The Enlightenment (also known as the Age of Reason) was a philosophical and intellectual movement that lasted the most of the eighteenth century. The movement was characterized by ideas that focused on the principle of reason as the primary explanation for social, political, cultural, and scientific phenomena, which significantly undermined the position that the religious thinking of that period had. Nevertheless, not every thinker who lived in the era of Enlightenment followed the newly created ideology; some of them did not have any agreements with the fundamental principles of the movement. Other thinkers accepted the values of Enlightenment and chose to reject any other.
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However, despite the fact that the patterns of the established ideology varied from one country to another, the majority of Enlightenment thinkers shared an opinion that they all were living in a new and exciting environment, in which the traditional and superstitious reasoning would decline under the influence of the “party of humanity” (Cole et al. 404).
Before answering the question of whether the Enlightenment was a complete break from religious thinking, it is important to discuss the basic characteristics thinkers of the movement had in common. Almost all of them were confident about the human power reason had over religious thinking. Such confidence was a result of the contribution of the scientific revolution, which placed a major focus on the development of rational thought, study, and observation.
For Emmanual Kat, the great German philosopher, the Enlightenment movement, represented the society’s move from the traditional reasoning toward the declaration of intellectual independence, which, in his opinion, was similar to a child’s growth. In his view, humanity’s maturity came with the break from the “self-imposed parental figure,” the Catholic Church (Cole et al. 404).
On the other hand, despite the fact that the scholars of the Enlightenment supported the idea of declaring independence from the past, they still valued the contributions made by predecessors such as Newton, Locke, and Bacon, who were often referred to as the “Holy Trinity” (Cole et al. 404).
Basing their ideas on the contributions of the seventeenth-century thinkers, the proponents of the Enlightenment placed emphasis on the value of education, which essentially promised social and political progress achieved through the moral improvement of individuals. Moreover, to a large degree, the thinkers of the Enlightenment had a goal of organizing all knowledge that was available to them. The scientific method (empirical observation of particular phenomena for arriving at general laws) offered the thinkers of the Enlightenment an ability to do research in a variety of areas ranging from human affairs to natural events. Therefore, scholars collected evidence to study the laws that either helped nations rise or fall.
From religious matters to racial differences, the scientists of the Enlightenment studied everything that could have contributed to increasing the quality of practical and applied knowledge for promoting a free discussion about the nature and the goals of their societies.
The era of Enlightenment could also be characterized by heated debates on the role of women in the sphere of science and societal affairs, a topic on which the Catholic Church had a particular view. If to provide an example to the debate, Rousseau’s ideas and the opposition to them stand out the most. According to Rousseau, science and education were not “the proper province of women” (Cole et al. 418).
Moreover, he wrote that scientific accomplishments were beyond the capacity of women and that they had no sufficient power and precision to be successful in sciences that require accuracy. To oppose the view that women were unable to pursue scientific discovery, Madame de Stael wrote that diminishing the role of women in science meant to establish an unequal society. Also, Mary Wollstonecraft stated that Rousseau’s ideas were “nonsense” (Cole et al. 419) and that there was no indication that the nature of women was somehow inferior to men.
The Enlightenment was the result of the scientific revolution characterized by a new sense of power and the possibility to exercise new forms of questioning natural and other phenomena (Cole et al. 420). The majority of aspects of past thinking fell under the scrutiny of the Enlightenment thinkers. Nevertheless, the abandonment of the previous religious thinking was necessary not only for explaining the social processes and phenomena with the help of reason but also for reforming the existing political powers that organized religion had in order to prevent more religious wars.
Thinkers such as Spinoza were determined to remove politics from the religious agenda and make a clear distinction between the Church and the state to avoid any interference in social and political affairs on the part of religious powers. Therefore, it can be concluded that the Enlightenment movement wanted to protect society from the interference of the Church in order to make rational decisions based on reason rather than superstition. The thinkers of the movement can be regarded as true supporters of rational thinking and those who helped European societies become what they are today.
Cole, Joshua, et al. Western Civilizations: Their History & Their Culture. 3rd ed., W.W. Norton & Company, 2012.