The Enlightenment

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The Enlightenment was an late 17th- and 18th-century movement in Western thought, encompassing several artistic, intellectual, philosophic, and social changes developed around new theories of rational thought, scientific method, and empirical knowledge. The term is often used synonymously with the Age of Reason. The period, often deemed Neo-classical fittingly followed classic artistic criteria (as opposed to the earlier Baroque and the later Romantic styles). The Enlightenment saw major advances in philosophy, the sciences (especially physics, chemistry and mathematics), economics, political theory, geography (especially exploration), and technology (especially the origins of the Industrial Revolution).

The Age of Reason

Reason served as a critical measure of authority during the Enlightenment, whereas emotion and ecclesiastical authority were other secondary or tertiary concerns. As presented by Voltaire, Isaac Newton was the great hero for his demonstration that rational thought could explain the heavens, and his letters regarding optics reinforce the human potential to see and explore concepts invisible to human senses (such as the dispersion of light). This developments expanded through France, England, Scotland, and the German states, it influenced the whole of Europe including Russia and Scandinavia, as well as the American colonies in the era of the American Revolution.

Intellectual Movement

Intellectually the Enlightenment was identified with "the philosophes," who aggressively spread the new gospel of reason. They were a brilliant collection of scientists, philosophers and writers including Voltaire, Montesquieu, Holbach, Condorcet, Denis Diderot, Buffon, Turgot and Jean-Jacques Rousseau in France; David Hume and Adam Smith in Scotland; John Locke, Edward Gibbon, Samuel Johnson and Jeremy Bentham in England; and Johann Herder, Gotthold Lessing and Immanuel Kant in Prussia, as well as Jonathan Edwards, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton in America. They were endorsed by "enlightened despots"—rulers who tried to impose reform by authoritarian means, including Joseph II of the Holy Roman Empire (Austria), Frederick II of Prussia, Catherine II of Russia, and Charles III of Spain.

Literary Movement

Contemporary advancements in the print and publishing industry generated an unprecedented technological capacity to print more than previous periods. Thus, the Enlightenment became a diverse writing community encouraging prolific literary figures such as Joseph Addison, Frances Burney, and Alexander Pope to publish several volumes of poems, plays, essays, and novels. This technological shift also enabled a new emergent group of writers, often deemed "lesser" poets or hackneyed writes (abbreviated as "Hacks" by those contemporary authors who criticized them). This diversity of authors generated a uniquely competitive writing environment where the boundaries of social decorum and personal ambition were breached by satiric (thought often explicitly insulting) pamphlet attacks and personal prefaces. Essays written by both parties were published in a constantly changing pool of weekly newspapers, many unsuccessful, by several editors, including Addison, Eliza Haywood, Richard Steele, Edward Ward, and others.

Political Movement

Politically the Enlightenment was marked by governmental consolidation, nation creation, greater rights for the common people, and a diminution of the influence of authoritarian institutions such as the nobility and the Church. A gradual decentralization of power made way for a new social hierarchy. Jurgen Habermas theorized that an entirely new social class, the bourgeois public sphere emerged during the Enlightenment, allowing for social and political conversations to emerge outside the restricting court atmosphere. The ideology of Republicanism led to the American Revolution and the French Revolution. By 1785 or so the Enlightenment was replaced by the Romantic Era, with special impact on the arts.

Further reading

for a more detailed guide see the Bibliography subpage

  • Chisick, Harvey. Historical Dictionary of the Enlightenment. 2005. 512 pp
  • Delon, Michel. Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment (2001) 1480pp
  • Fitzpatrick, Martin et al., eds. The Enlightenment World. (2004). 714pp; 39 essays by scholars online edition
  • Gay, Peter. The Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Paganism (1966, 2nd ed. 1995), 952 pp; excerpt and text search vol 1; The Enlightenment: The Science of Freedom, (1969 2nd ed. 1995), a highly influential study excerpt and text search vol 2;
  • Hazard, Paul. European thought in the eighteenth century: From Montesquieu to Lessing (1965)
  • Himmelfarb, Gertrude. The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments. 2004. 272 pp.
  • Imhof, Ulrich. The Enlightenment. 1994. 310 pp.
  • Kors, Alan Charles. Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment (4 vol. 1990; 2nd ed. 2003), 1984pp excerpt and text search; also complete text online at
  • Outram, Dorinda. The Enlightenment(1995) 157pp excerpt and text search
  • Porter, Roy. The Enlightenment (2nd ed. 2001) excerpt and text search
  • Reill, Peter Hanns, and Wilson, Ellen Judy. Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment. (2nd ed. 2004). 670 pp.
  • Yolton, John W. et al. The Blackwell Companion to the Enlightenment. 1992. 581 pp.

Primary sources