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The Age of Enlightenment: Overview and Analysis Essay

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Updated: Sep 9th, 2021

The Enlightenment is the broad term applied to the intellectual developments of the eighteenth century, as articulated by a relatively small number of thinkers and writers primarily in Western Europe. The Age of Enlightenment centered on France and two of the major philosophers who contributed to this age of Enlightenment were Voltaire and Montesquieu. The others were Diderot, Rousseau, Hume, and Kant. Voltaire and Montesquieu were confident that the reforms they suggested were both reasonable and practically feasible (Kagan et al, chapter 18). The concept of deism, for example, allowed thinkers to accept new rationalism without having to deny the existence of God in an outright manner. Voltaire and Montesquieu opposed and rejected the views of the Roman Church which they believed was irrational and oppressive (Fitzpatrick, 83). But these philosophes sought religious toleration concerning all European faiths. The philosophes also affected the areas of justice, economics, and political thought.

The philosophes believed that by obeying rational laws society and human relationships could be improved. This belief was the foundation stone for the subject called ‘social science’. During the Age of Enlightenment, Beccaria proposed reforms in the areas of criminal justice and punishment. In the realm of Economics, Adam Smith’s works questioned the trade practices of the time and laid the foundation for the Industrial Revolution. His 1776 Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations is commonly described as the founding document for laissez-faire (hands-off) economic policy. This work was instrumental in raising a debate over economic progress versus individual well-being in Western society. Many French economic reformers advocated agricultural reform. In the realm of politics, the government was the focus of a lot of investigation and criticism. Enlightenment thinkers did not stop with mere criticism of corruption in the government and church. Montesquieu provided the outline of a system that would create a new balance in governing the state. Montesquieu admired the British constitution and the concept of the aristocracy. He tried to incorporate it in his presentation of the ideal government. Rousseau was a radical, who believed society was more important than the individual because only within a properly functioning society could an individual life a moral life. Overall, many philosophes were fundamentally monarchists, though of course, they believed monarchies should be reformed.

Many revolutionary ideas of the Enlightenment reached Eastern Europe in the form of “Enlightened Absolutism.” The rulers of Prussia, Austria, and Russia tried to follow certain Enlightenment principles. But these rulers could not accept the philosophes’ rejection of war as irrational. Frederick II (the Great) of Prussia, Maria Theresa and her son Joseph II of Austria, and Catherine II (the Great) of Russia implemented some Enlightenment measures but did not create any change to their existing political and social frameworks. Ultimately, the Prussian, Austrian, and Russian empires rejected the Enlightenment ideals towards the end of the century (Kagan et al, chapter 18).

The Age of Enlightenment in England took place through coffeehouses and the newly flourishing press. In Germany, the universities became centers of the Enlightenment. Italian representatives of the age included Cesare Beccaria and Giambattista Vico. From America, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin exerted vast international influence (Columbia Encyclopedia, 15622).

Voltaire’s satire, Candide was the most influential work of the period and reflected the philosophe’s concerns and general attitudes. The major works that influenced the Age of Enlightenment were the Newtonian worldview, Locke’s psychology, Britain’s wealth and stability, French reform, and the emerging print culture in Europe. The Encyclopedia compiled by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert and completed in 1772 contained the views of most of France’s leading philosophes on various subjects. The Encyclopedia helped in spreading Enlightenment ideas throughout Europe.

There were many weak points in the philosophes as well. The four-stage theory of social development proved detrimental to the relationships between the West and other cultures. The philosophes failed to address reforms to help women and had a strong tendency to equate “human” with “male” (Kagan et al, chapter 18). Many philosophes including the radical Rousseau held traditional ideas about gender roles and believed that women were physiologically inferior to men and that women should be restricted only within the domestic sphere. However, late in the 18th century, Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women placed women’s rights within the Enlightenment agenda (Johnston, page 1).

Bibliography

Kagan, Donald; Ozment, Steven and Turner, M. Frank (1979). The Western Heritage, Eighth Edition. Prentice Hall, Inc. New Jersey.

Johnston, Ian (2000). .

The Columbia Encyclopedia (2004). Enlightenment. Sixth Edition. Columbia University Press. New York.

Fitzpatrick, Martin; Jones, Peter; Knellwolf, Christa; Mccalman, Iain (2004). The Enlightenment World. Routledge Publishers. New York.

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