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The Period of Enlightenment

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The Enlightenment was a period of intelligence and growth. During the Enligtenment, people started to believe that all men were free people. The declaration of rights of Man states “men are born free and are equal in rights.” This was a new concept of that time. People had not thought about others as being equal. Everyone was equal and can live their lives according to their wishes, within certain guidelines.

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Enlightenment was a philosophical movement in 18th century Europe, characterized by belief in the power of human reason and by innovations in political, religious and educational doctrine. This movement rejected social, traditional, political, and religious norms and values and adopted free thinking for development of new ideas and theories for human behavior and their feelings. These new ways were then applied to political and social boundries, changing the people views and thought about government, and directly influencing the development of modern world. The enlightenment presented a challenge to traditional religious views. Enlightenment thinkers were the liberal of their days. It brought ideas in moral and natural philosophy and shifted away from metaphysics and supernatural towards focus upon human nature and physics. Significantly, The Enlightenment represented adoption of critical attitude instead of cultural and intellectual traditions.

The forty-volume L’Encyclopedie (1751–1772), compiled by the important Enlightenment thinkers Denis Diderot (1713–1784) and Jean Le Rond d’Alembert (1717–1783), idealized the Enlightenment thinker, or philosophe, as one who “enslaves most minds”, and “dares to think for himself” (Diderot 1751, 5:270). A generation later, the German thinker Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) says “enlightenment is when a person grows out of his self-imposed immaturity. He defines immaturity as one’s inability to use his own understanding without the guidance of another.” He described purpose of enlightenment in simple manner as “ Have courage to use your own reason”.(1988,462).


The Enlightenment took advantage of new forms of cerebral exchange. David Hume (1711–1776) was known as one of the important figures of Enlightenment. He worked for recognition of difference between matters of facts and matter of values. He saw humanity as more inclined to emotion than to reason. He complained against the exclusivity of earlier generation and asserted on bringing knowledge popular and closeted learned to social able world of polite conversations in academies, salons, debating societies etc. in His period, books became smaller, cheaper and accessible. This was witnessed time of periodical press, of newspaper and magazines. Literacy rate was increased among the middle class men, meant that people read pamphlet essays and novels in their leisure time.


During the seventeenth century, European intellectuals quarreled over whether contemporary “modern” European thinkers had surpassed their “ancient” Greek and Roman counterparts, and this debate gave rise to the Enlightenment belief that better ways of thinking and behaving had emerged in recent decades.

The sense of modern improvements led to a faith among the philosophes that the new ideas and methods would guarantee indefinite progress in politics, society, and the arts and sciences. “If one looks at all closely at the middle of our own century, the events that occupy us, our customs, our acheivements and even our topics of conversation , it is difficult not to see that a very remarkable change in several respects has come into our ideas; a change which by its rapidity, seems to us to foreshadow another still greater. Time alone will tell the aim, the nature and limits of this revolution, whose inconveniences and advantages our posterity will recognized better than we can.” Jean Le Rond d’Adrento The philosophes took up the cause of improving their social and natural surroundings through experiment and reform. Societies and academies, such as the English Royal Society, emerged in which innovative ideas and techniques were presented, debated, and recommended. From agricultural techniques to zoological taxonomies, progressive reform was an important Enlightenment ideal associated with another Enlightenment principle: utility. Hume (1902, 183) wrote that “public utility is the sole origin of justice.” In their emphasis upon principles of progress and utility, most Enlightenment thinkers were the heirs to the “moderns” in the quarrel of the ancients and moderns.


The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw European thinkers challenge inherited ideas about the physical universe. Medieval thinkers had built elaborate cosmological systems upon classical, and particularly Aristotelian, foundations. But in many fields, such as physics, applied mathematics, and especially astronomy, new discoveries and explanations put forward by Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543), Galileo Galilei (1564–1642), and Sir Isaac Newton (1642–1727), among others, challenged the picture of a finite, Earth-centered universe and replaced it with a potentially infinite universe and a sun-centered system. Explanations of the physical universe thus increasingly presented it as analogous to a mechanism, governed by rational, mathematically expressible rules, which a divine power may have created but with which it did not need to interfere. There were Enlightenment thinkers who were ‘atomists’ but who believed the atoms were active (Leibniz at one point in his career at any rate, was one of these).

Nevertheless the passive conception predominated and it was this that entered into later conceptions of how the universe was thought of by the Enlightenment. It was thought as of made up of minute hard passive particles. Rousseau’s beleifs on human nature believing that all men in a state of nature are free and equal. In a state of nature, men are “Noble Savages”. It means that people are not born evil, but are corrupted by society and turned evil. Enlightenment thinkers viewed human nature in terms of a morally neutral tabula rasa, or blank slate, that could be molded in various ways. They applied the idea of a social tabula rasa, or state of nature, to explain how civil society might have emerged and ought to be governed.

Many Enlightenment thinkers, such as Hobbes, the Marquis d’Argenson (1694–1757), Montesquieu (1689–1755), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), argued that political stability could be guaranteed by organizing society as a machine in which each component worked in harmony with the rest. Still others, like Locke in his The Second Treatise of Government (1689), used the idea of a state of nature to define the boundaries of state power in guaranteeing political stability.


Drawing on the scientific revolution, which has demonstrated that the physical world was governed by natural laws, men such as English philosopher John Locke argued that similar laws applied to human affairs and were discoverable through reason. Protagonist of the Enlightenment also examined religion through the prism of reason. Rational Christianity, as its extreme, argued that God created the universe, established the laws of nature that made it work, and then did not interfere with the mechanism. This concept of God as a watchmaker is known as Deism. The Enlightenment, or age of Enlightenment, rearranged politics and governments in earthshaking ways. This cultural movement embraced several types of philosophies, or approaches to thinking and exploring the the world generally, Enlightened thinkers thought objectively and without prejudice. Reasoning, rationalism, and empiricism were some of the schools of thought that composed the Enlightenment. A fascinating journey through the Europe of the Enlightenment in this important volume an extraordinarily incisive picture is offered to the reader. Religion and Poitics in Enlightenment Europe is a fundamental work that solicits a renewed reflection on the great changes in progress in European society before the French Revolution and on the deeply dynamic role played by religion and particularly by religious dissent to facilitate the difficult passage from the Ancien Regime to the modern world.” –Professor Mario Rosa, Sculoa Normale Superiore.


Traditionally, “The Enlightenment” has been associated with France, America, and Scotland rather than Britain, which, strangely enough, is thought not to have had an Enlightenment to speak of. Roy Porter effectively upsets this view in Enlightenment: Britain and the Creation of the Modern World. Porter’s general concern is with “the interplay of activists, ideas, and society,” and to this end he examines innovations in social, political, scientific, psychological, and theological discourse. The key figures (the “enlightened thinkers”) read like a Who’s Who of the 17th and 18th centuries–Newton, Locke, Bernard de Mandeville, Erasmus Darwin, Priestley, Paine, Bentham, and Britain’s “premier enlightenment couple” Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, as well as the men who helped popularize and disseminate their ideas, such as Addison, Steele, Defoe, Pope, and Sterne. The book is peppered with brilliant quotes, and although it covers such vast ground in a rapid and sometimes breathless manner, Porter just about manages to hold it all together. While returning the Enlightenment to Britain, Porter also provides a persuasive general defense of the movement against its Foucauldian, feminist, and/or postmodern critics who still “paint it black.” It was perpetually dismissed as “anything from superficial and intellectually naïve to a conspiracy of dead white men in periwigs who provide the intellectual foundation for Western imperialism,” and one of the book’s strengths is that after reading it, one finds it hard to understand how these “critiques” gained such influence in intellectual circles.

The major shortcoming of the book–as Porter is well aware–is that “too many themes receive short measure”: literature and the arts, political debate, the forging of nationalism, and more. Several chapters, if not all, deserved book-length treatment, making this work of nearly 500 pages seem quite short. But if Enlightenment leaves the reader unsatisfied, it is in the best possible way–one would have liked to hear more from Porter rather than less.

Word has it he’s already planning an encore.–Larry Brown. This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title. Enlightenment historians studied how each human society followed a definite and, for most philosophes, progressive development from a hypothetical state of nature to civilization. This “conjectural history” implied definite hierarchies of cultures, and the Enlightenment was an important period in the development of cultural particularism, which fed into the nationalist and racialist ideologies of the nineteenth century.

The Enlightenment entailed the reformation of thought in politics, economics, science, philosophy and other fields. In this process Scotland held an eminent, globally-significant position and influence. Research into this phenomenon can connect the ‘Enlightened’ ideas of Scotland’s great thinkers with material, practical and other developments ‘at home’ and it can seek to understand the connections forged through the Enlightenment between Scotland and the wider world. The new scientific and rational outlook associated with enlightenment was manifest in technological advances which arose from Enlightenment research and which facilitated the growth of industrial production and fed the massive increase in consumption that characterizes the eighteenth and nineteenth century.


The heart of the eighteenth century Enlightenment is the loosely organized activity of prominent French thinkers of the mid-decades of the eighteenth century, the so-called “philosophes”(e.g., Voltaire, D’Alembert, Diderot, Montesquieu). The philosophes constituted an informal society of men of letters who collaborated on a loosely defined project of Enlightenment exemplified by the project of the Encyclopedia (see below 1.5). However, there are noteworthy centers of Enlightenment outside of France as well. There is a renowned Scottish Enlightenment (key figures are Frances Hutcheson, Adam Smith, David Hume, Thomas Reid), a German Enlightenment (die Aufklärung, key figures of which include Christian Wolff, Moses Mendelssohn, G.E. Lessing and Immanuel Kant), and there are also other hubs of Enlightenment and Enlightenment thinkers scattered throughout Europe and America in the eighteenth century. What makes for the unity of such tremendously diverse thinkers under the label of “Enlightenment”? For the purposes of this entry, the Enlightenment is conceived broadly. D’Alembert, a leading figure of the French Enlightenment, characterizes his eighteenth century, in the midst of it, as “the century of philosophy par excellence”, because of the tremendous intellectual and scientific progress of the age, but also because of the expectation of the age that philosophy (in the broad sense of the time, which includes the natural and social sciences) would dramatically improve human life. Guided by D’Alembert’s characterization of his century, the Enlightenment is conceived here as having its primary origin in the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries. The rise of the new science progressively undermines not only the ancient geocentric conception of the cosmos, but also the set of presuppositions that had served to constrain and guide philosophical inquiry in the earlier times.

The dramatic success of the new science in explaining the natural world promotes philosophy from a handmaiden of theology, constrained by its purposes and methods, to an independent force with the power and authority to challenge the old and construct the new, in the realms both of theory and practice, on the basis of its own principles. Taking as the core of the Enlightenment the aspiration for intellectual progress, and the belief in the power of such progress to improve human society and individual lives, this entry includes descriptions of relevant aspects of the thought of earlier thinkers, such as Hobbes, Locke, Descartes, Bayle, Leibniz, and Spinoza, thinkers whose contributions are indispensable to understanding the eighteenth century as “the century of philosophy par excellence”.

The Enlightenment is often associated with its political revolutions and ideals, especially the French Revolution of 1789. The energy created and expressed by the intellectual foment of Enlightenment thinkers contributes to the growing wave of social unrest in France in the eighteenth century. The social unrest comes to a head in the violent political upheaval which sweeps away the traditionally and hierarchically structured ancien régime (the monarchy, the privileges of the nobility, the political power of the Catholic Church).

The French revolutionaries meant to establish in place of the ancien régime a new reason-based order instituting the Enlightenment ideals of liberty and equality. Though the Enlightenment, as a diverse intellectual and social movement, has no definite end, the devolution of the French Revolution into the Terror in the 1790s, corresponding, as it roughly does, with the end of the eighteenth century and the rise of opposed movements, such as Romanticism, can serve as a convenient marker of the end of the Enlightenment, conceived as an historical period. For Enlightenment thinkers themselves, however, the Enlightenment is not an historical period, but a process of social, psychological or spiritual development, unbound to time or place. Immanuel Kant defines “enlightenment” in his famous contribution to debate on the question in an essay entitled “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” (1784), as humankind’s release from its self-incurred immaturity; “immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another.”

Expressing convictions shared among Enlightenment thinkers of widely divergent doctrines, Kant identifies enlightenment with the process of undertaking to think for oneself, to employ and rely on one’s own intellectual capacities in determining what to believe and how to act. Enlightenment philosophers from across the geographical and temporal spectrum tend to have a great deal of confidence in humanity’s intellectual powers, both to achieve systematic knowledge of nature and to serve as an authoritative guide in practical life. This confidence is generally paired with suspicion or hostility toward other forms or carriers of authority (such as tradition, superstition, prejudice, myth and miracles), insofar as these are seen to compete with the authority of one’s own reason and experience.

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Enlightenment philosophy tends to stand in tension with established religion, insofar as the release from self-incurred immaturity in this age, daring to think for oneself, awakening one’s intellectual powers, generally requires opposing the role of established religion in directing thought and action. The faith of the Enlightenment – if one may call it that – is that the process of enlightenment, of becoming progressively self-directed in thought and action through the awakening of one’s intellectual powers, leads ultimately to a better, more fulfilled human existence. This entry describes the main tendencies of Enlightenment thought in the following main sections: 1). The True: Science, Epistemology, and Metaphysics in the Enlightenment; 2). The Good: Political Theory, Ethical Theory and Religion in the Enlightenment; 3). The Beautiful: Aesthetics in the Enlightenment.

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