The Enlightenment

The Enlightenment

The Enlightenment

The Enlightenment

Synopsis

One of the few self-named historical movements, the Enlightenment in 18th-Century Europe was a powerful intellectual reaction to the dominance of absolutist monarchies and religious authorities. Building upon the discoveries of the Scientific Revolution, Enlightenment thinkers--philosophes--set out to improve humanity through reason, knowledge, and experience of the natural world rather than religious doctrine or moral absolutes. Their emphasis on truth through observable phenomena set the standard of thought for the modern age, deeply influencing the areas of government, the modern state, science, technology, religious tolerance and social structure. The Enlightenment's legacy is particularly visible in the United States, where its ideals inspired a revolution and served as the building blocks for the Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution. Narrative chapters, photos, biographical sketches, primary document excerpts, and an extensive bibliography expand the readers' understanding of the event, providing a current perspective on this key turning point in Western ideology.

Excerpt

During the 18th century, the conviction began to spread throughout articulate sectors of European society that social and political change and reform were both possible and desirable. The movement of ideas that fostered such thinking among people is called the “Enlightenment.” Its leading voices combined confidence in the human mind inspired by the 17th-century Scientific Revolution, and faith in the power of rational criticism to challenge the intellectual authority of tradition, the Christian past, and the institutional church. These writers, called philosophes, stood convinced that human beings could comprehend the operation of physical nature and mold it to the ends of material and moral improvement. Indeed, the rationality of the physical universe became a standard against which the customs and traditions of society could be measured and criticized. Such criticism penetrated deeply into many segments of contemporary society, politics, and religious opinion. The implication of all of this was that humans could improve their life in this so-called “veil of tears” by their own efforts.

But the Enlightenment was less an event than it was a set of attitudes that developed throughout the 18th century. At is core was criticism, a growing questioning of traditional institutions, customs, and morals. Consequently, Enlightenment writers explored virtually every aspect of social, political, and economic life. They sought to encourage economic development and the spread of prosperity. They wrote in favor of legal reform and supported the “radical” idea of religious toleration. They were highly critical of the militarism that characterized so much of European life during the mid-century wars. Yet, they were practical enough to recognize that warfare was a common feature of human civilization. In short, these writers championed the improvement of human life, the human condition, and human morals. And while there has always been potential for this kind of development . . .

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