The Enlightenment was an 18th century European intellectual movement in which ideas concerning God, reason, nature, and man were combined into a world view that instigated revolutionary developments in art, philosophy, and politics. Although there are many separate stages to this period, it has been termed “the Enlightenment” for simplicity. The Enlightenment was characterized by the use of reason and rational thought. The goals of rational man were considered to be knowledge, freedom, and happiness.
Three critically important factors to this movement were: a revulsion against monarchical power and clerical absolutism; a new freedom of publishing and rise of a new public and secular culture; impact of the scientific revolution, particularly with Isaac Newton’s book, Principia (1867). When Principia was published, censorship or imprisonment for ideas disliked by the church was still common. By 1750, extreme measures were rare anywhere north of the Alps or in the American colonies. Scholars in Italy began to study the works of the ancient Greeks and
Romans, and the ideals of education, art and intellect again appeared in society. Innovation began to permeate Europe, as humans discovered better ways to print books, tighten communications over distance, and cure diseases more reliably. Mankind started trying to deduce the laws of the universe. England’s neighbor, France, erupted into the disorder of the French Revolution, killing their own king and harshly swinging from an absolute dictatorship to a radical republic.
Representative of the Enlightenment are such thinkers as Voltaire, J. J. Rosseau, Montesquieu, Adam Smith, Swift, Hume, Kant, G. E. Lessing, Beccaria, and, in America, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin. Enlightened oppressors such as Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, Catherine II of Russia, and Frederick II of Prussia enforced the social and political ideals they presented. Diderot’s Encyclopdie and the U. S. Constitution are representative documents of the Age of Reason. The leaders of enlightenment began to secure new freedoms. They sought to impose an ordered freedom on political and social institutions.
The promoters of science and religious tolerance were prepared to attack in print the attitudes and beliefs that stood in the way of tolerance, freedom, and rationality. As aggressive intellectuals and reporters, they earned the nickname “philosophes” meaning philosopher. England went through a great cultural revolution during this time. English people began to be better educated, and the language took its first steps toward standardized grammar and spelling. Much of this was accomplished during the reign of Elizabeth I. The theatre also became far more popular.
Everywhere the Enlightenment produced restless men impatient for change but frustrated by popular ignorance and official repression. This gave the enlightened intellectuals an interest in popular education. They promoted educational ventures and sought in witty and amusing ways to educate and awaken their contemporaries. During this period people also began finding faster and more effective ways to kill each other. Europe changed from being a retiring continent to being the dominant world power. Compounded with the drive to spread both their religion and their influence, the Europeans stretched their horizons to distant lands.
Defeating the Spanish armada in 1588, England became the new power of the seas, and laid the foundations for the largest empire in history. This naval strength was key in the struggle with Napoleon, who had conquered much of the rest of Europe; it was an Englishman, the Duke of Wellington who finally defeated Napoleon at the battle of Waterloo. The Enlightenment period came to an end in western Europe after the outbreak of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era revealed the costs of it’s political program and the lack of commitment in those whose speech was more liberal than their actions.