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Age of Enlightenment

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The Age of Enlightenment is a term used to describe a phase in Western philosophy and cultural life centered upon the eighteenth century. The term came into use in English during the mid-nineteenth century, with particular reference to French philosophy, as the equivalent of a term then in use by German writers, Zeitalter der Aufklärung, signifying generally the philosophical outlook of the eighteenth century. It does not represent a single movement or school of thought, for these philosophies were often mutually contradictory or divergent.

"Age of Enlightenment" and "The Enlightenment" refer particularly to the intellectual and philosophical developments of that age (and their impact in moral and social reform), in which Reason was advocated as the primary source and basis of authority. Developing in Germany, France and Britain, the movement spread through much of Europe, including Russia and Scandinavia. The signatories of the American Declaration of Independence, the United States Bill of Rights and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen were motivated by "Enlightenment" principles (although the English Bill of Rights predates the era). The era is marked by political aspiration towards governmental consolidation, nation-creation and greater rights for common people, attempting to supplant the arbitrary authority of aristocracy and established churches.

The eighteenth century was an age of optimism, tempered by the realistic recognition of the sad state of the human condition and the need for major reforms. The Enlightenment was less a set of ideas than it was a set of attitudes. At its core was a critical questioning of traditional institutions, customs, and morals. Some classifications of this period also include the late 17th century, which is typically known as the Age of Reason or Age of Rationalism.

There is no consensus on when to date the start of the age of Enlightenment, and some scholars simply use the beginning of the eighteenth century or the middle of the seventeenth century as a default date. Other scholars use the beginning of the Napoleonic Wars (1804–15) as a convenient point in time with which to date the end of the Enlightenment. Still others describe the Enlightenment beginning in Britain's Glorious Revolution of 1688 and ending in the French Revolution of 1789. However others also claim the Enlightenment ended with the death of Voltaire in 1778.

Origins of the Enlightenment

Following the revolution of knowledge commenced by René Descartes and Isaac Newton, and in a climate of increasing disaffection with repressive rule, Enlightenment thinkers believed that systematic thinking might be applied to all areas of human activity, and carried into the governmental sphere, in their explorations of the individual, society and the state. Its leaders believed they could lead their states to progress after a long period of tradition, irrationality, superstition, and tyranny which they imputed to the Middle Ages. The movement helped create the intellectual framework for the American, French, and Haitian Revolutions, Poland's Constitution of May 3, 1791, Russia's 1825 Decembrist Revolt, the Latin American independence movement, and the Greek national independence movement. In addition, Enlightenment ideals were influential in the Balkan independence movements against the Ottoman Empire, and many historians and philosophers credit the Enlightenment with the later rise of classical liberalism, socialism, democracy, and modern capitalism.

The Age of Enlightenment receives modern attention as a central model for many movements in the modern period. Another important movement in 18th century philosophy, closely related to it, focused on belief and piety. Some of its proponents, such as George Berkeley, attempted to demonstrate rationally the existence of a supreme being. Piety and belief in this period were integral to the exploration of natural philosophy and ethics, in addition to political theories of the age. However, prominent Enlightenment philosophers such as Thomas Paine, Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and David Hume questioned and attacked the existing institutions of both Church and State. The 19th century also saw a continued rise of empiricist ideas and their application to political economy, government and sciences such as physics, chemistry and biology.

The continent of Europe had been ravaged by religious wars in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. When political stability had been restored, notably after the Peace of Westphalia and the English Civil War, an intellectual upheaval overturned the accepted belief that mysticism and revelation are the primary sources of knowledge and wisdom. Instead (according to scholars who split the two periods), the Age of Reason sought to establish axiomatic philosophy and absolutism as foundations for knowledge and stability. Epistemology, in the writings of Michel de Montaigne and René Descartes, was based on extreme skepticism and inquiry into the nature of "knowledge." The goal of a philosophy based on self-evident axioms reached its height with Baruch (Benedictus de) Spinoza's Ethics, which expounded a pantheistic view of the universe where God and Nature were one. This idea then became central to the Enlightenment from Newton through to Jefferson. The ideas of Pascal, Leibniz, Galileo and other natural philosophers of the previous period also contributed to and greatly influenced the Enlightenment. Cassirer argued that Leibniz’s Treatise On Wisdom "identified the central concept of the Enlightenment and sketched its theoretical programme.". There was a wave of change across European thinking, exemplified by Newton's natural philosophy, which combined mathematics of axiomatic proof with mechanics of physical observation, a coherent system of verifiable predictions, which set the tone for what followed Newton's Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica in the century after.

The Age of Enlightenment is also prominent in the history of Judaism, perhaps because of its conjunction with increased social acceptance of Jews in some western European states, especially those who were not orthodox or who converted to the officially sanctioned version of Christianity. Antisemitism, however, continued to remain a visible phenomenon throughout much of Europe during the Enlightenment, and a number of major Enlightenment figures were noted antisemites. The period is known as Haskalah in Jewish historiography, and the term carries the same connotations of "enlightenment" in Hebrew.

Many of the Founding Fathers of the United States were also influenced by Enlightenment-era ideas, especially the views of John Locke on the duties and role of government for the people.

Recent research has also shown that women played an important, if somewhat limited, role in the Enlightenment, producing an unprecedented volume of published works.


The Enlightenment occupies a central role in the justification for the movement known as modernism. The neo-classicizing trend in modernism came to see itself as a period of rationality which overturned established traditions, analogously to the Encyclopaediasts and other Enlightenment philosophers. A variety of 20th century movements, including liberalism and neo-classicism, traced their intellectual heritage back to the Enlightenment, and away from the purported emotionalism of the 19th century. Geometric order, rigor and reductionism were seen as Enlightenment virtues. The modern movement points to reductionism and rationality as crucial aspects of Enlightenment thinking, of which it is the heir, as opposed to irrationality and emotionalism. In this view, the Enlightenment represents the basis for modern ideas of liberalism against superstition and intolerance. Influential philosophers who have held this view include Jürgen Habermas and Isaiah Berlin.

This view asserts that the Enlightenment was the point when Europe broke through what historian Peter Gay calls "the sacred circle," whose dogma had circumscribed thinking. The Enlightenment is held to be the source of critical ideas, such as the centrality of freedom, democracy and reason as primary values of society. This view argues that the establishment of a contractual basis of rights would lead to the market mechanism and capitalism, the scientific method, religious tolerance, and the organization of states into self-governing republics through democratic means. In this view, the tendency of the philosophes in particular to apply rationality to every problem is considered the essential change. From this point on, thinkers and writers were held to be free to pursue the truth in whatever form, without the threat of sanction for violating established ideas.

With the end of the Second World War and the rise of post-modernity, these same features came to be regarded as liabilities - excessive specialization, failure to heed traditional wisdom or provide for unintended consequences, and the romanticization of Enlightenment figures - such as the Founding Fathers of the United States, prompted a backlash against both Science and Enlightenment based dogma in general. Philosophers such as Michel Foucault are often understood as arguing that the Age of Reason had to construct a vision of unreason as being demonic and subhuman, and therefore evil and befouling, whence by analogy to argue that rationalism in the modern period is, likewise, a construction. In their book, Dialectic of Enlightenment, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno wrote a critique of what they perceived as the contradictions of Enlightenment thought: Enlightenment was seen as being at once liberatory and (through the domination of instrumental rationality) tending towards totalitarianism.

Yet other leading intellectuals, such as Noam Chomsky, see a natural evolution, using the term loosely, from early Enlightenment thinking to other forms of social analysis, specifically from The Enlightenment to liberalism, anarchism and socialism. The relationship between these different schools of thought, Chomsky and others point out, can be seen in the works of von Humboldt, Kropotkin, Bakunin and Marx, among others. No brief summary can do justice to the diversity of enlightened thought in eighteenth-century Europe. Because it was an attitude rather than a set of shared beliefs, there are many contradictory trains to follow. In his famous essay " What is Enlightenment?" (1784), Immanuel Kant described it simply as freedom to use one's own intelligence.

Important figures

  • Thomas Abbt (1738–1766) German. Promoted what would later be called Nationalism in Vom Tode für's Vaterland (On dying for one's nation).
  • Jean le Rond d'Alembert (1717–1783) French. Mathematician and physicist, one of the editors of Encyclopédie.* Balthasar Bekker (1634–1698) Dutch, a key figure in the Early Enlightenment. In his book De Philosophia Cartesiana (1668) Bekker argued that theology and philosophy each had their separate terrain and that Nature can no more be explained from Scripture than can theological truth be deduced from Nature.
  • Pierre Bayle (1647–1706) French. Literary critic known for Nouvelles de la république des lettres and Dictionnaire historique et critique, and one of the earliest influences on the Enlightenment thinkers to advocate tolerance between the difference religious beliefs.
  • Cesare Beccaria
  • Ludwig van Beethoven
  • George Berkeley
  • James Boswell (1740–1795) Scottish. Biographer of Samuel Johnson, helped established the norms for writing Biography in general.
  • G.L. Buffon (1707–1788) French. Author of L'Histoire Naturelle who considered Natural Selection and the similarities between humans and apes.
  • Edmund Burke (1729–1797) Irish. Parliamentarian and political philosopher, best known for pragmatism, considered important to both liberal and conservative thinking.* James Burnett Lord Monboddo Scottish. Philosopher, jurist, pre-evolutionary thinker and contributor to linguistic evolution. See Scottish Enlightenment
  • Marquis de Condorcet (1743–1794) French. Philosopher, mathematician, and early political scientist who devised the concept of a Condorcet method.
  • Ekaterina Dashkova
  • Denis Diderot (1713–1784) French. Founder of the Encyclopédie, speculated on free will and attachment to material objects, contributed to the theory of literature.
  • Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) American. Statesman, scientist, political philosopher, pragmatic deist, author. As a philosopher known for his writings on nationality, economic matters, aphorisms published in Poor Richard's Almanac and polemics in favour of American Independence. Involved with writing the United States Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of 1787.
  • French Encyclopédistes
  • Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle
  • Joseph-Alexandre-Victor Hupay de Fuveau,( 1746-1818), writer and philosopher who had used for the first time in 1785 the word "communism" in a doctrinal sense.
  • Edward Gibbon (1737–1794) English. Historian best known for his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
  • Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is closely identified with Enlightenment values, progressing from Sturm und Drang and participating with Schiller in the movement of Weimar Classicism.
  • Olympe de Gouges
  • Joseph Haydn
  • Helvétius
  • Johann Gottfried von Herder German. Theologian and Linguist. Proposed that language determines thought, introduced concepts of ethnic study and nationalism, influential on later Romantic thinkers. Early supporter of democracy and republican self rule.
  • Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1679) English philosopher, who wrote Leviathan, a key text in political philosophy.
  • Baron d'Holbach (1723–1789) French. Author, encyclopaedist and Europe's first outspoken atheist. Roused much controversy over his criticism of religion as a whole in his work The System of Nature.
  • Robert Hooke (1635–1703) English, probably the leading experimenter of his age, Curator of Experiments for the Royal Society. Performed the work which quantified such concepts as Boyle's Law and the inverse-square nature of gravitation, father of the science of microscopy.
  • David Hume (1711-1776) Scottish. Historian, philosopher and economist. Best known for his empiricism and scientific scepticism, advanced doctrines of naturalism and material causes. Influenced Kant and Adam Smith.
  • Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) German. Philosopher and physicist. Established critical philosophy on a systematic basis, proposed a material theory for the origin of the solar system, wrote on ethics and morals. Prescribed a politics of Enlightenment in What is Enlightenment? (1784). Influenced by Hume and Isaac Newton. Important figure in German Idealism, and important to the work of Fichte and Hegel.
  • Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) American. Statesman, political philosopher, educator, deist. As a philosopher best known for the United States Declaration of Independence (1776) and his interpretation of the United States Constitution (1787) which he pursued as president. Argued for natural rights as the basis of all states, argued that violation of these rights negates the contract which bind a people to their rulers and that therefore there is an inherent "Right to Revolution."
  • Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos. Main figure of the Spanish Enlightenment. Preeminent statesman.
  • Hugo Kołłątaj (1750–1812) Polish. He was active in the Commission for National Education and the Society for Elementary Textbooks, and reformed the Kraków Academy, of which he was rector in 1783–86. He co-authored the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth's Constitution of May 3, 1791, and founded the Assembly of Friends of the Government Constitution to assist in the document's implementation.
  • Ignacy Krasicki (1735–1801): Polish. Leading poet of the Polish Enlightenment, hailed by contemporaries as "the Prince of Poets." After the 1764 election of Stanisław August Poniatowski as King of Poland, Krasicki became the new King's confidant and chaplain. He participated in the King's famous " Thursday dinners" and co-founded the Monitor, the preeminent periodical of the Polish Enlightenment, sponsored by the King. He is remembered especially for his Fables and Parables.
  • Antoine Lavoisier
  • Gottfried Leibniz
  • Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729–1781) German. Dramatist, critic, political philosopher. Created theatre in the German language, began reappraisal of Shakespeare to being a central figure, and the importance of classical dramatic norms as being crucial to good dramatic writing, theorized that the centre of political and cultural life is the middle class.
  • Carl Linnaeus (1707 - 1778) Swedish botanist, physician and zoologist who laid the foundations for the modern scheme of Binomial nomenclature.
  • John Locke (1632–1704) English Philosopher. Important empiricist who expanded and extended the work of Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes. Seminal thinker in the realm of the relationship between the state and the individual, the contractual basis of the state and the rule of law. Argued for personal liberty with respect to property.
  • Mikhail Lomonosov
  • Sebastião de Melo, Marquis of Pombal (1699-1782) Portuguese statesman notable for his swift and competent leadership in the aftermath of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. He also implemented sweeping economic policies to regulate commercial activity and standardize quality throughout the country. The term Pombaline is used to describe not only his tenure, but also the architectural style which formed after the great earthquake.
  • Benito Jerónimo Feijóo y Montenegro (1676–1764) Spanish, was the most prominent promoter of the critical empiricist attitude at the dawn of the Spanish Enlightenment. See also the portuguese Martín Sarmiento.
  • Montesquieu (1689–1755) French political thinker. He is famous for his articulation of the theory of separation of powers, taken for granted in modern discussions of government and implemented in many constitutions all over the world.
  • Leandro Fernández de Moratín (1760–1828) Spanish. Dramatist and translator, support of republicanism and free thinking. Transitional figure to Romanticism.
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
  • Sir Isaac Newton Founder of modern physics and inventor of calculus.
  • Nikolay Novikov (1744–1818) Russian. Philanthropist and journalist who sought to raise the culture of Russian readers and publicly argued with the Empress. See Russian Enlightenment for other prominent figures.
  • Thomas Paine (1737–1809) English/American. Pamphleteer, Deist, and polemicist, most famous for Common Sense attacking England's domination of the colonies in America. The pamphlet was key in fomenting the American Revolution. Also wrote The Age of Reason which remains one of the most persuasive critiques of the Bible ever written, his writings (mainly Age of Reason and Rights of Man) made Americans study their religion, their behaviors, and the ruling hierarchy. His work "The Rights of Man" was written in defense of the French Revolution and is the classic example up of the Enlightenment arguments in favour of classical liberalism.
  • Francois Quesney (1694–1774) French economist of the Physiocratic school. He also practiced surgery.
  • Thomas Reid (1710-1796) Scottish. Presbyterian minister and Philosopher. Contributed greatly to the idea of Common-Sense philosophy and was Hume's most famous contemporary critic. Best known for his An Inquiry Into The Human Mind. Heavily influenced William James.
  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau Swiss political philosopher. Argued that the basis of morality was conscience, rather than reason, as most other philosophers argued. He wrote Du Contrat Social, in which Rousseau claims that citizens of a state must take part in creating a 'social contract' laying out the state's ground rules in order to found an ideal society in which they are free from arbitrary power. His rejection of reason in favour of the "Noble Savage" and his idealizing of ages past make him truly fit more into the romantic philosophical school, which was a reaction against the enlightenment. He largely rejected the individualism inherent in classical liberalism, arguing that the general will overrides the will of the individual.
  • Mikhailo Shcherbatov
  • Adam Smith (1723–1790) Scottish economist and philosopher. He wrote The Wealth of Nations, in which he argued that wealth was not money in itself, but wealth was derived from the added value in manufactured items produced by both invested capital and labor. He is sometimes considered to be the founding father of the Laissez-faire economic theory, but in fact argues for some degree of government control in order to maintain equity.
  • Baruch Spinoza (1632–1672) Dutch, philosopher who is considered to have laid the groundwork for the 18th century Enlightenment.* Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) Natural philosopher and theologian whose search for the operation of the soul in the body led him to construct a detailed metaphysical model for spiritual-natural causation.
  • Alexis de Tocqueville
  • François-Marie Arouet (pen name Voltaire) (1694–1778) French Enlightenment writer, essayist, deist and philosopher. He wrote several books, the most famous of which is Dictionnaire Philosophique , in which he argued that organized religion is pernicious. He was the Enlightenment's most vigorous antireligious polemicist, as well as being a highly well known advocate of intellectual freedom.
  • Adam Weishaupt (1748–1830) German who founded the Order of the Illuminati.
  • John Wilkes
  • Johann Joachim Winckelmann, German founder of art-history, who emphasised the mimetic or imitative function in art and laid important foundations to German classical idealism of the Enlightenment.
  • Christian Wolff (1679-1754)"German" Co-founder of the German Enlightenment.
  • Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) British writer, philosopher, and feminist.
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