The Age of Reason: The Eighteenth Century

The Age of Reason: The Eighteenth Century

The Age of Reason: The Eighteenth Century

The Age of Reason: The Eighteenth Century

Excerpt

It would be unwise to give precise dates for the Age of Reason, although conventionally it is identified with the eighteenth century. The origins must certainly be traced back to the publication of Isaac Newton Principia in 1687 and to John Locke Essay Concerning Human Understanding of 1690. Horace Walpole, in his Memoirs of the Reign of George II, goes even further back, and claims that the Age of Reason began in 1657:

A century had now passed [he wrote of 1757] since Reason had begun to attain that ascendant in the affairs of the world, to conduct which it had been granted to man six thousand years ago. If religions and governments were still domineered by prejudices, if creeds that contradict logic, or tyrannies that enslave multitudes to the caprice of one, were not yet exploded, novel absurdities at least were not broached, or, if propagated, produced neither prosecutors nor martyrs.

This is not an accurate or comprehensive statement. Yet it would not be denied that Newton first taught men that existing myths were not in accord with scientific fact; or that Locke taught men that ideas were not innate but derived from experience, that rationalism should convince us that government must be based on consent, that property is the reward of labor, and that toleration in politics and religion is the glory of civilized man. Montesquieu, who visited England between 1729 and 1731, preached the doctrine of the separation of powers and the rule of law. And the Encyclopédistes and Voltaire denounced all superstition and intolerance as "infamous." "They rendered," wrote Dr. Fisher in his History of Europe, "the incomparable service . . .

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