In his book “Enlightenment: Britain and the creation of the modern world”, the historian Roy Porter remarks how peculiar it is “that historians have so little to say about the role of English thinkers in the European Enlightenment as a whole” (p3). Peculiar indeed when one considers the English intellectual personnel of the 17th and 18th centuries and the high reputation English institutions and ideas had amongst the leading lights of the continental Enlightenment, especially in the country which is generally represented as the powerhouse of Enlightenment thinking, France. Here is the philosophe of philosophes, Voltaire, at full Anglophile admire: “The English are the only people on earth who have been able to prescribe the limits of Kings by resisting them; and who, by a series of struggles, have at last established that wise Government, where the prince is all powerful to do good, and at the same time is restrain’d from committing evil; where the Nobles are great without insolence, tho’ there are no vassals; and where the People share in the government without confusion.” Lettres philosophiques on Lettres Anglais (1775).
A strong argument can be made for the English Enlightenment not only existing but occurring a century or so before that of any other nation and subsequently providing much of the basis for the general Enlightenment movement.
Consider these figures from the seventeenth century: William Gilbert (science, especially magnetism), Francis Bacon (philosophy and science), Thomas Hobbes (philosophy), John Locke (philosophy), Thomas Harrington (nascent economics and sociology), William Harvey (biology/medicine), Robert Hooke (polymathic scientist and technologist), John Rae (biologist), Edmund Halley (astronomy), Isaac Newton (mathematics and physics). What did they have in common other than intellectual distinction? They were all driven by the idea of reason, by the belief that the world could be understood rationally. That is the real essence of the Enlightenment, the belief in rationality, in particular, the belief that the world is subject to physical laws, that God does not intervene capriciously, that the world is not governed by magic. Such ideas did not preclude a God or prevent an intense relationship with the putatively divine, but they did encase God within a rational system of thought in which His action was limited, voluntarily or otherwise. Newton may have been utterly fixated with the numerology of the Bible but he believed the world was ordered according to physical laws. From the belief that the universe is organised rationally comes the corollary that it can be understood, that everything is governed by laws which can be discovered by men. This idea pre-dated Newton, but it was his ideas, most notably his laws of motion and theory of gravity, that elevated the idea to almost a secular religion. During the next century intellectuals took the example of Newton’s inanimate mechanistic physical world and extrapolated the idea to every aspect of existence, from biology to philosophy to social policy. If only enough was known, if only enough effort was made, then everything, of this world at least, could be understood and controlled and everything could be the subject of rational decision making.
The 18th century Enlightenment had another aspect, an association with the democratic or at least a wish that the power of kings should be greatly curtailed – the Voltaire quote given above is a good example of the mentality. This also has its roots in England. The ferment of the English Civil war not only produced proto-democratic political movements such as the Levellers, it also started Parliament along the road of being more than a subordinate constitutional player by forcing it to act as not only a legislature but as an executive. Stir in the experience of the Protectorate, simmer for 30 years or so of the restored Stuart kings, mix in the Glorious Revolution of 1689 which resulted in the Bill of Rights and established the English crown as being in the gift of Parliament and season with half a century of the German Georges and you have the British (in reality the English) constitution which was so admired by Voltaire, who thought it quite perfect, and which gave the American colonists the inspiration for their own political arrangements (president = king, Senate = Lords, House of Representatives = Commons, with a Constitution and Bill of Rights heavily influenced by the English Bill of Rights.)