The enlightenment period also popularly referred to as the age of reason denotes an explosive era in human history stretching from around the year 1600 to the year 1800; a period in which the West experienced great contributions and changes in its history. This period barely stretched over duration of two centuries, yet within such a brief period, what is now referred to as the modern era was inaugurated. Theological considerations that had previously dominated the intellectual of Western civilization between Augustine and the Reformation were radically and permanently disrupted by the enlightenment, giving rise to a completely new course for scientific thought and action. In the course of the enlightenment, people were able to break away from medieval mentality by adapting a completely new understanding of the human being. During this era, humans replaced God on the historical arena and human reason replaced divine revelation as a more reliable path in seeking the truth. A philosophical revolution that had begun with Rene Descartes, John Locke and other philosophers between 1596 and 1650, brought together enlightenment scientists, theologians and philosophers alike, in a combined effort to devise systems that would approximate or lead to the truth. During this age of reason, the church lost its earlier dominance in Western culture as enlightenment thinkers sought for better and more sensible foundations that would replace traditional authority and religious belief as the bases for political order and social morality (Grenz 60-63, p. 70).
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One of the most famous enlightenment philosophers who made tremendous contribution to society during this period is Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 -1778). Rousseau is famed for making popular contributions to political and social theory through a famous essay, The Social Contract, which he wrote in 1762, and in which he addressed fundamental questions of political legitimacy and social justice. Other famous works of his are The New Heloise novel written in 1761, Emile, an educational theory book in 1762, and an extraordinarily influential and very original autobiography, The Confessions (1764-1770) among other works touching on music, language, botany to name but a few. Because of such a large and wide range of output, Rousseau received an enormous, though very controversial reputation during his time, and his ideas have continued to powerfully impact on society ever since. His life story is dotted with remarkable events such as the death of his mother soon after his birth, his relationship with a much older woman, and his life in the fashionable Paris society where his opera performances became a source of enlightenment for leading thinkers living during the enlightenment era (Dent 1-2, 8, p. 10).
Jean-Jacques Rousseau is well known for formulating the popular sovereignty theory, as a radical response towards the inequalities, social conflicts, and divisions that were a common characteristic of Western society. The sovereignity theory subsequently led to the disfiguration of European societies and states during the 18th century. Like his earlier counterparts, Rousseau tried to resolve a long-running and deep-seated problem that had characterized Western political theories; the problem that revolved around the continuous tension between the craving for individual freedom, and an autonomous need for collective authority and social order. Through his theory of social contract, Rousseau attempted to make a reconciliation between liberty and order by proposing that sovereign power be conferred to the larger community rather than concentrating power on the state as proposed by Thomas Hobbes, or the strong representative assembly proposed by John Locke. According to Rousseau the state was a non-sovereign executor of the decisions made by a sovereign community (Jones, p. 25).
Rousseau proposed that the state was supposed to be a tool for expressing the general will of its citizens. Unlike other enlightenment philosophers like Voltaire and Montesquieu who advocated for constitutional checks and other balance for state sovereignty, Rousseau was strongly in favor of radical rather than complete transformation of the political and social order with the utmost goal of creating a system of government founded upon liberty, popular sovereignty and equality. Through his concept of general will, Rousseau supposed that individuals should willingly surrender their rights to their respective communities rather than yield to the state; and that the legislative authority should be a community organ that every individual is subjected to while at the same time participating in the lawmaking process. Equality in society was one of his most favored ideals. His ideal state comprised of interdependent equals who according to Rousseau were supposed to be politically and economically independent (Jones, pp. 27-29).
Jean-Jacques Rousseau made great contributions to society through his works addressing political and social themes, language and music, religion and war, botany, education, novel, prose and poetry as well as his autobiographical works, self-explanation and disclosure (Dent, p. 21). His works radically criticized both modern European society and the enlightenment culture as well, including the philosophies that proposed it. Despite several attempts especially during the 20th century to distribute his works among various academic disciplines, Rousseau had a very clear imagination that united his philosophical, pedagogical, historical, political and literary writings and strongly affirmed the relationship between his works and the suffering human being. His ideas led to fundamental changes to political culture especially in the period preceding the French Revolution (Porter, p. 9).
Eleven years after the death of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, his political philosophy especially his general will and popular sovereignty concepts became major inspirations for revolutionaries during the 1789 French Revolution. Over the span of centuries, his intellectual legacy has had a long-term influence upon socialist, liberalist, anarchist, democratic and to some extent totalitarian schools of thought (Jones 25). Though for many centuries Rousseau has also widely been blamed for many things, his contributions to literature and political theory have tremendously helped to bring change to modern culture and life. His works have invited emulation from prospective writers, and also created a romantic movement in literary writing, that has persisted to modern times (Porter, pp. 12-13).
Enduring legacy, political implications and contributions of the enlightenment period
Since the enlightenment, individual choices and actions of ordinary individuals have overtaken political control in determining the general well-being of human beings. Through the dramatic changes that occurred in societies during the enlightenment, human beings have inherited a heritage of scientific experiment and rationalism. But enlightenment’s most enduring legacy has been the co-ordination of those forces that exist beyond reasonable planning and organization in an attempt to improve the well-being of human beings. For individual choice to produce stability in society, the enlightenment philosophers had to clearly explain how institutions such as marriage, family, sexual morality and parenthood could be sustained without divine retribution or threats of subsequent legal punishment (Jordan, p. 127).
It was only in the enlightenment period of the 18th century that the scientific discipline gained a cultural significance in Western society than at any other time in history. During this time, science began to build up recognition as the core intellectual system that other systems were supposed to refer to. Scientific knowledge may have existed earlier than this period but the enlightenment philosophers have received credit for helping to establish the scientific discipline in the Western culture during the 18th Century. The enlightenment has also been referred to as the age of pedagogy during which a more intellectual system of transmitting knowledge to coming generations was discovered in a way that had not existed before. Rousseau’s work, Emile for example, displays a new system of learning that helped to stimulate a kind of curiosity that would make people more independent and critical towards an already established belief system. Enlightenment also witnessed the coming to birth of the famous encyclopedia system of classifying knowledge into various comprehensive disciplines such as natural history, languages, history as well as other particular disciplines. But the most famed technology during this period is the printing press, the new human invention that enabled the processing of new ides into readable material that was subsequently distributed worldwide in large quantities (Fitzpatrick 10, 217-219, 350, 366).
The enlightenment theory of societies constructed out of individual choices of the ordinary people, has over the centuries given rise to principles such as autonomy, individual liberty and mobility. These individual choices have given rise to reformed institutions within social-service organizations (Jordan 147-153). Also closely linked with the age of reason or enlightenment period is the birth of republicanism especially in countries such as France, Britain and America. France and America went through revolutions while Britain experienced a reform movement. The concept of liberty became a very common political feature during this period. Feminism also began during this period when enlightenment thinkers began addressing women’s role in history, their nature, sexual difference and the aspect of women’s intellectual equality with their male counterparts. Contributions to historical writing were tremendous during this period and the enlightenment is said to have paved way for the incorporation of history into university education (Fitzpatrick 207, 457,621).
Under the illumination of reason, society went through tremendous cultural and social transformation during the enlightenment period, giving rise to very intense and long lasting effects that saw the birth of modern Western society. The enlightenment has indeed made an enduring legacy on the socio-political of many nations all over the world (Grenz 61, 71; Jordan 127).
- Dent, N.J.H. Rousseau. London: Routledge, 2005.
- Fitzpatrick, Martin. The Enlightenment World. London: Routledge, 2004.
- Grenz, Stanley J. A Premier on Postmodernism. Grand Rapids: Wm.B.Eerdmans Publishing, 1996.
- Jones, Tudor. Modern Political Thinkers and Ideas: An Historical Introduction. London: Routledge, 2002.
- Jordan, Bill. Social Policy for the Twenty-First Century: New Perspectives, Big Issues. Cambridge: Polity, 2006.
- Porter, Dennis. Rousseau’s Legacy: Emergence and Eclipse of the Writer in France. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.