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How Did the Age of Enlightenment Influence Western Civilization Research Paper

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Updated: Jan 17th, 2019


From the past, the center of attention for those in leadership tends to be on power and control. However, great thinkers in the past came to appreciate that it would be very beneficial if the government was to be inclined to people’s interest as opposed to the personal interests of its leader.

This new view of life was only possible due to the philosophers present in European enlightenment. This period began in 1600 to 1800 A.D. and is the age of enlightenment. This is because it is considered as the period that led to contemporary philosophical thought. It consists of the age of reason beginning 1600 to 1700 A.D. when Europeans struggled to free their minds from being control by both state and church leaders.

The struggle took place in different sectors such as religion, where leaders wanted to be free to develop knowledge about God and man relationship. There was also struggle between citizens and the government, where citizens viewed government abuses as interfering with the inherent rights of the people. The period from 1700 to 1800 A.D is The Enlightenment. In the period, citizens were highly exploited by the ruling elites.

They faced problems such as unemployment, starvation, and disease world over. Many people rose up in this period to resist this kind of oppression. Philosophers in these periods applied reason in attacking religious extremism, intolerance, and superstition, things that they viewed as obstacles to development of freethinking. Consequently, enlightenment had influence in almost all areas including politics, economy, religion, and social.


Influence on Religion

The period led to transformation in religious beliefs by many people. While previous scholars were concerned with religious questions on organization of the church, the new philosophers were interested in role of individual’s in the society as well as in secular study of society.

They criticized the church because it exerted great pressures on society. For instance, the manner in which the church charged taxes to peasants. In addition, the ruling elite considered the church as important for building a better government and society. However, by accepting reasoning as a way of explaining various sides of human life, different types of people including deists and atheists emerged.

Atheists consists of a group of people who do not subscribe to any religious believe, while the deist are believers in God but do not consider him to be in control of what happens in the world. Some of the deist like Voltaire considered Christianity as the main cause of fanaticism and oppression to humanity. Enlightenment therefore made leaders to develop some form of tolerance in religious differences.

People in Paris considered Voltaire an intelligent man, but he had to run away from France after a quarrel with a nobleman. His escape and new life in England made him an admirer of the new country, especially because of its press freedom, religious tolerance and political freedom.

He argued that despite England having thirty religions, they all coexisted peacefully something that he considered impossible to happen in France. His use this to criticize France in for tolerating royal absolutism, lack of freedom of thought and religious tolerance. Philosophers criticizing royal absolutism like him demonstrated the dissatisfaction among middle-class.

Many people considered Voltaire a humorous writer, which made his work very popular and therefore most influential. He used both Candide and Ignorant philosopher works to challenge the absence of religious intolerance. For instance, he argued in ignorant philosopher, that many atrocities have been committed because of religion such as catholic. As a result, he called for philosophers to look back at many of these atrocities to demand for religious toleration (Spielvogel 520).

Social influence

Through establishment of salons, philosophers exchanged different types of knowledge in places that did not have religious or political leaders influence. These social gatherings played an important role because in their time the government exercised a lot of censorship.

Therefore, within these salons, philosophers could discuss ideas that they would otherwise hesitate to put across. Since they did not have freedom to publish whatever they wanted, they called for freedom of expression. In addition, Salons led by women thinkers helped to empower women in many ways such as raising funds to publish women work. In most case, these Salons meant to shape public opinions in a well-regulated manner.

The period also influenced social hierarchy. Philosophers challenged the nobles’ indulgence in special treatments. Its influence on social ranking was not easy because philosophers too enjoyed some special treatments in social places. Those in the Middle-class were elevated in this period as they mixed freely with the nobles in the Salons and other social gatherings. Voltaire was one of the philosophers belonging to the Middle class.

Political influence

Separation of power that Montesquieu popularized in his analysis of the England constitution is one of the major political influences to western civilization cause by enlightenment. His analysis was influential in political thoughts because it put across the need to have some checks and balance achieved through this kind of separation (Spielvogel 518).

In his argument he was convinced that a political system like that of England with separate powers of the judiciary, legislature and executive, which ensured each arm is controlled, was essential to have a state that has greatest security and freedom. His work was later translated into English. This enabled American philosophers like James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton to read the work. As a result, they included its philosophy in the American constitution.

There was also believe that nature did not make people evil but rather its due to poor legislations, bad models and education (Perry 254).Philosophers like Locke trough their work argued that human mind is like a blank slate at birth. This inferred that people were not automatically sinners, since they knew nothing at birth. Environment was therefore a decisive force in the development of intelligence or character.

According to his argument, a new society can develop through transforming the environment and focusing people to the right kind of influences. These new environment could be developed by creating new laws that were based on reasons. He argued that a government could only be legitimate if the governed agree in what he termed as a social contract. Rebellion to him was inevitable in absence of such a contract (Staufenberg 210).

Later Enlightenment

This took place in the late 1760s, as philosophers who had matured in the age of enlightenment furthered the beliefs of their ancestors. One such philosopher was Baron Paul d’Holbach. He advocated for stringent atheism and materialism (Spielvogel 522). He argued that God was not important for people to live a moral life. In his argument, he called for morality that stems from knowledge that, what a person does in this world is punishable here and not in the other world.

Another influential philosopher of the time is Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He considered the laws as impinging on people’s freedom and argued for a general free will. To him, to achieve people freethinking everybody must follow what is best for all. He challenged the belief that parliament should make laws for everybody based on his argument for involvement of each individual in creating these laws. His work therefore influenced the adaptation of true democracy.

Rousseau’s work that argued a woman should be educated on domains that she naturally performs her duties like nurturing raised debate on gender issues (Spielvogel 523). Some philosophers considered Women in the enlightenment period as naturally inferior to men and male domination over them was widely accepted.

For instance, they considered roles played by women, as resulting from their biological composition. Therefore, many male writers disregarded women intellectuals arguing that male were naturally superior. Some philosophers like Diderot though argued that there was little difference between the two.


Philosophers that emerged in the age of enlightenment played great roles in influencing western civilization. During their time, there was a lot of inequality between social classes. Consequently, as they traversed the world, they learnt a lot about nature and used their work, to influence public opinions. They challenged existence of religious intolerance, royal absolutism, and absence of freedom of thought. Since most of them were from France these atrocities were common.

They considered the elites in power and church doctrines especially those of Catholics as the main perpetrators of these atrocities. They proposed various solutions to address these inequalities. More so, philosophers who had grown in this period extended in their own arguments the knowledge of their predecessors. For instance, we can view participation democracy that Rousseau proposed as a way of extending the separation of power suggested by Montesquieu.

Works Cited

Perry, Marvin. Western Civilization: A Brief History. Wadsworth. Cengage Learning. 2010. Print

Spielvogel, Jackson J. Western Civilization: Since 1500. Wadsworth. Cengage Learning, 2011. Print.

Staufenberg, Gw. Building Blocks of Western Civilization. Xlibris Corporation. 2011. Print.

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