Major Themes of the Enlightenment: Reason, Individualism & Skepticism

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

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.

In this lesson, we will identify the major themes associated with the Enlightenment. We will also explore the major figures and learn about their contributions. We will understand the lasting impact of the Enlightenment by putting it in historical context.

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.

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Coming up next: Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Philosophy and Legacy

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  • 0:01 The Enlightenment
  • 1:57 Major Themes
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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.'

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