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Absolute monarchs are seen by Historians to be the ultimate cause of political revolutions all throughout the world. Their unrestrained power gave them the ability to oppress people and suppress any voices criticizing the monarchy. Enlightenment philosophers saw their rule as unjust and diligently advocated for change.
Questioning of authority began during the dark ages. A great decline in all aspects of life and virtual isolation of europe from the rest of the world was a result of the fall of the roman empire. From this, the church controlled the state but no change happened until the bubonic plague. The bubonic plague killed off one-third of Europe’s population but this great death was ultimately what lead Europe out of the Dark ages. The bubonic plague had great socio-economic consequences, cultural change, increased social mobility as well as the decline of the nobility. However, the plague also had profound religious consequences; people believed that the plague was a punishment, many monks and priests died which led to a shortage. This shortage made the church hastily train monks and priests to serve the spiritual needs of the church and its people, but this led to unsuitable people becoming clerics which in turn led to a drop of quality among these clerics and a corrupt church that quickly lost the trust of its people. The plague also changed people’s outlook on the world. People once thought the world to be fixed and god-ordained, now people weren’t willing to accept the status quo. This was instrumental in the beginning of the renaissance.
The renaissance was not only a revival of european intelligence and culture, but a vibrant birth of logic and reason over blind faith. People who once uncritically accepted what was told to them were now explicitly not accepting it anymore. Humanism began at this time; rather than the focus being on divine entities, humanists were focused on the wonders of man as well as self-discovery. This era also brought with it more questioning of government and authority. Books like The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli were even considered a direct threat to Roman catholic authority due to its political stances, and were banned. The Scientific Revolution also brought about a surgent uprising in using logic and reason as well as significant mathematical and scientific breakthroughs. Galileo Galilei was captured the essence of the scientific revolution. He challenged the Church’s baseless Geocentric model of earth with a heliocentric one backed up by mathematical proof. This discovery and long ‘battle’ between the church, the church’s believers, galileo and his believers, ended with Galileo’s arrest but people continued to question and challenge the Church.
Because of the re-orienting of ideas and philosophy, questioning of oppressive authorities and new perspectives, the enlightenment began. Philosophers like John Locke and Voltaire set the most influential ideologies of the enlightenment that caused revolutions around the world and were instrumental in the French Revolution. John Locke’s theories had a profound impact on French thinkers and the revolution. Locke believed that a government’s goals should be to protect individuals within that government, tabula rasa which went completely against the divine right theory, and power should be separated because if power is all concentrated into one place then natural rights would be stepped on. These philosophies were extremely important as people realized how a ruler should be.
However, the enlightenment didn’t spark revolution immediately. An example of this is King Louis XIV, “The Sun King”. His reign lasted 72 years and left a ineradicable mark in the history of France and how people would see monarchs after him. Louis was an egotistical, narcissistic, ruler who caused discontent throughout his rule due to his obsession with having the most power. Document one is a letter to his son, telling him how to be a good leader. In this letter, King Louis claims that he does “very hard work on my part, and a wise choice of persons who were capable of carrying out my work” as well as saying that “A king must be guided by his own good sense […] cannot act without seeing his effect on the state.” but Document 2, an appraisal of King Louis by St.Simon, completely contradicts this statement by stating that louis was suspicious of intelligent, educated, noble and highly principled men. He began to hate them at one point and “He wished to reign by himself[…]he liked no one to be in any way superior to him. So rather than appointing “wise persons” as he said, he ended up appointing people for their ignorance, so he could feel more in power and more dominant. Negative feelings against the king will develop due to this as people realize that he does not do as he says.
In addition to having control over his court, King Louis also felt that he should have control of anything that had any influence in France, like the nobles of France and protestants. King Louis gathered all the nobles of France into his palace at versailles so he could “keep and eye on them” according to Document 6. Louis guests “fell into the habit of trying to please him.” and because of this Archbishop Fenelon wrote a letter to him in Document 4 stating “Your ministers have destroyed and reversed all ancient customs of the state in order to raise your authority to the highest level.” Archbishop Fenelon also went on to say, “Meanwhile, your people die of hunger[…]beginning to lose confidence and respect[…]they are full of bitterness and despair. They believe that you only love your authority and your glory.” From this we can draw the conclusion that now the people are distrustful of Louis. The people are starving and Louis continues to live lavishly, spend recklessly and take money from his people. Not only did he take money from his people, but he attempted to impose uniformity in religion. He wanted everyone to be catholic and attempted to persecute those who were protestant. According to Document 5, he revoked the Edict of Nantes and launched a reign of terror on french protestants. “Their churches were torn down, their gatherings forbidden, their children made to attend mass.” This shows how King Louis wanted anyone influential to be controlled completely. He controlled the nobles, his court, the protestants and anything else he wanted.
In conclusion, there were many factors leading up to the enlightenment. These factors include the questioning of authority, loss of faith, the renaissance and the scientific revolution. The enlightenment brought out new ideals on how a country should be ruled and was generally against absolute monarchy and despotism. An example given was King Louis XIV and how his rule caused discontent throughout France.
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