Origins of Liberalism

The roots of liberalism lie in the Reformation, a religious movement affecting much of northern Europe in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Led by religious protestors such as Martin Luther, these founders of ‘protestant’ Christianity argued that individuals seeking to communicate with God, and to understand His commands, need no longer rely on priests, popes and other intermediaries. With the advent of the printing press and the printed word, and the wider literacy this promoted, Luther argued that Christianity could now assume a more individualistic character, with each man and woman undertaking their own private prayers and undertaking God’s work in their own way.

However, it was the Enlightenment that sought to extend these religious ideas into the political and secular spheres.

The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement that emerged in the mid-seventeenth century (coinciding with the English Civil War and the subsequent overthrow of King Charles I), and one that had an especially profound effect upon politics in the eighteenth century (influencing, among other things, both the creation of an independent American republic after 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789).

The Enlightenment was defined by a belief in reason rather than faith, and thus promoted relentless debate and inquiry, questioning and scrutinising almost anything that, hitherto, was unthinkingly accepted. Among the radical ideas that emerged from the John Locke: Enlightenment icon and classical liberal Enlightenment were that each individual is someone with free will, that each individual is the best judge of their own interests, and that each individual’s life should be shaped by that individual’s actions and decisions. More specifically, writers such as John Locke (1632–1704) widely regarded as the ‘father’ of liberalism — began to question the relationship between individuals and governments, seeking to define just why and how individuals should defer to those who governed them. Today, such an exercise may seem routine. But in the seventeenth century it had revolutionary potential. Until then, it had been assumed — by both rulers and ruled — that the natural form of government was monarchical; that a king (occasionally a queen) had been put in place by God; and that a king’s decisions should be instinctively accepted by a king’s ‘subjects’ — a doctrine later termed ‘the divine right of kings’. Underpinning this agreement, of course, were a society and culture dominated by faith, religion and superstition.

Yet the Enlightenment was to challenge and eventually destroy such medieval attitudes. For Locke and other Enlightenment philosophers, human beings were uniquely endowed with the power of logic, calculation and deduction. And it was logical, they argued, that human beings should create, by themselves and for themselves, a political system based upon reason (a principle that political scientists now describe as mechanistic theory).