By Muhammad Faseeh ul Hassan

Introduction

Enlightenment is a term used to describe a literary or philosophical movement in Europe between 1660 and 1770. In England it is sometimes referred as the ‘Age Of Reason’. The period was characterized by a profound faith in the powers of human reason and a devotion to clarify the thought, to harmony, proportion and balance.

The Age of Enlightenment  was an intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe during the 17th to 19th century. The Enlightenment emerged out of a European intellectual and scholarly movement known as Renaissance humanism. Some consider the publication of Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica (1687) as the first major enlightenment work. Philosophers and scientists of the period widely circulated their ideas through meetings at scientific academies, Masonic lodges, literary salons, coffeehouses and in printed books, journals, and pamphlets.There is no exact beginning date for the Enlightenment because it was such a broad movement. It did not suddenly spring up out of nowhere, but instead developed gradually. Most historians place the beginning of the Enlightenment between the mid-17th century and the beginning of the 18th century.

Enlightenment was an intellectual and cultural movement in the eighteenth century that emphasized reason over superstition and science over blind faith. Using the power of the press, Enlightenment thinkers like John LockeIsaac Newton, and Voltaire questioned accepted knowledge and spread new ideas about openness, investigation, and religious tolerance throughout Europe and the Americas. Many consider the Enlightenment a major turning point in Western civilization, an age of light replacing an age of darkness.

Most of the best writers and the philosophers of the period expressed themselves in lucid and often luminous prose. Some of the most notable figures: (a) in Germany – Kant (1724-1804) who included What is Enlightenment? (1784) among his many works; Moses Mendelssohn (1729-86) and Lessing (1729-81); (b) in France – Voltaire (1694-1778) and Diderot ( 1713-84); (c) in England – Locke (1632-1704); Newton (1642-1727); Berkeley (1685-1753); Johnson (1709-84); and Hume (1711-76).

Major Enlightenment Ideas

In the mid-18th century, Europe witnessed an explosion of philosophic and scientific activity that challenged traditional doctrines and dogmas. The philosophic movement was led by Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who argued for a society based upon reason rather than faith and Catholic doctrine, for a new civil order based on natural law, and for science based on experiments and observation. 

There were two distinct lines of Enlightenment thought. The radical enlightenment, inspired by the philosophy of Spinoza, advocated democracy, individual liberty, freedom of expression, and eradication of religious authority. A second, more moderate variety, supported by René Descartes, John Locke, Christian Wolff, Isaac Newton and others, sought accommodation between reform and the traditional systems of power and faith.

 Many Enlightenment writers and thinkers had backgrounds in the sciences and associated scientific advancement with the overthrow of religion and traditional authority in favor of the development of free speech and thought. Broadly speaking, Enlightenment science greatly valued empiricism and rational thought and was embedded with the Enlightenment ideal of advancement and progress. However, as with most Enlightenment views, the benefits of science were not seen universally.

The increased consumption of reading materials of all sorts was one of the key features of the “social” Enlightenment. The Industrial Revolution allowed consumer goods to be produced in greater quantities at lower prices, encouraging the spread of books, pamphlets, newspapers, and journals. Cave’s innovation was to create a monthly digest of news and commentary on any topic the educated public might be interested in, from commodity prices to Latin poetry.

Impact

The ideas of the Enlightenment played a major role in inspiring the French Revolution, which began in 1789 and emphasized the rights of common men as opposed to the exclusive rights of the elites.  However, historians of race, gender, and class note that Enlightenment ideals were not originally envisioned as universal in the today’s sense of the word. Although they did eventually inspire the struggles for rights of people of color, women, or the working masses, most Enlightenment thinkers did not advocate equality for all, regardless of race, gender, or class, but rather insisted that rights and freedoms were not hereditary (the heredity of power and rights was a common pre-Enlightenment assumption). This perspective directly attacked the traditionally exclusive position of the European aristocracy but was still largely focused on expanding the rights of white males of a particular social standing.

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