An Overview of the Enlightenment

An Overview of the Enlightenment

An Overview of the Enlightenment
The Enlightenment Age was a time of discovery and innovation, especially for political and personal philosophy. It’s main goal was to better understand the natural world through a mathematical and scientific approach. Reason is also credited for almost all of the knowledge learned and gained throughout this time thus earning it the nickname “Age of Reason“. Many of the techniques and methods used for research in the Enlightenment Period were first formed during the Scientific Revolution. The Enlightenment is generally thought to encompass some of the 17th and most of the 18th century and included several great thinkers and writers such as John Locke and Voltaire.

Adam Dant of the Static Royal Acadamy of Art

“The 18th Century proudly referred to itself as the “Age of Enlightenment” and rightfully so, for Europe had dwelled in the dim glow of the Middle Ages when suddenly the lights began to come on in men’s minds and humankind moved forward.” (Hackett, 1)

Great Thinkers of the Enlightenment

Many of the greatest intellects of the enlightenment were Philosophers, and Political Writers. Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794) was an author and philosopher who wrote the now world famous book, Dei delitti e delle pene (Of Crimes and Punishment). This contained his views on criminology, and these ideas were respected and brought forward through the ages, founding the basis of the modern day American Justice System.

In 1781, Emmanuel Kant (1724-1804) published his Critique of Pure Reason, the first in a series of books that would create a new standard in philosophy and draw university students from around the world. The famous quote included in the U.S. Constitution was based off the political theory of John Locke (1632-1704), who wrote in his Two Treatises of Government: “Life, Liberty, and Property.”(Laundry, 2)

Adam Smith (1723-1790) was a “Social philosopher and political economist…Known primarily for a single work- An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.”(Britannica- Adam Smith, 1) Even today he is known as an colossus in the history of economic thought. Regarded by all as a master of wit and satire, Voltaire‘s (1694-1778) aggressive opinions and commentary made him an enemy of many of the ages most influential political figures.Today he is heralded as one of the greatest French writers of all time.

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), was the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, a work emphasizing equality between men and women, especially in education. She is now considered one of the earliest feminists and her writings later influenced women’s rights leaders such as Elizabeth Stanton and Margaret Fuller.

The ideas of philosopher, writer, and political theorist Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) are thought of as the end of the Age of Enlightenment. He is thought of as the main inspiration for the leaders of the French Revolution, and his theories had an enormous impact on the personal lives of everyday people. All of these writers contributed their own works and theories to the Age of Enlightenment and caused a turn-around in popular thought and opinion.

New Ideas and Philosophies

The beginning of the Enlightenment Age was the dawning of a new era of philosophy. These theories varied in beliefs and principles, each with a different place in society.

Quote from Thomas Paine, Author of “The Age of Reason”

Deism is the belief that a Supreme Being, God, created the universe and then abandoned it. God assumes no control over life, natural phenomena, and gives no divine intervention. It emphasizes no particular religion, and was developed as a rejection of Orthodox Christianity. By the late 18th century, Deism was the main religious attitude among the educated of Europe.

Philosophical Optimism is the doctrine that we live in the best of all possible worlds. It was proposed by Gottfried Leibniz, a German mathematician and philosopher, as a response to the growing popularity of atheism, which he thought of as “evil”. Although this theory garnered much skepticism and disbelief from the educated elite of Europe, many of the common people accepted it as a reassuring truth.

Religious Rationalism, and it’s competing philosophy, Pietism, are both religious philosophies that became popular during the Enlightenment. Rationalism, the theory that the idea that reason, and not authority, experience, or divine revelation, is the basis of knowledge appealed more to the intellectuals of society. Pietism was a widespread Methodist movement that favored pure, unadulterated religious fervor rather than the traditional formality required in sermons. “At its heart it became a conflict between religion and the inquiring mind that wanted to know and understand through reason based on evidence and proof.” (Hackett, 1)

Conflicts with the Church

Some of the greatest conflicts that philosophers and great thinkers had during The Enlightenment were with the Roman Catholic Church.
Many feared persecution, a repeat of the slaughter of Giordano Bruno. Bruno was an Italian monk, burned at the stake for teaching and spreading knowledge of “Copernican thought”. The Church also had the power to discredit scientists and philosophers, similar to what happened to Galileo almost sixty years before the start of the Enlightenment.

The Index Librorum Prohibitorum

One of the greatest examples of the Church’s influence over the intellectuals of Europe is the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. This was a list of books and authors that were declared heretical and blasphemous. Included among the banned writers were Voltaire, John Locke, Emmanuel Kant, and Jean-Jacques Rosseau. This List still exists and is updated today. Fortunately for many writers, it does not have half the influence now that it did back in the 1700’s.

With the church and religion playing such a huge influence in Europe at this time, the philosophers had to argue against one of the greatest authorities in the world. They faced many obstacles spreading their knowledge, due to the traditional beliefs that the church had instilled in most of the population.


These quotes are intended to show how the great minds of that time felt about reason, their discoveries, the church and government and the public.

Locke, an English philosopher and author of Two Treatises of Government, a firm believer of the power of reason he was a strong supporter of free speech, education and “toleration for conflicting ideas”, wrote that reason “must be our last judge and guide in everything”.

Montesquieu, a French philosopher and author of The Spirit of the Laws, who’s scientific focus centered on human nature said “The material world has its laws, the intelligences superior to man have their laws, the beasts have their laws, and man has its laws.”

Descartes, a French philosopher, writer, and mathematician who greatly influenced mathematics such as geometry and algebra and who has been nicknamed “Father of Modern Philosophy” and argued over the existence of god, wrote that “the power of forming a good judgment and of distinguishing the true from the false, which is properly speaking what is called good sense or reason, is by nature equal in all men.”

(These quotes can be found in World Book Encyclopedia.)


  • 1632- John Locke is born.
  • 1690- John Locke wrote Two Treatises of Government.
  • 1694- Voltaire is born.
  • 1712- Jean-Jacques Rosseau is born.
  • 1724- Emmanuel Kant is born.
  • 1750- Jean-Jacques Rosseau wrote A Discourse on the Sciences and Arts, the first of his three “Discourses”.
  • 1759- Voltaire wrote Candide.
  • 1764- Cesare Beccaria writes Of Crimes and Punishment.
  • 1776- Adam Smith wrote An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.
  • 1781- Emmanuel Kant wrote Critique of Pure Reason.
  • 1792- Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.


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