The Enlightenment - The Age of Reason

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Updated on Feb 3, 2012

The Enlightenment (The Age of Reason)

In the wake of the Scientific Revolution came the Enlightenment, a period of intellectual achievement that lasted for approximately a century, from the English Revolution in 1689 to the French Revolution in 1789. The Enlightenment is also called the Age of Reason. This movement was a natural consequence of the Scientific Revolution, which had introduced a new thought process to the West. During the Age of Reason, intellectuals applied that new way of thinking to social and political questions. They argued against political and religious tyranny, against a fixed hierarchy of social ranks, against censorship, and against chattel slavery. They argued for freedom—freedom of individual thought, freedom of the press and the arts, freedom to have a say in one’s own government, and freedom to rise in the world according to merit rather than the accident of birth and rank.

The Enlightenment was centered in France—specifically in Paris—for a variety of reasons. First, France was the dominant power in Europe because of its victory in the Thirty Years’ War. Second, French was the common language of educated Europeans in the eighteenth century, just as Latin had been during the Renaissance. Third, the establishment of the French academies of arts, sciences, and letters had given a degree of official approval and sponsorship to intellectuals, although this was also true in other nations, and censorship still operated in France. Enlightenment thinkers viewed Britain as the ideal society; although it had many problems yet to overcome, Britain was a constitutional monarchy with a relatively representative government and relative religious tolerance, and therefore a haven from tyranny. Last and not least, France had a central geographical location on the European continent; the less restrictive conditions in Britain might make it appear a natural center for an intellectual movement, but it was an island on the other side of the English Channel.

The thinkers of the Enlightenment were men (and some women) of all European nations: Britain, Germany, France, Poland, and Italy. They achieved fame in various fields: there were poets, playwrights, political thinkers, non- fiction writers, scientists, novelists, philosophers, and economists. They were collectively known as philosophes—a French word that can perhaps best be translated as “critical thinkers.” What united the philosophes as one group was this critical way of thinking—the habit of applying the same reasoning process to the problems and questions of their age. They came to a variety of conclusions—there were in fact some fierce disagreements among them—but all used the same method to arrive at them.

The Enlightenment marked a break with the past in two major ways. First, the Middle Ages and the period that followed had generally been a time of pessimism, or at best resignation. Many medieval Church officials and even scholars had believed the world would end in 1500; people made the best of life on earth only in the hope of achieving something better after death. By contrast, the Enlightenment was an era of optimism, in which the great intellectuals believed in the perfectibility of humankind. The philosophes believed that reasoning and knowledge could solve the problems of society, if properly applied. They believed that a world of peace, prosperity, and earthly happiness could truly be achieved. Their ideas about political theory were based on notions of individual liberty, which they and their followers expressed in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the American Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights.

Second, human society had always accepted that human beings were God’s creation; people had always dedicated their endeavors to the glory of God and had prayed for God’s assistance when going into battle or danger. This attitude even persisted during the Scientific Revolution. During the Enlightenment, the philosophes began openly questioning the relevance, if not the existence, of God. They focused on human achievement as the product of a particular individual’s merit, and honored that person rather than God.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

The Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment Practice Test

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