Enlightenment

The Enlightenment, or the 'Age of Reason', was a name given to the period that began towards the end of the 17th century and lasted until 1789. To be enlightened is to be enriched with knowledge and awareness of oneself. How did this movement encapsulate this feeling and result in the French Revolution?

Enlightenment Enlightenment

Create learning materials about Enlightenment with our free learning app!

  • Instand access to millions of learning materials
  • Flashcards, notes, mock-exams and more
  • Everything you need to ace your exams
Create a free account
Table of contents

    Enlightenment Definition

    During the Enlightenment period, there was intense questioning of the status quo, and reason began to replace traditional superstitious ideals. As a result, knowledge, and ideas about art, literature, philosophy, politics, and science were all remoulded, initially by borrowing and developing classical Greek and Roman texts. There were several 'Enlightenments', notably across Britain, France, and Germany. It can be stated that Enlightenment ideals helped lead to the French Revolution of 1789.

    Before the Enlightenment, witch hunts embroiled many European nations. King James I even wrote a book on witchcraft entitled 'Demonology' in 1605. With no scientific basis, it was simply a means of the church and monarch exerting greater control over their population. The English Civil War in the 1640s helped contribute to the Enlightenment as it allowed people to question the role of their leader.

    Enlightenment James I StudySmarterFig. 1 - James I

    Witch hunts thrived during the Civil War with the theatre of public trials. Unsanctioned warrants from the Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins were possible due to the lack of centralised power. However, their influence over the entire population began to dwindle during the latter half of the seventeenth century. The monarchs and their subjects remained religiously minded but began to recognise their own conscience. These subtle changes allowed for Enlightenment notions to be gradually considered and accepted.

    Enlightenment Ideas

    Although the Enlightenment spanned many disciplines, three key ideas unified the movement. They are evident in the work of the 'philosophes', who were instrumental in the French Enlightenment of the 18th century.

    Key IdeaExplanation
    IndividualismThe idea that every man, regardless of stature, should be given a certain quota of fundamental rights, equal to all, giving them the best chance to amount to something.
    ReasonPromotion of a scientific method, replacing the superstition of religious doctrine and the tyranny of the church. The belief that a greater understanding of the world will lead to progress.
    ScepticismThe acceptance that humans may find it very difficult to fully grasp the world they live in; therefore, critical thinking is vital for knowledge to grow and increase.

    English philosopher John Locke wrote the first important treatise, which ushered in the Enlightenment period. His 'An Essay Concerning Human Understanding', published in 1689, became a reference point for the French 'philosophes' who followed him.

    Empiricism

    The belief that knowledge is gained through experience.

    Rationalism

    The belief that the ability to think or reason is enough to gain knowledge.

    The critical point of the essay was that all humans were blank canvases at birth and required experience to gain knowledge. This refuted the notion that human nature was instinctive and innate, replacing Descartes' rationalist belief that 'I think, therefore I am' with empiricism.

    The Philosophes of the Enlightenment

    All of these ideas are present in the work of four French philosophes. We will look at each one and consider how they promoted new ways of thinking before examining the conditions and events that made this possible.

    Voltaire

    Born François-Marie Arouet, Voltaire was a key playwright and writer during the Enlightenment period in France. He published his play 'Oedipus' in 1717, in which performances satirised the decadence of the French aristocracy and the systemic incest that plagued it.

    Enlightenment Voltaire StudySmarterFig. 2 - Voltaire

    After spending time in England to escape persecution, he realised the level of freedom was thoroughly different from his homeland. His crowning text was the satirical novella, 'Candide', completed in 1759. In this text, he juxtaposed the titular character's suffering with his teacher Pangloss' optimism. For Candide, just as Voltaire, happiness must be derived from within the self and not from external factors such as religion or events.

    Satire was a popular form of literature during the 18th century in Britain and France. Evoking the tradition of Roman poets such as Horace allowed writers to comment on the state of society without making explicit references. Famous works of satire included the novel 'Gulliver's Travels' in 1726, where Irish writer Jonathan Swift satirised English society. The genre contained humour and exaggeration to make it more readable.

    Baron de Montesquieu

    Another writer who worked within the satirical tradition was Baron de Montesquieu. He used the viewpoint of foreigners to comment on the state of French society in his 'Persian Letters' in 1721. Through this lens, he was able to critique French religion and politics.

    Enlightenment Montesquieu StudySmarterFig. 3 - Baron de Montesquieu

    Montesquieu's most influential publication was titled 'Spirit of the Laws', completed in 1748. Like Locke before him, he fought to disseminate the view that knowledge had to be accumulated through experience. Therefore, 'Spirit of the Laws' became a critique of government and a template for the future. Montesquieu believed that different people with relevant expertise should run each facet of governance. This would come to impact the New Constitution during the French Revolution.

    Jean Jacques-Rousseau

    A Swiss philosopher who grew up during a period of strict Calvinist thought, Rousseau became one of the most influential Enlightenment thinkers. Central to most of his ideas was the fact that society inhibited and worsened human behaviour.

    Calvinist

    A major branch of Protestantism originating in the 16th century that followed the Christian doctrine of John Calvin.

    Enlightenment Rousseau StudySmarterFig. 4 - Jean-Jacques Rousseau

    In his 1755 'Discourse on the Origin of Human Inequality', Rousseau blamed civilisation for disrupting our lonely but content ancestors. This idea is extended further in 'The Social Contract' of 1762. Here, he outlined the relationship between those who make the laws and the people over which they rule. He also pursued Lockean ideas of individualism, as evidenced below:

    Every man having been born free and master of himself, no one else may under any pretext whatever subject him without his consent. To assert that the son of a slave is born a slave is to assert that he is not born a man.1

    Denis Diderot

    Diderot also had a significant impact on Enlightenment thinking. His anti-religious work of 1746 'Philosophical Thoughts' heralded the start of his publishing career.

    Enlightenment Diderot StudySmarterFig. 5 - Denis Diderot

    However, it was his compilation of the 'The Encyclopedia', beginning in 1751, for which he will truly be remembered. Christened as a rational body of knowledge for all, it contained ideas about politics, philosophy, literature, art, and science, among other topics! 'The Encyclopedia' allowed for free thinking and new ideas, as encouraged by Locke. The Catholic Church banned Diderot's Encyclopedia in 1759 for fear of the debates it might provoke. Despite this, Diderot continued publishing 'The Encyclopedia' abroad, which included the work of Voltaire and Rousseau, and was completed in 1772.

    Enlightenment Timeline

    Now that we have considered Enlightenment ideas and the essential thinkers responsible for them, let's trace their chronology. We will also locate the other key events that helped lead up to and define the period.

    YearEvent
    1620In his book, the 'New Instrument', Englishman Francis Bacon outlined the scientific method of experimentation to prove or disprove theories, creating a template for inquiry.
    1642-1651The English Civil War was a direct challenge to the monarchy in England. When Oliver Cromwell was victorious, other nations began to question their own methods of authority and rule.
    1647French philosopher René Descartes published 'Meditations', which considered rational thought intrinsic to being.
    1651Thomas Hobbes' influential piece on governance entitled 'Leviathan' was published. It marked a departure from the 'divine right of kings' ideal, stating that power should be derived from the consenting population of the ruled if they were permitted certain basic rights.
    1684The case of Alice Molland was the last witch trial to result in execution in Exeter, England, as notions of religious hysteria and suspicion began to subside.
    1687Making use of the scientific method, English physicist Isaac Newton produced his theory of gravity.
    1689John Locke's 'An Essay Concerning Human Understanding' emphasised experience, arguing against the rationalism of Descartes. It became an important work of empiricism and ushering in the ideas of the French Enlightenment thinkers.
    1718A writer lampooned and satirised the incest in the French aristocracy in his play 'Oedipus'. He changed his name to Voltaire when it was published.
    1721Montesquieu published 'Persian Letters', giving readers an insight into French society from the perspective of foreigners.
    1748Montesquieu followed the Persian letters with his most seminal offering, 'The Spirit of the Laws'. He proclaimed that due to empiricism, different parts of government needed different people based on their expertise.
    1751Denis Diderot published the first parts of 'The Encyclopedia', which he continued adding to until 1772.
    1759Voltaire published 'Candide' which poked fun at optimism and challenged the empiricist ideas of Locke.
    1762Jean-Jacques Rousseau published 'The Social Contract', developing Locke's ideas of individualism and Hobbesian notions of the origins of power.

    We are focusing on the Enlightenment in France, but influential thinkers from abroad also contributed greatly to this period. The work of Scotsman David Hume and Prussian Immanuel Kant both became vital building blocks in the works of modern philosophy during the 18th century.

    Artists of the Enlightenment

    A striking way to understand the critical conflicts of thought that arose during the Enlightenment is through the art produced. Let's compare a painting that epitomised the Age of Reason against one that depicted the French aristocracy during the same period.

    Joseph Wright of Derby - 'The Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery' (1766)

    Joseph Wright's depiction of a philosopher lecturing on the solar system is one of the examples of the Enlightenment's influence on artists. As this is clearly an exercise in a scientific demonstration, it builds on the interest of famous astronomers such as Galileo, who was prominent in the previous centuries.

    Enlightenment The philospher lecturing on the orrery StudySmarterFig. 6 - 'The Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery' painted by Joseph Wright of Derby in 1766

    The illuminated faces and the use of light (representing the sun) show the ability of the participants to have a clearer picture than beforehand, emerging from the shadows of their previous lack of knowledge.

    Jean-Honoré Fragonard - 'The Swing' (1767)

    From the dramatic Rococo period of French painters, Fragonard was a stalwart of artists for the Ancien Régime (Old Regime) who produced art for the elite before the French Revolution.

    Enlightenment the swing StudySmarterFig. 7 - 'The Swing' painted by Jean-Honore Fragonard in 1767

    In 'The Swing', there is an emphasis on a far more trivial aspect of life than in Joseph Wright's lecture. The female figure enjoys her swing while her male companion and the stone gargoyle look on. As she loses her shoe, he doffs his hat in appreciation. The hint of eroticism shows the aristocracy's lack of progression and decadence.

    While the illuminated faces of Wright suggest that knowledge and enlightenment should be spread from intellectuals to their students, 'The Swing' presents ideals of exclusivity. The members of the aristocracy are at the forefront and you need to look carefully in the background to see the servant pushing the woman on the swing. As a result, the contrast between the enlightenment artist and one pandering to the aristocracy illuminates the issues within French society that the Enlightenment sought to highlight.

    Enlightenment Summary

    Some of the ideas mentioned by the French 'philosophes' can certainly be found in the French New Constitution of 1791: Rousseau's social contract, Montesquieu's spirit of the laws (and lessening the church's influence), and ideas promoting the individual akin to John Locke. Many more links and conclusions could be drawn.

    On the other hand, it is clear that because it bled into so many fields, the true impact of the Enlightenment is hard to chart. It has been tempting for historians to give it a central role in the French Revolution of 1789, but this is reductionist, as Kaiser asserts below. Perhaps it is wiser to consider that the values of individualism, reason, and scepticism helped foster critical thinking that made a number of situations more probable.

    Juxtaposing the Enlightenment and the French Revolution is an especially difficult task insofar as it forces us to come to terms with both in ways that might not arise if one were content to examine the movements in isolation. But the task remains with us as an inescapable part of our eighteenth-century heritage.2

    - Thomas Kaiser.

    Enlightenment - Key takeaways

    • The Enlightenment, or "The Age of Reason", was a period of new methods in fields including science, philosophy, and politics.
    • It replaced existing ideas with modern thought using the principles of individualism, reason, and scepticism.
    • John Locke's 'An Essay Concerning Human Understanding' (1689) was an important work that suggested people learn through experience. This became known as empiricism.
    • Much of the work of the French philosophes in the eighteenth century followed this notion. Diderot compiled a body of Enlightenment ideas from different disciplines in 'The Encyclopedia'.
    • It is difficult to say if the Enlightenment directly caused the French Revolution. Still, some of the governing ideas were evident in the New Constitution.

    References

    1. Jean-Jacques Rosseau, 'The Social Contract', Wordsworth Editions (1998).
    2. Thomas E. Kaiser, 'This Strange Offspring of Philosophie: Recent Historiographical Problems in Relating the Enlightenment to the French Revolution', French Historical Studies, Vol. 15, No. 3 (Spring, 1988), pp. 549- 562.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Enlightenment

    What was the Enlightenment?

    The Enlightenment also referred to as the 'Age of Reason' was a period during the 18th century where traditional ideas were reconsidered and questioned.

    What were the 3 major ideas of the Enlightenment? 

    The three main ideas that anchored the Enlightenment were reason, individualism and scepticism.

    What caused the Enlightenment?

    Important philosophical and scientific works in the 17th century helped contribute to the Enlightenment along with the English Civil War.

    What is the meaning of the Enlightenment?

    The Enlightenment is a name for the Age of Reason, given to the period of the French philosophes in the 18th century.

    What were the important effects of the Enlightenment?

    The Enlightenment allowed for a climate of intellectual discussion and lively debate. It is thought that it may have contributed to the French Revolution and was certainly influential in the New Constitution of 1791.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What is another name of the Age of Enlightenment?

    True or False: The Enlightenment can be traced back to the English Civil Wars

    Which two ancient civilizations were philosophers inspired by? 

    Next
    1
    About StudySmarter

    StudySmarter is a globally recognized educational technology company, offering a holistic learning platform designed for students of all ages and educational levels. Our platform provides learning support for a wide range of subjects, including STEM, Social Sciences, and Languages and also helps students to successfully master various tests and exams worldwide, such as GCSE, A Level, SAT, ACT, Abitur, and more. We offer an extensive library of learning materials, including interactive flashcards, comprehensive textbook solutions, and detailed explanations. The cutting-edge technology and tools we provide help students create their own learning materials. StudySmarter’s content is not only expert-verified but also regularly updated to ensure accuracy and relevance.

    Learn more
    StudySmarter Editorial Team

    Team Enlightenment Teachers

    • 12 minutes reading time
    • Checked by StudySmarter Editorial Team
    Save Explanation

    Study anywhere. Anytime.Across all devices.

    Sign-up for free

    Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.

    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App

    The first learning app that truly has everything you need to ace your exams in one place

    • Flashcards & Quizzes
    • AI Study Assistant
    • Study Planner
    • Mock-Exams
    • Smart Note-Taking
    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App