Science, Epistemology and Metaphysics in the Enlightenment In this era dedicated to human progress, the advancement of the natural sciences is regarded as the main exemplification of, and fuel for, such progress.
The Enlightenment was both a movement and a state of mind. The term represents a phase in the intellectual history of Europe, but it also serves to define programs of reform in which influential literati, inspired by a common faith in the possibility… The powers and uses of reason had first been explored by the philosophers of ancient Greece.
The Romans adopted and preserved much of Greek culturenotably including the ideas of a rational natural order and natural law. Amid the turmoil of empire, however, a new concern arose for personal salvationand the way was paved for the triumph of the Christian religion.
Christian thinkers gradually found uses for their Greco-Roman heritage. The system of thought known as Scholasticismculminating in the work of Thomas Aquinasresurrected reason as a tool of understanding but subordinated it to spiritual revelation and the revealed truths of Christianity.
The intellectual and political edifice of Christianity, seemingly impregnable in the Middle Agesfell in turn to the assaults made on it by humanismthe Renaissanceand the Protestant Reformation. The Renaissance rediscovered much of Classical culture and revived the notion of humans as creative beings, and the Reformation, more directly but in the long run no less effectively, challenged the monolithic authority of the Roman Catholic Church.
The Enlightenment culminated in the French Revolution () and was followed by the Romantic period. Major figures of the Enlightenment include Voltaire, John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Adam Smith, Immanuel Kant, Isaac Newton and Thomas Jefferson. Enlightenment, French siècle des Lumières (literally “century of the Enlightened”), German Aufklärung, a European intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th centuries in which ideas concerning God, reason, nature, and humanity were synthesized into a worldview that gained wide assent in the West and that instigated revolutionary developments in art, philosophy, and politics. 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.
For Martin Luther as for Bacon or Descartes, the way to truth lay in the application of human reason. Received authority, whether of Ptolemy in the sciences or of the church in matters of the spirit, was to be subject to the probings of unfettered minds.
The successful application of reason to any question depended on its correct application—on the development of a methodology of reasoning that would serve as its own guarantee of validity.
Such a methodology was most spectacularly achieved in the sciences and mathematicswhere the logics of induction and deduction made possible the creation of a sweeping new cosmology.
The success of Newtonin particular, in capturing in a few mathematical equations the laws that govern the motions of the planetsgave great impetus to a growing faith in the human capacity to attain knowledge.
At the same time, the idea of the universe as a mechanism governed by a few simple—and discoverable—laws had a subversive effect on the concepts of a personal God and individual salvation that were central to Christianity. Inevitably, the method of reason was applied to religion itself.
The product of a search for a natural—rational—religion was Deismwhich, although never an organized cult or movement, conflicted with Christianity for two centuries, especially in England and France.
For the Deist, a very few religious truths sufficedand they were truths felt to be manifest to all rational beings: Beyond the natural religion of the Deists lay the more radical products of the application of reason to religion: The Enlightenment produced the first modern secularized theories of psychology and ethics.
John Locke conceived of the human mind as being at birth a tabula rasaa blank slate on which experience wrote freely and boldly, creating the individual character according to the individual experience of the world. Supposed innate qualities, such as goodness or original sinhad no reality.
In a darker vein, Thomas Hobbes portrayed humans as moved solely by considerations of their own pleasure and pain. The notion of humans as neither good nor bad but interested principally in survival and the maximization of their own pleasure led to radical political theories.
Where the state had once been viewed as an earthly approximation of an eternal order, with the City of Man modeled on the City of God, now it came to be seen as a mutually beneficial arrangement among humans aimed at protecting the natural rights and self-interest of each.
The idea of society as a social contracthowever, contrasted sharply with the realities of actual societies. Thus, the Enlightenment became critical, reforming, and eventually revolutionary.
Locke and Jeremy Bentham in England, MontesquieuVoltaireJean-Jacques RousseauDenis Diderotand Condorcet in France, and Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson in colonial America all contributed to an evolving critique of the arbitrary, authoritarian state and to sketching the outline of a higher form of social organization, based on natural rights and functioning as a political democracy.
Such powerful ideas found expression as reform in England and as revolution in France and America. The more rarefied the religion of the Deists became, the less it offered those who sought solace or salvation.
The celebration of abstract reason provoked contrary spirits to begin exploring the world of sensation and emotion in the cultural movement known as Romanticism.
The Reign of Terror that followed the French Revolution severely tested the belief that an egalitarian society could govern itself.
Learn More in these related Britannica articles:The idea of “artistic freedom” is an outgrowth of the Enlightenment introduction of the concept of the “individual.” The idea of the defiant artist, challenging the establishment and shocking the conservative public is an Enlightenment concept of rethinking received wisdom.
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. Enlightenment, French siècle des Lumières (literally “century of the Enlightened”), German Aufklärung, a European intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th centuries in which ideas concerning God, reason, nature, and humanity were synthesized into a worldview that gained wide assent in the West and that instigated revolutionary developments in art, philosophy, and politics.
There is little consensus on the precise beginning of the Age of Enlightenment, though the beginning of the 18th century () or the middle of the 17th century () are often used as epochs.
French historians usually place the period, called the Siècle des Lumières ("Century of Enlightenments"), between and , from the beginning. Read and learn for free about the following article: Neoclassicism, an introduction Neo-classicism was a child of the Age of Reason (the Enlightenment), when philosophers believed that we would be able to control our destinies by learning from and following the laws of nature (the United States was founded on Enlightenment philosophy.
The Age of Enlightenment Overview Students will explore the Age of Enlightenment through a Power Point presentation and class discussion.
Students will then further explore this period of history and its prominent figures by designing a dinner party for 12 Enlightenment thinkers.