The Age of Enlightenment, is a term used to describe the trends in thought and letters in Europe and the American colonies during the 18th century prior to the French Revolution. Often referred to as "The Enlightenment." The phrase was frequently employed by writers of the period itself, convinced that they were emerging from centuries of darkness and ignorance into a new age enlightened by reason, science, and a respect for humanity.
The precursors of the Enlightenment can be traced to the 17th century and earlier. They include the philosophical rationalists René Descartes and Baruch Spinoza, the political philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, and various skeptical thinkers in France such as Pierre Bayle. Equally important, however, were the self-confidence engendered by new discoveries in science and the spirit of cultural relativism encouraged by the exploration of the non-European world.
Of the basic assumptions and beliefs common to philosophers and intellectuals of this period, perhaps the most important was an abiding faith in the power of human reason. The age was enormously impressed by Isaac Newton’s discovery of universal gravitation. If humanity could so unlock the laws of the universe, God’s own laws, why could it not also discover the laws underlying all of nature and society? People came to assume that through a judicious use of reason, an unending progress would be possible—progress in knowledge, in technical achievement, and even in moral values. Following the philosophy of Locke, the 18th-century writers believed that knowledge is not innate, but comes only from experience and observation guided by reason. Through proper education, humanity itself could be altered, its nature changed for the better. A great premium was placed on the discovery of truth through the observation of nature, rather than through the study of authoritative sources, such as Aristotle and the Bible. Although they saw the church—especially the Roman Catholic church—as the principal force that had enslaved the human mind in the past, most Enlightenment thinkers did not renounce religion altogether. They opted rather for a form of Deism, accepting the existence of God and of a hereafter, but rejecting the intricacies of Christian theology. Human aspirations, they believed, should not be centered on the next life, but rather on the means of improving this life. Worldly happiness was placed before religious salvation. Nothing was attacked with more intensity and ferocity than the church, with all its wealth, political power, and suppression of the free exercise of reason.
More than a set of fixed ideas, the Enlightenment implied an attitude, a method of thought. According to the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, the motto of the age should be “Dare to know.” A desire arose to reexamine and question all received ideas and values, to explore new ideas in many different directions—hence the inconsistencies and contradictions that often appear in the writings of 18th-century thinkers. Many proponents of the Enlightenment were not philosophers in the commonly accepted sense of the word; they were populizers engaged in a self-conscious effort to win converts. They liked to refer to themselves as the “party of humanity,” and in an attempt to mold public opinion in their favor, they made full use of pamphlets, anonymous tracts, and the large numbers of new journals and newspapers being created. Because they were journalists and propagandists as much as true philosophers, historians often refer to them by the French word philosophes.
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