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The Prelude to Modern Philosophy

Modern philosophy is an outgrowth of the spirit and work of Roger Bacon, John Duns Scotus, and William of Ockham. These men claimed that philosophy should be a free and independent inquiry concerning truth and life.

All modern philosophy is in quest for the meaning of nature and experience. It rejects the authority of tradition and works independently of ecclesiastical dogmas and religious beliefs.

The Catholic Theory Of The State

The Scholastics had presented a theory of the State which defined the temporal power of the hierarchy and subordinated the State to the Church. They made theology supreme and declared that the purpose of all government is human welfare. The Church is the representative of God on earth and all matters of State are subservient to the Church. Politics, like philosophy, is therefore the handmaid of theology.

Opposition To The Catholic Theory Of The State

The papacy declined in power and prestige and many Catholic writers gradually forsook the Catholic idea. The Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation laid the foundation for new thought and the new political theories of modern history.

The most radical attack on the Catholic theory came from Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527), an Italian diplomat and Secretary of the Chancellery of the Council of Ten at Florence. Machiavelli opposed the political corruption of the Roman Curia and the Italian Government. He claimed that the united, independent, and sovereign Italian nation must be free from the domination of the Church in politics, science, and religion.

Christianity was considered too passive; the old Roman religion was preferred. The best form of government was republican. In times of corruption (as witnessed in his day), Machiavelli thought that absolute despotism is needed to realize the ideal of a strong and independent State, hence his argument in his famous work The Prince (1515). Machiavelli abhorred existing anarchy and corruption seen in the secular and ecclesiastical politics of his time. He saw no way out of the disorder except by force.

New Political Theories Begin To Appear

During the modern period, the popular sovereignty of the Ruler takes form and natural law was commending natural rights. Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) and some others accepted the theory of absolutism, which led to Thomas Hobbes' doctrine of absolutism and to John Locke's and Rousseau's democracy.

The doctrine of social contract appeared and was represented by Jean Bodin (1530-1596); the social contract being committed to the ruler or sovereign. The notion is growing that the State rests on reason and human nature and the State is a natural institution. The idea of the sovereignty of the people was taking root, but absolutism (theoretical unlimited power of the ruler) persisted until the eighteenth century. Eventually the theories of Locke (England) and Rousseau (France) resulted in movements for constitutional monarchies or democracies.

The Renaissance and Reformation

The Renaissance and Reformation created new thinking. The Italian Renaissance rebelled against authority and Scholasticism. The German Reformation turned attention to the Bible and the protest of heart and faith against ecclesiastical mechanization.

The German Reformation opposed a barren Scholasticism and offered a revived and rejuvenated evangelical Christianity. It fostered critical reflection and the tolerance of the scientific spirit, and thus opposed absolutism and ecclesiastical authority. A few fanatical religious sects grew during this period. A new Scholastic Theology was in the making through Philip Melanchthon (co-partner with Martin Luther in the German Reformation) and it recognized the foundation of Aristotle.

Other reformers (such as John Calvin) return to Augustine and mysticism, while others (for instance, Zwingli) follow Neo-Platonism. In the seventeenth century mysticism finds a strong voice in Jacob Boehme (1575-1642) in his work Aurora. A new philosophy of religion, built on natural rather than supernatural metaphysics, appears through Herbert of Cherbury (1583-1648).

The New Humanism

The new Humanism turned to ancient philosophy, literature, and art. Skepticism found an able advocate in Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592). Despairing reason he urges a return to uncorrupted nature and revelation. Skepticism kept alive the spirit of inquiry and fostered the growth of modern science.

Reason became the authority in science and philosophy. The idea of the individual was born and paternalism was opposed. Human reason was made the highest authority in the pursuit of knowledge based on the sciences of external nature. But the basic doctrines of Christianity are still accepted by the great modern philosophers: Bacon, Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, and Leibnitz.

Adapted from the book: "Modern Philosophy"

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