The effective application of reason to any issue rested on its accurate application—on establishing a methodology of reasoning that would serve as its guarantee of validity. Such a technique was most gloriously attained in the sciences and mathematics, where the logic of induction and deduction made the formation of a vast new cosmos possible. The formative impact of the Age of Enlightenment was not so much content as procedure. The great geniuses of the 17th century validated and magnified the notion of a universe of calculable regularity, but, more crucially, they established that rigorous mathematical reasoning supplied the means, independent of God’s revelation, of establishing truth.
The Age of Enlightenment: Human comprehension of the world
The philosophers of Ancient Greece had initially investigated the capabilities and applications of reason. The Romans inherited and kept much of Greek civilisation, notably incorporating rational natural order and natural law. Amid the turbulence of the empire, however, a new concern grew for personal salvation, and the ground was laid for the Christian faith’s victory. Christian intellectuals eventually discovered applications for their Greco-Roman heritage. The school of thought known as Scholasticism, culminating in the work of Thomas Aquinas, revived reason as a means of understanding. In Thomas’s view, Aristotle offered the technique for acquiring that truth that was ascertainable by reason alone; because Christian revelation included a greater truth, Thomas made the natural law obvious to reason inferior to, but not in conflict with, eternal law and divine law.
Age of Enlightenment: Views of psychology, ethics, and social organisation
The Age of Enlightenment gave birth to contemporary secularised psychology and ethics. According to John Locke, a tabula rasa or a blank slate is what a human mind is born with – no such thing as goodness or original sin existed. Thomas Hobbes depicted humanity as driven only by pleasure and misery in a darker spirit. Humans being neither good nor wicked but concerned with survival and pleasure led to extreme political views. Rather than an earthly approximation of an eternal order, the state came to be considered a mutually advantageous organisation among individuals to defend their own inherent rights and self-interest.
But the concept of society as a social compact clashed dramatically with reality. The Age of Enlightenment became critical, reforming, and finally revolutionary in this way. They included Locke and Jeremy Bentham in England, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Denis Diderot, and Condorcet in France, and Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson in colonial America. These strong ideas sparked change in England and revolution in France and the USA.
The Age of Enlightenment: Modern ideas
Here are the four most potent ideas behind these revolutions and how they transformed our world forever.
Separation of powers
Since the Greeks, discussion raged as to the optimum form of governance. But it was only during the Age of Enlightenment that Europe truly started to rethink old power structures.
Baron de Montesquieu’s landmark ‘Spirit of the Laws’ (1748), beloved and extensively praised by the Founding Fathers, defined the concept of good governance that would go on to determine contemporary politics.
Rights of man
Before the Age of Enlightenment, the belief that all men had equal rights was seldom recognised. The hierarchy was so ingrained that any break from it was judged hazardous. Any movement that endangered or contested this order – from John Wycliffe’s Lollards to the German Peasants’ Revolt – was suppressed.
Both the church and the state supported this status quo with theoretical rationale such as the ‘divine right of kings, which argued that monarchs had a God-given right to govern — meaning that any challenge to this authority was against God.
The absolutism of the premodern world was built on two powers – the state and the church. While the rulers might claim the devotion of their people by force, the church frequently buttressed these monarchies with beliefs that justified their hierarchy – God granted his authority to kings, who commanded their followers in His name.
Disputes between the church and the state could rupture this alliance – as Henry VIII’s dramatic departure from Catholicism revealed – but typically, their mutual support remained steady. The philosophers of the Age of Enlightenment highlighted this link between holy and profane power.
As science progressed, an old issue started to be questioned with fresh urgency – what made living things distinct from non-living things? New ideas, such as Isaac Newton’s revolutionary conceptions of gravity and thermodynamics, hinted towards a mechanical explanation of life. Nature seemed like one enormous clockwork mechanism, functioning in perfect synchronisation. It supported the new findings of natural philosophers like Newton while also keeping a vital role for God.
A wave of philosophical and scientific activity challenged old conceptions and dogmas in mid-18th century Europe. Visualisers for a new civic order founded on natural law and science were headed by Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The principle of separation of powers was proposed by the political philosopher Montesquieu and enthusiastically accepted by the framers of the US Constitution. While the French Enlightenment philosophers were not revolutionaries, and many were the aristocracy, their ideas helped shape the French Revolution.
The Age of Enlightenment, influenced by Spinoza’s philosophy, advocated democracy, individual liberty, freedom of speech, and the abolition of ecclesiastical authority. Other moderate reformers like René Descartes and John Locke sought a compromise between change and the existing power and religious systems.
The Age of Enlightenment’s theological commentary was a reaction to the previous century of religious turmoil in Europe. The Age of Enlightenment intellectuals intended to curb the political influence of organised religion and, therefore, avert another period of fanatical religious strife. Various innovative concepts evolved, including Deism (belief in God the Creator, with no reference to the Bible or any other source) and atheism. The latter was highly debated, but there were few proponents. Many, like Voltaire, thought that without believing in a God who punishes wrongdoing, the moral order of society was destroyed.
The Age of Enlightenment, often known as the Age of Reason or the Enlightenment, was a philosophical movement that dominated European thought in the 18th century. It supported such ideals as liberty, progress, tolerance, fraternity, constitutional governance, and separation of religion and state. The Age of Enlightenment emphasised scientific methods and reductionism while challenging religious dogma. Its modern ideas challenged the monarchy and the church, paving the ground for the 18th and 19th-century political upheavals. The Age of Enlightenment was primarily dated between 1715 and 1789, that is, between the year Louis XIV died and the start of the French Revolution. Some contemporary historians place the commencement of the scientific revolution around the 1620s. Various national variations of the movement thrived throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.