The Enlightenment

The History:

The term “Enlightenment” does not refer to a single school of thought, but rather a Western philosophy that placed reason over blind faith or compliance, therefore contrasting with the dominant religious and political orders of the time. While the movement grew in Western Europe and America around the time of the Atlantic Revolutions, the start of the Enlightenment has been debated. Some sources will claim it started with Rene Descartes’ declaration of, “I think, therefore I am,” and others date it as far back to the 14th or 15th century. Most cited, the Enlightenment is considered an 18th century philosophy movement.

Main factors that contributed to defining the Enlightenment included looking at the universe in a rational way through reason, believing that authority shouldn’t take precedence over experience, life can be understood in the same way we interpret the natural world, human beings can better themselves through education and knowledge, and that religious principles should have no place in helping to understand the world in which one lives.

The Age of Enlightenment forced people to put reason at the forefront of gaining the objective truth about whole reality. Enlightenment reduced religion to a few basics that could be only “reasonably” defined, resulting in the banishment of religion in many areas. With this also came the questioning of divine right and how leaders were chosen. While Thomas Hobbes argued that an absolute government was necessary and conflict is a part of human nature, philosophers such as John Locke, Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau all said that liberty and separation of church and state were imperative to better life.

In 1784, Immanual Kant’s essay What Is Enlightenment? simply described the broad Enlightenment movement as the freedom to use one’s own intelligence. Kant believed that this knowledge “would, it was hoped, conquer fear, superstition, enthusiasm and prejudice…” (Kreis Lecture 9) and change the mentality that society was on the downfall from the Garden of Eden and instead, help to view human history with optimism and possibilities.
The main leaders of the Enlightenment were what the French called philosophes. Voltaire, David Hume, Kant and Benjamin Franklin all fell into this category. A philosophe was described as a new type of philosopher, one that was, “a persuasive and lucid writer and not associated either with the Church or the university” (Kreis Lecture 9). In two words, Kant summed up the core of the Enlightenment: sapere aude or “dare to know.” With this mentality, philosophes were able to combat superstition and religious zealotry with reason.

Major Philosophers of the Enlightenment:

Thomas Hobbe’s Leviathan serves to outline his social contract theory. In the novel, Hobbes wonders about a world in which no government exists. He calls this the “state of nature.” Here, everyone has a right to anything and everything in the world. With this comes great conflict and eventually leads to a “war of all against all.” This leads to Hobbes acceptance of a social contract in order to create a civil society. According to him, a society must give away their natural rights to the sovereign rule in return for protection. Moreover, he claimed that “fundamental motivation that spurs human beings on is selfishness: all human beings wish to maximize their pleasure and minimize their pain” (Hooker). With all human beings acting as self-interested parties, no one is safe from another in a natural state. A constant battle for power forces people to eventually decide upon a social contract that would dictate the laws they would live by. However, Hobbes states that society and human beings cannot be trusted to follow along with this agreement, and hence, an authority must be created.

While Hobbes advocated for an authoritarian monarchy under the social contract, John Locke’s political theory was based on the social contract, but instead he believed that human nature is portrayed though reason and tolerance, not obedience. Locke discusses these beliefs in Two Treatises on Government. Locke believed in a separation of powers within the government and believed the government’s job was to protect the natural rights of humans: life, liberty and property. This contrasts with Hobbes who believes a sovereign power must control all aspects of its government with no separation. Locke goes on to conflict further with Hobbes in saying that not only is revolution a society’s right, but an obligation under certain circumstances.

Moreover, Locke challenged human psychology in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. His radical new definition of how the mind operates formed around the central idea that we enter the world as a tabula rasa, an erased board, minds blank. “All human thought, then, and all human passion is ultimately derived from sensation and sensation alone,” (Hooker) which means that every member of society, according to Locke, enters the world as equals. Therefore, all moral or immoral behaviors are established through empirical experiences, which is a product of the environment rather than the individual.

Immanuel Kant, the last major philosopher advocating the theory of knowledge, tried to bridge the gap between the followers of Locke who believed in empirical knowledge and the rationalists who believed all knowledge was open to Cartesian doubt. Kant tried to remedy this divide by saying that utilizing reason without previous experience only leads to illusions and experience without questioning is purely skewed.

Kant’s take on freedom was that there was an Age of Enlightenment, not an enlightened age. He argued that this enlightenment would be attained slowly, claiming that a revolution could overthrow an oppressive regime, “but it can never truly reform a manner of thinking; instead, new prejudices, just like the old ones they replace, will serve as a leash for the great unthinking mass” (Kant).

A Response to the Enlightenment:

Romanticism emerged as a reaction to the Enlightenment, focusing on passion and imagination, rather than reason and knowledge. Expression played a major role in Romanticism, criticizing Enlightenment thought due to the “sense of inadequacy with the dominant ideals of the Enlightenment and of the society that produced them” (Kreis Lecture 16). The Romantics believed that Enlightened philosophes saw human nature in a unvarying manner, and they choose to combat it because Romanticism allowed for emotions and creativity to run rampant without limits. “The philosophe had turned man into a soulless, thinking machine—a robot,” (Kreis Lecture 16), the Romantics thought. They craved for humans to be unique and abandoned Kant’s motto of “dare to know” in favor of “dare to be!”

With that said, the Romantics overlooked how much they had in common with the philosophes when they opposed the Enlightenment so avidly. For both, nature was understood to be a general norm, providing standards for beauty and morality. Nonetheless, the Romantics thought that the Enlightenment oversimplified thought, while they wanted to live in an unrestrained world. Instead of focusing on the reasoning of a machine man, the Romantics chose to veer into a new realm of thought where anything was possible and “experience was positively exhilarating, explosive and liberating” (Kreiz Lecture 16). Rather than forget the past as the philosophes opted to do, the Romantics chose to revel in history and return to the medieval roots that the Enlightenment left behind.

Effects on Modern Thought:

The legacy of the Enlightenment turned the status quo upside down. With the steady decline of the church, the increase of secular humanism and emphasis placed on political and economic liberalism, the Enlightenment created thoughts that were vital in the framework of the American and French Revolutions. The political theory developed by the Enlightenment philsophes created the modern world and the basis of capitalism, religious tolerance, the scientific method and the groundwork of democracy. Without the forward-thinking of the Enlightenment, movements such as liberalism and neo-classicism would’ve failed to exist. In that respect, the combative Romanticism stage would not have had a starting ground to base its opposition without the Enlightenment.

While the Enlightenment is sometimes seen as a historical movement, there are others that make the claim that the movement never went away. “The notions of human rights it developed are powerfully attractive to oppressed peoples everywhere,” (Brians) because in today’s world, oppression still runs rampant. While religious wars are very much still a part of the present, one can think back to the words of the Enlightenment to look for tolerance and acceptance. Although the philosophes of the time greatly opposed the church, they took a step to urge equality among all under a government not ruled by the oppressive God-given monarchs, but one ruled by a separated government with interest in its people.

Works Cited:

Kant, Immanuel. An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?. Konigsberg, Prussia: 1784. Print.
Kreis, Steven. "History Guide." N.p., 4 Aug 2009. Web. 13 May 2010. <>.
Kreis, Steven. "History Guide." N.p., 4 Aug 2009. Web. 13 May 2010. <>.
Hooker, Richard. "The European Enlightenment." World Civilizations Home Page. N.p., 6 June 1999. Web. 13 May 2010.