On spaceships and liberty: Why republicanism remains an essential legacy of the enlightenment

Scientific innovations stand testament to the invaluable legacy of enlightenment republican thinking.

Mark Summers
12 September 2016

Rick Nybakken, demonstrates the flight path of the Juno spacecraft. Photo: Richard Vogel / AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.This month we witnessed the incredible flight of the NASA Juno spacecraft as it brushed the cloud-tops of the planet Jupiter, over half a billion kilometres away. On the face of it this has nothing to do with my convictions as a British republican. Yet the process by which we as human brings can carry out such an audacious project is inextricably linked to the structure of a well-ordered republican society 

Christmas day of 1642 saw the birth of a baby who would grow up to effect our world in ways unimaginable even to himself.  His name was Isaac (subsequently Sir Isaac) Newton, originator of the Universal Theory of Gravitation. As a giant of the age of enlightenment his achievement symbolised a method of thinking which rapidly gaining ground at the end of the 17th century. His birth date was to some extent ironic for the person whose theories would, in subsequent centuries, lend considerable weight to deist beliefs within a mechanistic world view. 

Despite his own vehement rejection of atheism, Newton was not averse to challenging the accepted teaching of the clergy of his time. For example he postulated the possibility of intelligent life on other planets in the universe along with a theory that the moons of the aforementioned planet Jupiter were ‘substitute Earths’ held in readiness for a new creation when this one comes to an end!

So what were these new ways of thinking which caused such a profound change of outlook? 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 along with art, philosophy and politics. 

Vital to the movement was an eagerness to question assumptions, to accept no authority as sacrosanct. As J.G.A. Pocock put it:

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

Underpinning the ability to question assumptions was the concept of contestability as the capacity to oppose an idea as mistaken, wrong or simply outdated.  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. The monarch was appointed by god and thus the Divine Right of Kings was accepted as the ultimate validation of the right to rule. The notion of a time-bound head of state was literally inconceivable throughout much of Europe following the subversion and termination of the roman republic in about 27 BCE 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 located mainly in Florence but also, to a lesser extent, Genoa and the ‘Serene Republic of Venice’. This explosion of political innovation 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. 

Alongside the growth of a concept of scientific method, political philosophers started to develop theories about how states and governments exercised power rather than the source of that power. Thomas Hobbes in his Leviathan (published 1651) viewed people atomistically each pursuing their own individual interest and trying to gain financial and social power over their fellows. Although mentioned In this particular philosophy, god played no effective part and a sovereign existed to prevent descent into anarchy and maintain the rules of a free market.  

The terms of the debate had shifted, and while political theorists still concerned themselves with identifying the source of power for states and government in order to legitimise authority, it was increasingly rare for it to be couched in overtly religious terms. Thus, as Hobbes' work illustrates, fundamental to the enlightenment project was a humanist concept which led to a concern with ending the abuses of state and church. 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 it is not your god? In England these developments led to the effective ending of the concept of Divine Right in 1688-9 with the Glorious Revolution and the English Bill of Rights. This was only one year after the first publication of Newton’s theory in his Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica.

Vital in developing this approach to contestability was a practical problem. How was this to be done and what mechanisms need to be put in place to facilitate debate?  To this end the idea of the Republic of Letters gained ground.  It starts in the literary sphere and is initially a purely intellectual exchange consisting of a network of thinkers and natural philosophers such as Voltaire and John Locke.  More efficient transport and postal services grew rapidly in the Seventeenth Century and new associations such as the Royal Society provided centres where ideas could be presented and promulgated. 

An especially important contribution was made by the French Academies in their concours académiques ('academic contests') held throughout the country. These contests were open to everyone and the rule of anonymity for submissions guaranteed that gender. social rank or clerical standing would not influence the judging. Although the vast majority of participants did indeed belong to the wealthier stratas of society there were some cases of the lower orders submitting essays, and even winning. Importantly, a significant number of women participated in and won the competitions. 

The age of enlightenment was not universally considered to be a positive development with the French Terror which followed the revolution in the 1790s leading many to view rationalism as merely shallow optimism with a morally ambiguous core. Worse, the concept of contestability began to be viewed as a force incapable of acting constructively. In artistic terms this gave impetus to a reactionary tendency in the Romantic Age with an emphasis on beauty, nature and the heroism of man. Nevertheless some leading Romantic artists such as the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley were active republicans and atheists and the legacy of the age of enlightenment gathered strength during the nineteenth century.  

While the 17th Century saw great advances towards the liberty of individuals and the societies in which they lived, it also saw the birth of an idea which today presents as big a threat to freedom as unrestrained governgment, the corporation. On December 31st 1600 the East India Company (EIC) received a Royal Charter from Queen Elizabeth I and eventually grew to rule large parts of India with its private army, controlling systems of justice and dominating half of world trade in the early 19th Century. 

The EIC has long gone, being dissolved in 1874 at a point when the state could still control such behemoths, but its descendants have learned the lesson, with some modern corporates being deemed ‘too big to fail’  The real problem with such corporatism is the way it is integrated tightly into state power creating a tightly bound entity with uncontrolled power squeezing out individuals, controlling media and distorting justice. The source of authority is different, a Board of Directors rather than a Royal Court or religious Prefecture but the dangers are the same. 

While the age of enlightenment is defined by historians as a distinct period in the history of ideas, the philosophy it 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 and theories. Consider the scientific and intellectual upheavals caused by the Quantum Theory in the 20th century which promises to transform the present century with a myriad new technologies.  

So it is with republicanism. It is not a perfect state or end-point which we can reach but rather a way of setting up our institutions, constitution and politics which allow individuals and groups to contest decisions. The reality of living in any social arrangement is the existence of agents who wish to exercise uncontrolled power over others for their own advantage and gain. These vary in scale from individuals showing psychopathic tendencies right up to vast multinational banks and corporations exercising influence over governments for their own gain.  In such a state we must be continually on the lookout for abuses of power which inevitably arise and need to be challenged and controlled. To do this we must allow all members and minority groups to contribute (perhaps anonymously as in the Academic Contests) armed with the best possible information (making the internet a natural inclusive and democratic successor to the Republic of Letters). 

The enlightenment was powered by a willingness to contest ideas and where necessary replace them with new, better or more appropriate ideas.  So it must be with modern governments. Aside from the inherent unaccountability of the British Monarchy, the British government has set about a programme of ending Legal Aid with Freedom of Information rights being under an almost constant threat of being restricted or withdrawn. These are the very antithesis of enlightenment progress, the power of which Newton’s achievement stands as testament. While we have reaped rich rewards in terms of science and technology our sclerotic social structure has developed less well and change is long overdue. The Juno probe has shown us the way. Republicanism is the natural outcome of enlightenment. 

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