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The Age Of Enlightenment In 18th Century History Essay

In the dictionary the Enlightenment is defined as “a philosophical movement of the 18th century, characterized by belief in the power of human reason and by innovations in political, religious, and educational doctrine.” The Enlightenment was enabled by the Scientific Revolution, which had begun as early as 1500. This intellectual, philosophical, cultural, and social movement spread through England, France, Germany, and other parts of Europe during the 1700s. I will discuss the Enlightenment and describe the impact it had on societies of the 18th century.

Schmidt in his article describe what Enlightenment was by Kant’s definition, which is a man’s tutelage which is the inability to make use of one’s understanding without the direction or help from another. He describes how someone by depending on other’s to make choices for them. [1] Its main focus was on the welfare of mankind. The changes that came during the age of Enlightenment would provide not only a rational way of looking at society but freeing people from ignorance, superstition, and tyranny and make the world a safer and better place by providing liberty mentally and physically to those people. The utility of Enlightenment goes on to banish errors, truth drives out falsehood as light drives away darkness. [2] Based on thinkers that eagerly seek reason vainly supposed that a perfect society could be constructed by the use of common sense and tolerance.

Religion was a main factor that stood in the way of societies becoming enlightenment during the 18th century. Because of religious superstitions and fanaticism it hindered people’s ability to rationalize in events that occur in everyday life. Schmidt points out that the goal of Enlightenment was to free the public from those fears, which robbed people of their happiness that was the goal of human association. [3] Support for religious toleration was difficult since the Catholic Church had a big stake on European societies. Clearly religious enlightenment had not become a groundswell from below by the 1780s. [4] For many centuries before the enlightenment scientist were persecuted and unjustly punished for coming up with theories and logical arguments about certain things. For example enlighten thinker Galileo [5] for challenging the church for his scientific discovery of how the universe works, was persecuted by the church and other establishments for coming up with theories that went against their beliefs. Other thinkers like Voltaire [6] devoted a great deal of his time attacking the fundamentals of Christianity including its scriptures and was joined by a band of rebellious thinkers known as the philosophe. [7] These thinkers gave path to a new way of thinking and in time brought ideas and changes to their societies. Monarchs themselves became enlighten and no longer held the beliefs of ruling by divine right but to the improvements of their realms and subjects by reasoning. The church was very instrumental in societies and before the age of enlightenment it did everything in their power to combat scholars, humanist, scientist etc. As societies began to become enlighten, a new religious view called Deism [8] emerged. Many inventions were created and policies brought forth by monarchs were aimed on trying to separate church and state to create a society of religious freedom. Human virtue and happiness were best achieved by this newly established freedom from unnecessary restraints imposed by church and also the state.

This period was mark by progression. One of the defining characteristics of modernity is the belief that things can change and should change, which the enlightenment has been seen as this era. [9] Changes occurred and Enlighten Absolutism emerged. Some Monarchs that were enlightened during the 18th century were Frederick II of Prussia, Catherine the Great of Russia, and Joseph the II, Holy Roman Emperor of Austria. Even though their foreign policy didn’t change much as each ruler tried to expand their powers and acquire new territories by going to war, they made certain internal changes in their realm that expanded intellectual freedom and liberty. Their concern was now centered on rationalizing and advocating reform. Government was now protecting individual rights, and when the government violated people's natural rights, it violated the social contract. An example was the French Declaration of the rights of man and the citizen, which showed what kind of freedoms French people were entitled to. These improvements made the average person’s voice be heard and people started to feel these changes throughout their lives. The focus was now on both faith in nature and belief in progression, because it led to the betterment of human condition. This also resulted in economic expansion because many rulers embrace free trade and markets which improved their lives as well as their subjects. This gave rise to the Bourgeoisie [10] , who became prominent during the 18th century who voiced their opinions on the elite, like the nobility. Within a couple of generations saw improvements in education, criminal justice, taxation, religious freedom, and prosperity. [11] The common people were now able to feel like their voice was heard in their society. With these laws and freedoms granted people were able to get better jobs, belong to any religion of their choosing, and think for themselves and not be forced to believe or do things that they felt wasn’t part of who they were.

This age was a step further in progression in the field of science. Nature was starting to be seen differently. Diderot [12] gave the concept of nature the qualities of dynamism and individuality, or self-generating temporal process that submitted concepts of both Leibnizian and the Newtonian world systems in his thinking. [13] This thinking of appreciation of external nature was a step forward in knowledge of the surroundings of societies and the results of things that occur in nature. This period emphasized the importance of science like biology in society. How everything was connected to each other and discoveries were made that gave people the ability to look at things from another perspective. This is relevant to the enlightenment for the fact that people were viewing the world differently and discoveries and creation of something like the encyclopedia, and the teachings of science only led to the improvement of society, because technology started advancing and inventions were made to make peoples life much easier. And science and the influence of reason led to new innovations in political thought.

Then philosophers started to write topics that relate to government, politics, and rights. Montesquieu presenting the concept of separating of branches and Thomas Hobbes, John Locke who had different theories and ideas about what type of government there should be. Locke was not just a philosopher but a major ideologue. [14] Locke played a major role in the social contract theory, which tries to explain the ways in which people form states to maintain social order. These kinds of concepts and views gave people the chance to voice their opinion of how their government should rule their countries. It was a tough period because people had different opinion whether they wanted a limited government and absolute monarchy etc. These concepts would change society dramatically because with different government comes different laws and norms. This would have an impact on everyone’s lives. This and other factors led to wars like the French revolution. [15] People wanted change and that is exactly what happened. Monarchy like the one in France collapsed. People started organizing and trying to protect their fellow citizens and themselves to keep their inalienable rights. Society in France underwent a massive transformation as feudal, aristocracy, and religious privileges changed because of liberal political groups that started masses on streets. This would mark the end of the enlightenment by historians but it lead to many changes to society in all fronts. Things like romanticism played a role in the ending of Enlightenment because people would reject scientific rationalization of nature and focus more on things of less value like art, music, and literature. Countries like America were started during the 18th century because of enlightenment ideals that colonist had when they fought England for their independence as well. That was a big victory for Enlightenment thinkers because this new nation would represent a lot of what the Enlightenment was based on.

In the period of the Enlightenment there were many changes that brought changes to society in many forms. There came many good things from that time and bad. People started to use reason and logic for running their government, changing society for the betterment of its people, and innovations in science which led to many discoveries. These ideas, works, and principles of the Enlightenment would continue to affect Europe and the rest of the Western world for decades and even centuries to come. The thirty years wars [16] was also a cause of the enlightenment for its destructive wars that led many writers to criticize the government for regarding ideas of nationalism and warfare. Many things played a role during the Enlightenment but the impact and effect it had echoed around the world.

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