The Enlightenment, sometimes referred to as the Age of Reason, was a confluence of ideas and activities that took place throughout the eighteenth century in Western Europe, England, and the American colonies. Scientific rationalism, exemplified by the scientific method, was the hallmark of everything related to the Enlightenment. Following close on the heels of the Renaissance, Enlightenment thinkers believed that the advances of science and industry heralded a new age of egalitarianism and progress for humankind. More goods were being produced for less money, people were traveling more, and the chances for the upwardly mobile to actually change their station in life were significantly improving. At the same time, many voices were expressing sharp criticism of some time-honored cultural institutions. The Church, in particular, was singled out as stymieing the forward march of human reason. Many intellectuals of the Enlightenment practiced a variety of Deism, which is a rejection of organized, doctrinal religion in favor of a more personal and spiritual kind of faith. For the first time in recorded Western history, the hegemony of political and religious leaders was weakened to the point that citizens had little to fear in making their opinions known. Criticism was the order of the day, and argumentation was the new mode of conversation.
Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton are frequently mentioned as the progenitors of the Enlightenment. In the later phase of the English Renaissance, Bacon composed philosophical treatises which would form the basis of the modern scientific method. Bacon was also a logician, pointing out the false pathways down which human reason often strays. He was also an early proponent of state funding for scientific inquiry. Whereas Bacon worked in the realm of ideas and language, Isaac Newton was a pure scientist in the modern sense. Like Galileo, he relied on observation and testing to determine the soundness of his theories. He was a firm believer in the importance of data, and had no philosophical qualms regarding the reliability of the senses. Newton’s Principia, completed in 1687, is the foundation of the entire science of physics. This mechanistic view of the universe, a universe governed by a set of unchanging laws, raised the ire of the Church fathers. However, the mode of inquiry which both Bacon and Newton pioneered became much more influential than the Church’s teachings. The Enlightenment would see these ideas applied to every segment of life and society, with huge ramifications for citizens and rulers alike.
The Enlightenment was, at its center, a celebration of ideas – ideas about what the human mind was capable of, and what could be achieved through deliberate action and scientific methodology. Many of the new, enlightened ideas were political in nature. Intellectuals began to consider the possibility that freedom and democracy were the fundamental rights of all people, not gifts bestowed upon them by beneficent monarchs or popes. Egalitarianism was the buzzword of the century, and it meant the promise of fair treatment for all people, regardless of background. Citizens began to see themselves on the same level as their leaders, subject to the same shortcomings and certainly subject to criticism if so deserved. Experimentation with elected, consensual leadership began in earnest. The belief was that the combined rationality of the people would elect the best possible representatives. The idea of a collective, national intelligence led many to imagine that virtually all the world’s serious problems would soon be solved. Discussion and debate were considered healthy outlets for pent-up frustrations, not signs of internal weakness. Argumentation as a style of decision-making grew out of the new scientific method, which invited multiple hypotheses to be put to the test. Empiricism, or the reliance on observable, demonstrable facts, was likewise elevated to the level of public discourse. During the Renaissance, there was certainly unbridled optimism, and a sense of humanity’s great unfulfilled potential. The Enlightenment was believed to be the realization of the tools and strategies necessary to achieve that potential. The Renaissance was the seed, while the Enlightenment was the blossom.
The idea of a “public,” an informed collection of citizens invested in the common good and preservation of the state, reached fruition during the Enlightenment. Curiously, the coffee shop or café became the unofficial center of this new entity. Citizens would gather to read whatever literature was available, to engage in heated conversation with neighbors, or to ponder the affairs of state. What made this kind of revolution in free time possible was an increasingly urban, sophisticated population coupled with the steady progress of industrialization. The coffee houses became the stomping grounds of some of the greatest thinkers of the age. Indeed, democracy would have been unachievable if the citizens had no community forum in which to commiserate, plan, and debate their needs and desires. Grassroots political movements were the natural outgrowth of these populist venues. It must be stated, of course, that this public entity was still a very exclusive one. Women, minorities, and the lower classes were not exactly welcomed into this new civil discourse. For all the high-minded discussion of a new, egalitarian social order, the western world was still predominantly owned by middle class men.
One of the beneficial effects of the Industrial Revolution was a surge in the amount of reading material available to the general public. Consequently, the cost of such material decreased to the point that literature was no longer the sole purview of aristocrats and wealthy merchants. Literacy rates are believed to have risen dramatically during the eighteenth century, as the upwardly mobile citizenry clamored for information, gossip, and entertainment. Some coffee houses and salons appealed to more lowbrow tastes, and these were sometimes the target of authorities. Personal libraries were still expensive, but they were becoming more common. The trend of solitary reading, initiated during the Renaissance, continued unabated throughout the Enlightenment. The first modern lending libraries began to dot the provincial capitals of Europe, with the trend eventually reaching America as well. A literate public was a more opinionated public, and so more equipped to engage in the political discourse. Probably some of the elites looked upon the new reading public with disdain. However, the days of literature as a sacred and guarded realm open only to a few were all but gone by the time the nineteenth century arrived.
In Europe, Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were the torchbearers of Enlightenment literature and philosophy. Rousseau was a strong advocate for social reform of all kinds. He more or less invented the autobiography as it is known today. His most important work, however, was Émile, a massively influential piece of non-fiction that argues for extensive and liberal education as the means for creating good citizens. Rousseau’s work on behalf of social empowerment and democracy would remain influential long after his passing. Espousing similar political positions, Voltaire employed dry wit and sarcasm to entertain his readers while making convincing arguments for reform. Voltaire was in fact the pen name of Francois-Marie Arouet, and there are endless interpretations of the meaning of that name. On the most practical level, a pen name probably helped shield him from the persecution which his writings encouraged. For like Rousseau, Voltaire had harsh criticism for many of the powers-that-were. He reserved especially pointed barbs for the Church, which he reviled as intolerant, backward, and too steeped in dogma to realize that the world was leaving the institution behind. Together, Voltaire and Rousseau are the most well-known of a collective of European writers working to promulgate Enlightenment philosophy, all for the sake of making their world a better and fairer place.
Britain likewise had her share of satirists and humorists attacking the tired and ponderous institutions of the eighteenth century. In the genre of the novel, Jonathan Swift is probably most well-remembered. In all honesty, the Enlightenment was a bit of a dry spell for English literature. Working in the shadow of the Elizabethans presented creative difficulties for English writers, as no one could quite determine how to follow up after Shakespeare and Marlowe. Swift answered the call with a sizzling wit that resonates to this day. Gulliver’s Travels has established itself as a classic of world, not just English, literature. The fantastic story, which in one sense could be seen as mere children’s literature, works on multiple levels at once. Each of the societies that Gulliver encounters has a metaphorical relation to the eighteenth century in England. Whereas some authors confronted social injustice head-on, Swift preferred the inviting trickery of the allegory. His sense of humor charmed his admirers, disarmed his critics, and cemented his reputation in literary history.
Alexander Pope was arguably the only great poet of Enlightenment England. Not surprisingly, he was a controversial figure who invited as much scorn as praise. His biting satires were not modulated with as much humor as Swift or Voltaire, so he drew down the thunder of many powerful figures. From a literary standpoint, Pope was an innovator on several fronts. For one, he popularized the heroic couplet, a sophisticated rhyme scheme that suited his subject matter well. He took mundane settings and events and made them grandiose, a kind of irony that anticipated Modernism by two centuries. He blended formal criticism into his poetry, a diffusion of generic boundaries that also strikes one as an entirely modern practice. In his own day, Pope was possibly most admired for his capable and effective translations of classic literature. He single-handedly elevated translation to an art-form, and demonstrated that a good poetic sensibility was necessary to pull it off with any success. Pope’s great masterpiece was The Dunciad, a four-part, scathing indictment of eighteenth century English society. Although he initially attempted to conceal his authorship, the vitriol of his attacks made it clear that only Alexander Pope could have produced such a piece of literature. Unlike most of his Enlightenment brethren, Pope was singularly pessimistic about the future of civil society. Perhaps he foresaw that the tide of rationalism could sweep out just as easily as it had swept in.
Like many other intellectual movements, the Enlightenment frame of mind transcended the distance between Europe and the American colonies. However, the vastly different political climate of the colonies meant that the Enlightenment was realized in very different ways. Though it may have been transmuted, the essential elements of Enlightenment philosophy had a profound impact on the history of the New World. Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine, each in his own way, took up the mantle of rational thinking and encouraged that perspective for an entire society. In America, one could effectively argue that the Enlightenment provided the accelerant for the fires of revolution. For Paine especially, the new ideas from Europe incited in him a desire to see the colonies separate and independent from the British Crown. His Common Sense, an impassioned yet well-reasoned plea for independence, was instrumental in gathering supporters to the cause. The rallying cry of “No Taxation without Representation” was the manifestation of Enlightenment principles of fair governance. Franklin, for his part, was more utilitarian in his approach to matters of public consequence. He saw the need for becoming independent of the British Empire, but he also foresaw the difficulties in forging a strong and lasting union out of disparate and competing colonial interests. His contributions at the Constitutional Conventions were indispensible, and needless to say informed by the principles of rational thinking and the observable facts of the matter.
The essential beliefs and convictions of Enlightenment thinkers were by and large committed to writing, thus a fairly accurate sketch of the eighteenth century mind is available to historians working in this century. The principles set forth during the Enlightenment had consequences in the near term that very few anticipated, and these would spell the end of the so-called Age of Reason. If there is a historical moment that can be said to mark the beginning of the end of the Enlightenment, then that moment was the French Revolution. France in 1789 was an example of a civil society intoxicated with its own power. The belief that the collective power of the public will could shape the future devolved into a kind of ecstatic anarchy. The sadism that French citizens perpetrated on each other was horrifying to the entire western world, and governments took quick measures to curtail the possibility of such violence on their own soil.
As the eighteenth century drew to its inevitable close, the passionate calls for social reform and a utopian, egalitarian society quieted down substantially. If nothing else, people were simply tired. The bloodshed in France and a variety of other upheavals had seemed to demonstrate that Enlightenment principles were not practical, or at least not yet. The atmosphere that permeated early nineteenth century Europe was one of relative tranquility. Granted, there had been substantial gains made in nearly all walks of life thanks to the progressive ideas of the Enlightenment. Science had been propelled forward, such that the traditional authority of the Church was in real jeopardy. Monarchs no longer ruled by Divine Right, and citizens had frank conversations about their nation’s policies and the course of world events. The literary world, too, had to catch its breath. No one yet knew how to deal with a suddenly literate public, clamoring for reading material. The next several decades would be spent figuring that out. Despite its apparent failures and setbacks, the Enlightenment paved the way for the modern world.
This article is copyrighted © 2011 by Jalic Inc. Do not reprint it without permission. Written by Josh Rahn. Josh holds a Masters degree in English Literature from Morehead State University, and a Masters degree in Library Science from the University of Kentucky.
Major Writers of the Enlightenment
- Congreve, William (1670-1729)
- Diderot, Denis (1713-1784)
- Franklin, Benjamin (1706-1790)
- Hume, David (1711-1776)
- Johnson, Samuel (1709-1784)
- Locke, John (1632-1704)
- Kant, Immanuel (1724-1804)
- Newton, Sir Isaac (1642-1727)
- Paine, Thomas (1737-1809)
- Pope, Alexander (1688-1744)
- Rousseau, Jean-Jacques (1712-1778)
- Swift, Jonathan (1667-1745)
- Voltaire (1694-1778)
- Wollstonecraft, Mary (1759-1797)