The Age of Reason was a period in time that took place from the Peace of Utrecht (1713), to the French Revolution of 1789. It was a period when reason basically replaced religion as the guiding principle in art, thought, and the governance of men. Unquestioned acceptance of the old order of society and the old ways of statecraft yielded to a new spirit of critical inquiry which demanded some rational justification for the existing social system.
People thought that the general application of reason would free Europe from the artificialities, restrictions, injustices, and superstitions which that was inherited from the Dark Ages. Reason would create a society of law and order.
The traditions, customs, and autonomous rights of the nobility and the church were essentially alien to the spirit of rationalism and operated to block the establishment of centralized, well ordered states.
In central and eastern Europe and many minor states of the continent, the main contenders against the powers of the nobility and the clergy were the dynastic sovereigns. Competition between the great states was ruthless and the monarchy which failed to overhaul its internal administration, faced dismemberment. Seeking to focus on their own authority, the crowned heads struggled with the separatism of provinces, which their royal houses had inherited through medieval and 17th century wars and marriages. They tried to introduce uniformity in law and administration throughout their realms, and to smash the opposition of nobles and clerics fighting to retain their prerogatives to tax, govern, and dispense justice.
The administrative reforms of the century were promulgated by royal edict without the consent of and often despite such representative diets and assemblies, as had survived from the Middle Ages to become fortresses of aristocratic reaction.
Frederick the II of Prussia, Joseph the II of Austria, and Catherine the II of Russia were for the intellectuals of the second half of the century embodiments of an ideal of monarchical government. What all three of them had in common essentially was a passion and a need for centralization, unification, and rationalization in government.
The enlightened despots tried to mix the aristocracy with the machinery of the state, and to establish the absolute sovereignty of the dynastic monarch over them. In Prussia and Russia, the compliance of the nobility was paid for by the extension rather than the weakening of their hold over peasants and serfs.
In the three continental powers of central and eastern Europe, new and detailed systems of governmental administration were drafted. Legal codes and a great judicial structure built on uniform procedures granted the people a measure of protection both from harsh customary rules and from the rough justice of local lords.
In order to adapt their administrative systems to a growing centralism, the enlightened despots made a bureaucratic revolution. They altered the basic character of government by creating special departments and agencies whose jurisdiction was
The innovations of the enlightened despots should not be confused with democratic reforms. In revamping the administrative machinery of their states, the autocrats weren’t moved by consideration for the human rights of their subjects so much as they were by their own exigencies.
In central and eastern Europe the underlying conflict remained the tug of war between the monarchy and the aristocracy. Their was no middle class of merchants, manufacturers, and professional men substantial enough to challenge the position of the nobles.
In Britain and France it was the middle classes, directors of new productive enterprise and commerce, who were the active enemies of irrational feudal residues which blocked free movement and progress. The bourgeoisie of the west identified the growth of their own prosperity and power with reason. By 1750 the realignment of the old and the new forces in British and French society was already far advanced. Britain had undergone a “Great Rebellion” and a “Glorious Revolution” in the seventeenth century. It was the first in Christian Europe. In France, the Bourbon monarchy had already produced in the 17th century its great autocrat, Louis XIV. He curbed the power of the nobility and imposed upon the state, a centralized, bureaucratic mechanism. The absolute monarchy under Louis XIV’s successors failed to combine the nobility and the bourgeoisie. Toward the end of the century the rivalry of these two classes was sharply stressed until it flared forth in a civil war. This was the French Revolution.
The intellectuals used the discoveries and the methods of science to refute and to mock the teachings of medieval Christianity. They turned the attention of their contemporaries to the pursuit of happiness, and tried to free them both from fear of the church and respect for the aristocracy.
The whole history of the 18th century could be written in terms of a struggle for power among dynastic states on the European continent and in the colonies. Battles were fought intermittently throughout the country. By the eve of the French Revolution, the European states system as formulated at the Peace of Utrecht had undergone rather important altercations. The traditional diplomatic alignment of Bourbon versus Hapsburg had been upset by the rise of Russia and Prussia. These two states of eastern Europe had emerged as nations of great potential power; the impact of their dynamic expansionism was first felt in this period.