The Roots of the Enlightenment

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  • 0:01 The Enlightenment 101
  • 1:46 Roots of the Enlightenment
  • 5:46 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, former middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will learn about the roots of the Enlightenment. We will learn when and how the Enlightenment began, and we will identify the central themes associated with its beginning.

The Enlightenment 101

I've had many people tell me that until they learned about the Enlightenment in school, they initially thought it had something to do with Eastern mysticism - you know, Buddhism and that sort of thing. This is understandable: 'enlightenment' (with a lower case 'e') is a central tenet of the Buddhist religion, but 'the Enlightenment' (with a capital 'E') is something totally different! In this lesson, we will be learning about the Enlightenment and how it started.

So, what was the Enlightenment? The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement emphasizing reason, humanism, individualism, science, and skepticism that took place between the late 17th to early 19th century. There are no exact dates for the Enlightenment, but it peaked throughout the 18th century. The Enlightenment was primarily a European trend, although in time, its ideas definitely did spread to the Americas.

Enlightenment thinking was revolutionary. Enlightenment philosophers opposed superstition and in many cases, tended to be anti-clerical (which means anti-church). Instead, they embraced reason, logic, and science. Leading figures of the Enlightenment were René Descartes, Voltaire, John Locke, Francis Bacon, and others. Sometimes the Enlightenment is called 'The Age of Enlightenment' or the 'Age of Reason,' but it all refers to the same thing.

The Roots of the Enlightenment

So, how did the Enlightenment start? What are the roots of this intellectual movement? Well, like most major cultural movements, it didn't just spring up out of nowhere. Instead, it sort of evolved. Let's explore the roots of the Enlightenment.

Have you ever seen a very thick rope? You know a thick rope has many different strands. That is kind of how the Enlightenment was: there were many different 'strands' or parts of it. One of the 'strands' was humanism. Humanism, in its simplest form, is a belief system that emphasizes human actions and places great value on human nature. The Enlightenment stressed the ability for human beings to use reason to make society a better place. Many Enlightenment thinkers were progressive in terms of issues of race, sex, class, etc. This means they stressed equality and justice for all.

The humanist root of the Enlightenment can be found in the Renaissance. The Renaissance was a cultural movement that took place in Europe between the 14th-17th centuries. The word renaissance means 'rebirth.' The Renaissance was period of time when Europeans were rediscovering the culture and art of the Ancient Greeks and Romans. The Renaissance was also strongly humanist. During the Renaissance, many intellectuals starting paying more attention to humanity and human interactions, and giving less thought to supernatural, religious themes.

So, instead of looking up toward God, they looked in toward themselves, so to speak. Don't get me wrong, not everyone during the Renaissance disbelieved in God, but during this time, there was a change in thinking that was more human-centered. The bottom line here is that the humanism of the Renaissance had a strong impact on the Enlightenment. The Renaissance helped set the stage for the Enlightenment.

Another key 'strand' of the Enlightenment was this reliance on science and logic that we keep talking about. The Scientific Revolution helped lead directly to the Enlightenment. The Scientific Revolution is a term used to describe the explosion of modern science that took place throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. The Scientific Revolution helped erode superstition and popularized a rational, logical outlook on life. Isaac Newton, Johannes Kepler, Galileo, and Francis Bacon were key figures of the Scientific Revolution.

Another key strand of the Enlightenment had to do with political and social issues. The Enlightenment tended to support democratic values. Many Enlightenment philosophers were critical of authoritarian governments and institutions. Some historians have argued that the Protestant Reformation helped bring about the Enlightenment. The Protestant Reformation was an anti-Catholic movement sparked by a monk named Martin Luther in 1517. Although at its root it was a religious affair, the Protestant Reformation had profound political and social implications.

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