What was the Enlightenment?

The Age of Enlightenment was a historical movement that included a process of philosophical, scientific, political discourse that grew to dominate much of Europe from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries (1).

Its ideas can be traced to England, France, Germany, Scotland, Poland, and Italy although many historians debate when exactly the period started, and with whom it did. The likes of Isaac Newton’s scientific work (Principia Mathematica, 1687) and Rene Descartes’ philosophical rationalism have been proposed as possible progenitors (2). The Enlightenment culminated in the French Revolution (1789-1799) and was followed by the Romantic period.

Thinkers and their ideas that contributed to the foundations of the Enlightenment were Rene Descartes (his contribution to skepticism), Baruch Spinoza (his ontological monism), and Gottfried Leibniz (the principle of sufficient reason). Other Enlightenment thinkers active during the period included Adam Smith, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, David Hume, Voltaire, Diderot, and others, all thinkers who produced numerous influential works, books, and essays that helped Enlightenment ideals reach new audiences.

Despite the often disparate ideas presented by these thinkers, the Enlightenment was unified in its emphasis on reason and critical thinking as primary values in society, as well as liberty, individualism, and democracy (3). As a result, the popularization of science, scientific learning, and the systematization of knowledge became popular during the period as more people could afford to purchase encyclopedias and dictionaries. These texts had a bent toward secularism and the authors did not appeal to God or theology. Perhaps the most influential and well-known work of this kind was Dennis Diderot and Jean-Baptiste’s le Rond d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie (published between 1751 and 1772).

The Enlightenment thinkers strongly opposed ignorance, superstition, and the power of the state and the church which they felt interfered with intellectual progress. Their efforts undermined the authority of the Church as they promoted the separation of church and state, questioned religious orthodoxy, and believed that science enabled the development of  free speech and thought which, Enlightenment thinkers argued, was undermined by established religion. According to Professor Tina Beattie,

“The Enlightenment is a broad term which refers to a range of political and intellectual transformations in European and American society in the eighteenth century… Not only did this involve a dramatic transformation in Christian cosmology, but perhaps more importantly it set in motion a gradual shift away from the authority of religion to the authority of science in the production of knowledge” (4).

Philosopher Mitch Stokes similarly explains that,

“We might even summarize the Enlightenment the way philosopher Karl Popper did: as liberation, that is, “self-emancipation through knowledge.” But what exactly were the shackles? In a word, religion. Not that all Enlightenment thinkers were atheists; many were deists (of course, many were still Christians). But a sizeable portion of them saw organized religion as oppressive and overbearing, an intellectual dictatorship, and so they sought the freedom to think for themselves” (5).

Many in the church responded critically, and often on moral grounds and against what they perceived to be a materialistic worldview. Additional religious and spiritual developments took place within this milieu and included the likes of deism and atheism. Thomas Paine was a deist who believed in a creator God although such a God did not intervene in human affairs. Discussions on atheism came about although it never really flourished during the period.

The Enlightenment thinkers believed that people who were self-directed in thought and action would enable progress that would lead to happiness, hope, and a more fulfilled human existence.

[Published January 12, 2019 / Updated February 26, 2022]

References

1. Bristow, W. 2010. Enlightenment. Available.

2. history.com. 2009 Enlightenment. Available.

3. White, M. 2018. The Enlightenment. Available.

4. Beattie, T. 2008. The New Atheists: The Twilight of Reason and the War on Religion.

5. Stokes, M. How to be an Atheist. p. 26 (Scribd ebook format)

14 comments

  1. Iain McGilchrist (see “RSA Animate” 11 minute video for overview) has written a masterful book describing the form of attention that has taken over the world since the Enlightenment – a kind of tunnel vision which obscures reality more than reveals it. See “The Matter With Things.”

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