The Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012

Time Line

1543 Copernicus argues in De Revolutionibus that planets move around the sun
1577 Tycho Brahe proves that comets are astral bodies
1609 Johannes Kepler discovers that planets move in elliptical orbits
1610 Galileo observes moons of Jupiter
1633 Roman Inquisition forces Galileo to recant
1637 Descartes publishes work on analytic geometry
1654 Christiaan Huygens invents the pendulum clock
1687 Newton publishes Principia Mathematica
1748 Montesquieu publishes L’Esprit des lois
1759 Voltaire publishes Candide
1762 Rousseau publishes Contract social
1776 American Revolution begins
1789 French Revolution


The Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment

The Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment came about as direct, although not immediate, results of the Renaissance and Reformation. During the Renaissance, many ancient Greek and Latin texts came to light and were seriously studied for the first time in centuries. Scholars learned of ancient discoveries in mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy that had been suppressed or dismissed by the Church. The Renaissance also encouraged individual scholars to question the Church’s teachings. The perfection of the printing press made the widespread dissemination of old and new knowledge possible. Finally, the Reformation loosened the stranglehold on thought that Christianity had maintained for centuries.

During the Scientific Revolution, direct observations of nature gave people a new way of understanding the world. The Church saw the Scientific Revolution as a threat for two reasons: it changed what people thought and, more important, how they thought. The increase in human knowledge of the workings of the universe that occurred during the Scientific Revolution was the product of experimentation—of scientists making observations, taking notes, studying their data, and developing theories and conclusions based on what they perceived with their five senses. The Church was naturally hostile to a process that threatened its own supremacy over what people thought. Church officials did not want to change the centuries-old system in which their own scholars and teachers interpreted the world in accordance with their faith, and insisted that the people accept this interpretation rather than thinking about the matter for themselves.

The great thinkers—called philosophes —of the Enlightenment applied this same scientific process of critical thinking to social and political problems. They believed in the perfectibility of humanity and society; their goal was a peaceful, prosperous world in which ignorance, greed, and tyranny had no place. For nearly a century, the philosophes wrote, argued, debated, and taught that all people were born free and equal, and that individuals should be able to make their way in the world as reasonable beings with a right to decide how and where they wished to live. In the end, they brought about, at least in part, the new world they had imagined; their teachings led directly to major revolutions in British North America and in France.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

The Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment Practice Test

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