Reformation, Religious Wars, and Mechanical Philosophy: Ancient Regimes
Length: 1442 words (4.1 double-spaced pages)
The reformations of the sixteenth century challenged the ideals of many religious institutions, but they also contested political institutions as well. This could be due to the fact that most politics were tied in some way to religion, but it could also be the way in which the reformations challenged the unquestionable authority of the Catholic Church, that led to questioning the system of governance as well. The reformation opposed traditional views of politics in Europe by challenging the ideas of body politics and the natural law that governed the land.
Body politics was brought into question during the reformation as the king was no longer seen as the unquestionable head of the nation that would make all of the decisions for it. The nobles grew tired of being the “arms” of the nation. They saw the ability to gain political power within their grasp. This power came with a weakening of the monarch’s power by gaining the loyalties of the commoners directly under them by defending the religion of choice in their own domain. This form of taking sides would eventually lead to the formation of the Lutheran Defensive league, which would cause the Catholic side to become fearful of a militant Protestant force. All of this cause and effect nature of politics began with a small opening for power to be gained after the reformations of Luther caused Frederick III to intervene when the Catholic Church began to become offended. This began the break in the traditional thoughts of body politics as the main way of governance of nations, which then led to the idea that civil war and uprisings were no longer only subject to rights claimed under the body politics system. Hans von Grimmelshausen in The Adventures of a Simpleton wrote a semi-autobiographical account of the wars of religion in Germany. Within this book, Grimmelshausen wrote many times about local lords and nobles, but not once about the Emperor of Germany even in passing. Local loyalties were prevalent in his account, not national, which demonstrates the breaking of the traditional political thought of body politics from popular thought.
The reformation also brought into question the ideals of the “natural law” that governed the lands of Europe. This natural law stated that the hierarchies that were in place across Europe such as that of the sovereigns over their subjects were as natural as a father being in control of his children.
This idea was challenged by the reformation by the basis that religion was where the people owed their allegiance. God became their father, as opposed to their sovereign having this role. This allowed for the popular support (at least at first) for the religious wars that ravaged Germany in the century to come. This challenging of the naturalness of the hierarchies is demonstrated in the tree analogy that Grimmelshausen wrote about where he portrayed the same “natural” hierarchies as tyrannical and despotic. Grimmelshausen’s account helps to demonstrate that the popular belief of natural law had been undermined by the wars of religion that started over the reformations of the century before it.
Despite the political turmoil that came from the religious wars of Germany, the traditional beliefs of smaller scale hierarchies could still help Europeans to deal with with this problem. These are the hierarchies of the family. These relationships stood as a source of constancy in a time of great disorder and disarray. Grimmelshausen referenced this in The Adventures of a Simpleton when Simplicius returns to his family after his war days. He finds his family to be a source of great comfort (even though they are not his real family, but they served the same purpose). This comfort is also shown when he is living with the Hermit and is truly happy. Having the hierarchy of the father-son relationship served as a source of happiness and fulfillment at least while it lasted.
The reformation sewed the seeds for the religious wars that were written about by Grimmelshausen in The Adventures of a Simpleton. The changes in the ideas of body politics and natural law as a result of the reformation were both large contributors to the wars of religion that engulfed Germany in the 1600’s. The later effects felt across Europe due to these wars and the reformation were felt as tensions between Protestant and Catholic factions and nations as traditional views and ideas were challenged nearly across the board. There were, however, traditional views that persisted (and to some degree persist today) such as the family hierarchical structure that served as a basic unit of comfort and consistency in a time of great turmoil.
Mechanical Philosophy: Ancien Regimes
The mechanical philosophy that challenged previous Aristotelian view of the world had a tendency to temporarily strengthen the traditional forms of government in church and state, although in the long term, these ideas contributed to the problems that led to the end of those regimes. A few of the ideas that had this effect on the ancien regimes were a new idea of empirical observation as being the ideal of knowledge, governing by reason, and the rise of the ideals of commerce and a less restricted market.
For mechanical philosophers, empirical observation became the only way for gaining true knowledge of the physical world. Galileo demonstrated this best when he used a telescope to observe sunspots as well as other celestial imperfections. This empirical observation led to challenging of traditional beliefs held by the Church and he was put under house arrest by the inquisition. Galileo, however, did not find that his observations were in contradiction with the Catholic Church. In his “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina,” Galileo wrote that since God was embodied in and created the natural world, that empirical observation of nature could not contradict God or the Bible. The fact that mechanical philosophers reconciled (or at least tried to reconcile) their empirical observations with the Church strengthened it by attempting to give practical, observable reasons that could make it less of an exercise in just believing what you are told and more of an exercise in believing what you can see. This created an entire scientific community that was loyal to the Church that could only help spread the Catholic message. The rejection of many of the findings of these scientists, however, by the Catholic Church led to a schism between the Church and the scientific community. This split led to a reduction in the power of the Church that still persists in today’s world.
Governing by reason is an idea put forth by mechanical philosophers although it was not a completely new idea. The idea of a “philosopher king” had been thought of in ancient Greek times (not surprising since the mechanical philosophy movement borrowed from lesser known works of Aristotle) and from Confucius in China, but it came to the forefront of the bureaucracy of the ancien regimes of the 1600’s. The idea of using reason to govern was proclaimed by John Locke in his “Second Treatise of Government.” He wrote that people give up their natural rights and complete freedom in order to enter into society and have a common law. Therefore, this common law needed to be just and fair and to work in the best interest of the people. Thinking like this led to the reforms of the ancien regimes that became a characteristic of them. Many of these reforms were done in the name of reason in attempts to make things better. For a while, this strengthened the regimes by showing the force and power exhibited by them. These ideas of reason, however, led to the ancien regime’s eventual destruction by promoting too many public work programs and other costly projects that led to huge debts. These debts led to turmoil within the citizenry of these regimes which led to eventual civil war. These ideas of reason also led to the strong use of the bureaucracy and courts which led to more political participation by commoners. This, in turn, led to people having a greater knowledge of the internal workings of the regimes. The politicization of the people also became a driving force in the revolutionary atmosphere that was soon to come.
The original ideas of markets were those of suspicion. The markets were heavily regulated and resources were understood as fixed. As populations began to grow, the ability of sovereigns to be able to control the markets began to deteriorate. The mechanical philosophy provided reasoning that would make the government and people accepting of this new form of economics. Thomas Mun, in “England’s Treasure by Foreign Trade” wrote that using the new form of large scale markets and international trade could increase the wealth of nations through the use of the system we now recognize as mercantilism. In this system, the idea is for a nation to export more than it imports, so that a country can gain wealth. The acceptance of the new system of mercantilism originally strengthened the ancien regimes that were in dire need of money due to their extreme debts. In the long term, however, the system of mercantilism also led to the downfall of ancien regimes by increasing the personal wealth of merchants, who had previously had their trade restricted. This would ordinarily not seem to be a problem, but, since the leaders of the revolutions that overthrew ancien regimes tended to have a little bit of personal wealth, the merchants were among the people who were at the forefront of the revolutions.
Mechanical philosophy informed the movements of empirical observation, governance by reason, and less restricted economic markets. While all of these originally strengthened ancien regimes or the Catholic Church by promoting the regimes in thought and financially, by rejecting some of the ideas and by embracing others that were fostering ideals of change, ancien regimes were seeing the beginning of their eventual destruction.