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The Enlightenment

Introduction to the Enlightenment


What Was the Enlightenment?

The Enlightenment has been defined in many different ways, but at its broadest was a philosophical, intellectual and cultural movement of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It stressed reason, logic, criticism and freedom of thought over dogma, blind faith and superstition. Logic wasn’t a new invention, having been used by the ancient Greeks, but it was now included in a worldview which argued that empirical observation and the examination of human life could reveal the truth behind human society and self, as well as the universe. All were deemed to be rational and understandable. The Enlightenment held that there could be a science of man, and that the history of mankind was one of progress, which could be continued with the right thinking.

Consequently, the Enlightenment also argued that human life and character could be improved through the use of education and reason. The mechanistic universe – that is to say, the universe when considered to be a functioning machine – could also be altered. The Enlightenment thus brought interested thinkers into direct conflict with the political and religious establishment; these thinkers have even been described as intellectual “terrorists” against the norm. They challenged religion with the scientific method, often instead favouring deism. The Enlightenment thinkers wanted to do more than understand, they wanted to change for, as they believed, the better: they thought reason and science would improve lives.

When Was the Enlightenment?

There is no definitive starting or ending point for the Enlightenment, which leads many works to simply say it was a seventeenth and eighteenth century phenomena. Certainly, the key era was the second half of the seventeenth century and almost all of the eighteenth. When historians have given dates, the English Civil wars and revolutions are sometimes given as the start, as they influenced Thomas Hobbes and one of the Enlightenment’s (and indeed Europe’s) key political works, Leviathan. Hobbes felt that the old political system had contributed to the bloody civil wars and searched for a new one, based on the rationality of scientific enquiry.

The end is usually given as either the death of Voltaire, one of the key Enlightenment figures, or the start of the French Revolution. This is often claimed to have marked the downfall of the Enlightenment, as attempts to rework Europe into a more logical and egalitarian system collapsed into bloodshed which killed leading writers.

Variations and Self-Consciousness

One problem in defining the Enlightenment is that there was a great deal of divergence in the leading thinker’s views, and it is important to recognise that they argued and debated with each other over the correct ways to think and proceed. Enlightenment views also varied geographically, with thinkers in different countries going in slightly different ways. For instance, the search for a “science of man” led some thinkers to search for the physiology of a body without a soul, while others searched for answers to how humanity thought. Still others tried to map humanity’s development from a primitive state, and others still looked at the economics and politics behind social interaction.

This might have led to some historians wishing to drop the label Enlightenment were it not for the fact that the Enlightenment thinkers actually called their era one of Enlightenment. The thinkers believed that they were intellectually better off than many of their peers, who were still in a superstitious darkness, and they wished to literally ‘lighten’ them and their views. Kant’s key essay of the era, “Was ist Aufklärung” literally means “What is Enlightenment?”, and was one of a number of responses to a journal which had been trying to pin down a definition. Variations in thought are still seen as part of the general movement.

Who Was Enlightened?

The spearhead of the Enlightenment was a body of well connected writers and thinkers from across Europe and North America who became known as the philosophes, which is the French for philosophers. These leading thinkers formulated, spread and debated the Enlightenment in works including, arguably the dominant text of the period, the Encyclopédie.

Where historians once believed that the philosophes were the sole carriers of Enlightenment thought, they now generally accept that they were merely the vocal tip of a much more widespread intellectual awakening among the middle and upper classes, turning them into a new social force. These were professionals such as lawyers and administrators, office holders, higher clergy and landed aristocracy, and it was these who read the many volumes of Enlightenment writing, including the Encyclopédie and soaked up their thinking.

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