What was the Age of Enlightenment?
The Age of Enlightenment refers to a period of intellectual and philosophical discovery that took place in Western Europe during the 18th century. As with many historical eras, there is some disagreement about exactly when the Enlightenment began and ended. Some start dates for the era are as early as 1670, with others as late as 1748. A generally accepted timeline for the period falls within what some historians refer to as the ‘long eighteenth century’ around 1685 – 1815. The Enlightenment was a period not defined by specific events but changing attitudes in philosophical, political, and religious thought. Those who advanced Enlightenment ideals, known as “philosophes”, challenged conventional wisdom and advanced a more secular, rational outlook in the pursuit of making a better world.
Several key factors combined at the time to make this age of Enlightenment possible, the first being the intellectual foundations laid by the Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries. In this period, scholars developed a new way of practicing scientific research through experimentation and rationalism. Great strides forward in astronomy, biology, chemistry, mathematics, physics, and other areas changed the way the world was viewed. For instance, Nicolaus Copernicus advanced the heliocentric view of the universe, the idea that the earth revolved around the sun, in the 16th century. Copernicus and his successors, most notably Galileo, defied charges of heresy by the church to advance theories based on reason rather than dogma. Skepticism over existing views was another key element of the Scientific Revolution and would become a cornerstone of the Enlightenment. Rene Descartes, best known for the phrase, “I think, therefore I am”, argued that skepticism was the basis for separating truth from fiction. His work provided an important point of reference for some of the most prominent scholars of the Enlightenment.
Another important factor in making the Enlightenment possible was the time and place in which it occurred. Western Europe in the 18th century was a time of relative economic and political stability. Colonialism and foreign trade gave access to easily grown crops and goods which supported a growing population. It was a time of more than just bare survival for many Europeans, especially those of modest means in the towns and cities. The era coincided with the rise of professional trades, particularly in law and medicine.
Access to the wider world brought not only material goods but knowledge of vibrant cultures and different ways of life as well. While the Europeans still generally viewed the world through the perspective of spreading Christianity and European culture, new ideas from abroad still filtered through. Some realized that advanced and functional societies could exist far away from Europe or Christian traditions. Equally important for the spread of ideas was the ease in which texts could be produced and shared across the continent. Greater access to education meant that a larger proportion of the population were literate. By 1750 a majority of Englishmen could read and write while in France the proportion of literate women doubled in the 18th century. Gatherings of like-minded individuals in cities across the continent such as the salons of Paris or the social clubs in Edinburgh helped to spread and develop new ideas.
The most prominent Enlightenment intellectuals were from the segment of society known as the bourgeois, the rough equivalent of the upper middle class today. This group rejected the notion of birth determining a person’s status and fortune in life. Why shouldn’t a person be able to improve their lot in life based on their own ability and merit?
A combination of the foundations laid by the Scientific Revolution, economic stability, foreign trade and travel, and access to education made the Age of Enlightenment possible. So what were some of the key ideas of the Enlightenment era itself?
It’s important to note that the Enlightenment was not a singular way of thinking or a coherent ideology, some of the most prominent thinkers of the era had profound disagreements with one another. In general the philosophes worked towards a bienfaisance universelle or universal good. By promoting freedom of expression, reason, and tolerance, the philosophes hoped to educate the masses and make the world a better place. Two important areas of Enlightenment thought were in politics and religion.
John Locke, an English philosopher and physician, was a prominent figure in the early years of the Enlightenment. Locke rejected the idea of a person being born with innate knowledge or ideas and stressed that these were acquired through lived experience. He believed it was possible to improve humanity and a person should be able to pursue their own destiny and live life in their own way. Arguably his most prominent idea was of the social contract between the people and the government.
Unlike the divine right of a king to rule, the social contract was the idea that the government should act to protect the liberties and rights of the governed. In his 1689 “Two Treatises of Government”, Locke argued there were three natural rights of man, which might sound familiar: life, liberty, and property. The “Social Contract” was the title of a later work by Jean-Jacques Rousseau which posited the best form of government was a direct democracy that acted in the interest of the people following the General Will. Simply put, the General Will was the common good of the state, and if the government did not act in the interests of the people, it should be overthrown. It’s not hard to see the influence of Locke and Rousseau’s work in the American Declaration of Independence.
Though we can see Enlightenment ideas in the American and French Revolutions of the late 18th century, the philosophes weren’t particularly radical themselves. As most were bourgeois men of modest wealth, they did not seek to overthrow the existing power structures but to reform them. Some were quite opposed to running the risk of mob rule and had little faith in the ability of the people to rule themselves. Most states at the time were ruled by a monarch and it was hoped that a better world could be possible through an enlightened despot, a ruler who held supreme power but used it for the good of the people rather than their own personal gain.
Religion was an important area of concern for the Enlightenment, again one without a universal point of view. In general, the philosophes were deeply skeptical about the traditions and pervasive influence of religion and believed that the only solution to religious differences was to be found in tolerance. There were differing levels of regard for Christianity among Enlightenment thinkers but even those deeply opposed to religion saw some value in Christianity as a moral guide. An “enlightened” view of religion was known as Deism.
Deism was something of a middle ground between traditional Christianity and atheism in that it acknowledged the role of a creator in making the world but believed God had little interest in humanity beyond that. An indifferent God meant that the best thing a person could do was to live a virtuous life and what that entailed was left up to the person.
One of the prominent figures that held close this idea of religious freedom was François-Marie Arouet, best known by his pseudonym “Voltaire”. Few other philosophes can claim to be as synonymous with the Enlightenment as Voltaire. He was born in Paris in 1694 and educated by Jesuits; he was an active participant in salon culture and soon determined to pursue a career as a writer. Voltaire’s biting wit attracted admiration, wealth, and infamy in equal measure. Criticism of the Regent of France in 1717 earned a spell in the Bastille, and after mocking a French noble in 1726 he was beaten and fled to England until 1729. His time in Britain had a profound influence on his outlook and later work.
He was a highly productive writer, with 90 published works to his name. He was adept at making complicated ideas accessible to the layperson, aiding in the expansion of cultural and social history rather than the traditional approach of recounting the deeds of great men. His key ideas were of religious tolerance, freedom of expression, and the separation of church and state.
Scotland was home to several important scholars at the time, the most notable being David Hume, an essayist, philosopher, and historian of great renown, writing an extensive six-volume history of England from 1754-1761. Like John Locke, he was an empiricist who believed all knowledge came from sensory experience.
Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher, was a highly prolific and influential author in the late 18th century. Kant wrote about a variety of topics but is arguably best known for his work in the philosophy of ethics and metaphysics, and is considered one of the most influential thinkers in Western philosophy.
Before we go, let’s look at a few review questions to test your memory:
1. Which of the following made the Enlightenment possible?
- Greater literacy
- Economic stability
- Foreign trade
- All of these
The answer is D. These were all key factors that made the Age of Enlightenment possible.
2. The General Will, the idea of the common interest of the people, was espoused by which Enlightenment thinker?