Manchester Historian

Student newspaper for the University of Manchester's History Department

Monday 29th May 2017 | Manchester, UK

The Age of Enlightenment

The Age of Enlightenment was a movement towards reason and rationality in the 18th century in Europe. This movement primarily altered perceptions of politics, philosophy, science, and communications. The Enlightenment advanced ideals of liberty, freedom and equality. This was an extremely progressive movement. Ideas of enlightenment spread through Salons where discussions and debates took place amongst intellectuals. This transcended into The Republic of Letters, which describes how enlightenment ideals crossed state boundaries. Prominent intellectuals included Marquis de Condorcet, Immanuel Kant, Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Adam Smith. The movement was driven predominantly by the middle classes, who advocated the necessity of universal education.

The Enlightenment movement questioned the notion of absolute monarchy. This didn’t necessarily mean the end to the monarchy but promoted enlightened absolutism, monarchs inspired by the Enlightenment. Notable monarchs were Catherine the Great of Russia and Frederick the Great of Prussia. These monarchs sought to increase the importance of education, illustrated through a rise in literacy rates, and freedom of speech. This resulted in an increase in printing production to create pamphlets and newspapers to spread ideas.

The Enlightenment promoted the importance of science over religious orthodoxy. During the 18th century there were significant scientific advancements. This is evident in medical practices, mathematics, physics and a new understanding of electricity. These advances were achieved through a focus on empirical and rational thought. The emphasis on reason led to a decline in superstition and magic, resulting in the number of witch accusations and trails dramatically decreasing in the 18th century.

Equality was promoted through political philosophy, through the notion of the state of nature. The social contract theory sought to justify restrictions placed on individuals’ freedoms in return for rights and obligations. The movement was forward thinking as it advocated equality of man; some intellectuals even campaigned for women’s rights and anti-slavery, which was extremely progressive for the time.

The Enlightenment has had an enormous impact on global history. The movement produced the Encyclopédie, which represented the ideas of the Enlightenment across Europe. The Enlightenment ideals were fundamentally important to the French revolution, which wanted to transform France into a republic. These ideals are reflected in both the United States Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. The Enlightenment is influential in contemporary society, as its ideals of freedom and equality are reflected in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Enlightenment was pioneered by a desire to promote rationality and reason. This progressive movement is primarily discussed due to its influence in Europe and America. There are limitations to the Enlightenment due to it being a product of its time. The primary ideals, however, have transcended history.

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