The emergence of rationality based on Enlightenment experiences significant reflection in the legal and constitutional developments of the 17th and 18th centuries. This is in accordance to the ideals and thoughts expressed by thinkers of the respective period concerning the aspect of democracy in the structures of governance within Western societies.
The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement that commenced in the late culminating 17th and 18th centuries in Europe. The epoch placed significant emphasis on rationale and individualism rather than conventionalism. Its objective was to alter society through the utilization of pragmatic knowledge by inculcating scientific approaches as well criticize concepts and ideologies based on faith and tradition. It also endorsed scientific thought, cynicism and intellectual transaction and simultaneously, positioned itself against intolerance and superstition. Nonetheless, the effect of Enlightenment manifested considerably within the confines of politics. This is in accordance to the various Enlightenment philosophies that underwent integration within the guidelines of most Western political systems. Indeed, the political ideologies of the respective movement influenced major Western society constitutions and manuscripts. Specifically, the epoch of Enlightenment posed incredulous influence on the development of constitutions within the 17th and 18th century societies.
The influence of the Enlightenment Age on constitutional development in the 17th and 18th centuries largely focused on democracy. Accordingly, several American and European enlightenment individuals were skeptics of democracy. Cynicism concerning the appreciation of democratic structures was mostly a bequest of Plato’s credence that democracy was the main source of tyranny. Indeed, Plato asserted his dissent for democracy by surmising that it was, “a delightful form of government anarchic and motley, assigning a kind of equality indiscriminately to equals and unequals alike” (556e-562a). However, Aristotle was of different opinion. Even though he did admit that democracy faced misinterpretation as a fundamental and positive element of all governments, he asserted that it was the most preferable of all bad governments (Aristotle 389). Based on these notions exemplified by Plato and Aristotle, democracy faced limitless restrictions, which according to thinkers such as James Madison comprised a negative part of governance.
Regardless of Plato’s predisposition against democratic ideals, other Enlightenment thinkers supported these notions. Their support for these concepts led to their subsequent integration within European and American constitutions. For instance, the creation of the Bill of Rights as a significant element of the American Constitution gained its inspiration from the Social Contract theorem by John Locke. Created by Thomas Jefferson, the Bill of Rights was an extension of Locke’s convictions within the respective theory. Accordingly, Locke believed that the political and moral obligations of an individual are dependent on an agreement that allows one to institute a society in which he or she occupies. In addition, Locke, in the Two Treatises of Government, argued in favor of a government grounded on the consent of those undergoing governance (Locke 58). Based on this, he demonstrated that he was against the divine privilege of kings, which he thought as undemocratic.
However, even though Locke emphasized on democratic rule, the main element of his version of the Social Contract theory with respect to constitutional development involves the provision of rights and privileges. Accordingly, Locke argued that democracy was ideal as long as the contract between the governors and the governed allowed subjects to surrender some of their freedoms in order to attain the basic privileges of liberty, life and property (Locke 63). Based on this notion, it is evident that such ideals, as expressed by Locke, occupied a fundamental part of Western constitutions from the 17th and 18th century onwards. In addition to the views exuded by Locke, the perspectives asserted by Jean –Jacques Rousseau also exerted influence regarding the development of the Constitution in the respective periods. Accordingly, Rousseau, in his Social Contract ideology, surmised that civilians possessed a right to self-governance by selecting the regulations responsible for guiding their lives. In addition to this, the judges would be responsible for the enforcement of these regulations (Rousseau 65).
Accordingly, one of the primary influences towards constitutional development comprised the works of James Madison. In summary, Madison expressed that the system of democracy required constitutional guidance in order to act efficiently and effectively towards the people who created it. With respect to such an ideal, the structure of democracy has gained success in guaranteeing that the nations’ leaders do not hide their weaknesses based on its respective framework (Madison 98). Simply put, a structure created for and by individuals limited leaders from working towards their particular interests. Based on this, Madison proposed the introduction of a framework that could manage a self-governing organization. He believed that leaders possessed flaws, which they hid from their electorate by covering themselves using their public persona (Madison 102). Nonetheless, he suggested a just and impartial relationship between the interests of a person as well as the constitutional rights of the governed.
In conclusion, the period of Enlightenment exerted considerable influence on the development of constitutions within the 17th and 18th centuries. This is in accordance to the creation of constitutional frameworks in Western societies. Even though thinkers such as Plato viewed democracy negatively, it is still apparent that democratic ideals formed a significant part in the creation of these documents. Based on the ideals of Locke, Rousseau and Madison, the constitution in most Western societies transitioned into the main form of democratic governance by placing considerable emphasis on individual freedom and the resultant rule of law.
Aristotle. Politics. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005. Print
Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Print.
Madison, James. The Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787: Which Framed the Constitution of the United States of America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.
Plato. The Republic. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013. Print.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Social Contract and Discourses. London: Dent, 2007. Print.
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