The Age of Enlightenment: Ideas, Concepts, and Important Philosophers

The Age of Enlightenment was an intellectual and philosophical movement during the 17th and 18th centuries. From the beginning of the 1600s, people began the debate about who should govern a nation. Absolutism became less common and found an end, which is when enlightenment philosophers argued for different kinds of democratic leadership.

It mainly took place in Europe and has its roots in renaissance humanism. Some of the main values were human happiness, the pursuit of knowledge through reason and evidence of our senses.

The central ideas of the Enlightenment lay in the undermining of the authority of the monarchy and the Catholic church. They paved the way for most political revolutions during the upcoming 18th and 19th century. Liberalism, communism, neoclassicism, they all have roots and adapted ideas from the Enlightenment.

The term “Enlightenment”

The actual term “Enlightenment” is a result of the condemnation of the Middle Ages as a dark epoch of superstition and ignorance. During the beginning of the renaissance (15th and 16th centuries), people began to see antiquity as an intellectual and artistic ideal. The Middle Ages were a backward period of decline and modern thinking should shed light on their darkness.

According to Kant’s definition, enlightenment is “the exit of man from his self-inflicted immaturity”, while immaturity is defined as the “inability to use one’s mind without the guidance of another”. He declared “Sapere aude” (‘Dare to be wise’ or ‘Dare to know’) as the motto of the Enlightenment.

The term obviously shows what time stands for. Using light as a metaphor for knowledge like it is used in this context, has already been done in ancient Greece. Subsequently, it was also used in the Baroque era by famous people like, for example, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Johann Heinrich Lambert.

To call this period in time, the Enlightenment was introduced in the 20th century, three centuries later. People used expressions like “to enlighten” in the sense of being informed about something in an illuminating way, but they never called the actual period The Enlightenment during that time.

Historical background

During the 18th century there were many political and social upheavals. The Thirty Years’ War (1618 – 1648) divided Germany, which is obviously a country in central Europe, into 300 individual states. Each one of these 300 had its own laws, politics, and even economics.

Furthermore, the Reformation by Martin Luther divided Christianity and peoples’ personal beliefs took the place of where the church once stood. Not only did their belief system break, but with it also the way people saw the whole world around them. They began to question everything. There was more active rebellion against grievances and the exclusion of the lower class through absolutism and the church. Humans began to see themselves as self-determined individuals with human rights and possible influences on history.

Education and acts against prejudices were means of choice for emancipation and the rational thinking of the Enlightenment helped. God-given positions of power were outdated, and individuals became the center of society. The Bourgeoisies rose and became more and more independent. Freedom, equality, and fraternity became necessities people did no longer want to live without. They were even the main driving forces for the French Revolution (1789-1799). The feudal rule came to an end and, with it, the nobility and clergy lost their power. The “average” citizen became more important and more self-efficient.

Philosophical thinking

The philosophical thinking of the Enlightenment is divided into two major directions. Empiricism and rationalism are the approaches that play the biggest role.

John Locke, the founder of empiricism, was of the opinion that one can only gain knowledge if one combines reason and the perception of their senses. It becomes possible through observations and experiments.

René Descartes was the founder of rationalism. In rationalism, traditional knowledge is not simply adapted. Critical thinking and the questioning of knowledge and traditional concepts need to happen in order to gain knowledge. True to the modern motto: “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” It is in rationalism that sensory experiences, experiments, and religion are inadequate. Descartes stated the Latin proverb “Cogito, ergo sum”, which can be translated to “I think, therefore I am”. Obviously, rational thinking is a necessary action for humans to live, otherwise they solemnly exist.

Main concepts

There are a few main ideas of the Enlightenment. Some state there are 5, some say three, some say 11. However, I have decided to talk about the five that are most outstanding, in my opinion. Yet, all of them follow the ideas of the rational natural order and the natural law.

  • Reason: Reason is a divine force. It is what makes humans human, since they are the only species capable of reason. Moreover, it is what destroys intolerance.
  • Nature: Everything about nature is good and reasonable. Nature’s law is what governs the universe.
  • Happiness: It is achieved if you live by nature’s law. If you do so, you won’t have to wait for paradise in heaven, you will have it right here on earth.
  • Progress: All the ideas of the Enlightenment highlight science and speculation as superior over religion. They majorly impacted the American colonies in the 18th
  • Liberty and freedom: Both are achieved because one has the freedom to self-actualize.

Important philosophers

There were many important philosophers during the time of the Enlightenment, and although at heart they all had the same ideas, they operationalized them in different ways.

René Descartes

portrait of Rene Descartes
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René Descartes was the founder of the method of doubt which furthermore led to the dualistic doctrine of mind and matter. He was oftentimes overlooked because so much of his work was interested in the existence of God and the presence of a soul, and both were more so a way of thinking of older philosophers before him. However, he did not take both facts (the existence of a God and the presence of the soul) for granted. Instead, he developed a metaphysical system, forcing every major philosopher up until Kant to respond.

He was credited with being the beginner of the school of rationalism, asserting the being of knowledge that could be gained through reason alone.

“If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.” – René Descartes

David Hume

Portrait of David Hume
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Hume was the founder of the theory of mind. Many of you might have heard of it, since it finds a lot of use in, for example, psychology. His theory has four different parts.

  • Reason alone cannot be a motive to the will but acts as a slave of the passion.
  • Moral distinctions do not stem from reason.
  • Moral distinctions stem from moral sentiments: feelings of approval (praise), and disapproval (blame) felt by the observer contemplating a character trait or action.
  • Some virtues and vices are natural. However, others, like, for example, justice, are artificial and need to be learned.

“Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” – David Hume

Thomas Hobbes

Portrait of Thomas Hobbes
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Thomas Hobbes was a strong advocate of the idea of absolutism of the sovereign. In order to avoid total chaos, he was of the opinion that people need to accede to social contracts and create a civil society.

One of his most influential tensions is the relationship he saw between the absolute sovereign and society. According to him, sovereign authority stands above society and all individuals belonging to this society sacrifice some of their human rights in order to receive protection. All power executed by the authority cannot be denied or declined since the protector’s sovereign power stems from the people surrendering their own sovereign power for the sake of protection.

“The first and fundamental law of nature, which is, to seek peace and follow it.” – Thomas Hobbes

John Locke

Portrait of John Locke
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John Locke’s most important contributions to the Enlightenment lie in the recognition of the rights and equality of individuals, the criticism of arbitrary authority, the advocacy of religious toleration, and the general empirical and scientific temperament. For Locke as well, individuals form a social contract. People living in a so-called state have the moral obligation to protect each other from all sorts of harm, physical, psychological, social, and one concerning their property.

Without a governmental body of any sort, the people within those states would fall into violence. This violence stems from fear and a lack of confidence in the protective systems. A social contract is an agreement which comes naturally. It is of mutual interest that the people of a state surrender part of their rights to the governmental bodies. They receive protection and a peaceful social existence which the law provides.

The government should be a neutral judge of the law. It has no right to interfere in the lives of individuals and they should be of no interest to him. Locke believed that he should be beholden to the people rather than the other way around. He was the first person in history to suggest that the people have the right to revolution whenever they disapprove of their government. People should have the power to change it as they see it fits.

“The end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom. For in all states of created beings capable of law, where there is no law, there is no freedom.” – John Locke

Immanuel Kant

portrait of Immanuel Kant
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The center of Immanuel Kant’s perspective is the categorical imperative. The people must act in a way that they believe would be just and fair under a universal law. An easier explanation would be the golden rule of humanity: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Kant wants to understand the natural world and, more specifically, the way it makes you feel. In Critique of Judgement, which he published in 1790, he wondered why people think gardens and pastoral settings are beautiful, while mountains, the night sky, and darkness in general invoke feelings of danger and fear, which he called “the sublime”.

“Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another.” – Immanuel Kant

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

portrait of Jean-Jacques Rousseau
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Rousseau was a philosopher, writer, and composer, whose political influence profoundly shaped the progress of the Enlightenment throughout Europe. Unlike many other philosophers, he affirmed the necessity of religion as a concept. According to him, those who are powerful and rich stole the land belonging to all and fooled everyone into accepting them as their rulers.

Individuals, according to Rousseau, should never be chained or forced to give up individual rights to a king or a queen. However, in complete freedom, it is hard to find ways to protect everyone’s life, liberty, and property. Again, the solution was the social contract. Anyone who does not accept the will of all will be forced to be free, which in this context means being forced to exit society.

“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” – Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Charles Montesquieu

Portrait of Charles Mintesquieu
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When Montesquieu was born, France was ruled by Louis XIV, an absolute king. He was born into a noble family and was highly educated. According to him, the exact opposite of what everybody else thinks would take place: when faced with freedom (state of nature), people would be so fearful that they would avoid conflict – war even – at all cost. Once one enters a society, “he loses the sense of his weakness, equality ceases, and then commences the state of war.”

The function of governments then was to maintain law and order, and he favored the English system as the best model of government. However, he misinterpreted the British system. He thought the English king was the exercising executive power and the parliament was the law-making balance to it.

Montesquieu was of the opinion that the best form of government is one in which legislative, executive, and judicial powers are separate from each other.

Art during the Enlightenment

Art was by no means in focus during the Age of the Enlightenment. The art produced during the Enlightenment focused on a search for morality. It was absent from art in earlier eras, but at the same time, Classical art of Greece and Rome became interesting. Archaeological teams discovered Pompeii and Herculaneum. People took inspiration from it and revived classical art, which is now called neoclassical art. This can especially be seen in early American art and architecture, which featured arches, goddesses, and other classical architectural designs.

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