Age of Enlightenment

I love history and I wrote this post today in hope that it might enlighten some of my readers, but because this covers such a long time period, I will only cover certain aspects.  European politics, philosophy, science and communications were radically reoriented between the yeas 1685-1815 as part of a movement referred to by its participants as the Age of Reason, or simply the Enlightenment.  Some historians feel that the Age of Enlightenment covers about a century and a half in Europe, beginning with the publication of Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum in 1620 and ending with Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason in 1781.  This period is also considered to have begun with the close of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648 and have ended with the French Revolution in 1789.  Which ever years this period covers, the Enlightenment ultimately gave way to 19th-century Romanticism.

It was a time of religious (and anti-religious) innovation, as Christians sought to reposition their faith along rational lines and deists (those who reject the supernatural aspects of religion, such as belief in revelation in the Bible, and stress the importance of ethical conduct) and materialists (those who consider material possessions and physical comfort as being more important than spiritual values) argued that the universe seemed to determine its own course without God’s intervention.  Secret societies like the Freemasons, the Bavarian Illuminati, the Rosicrucians (a belief that its members possess secret wisdom that was handed down to them from ancient times) flourished, offering European men (and a few women) new modes of fellowship, esoteric (likely to be understood by only a small number of people with a specialized knowledge or interest) ritual and mutual assistance.  Coffeehouses, newspapers and literary salons emerged as new venues for ideas to circulate.

Enlightenment thinkers in Britain, in France and throughout Europe questioned traditional authority and embraced the notion that humanity could be improved through rational change.  The Enlightenment produced numerous books, essays, inventions, scientific discoveries, laws, wars and revolutions.  The American and French Revolutions were directly inspired by Enlightenment ideals and respectively marked the peak of its influence and the beginning of its decline.

The Enlightenment’s important 17th-century precursors included the Englishmen Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes, the Frenchman Renee Descartes and the key natural philosophers of the Scientific Revolution, including Galileo, Kepler and Leibniz.  Its roots can be traced back to when Isaac Newton published his “Principia Mathematica” (1686) and John Locke wrote his “Essay Concerning Human Understanding” (1689), as these two works provided the scientific, mathematical and philosophical toolkit for the Enlightenment’s major advances.  Newton’s calculus and optical theories provided the powerful Enlightenment metaphors for precisely measured change and illumination.

Francis Bacon was an English lawyer who was one of the leading figures in natural philosophy and in the field of scientific methodology.  His major contribution to philosophy was his application of inductive reasoning  which involved generalizations based on individual instances, the approach that is used by modern science.  Thomas Hobbes was an English philosopher who is considered one of the founders of modern political philosophy.  Hobbes believed that the only true and correct form of government was the absolute monarchy.  His belief stemmed from thinking that human beings are, at their core, selfish creatures.

René Descartes was a French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist, who is often credited with being the father of modern western philosophy.  Unlike others, Descartes did not concentrate on theology, as his philosophy interests went outside the church, although a lot of his work is related to ideas such as the existence of God and the presence of a soul.  Descartes did not take the existence of God or the soul for granted.  Descartes is credited for beginning the school of thought called rationalism, which asserted that there was important knowledge that could be gained without the senses through reason alone.

John Locke was one of the founders of ‘liberal’ political philosophy, the philosophy of individual rights and limited govern­ment.  Locke believed that human nature is characterized by reason and tolerance and he argued that human nature was mutable and that knowledge was gained through accumulated experience rather than by accessing some sort of outside truth.  Locke spoke of a state of nature where men are free, equal, and independent and he championed the social contract and govern­ment by consent. The Founding Fathers of our Declaration of Independence must have been familiar with Locke, as they desired both natural rights and natural laws.

In his 1784 essay ‘What Is Enlightenment?’, German philosopher Immanuel Kant summed up the era’s motto in the following terms, “Dare to know!  Have courage to use your own reason!”  According to Kant, enlightenment was man’s release from “self-incurred tutelage (protection of or authority over someone or something).”  Enlightenment was the process by which the public could rid themselves of intellectual bondage after centuries of slumbering.  After providing a careful analysis of the causes why tutelage occurred, he proposes the requirements for enlightenment.  He wants the public to think freely, act judiciously and be “treated in accordance with their dignity”.

Montesquieu a French lawyer and a political philosopher believed that in the state of nature, individuals were so fearful that they avoided violence and war.  He felt that people were primarily motivated by fear and other passions, but that man is not necessarily ruled by them.  Montesquieu thought their need for food caused timid humans to associate with others and seek to live in a society.  He thought that man is cognizant of the laws of nature which are ‘rooted’ in the ‘constitution’ of all human beings and he argues that man is capable of grasping four laws of nature through direct, practical experience.  First, man desires and seeks nourishment for his bodily preservation; second, man desires peace to sustain his bodily well-being; third, man is drawn instinctively to other people; and fourth, the knowledge derived from interaction with others moves him to desire to live in society.

Maybe I could write more one day, if my readers like this and include Buffon, Diderot, Hume, Rousseau, Voltaire, Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine.

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