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Why is the Period of Enlightenment so Important

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The period of Enlightenment was known as an intellectual movement where people emphasized reason, logic and individualism rather than tradition. European exploration influenced others to question and think differently. This sparked new theories and philosophes which helped to shape our world today. Two opposite views began the Age of Reason; the negative view of people from Thomas Hobbes, and the positive view of people from John Locke. Thomas Hobbes believed people were evil and needed to be controlled by a strong government. He wrote “Leviathan” in 1651, which argues the need of a social contract and rule by an absolute ruler. John Locke had a totally opposite view on humans; he saw the good in people. He believed in self-government, consent of the people, and the idea that people had the right to break social contract when natural rights were denied. These two thinkers began a period of insight and enlightenment.

In Medieval times, the Earth was thought to have been the center of the universe and everything was believed to orbit it. This theory, which came from the Greek Aristotle and Ptolemy, was known as the geocentric theory. Aristotle and Ptolemy were both supported by the bible. Once the Renaissance came about, people began challenging long held ideas based on Greek or Roman authors and the bible. New thinkers observed for themselves. This new way of thinking was based on the Scientific Method on careful observation and a willingness to question beliefs. The Scientific Method was improved by two scientists known as Francis Bacon and René Descartes. Francis Bacon was an English scientist who urged experimentation, and Empiricism. Empiricism is the theory that all knowledge is derived from sense-experience, stimulated by the rise of experimental science. The French scientist René Descartes developed analytical geometry for use in the Scientific Method. He relied on math and logic. The only thing that was certain was that he existed, “I think, therefore I am.” Robert Boyle later fixed the Scientific Method for chemistry. Thus emerged the Scientific Revolution. Firstly, the geocentric theory was proved wrong. A scientist from Poland, Nicolaus Copernicus, created the heliocentric theory, which stated that the sun was at the center of the universe. The Earth and other planets orbited the sun. Although, Copernicus did not publish his findings in the “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies” until just before his death in 1543. He feared persecution from the church. 150 years later, Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler attempted to prove Copernicus’ heliocentric theory with mathematical laws and the thought that the Earth revolves in an elliptical orbit. In Italy, Galileo Galilei built his own telescope and began making observations. Galileo thought that most planetary orbits are circular in shape, when in fact they are elliptical, as shown by Johannes Kepler. This finally disproved the theory of a geocentric universe, and proved a heliocentric universe. Galileo also made other advances in astronomy. An English scientist that goes by the name of Isaac Newton, discovered the law of gravitation. First, he developed a single theory of motion. The law of gravity linked motion in the heavens with motion on Earth. He believed every object in the universe attracts every other object, and the degree of attraction depends on the mass of the objects and the distance between them. In 1687 he published “The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy” which described the universe as a giant clock with all the parts working together perfectly. God was that clock master.

During the Scientific Revolution, numerous tools were invented that were innovated for their use today. Zacharias Janssen invented the microscope, which was used by Anton van Leeuwenhoek to observe bacteria and red blood cells for the first time. A tool to measure atmospheric pressure called a barometer was developed to use mercury by Evangelista Torricelli. Another tool invented which used mercury to tell the temperature was the thermometer. Gabriel Fahrenheit made the first thermometer which showed water freezing at 32 degrees. Another thermometer was created by Anders Celsius which showed water freezing at 0 degrees. Thus how the scales of Fahrenheit and Celsius came about; these two are currently still used today. The Greek scientist Claudius Galen defined human anatomy. He extended his knowledge of anatomy by dissecting pigs and apes and studying their bone structure and muscles. He believed that the anatomy of these animals was similar to the anatomy of a human, since he was not able to actually dissect a human. Eventually, another scientist Andreas Vesalius illegally dissected human corpses and realized that Galen’s assumptions were wrong. Andreas then went on to publish the book “De Humani Corporis Fabrica” on his findings. Another advance in medicine was made when Edward Jenner introduced a vaccine to prevent the disease smallpox.

As stated earlier, the scientist Nicolaus Copernicus created the heliocentric theory, but did not publish his book until just before his death. He did this because he feared persecution from the church. The church did not like the observations of the new thinkers because they were afraid the teachings of the church would be disputed. Since shortly after Copernicus published his book he died, he could not be thrown in jail. Although, scientists who supported his theories could be. In 1616 the church warned Galileo Galilei of supporting these theories, but he didn’t listen and printed the book “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems” in 1632 which supported the observations of Nicolaus Copernicus. Galileo was then jailed. In 1633 he stood before the trial of The Inquisition which forced him to deny the theories of Copernicus. For the rest of his life, he lived under house arrest until his death in 1642. Many philosophes were jailed or exiled. The findings of these scientists and philosophes scared Protestants and Catholics. Except, the threat of the church did not stop people from supporting theories and philosophies. People questioned the church, and looked to themselves instead. This promoted religious tolerance and stressed the idea of the individual, or Individualism. Thinkers observed from themselves. Along with Individualism coming about, a secular view outlook emerged. The view of people were based on things that had no religious or spiritual basis. Adam Smith, extended individual thinking into economic thinking and created the idea of Capitalism. The government was then viewed by the people as the individual’s economic benefit.

In France during the 1700’s enlightenment peaks. Paris was the meeting place for politics and ideas. Social critics, known as philosophes, used reason and logical thinking to create beliefs. Five concepts formed the core of their beliefs: 1. Reason; Enlightenment thinkers believed truth could be discovered through reason or logical thinking. 2. Nature; The philosophes believed that what was natural was also good and reasonable. 3. Happiness; The philosophes rejected the medieval notion that people should find joy in the hereafter and urged people to seek well-being on earth. 4. Progress; The philosophes stressed that society and humankind could improve. 5. Liberty; The philosophes called for the liberties that the English people had won in their Glorious Revolution and Bill of Rights. Probably the most brilliant and influential of the philosophes was François Marie Arouet. He went by the name Voltaire, and wrote over 70 books of political essays, philosophy, and drama. Voltaire used mockery and targeted people of the clergy, the aristocracy, and the government. He was sent to prison twice and exiled to England for more than two years. Despite of all this, he never stopped fighting for tolerance, reason, freedom of religious belief, and freedom of speech. Through writing, he opposed intolerance, prejudice, and superstition. Another philosopher known as Montesquieu devoted himself to the study of political liberty. He believed Britain was the best-governed and most politically balanced country in his time; he admired their separation of powers between 3 branches. Montesquieu oversimplified the British system. In 1748, he wrote in “On the Spirit of Laws” that there should be a check to power to keep any individual or group from gaining too much power. Eventually this idea was called checks and balances. The U.S. Constitution uses separation of powers and checks and balances. A third philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau supported the idea of individual freedom. He as different from other Enlightenment thinkers because he had different views. Most philosophes believed that reason, science, and art would improve life for all people, but Rousseau believed that civilization corrupted people’s natural goodness. He argued that legitimate government came from the consent of the governed. According to him all people were equal. Another important philosophe was Cesare Bonesana Beccaria. He believed laws were to preserve social order, not to avenge crimes. He rejected the common abuses of criminals, as he thought they were cruel; criminals should receive a speedy trial and never tortured. The degree of the punishment should be based on the seriousness of the crime. These philosophes created beliefs that are still used today.

During the period of Enlightenment, a new way of thinking emerged that sparked new ideas and beliefs. Society changed its views on the universe, the government and people as individuals. People gained more freedom and thought for themselves. Multiple ideas, tools, theories, and philosophes are still used and talked about today. The influence of reason and observation impacted the world not only hundreds of years ago, but still does.

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