aid and restricting Freedom of Information.  These are the very antithesis of Enlightenment progress, the power of which Newton’s achievement stands as testament.

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