Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.
What Was the Enlightenment?
Alright, guys and gals, prepare to be enlightened. In this lesson, we will be covering the Enlightenment. So what was it? The Enlightenment, sometimes called the 'Age of Enlightenment', was a late 17th- and 18th-century intellectual movement emphasizing reason, individualism, and skepticism. The Enlightenment presented a challenge to traditional religious views.
Enlightenment thinkers were the liberals of their day. They were typically humanists who supported equality and human dignity. They stood opposed (in varying degrees) to supernatural occurrences, superstition, intolerance, and bigotry.
The Scientific Revolution of the 17th century is closely associated with the Enlightenment, and in many respects, the two overlap. Scientific thinking played a crucial role in the Enlightenment, as thinkers employed the scientific method to understand the world around them.
There is no exact beginning date for the Enlightenment because it was such a broad movement. It did not suddenly spring up out of nowhere, but instead developed gradually. Most historians place the beginning of the Enlightenment between the mid-17th century and the beginning of the 18th century. The writings of intellectuals, like René Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, and Isaac Newton, were particularly important in giving birth to the Enlightenment.
The Enlightenment started in Europe and eventually spread to the United States, where it attracted followers like Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson. The Enlightenment died out in the early 19th century as Romanticism gained appeal.
Major Themes of the Enlightenment
While the Enlightenment was a tremendously broad movement, there are several core themes that were characteristic of it. One was reason. Enlightenment thinkers typically denounced supernatural occurrences as mere superstition. Here is where it gets a little tricky.
You might think all Enlightenment thinkers were atheists, but this was not the case. In fact, most were not. To a degree, the Enlightenment spurred atheism, but more commonly, it resulted in a mix between Christianity and scientific rationalism. This is best illustrated by the deist movement that gripped Europe and the United States during the late 18th century.
So what is deism? In simplest terms, deism is the belief that God exists, but chooses to let the universe proceed according to natural law. Deists deny supernatural occurrences and insist that God is knowable through reason and nature, not divine revelation. Deism is often conceptualized by a comparison with a clock and a clockmaker. In the deist view, God is the great 'clockmaker' who created the world (like a clock) and then allows it to 'run' according to natural operation (without supernatural intervention). Not all, but some of America's Founding Fathers were deists, most notably, Thomas Jefferson.
Going along with reason is another Enlightenment theme, which is skepticism. By skepticism, we're talking about skepticism of religious dogma, the institutionalized church, government authority, and even skepticism of the nature of reality. To illustrate this point, let's look at something called the divine right of kings. According to this view, which had been popular among Catholics for centuries, monarchs had been placed in positions of power by the will of God and were not subject to Earthly powers. Basically, this was a fancy way of saying the king was above the law. But with the Age of Enlightenment, this idea began to lose its credibility.
Enlightenment thinkers were skeptics. They typically rejected 'blind faith.' They wanted 'proof' in the modern sense that you and I want proof before believing something. This applied to all spheres of life, especially science, and even the nature of reality itself. This is exemplified by René Descartes, who, in searching for 'proof' of his own existence, famously said: 'I think; therefore, I am.'
Individualism was another prominent theme of the Enlightenment. By this, we mean the idea that man is endowed with certain liberties or rights. These rights were believed to have been granted by God and/or nature. Enlightenment figures typically espoused ideas of equality and human dignity. The line 'that they are endowed by the Creator with certain unalienable rights' is very much in-line with the Enlightenment concept of individualism. Enlightenment thinkers, though usually members of the upper class, where often sympathetic toward those in lower classes and supported their 'rights.'
Major Figures of the Enlightenment
The Enlightenment was such a revolutionary, important movement. There's so much more that could be said about it, but for now, let's quickly explore the leading figures of the movement. We're just going to shoot through these rapid-fire style.
English philosopher Francis Bacon was extremely influential and became famous as an advocate of the scientific method. Of course, there is Isaac Newton, an English scientist who discovered the Laws of Motion and the Law of Universal Gravitation. You know, the guy with the apple. Voltaire, a Frenchmen, was also an important figure. He is best remembered for his attacks against organized religion.
John Locke was another towering figure. His postulations dealing with natural law and social contract theory have provided the foundation for modern democracy. Social contract refers to the idea that there exists an unspoken 'contract' between society and government, and that if government infringes on the will of the people, the contract is void and the people have the right to institute a new government. Sound familiar? Yep, America's Founding Fathers were immensely influenced by Lockean ideas. Locke is also credited with developing the modern concept of 'tabula rasa,' meaning the human mind is a 'blank slate' at birth and is, thus, completely moldable.
The Enlightenment has had an enormous impact on modern history. The American Revolution and the French Revolution were direct products of Enlightenment mentalities. The Enlightenment has changed how people think. Its effects are everywhere today: in government, the arts, the sciences, philosophy, and countless other areas.
Let's review. The Enlightenment was a late 17th- and 18th-century intellectual movement emphasizing reason, individualism, skepticism, and science. Enlightenment thinking helped give rise to deism, which is the belief that God exists, but does not interact supernaturally with the universe.
Isaac Newton was another key figure of the Enlightenment. He formulated the Laws of Motion and Universal Gravitation. John Locke was another important figure. His postulations regarding natural law and social contract provide the basis for modern democracy. Social contract is the concept that there exists an unspoken contract between society and government and that each party has obligations to fulfill. Under social contract theory, society has the right to institute new government when government breaks the contract.
After this lesson is done, you should be able to:
- Understand the movement known as the Enlightenment
- Describe the influence of the Scientific Revolution on the Enlightenment
- Identify the major thinkers of the Enlightenment
- Detail the movement's emphasis on reason, individualism, skepticism and science
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