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The Enlightenment Essay

The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement that took place in Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As a historical category, the term “Enlightenment” refers to a series of changes in European thought and letters. It is one of the few historical categories that was coined by the people who lived through the era. “The Enlightenment focused on the use of reason and secularism. It also led to new developments in art, philosophy, and especially politics. Enlightenment thinkers, or philosophers, as well as followers of the movement, believed that humans could understand the universe and better themselves through the use of reason” (Kramnick). The Enlightenment had its roots in several areas, including the popularization of science, skepticism about religion, as well as travel literature which emphasized that the Christian perception of God was one of many and not a universal doctrine.

Perhaps the most significant root of the Enlightenment was the Scientific Revolution, which affected the perspective of the world Enlightenment philosophers had by influencing them to use logic, reason, and rationalism in order to understand the world. “The scientific revolution (1500-1700) gave rise to the spirit of inquiry, reasoning, and the critical (scientific) method of arriving at the truth” (Kramnick). “The Scientific Revolution was an attempt to organize knowledge about nature as well as to understand the physical world through logic and the use of reason. The Scientific Revolution was characterized by numerous achievements. It was marked by a shift from a geocentric (Earth-centered) view to a heliocentric (Sun-centered) view” (Hall). This is a clear contrast to Christianity, which placed humans at the center of the universe. Another important achievement of the Scientific Revolution was the fact that a mathematical understanding of the movement of heavenly bodies was achieved.

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Also, the Scientific Revolution was characterized by philosophical approaches to understanding the universe. “The scientists from the Scientific Revolution agreed that through understanding, humans could improve the world” (Hall). They advocated the use of reason for understanding the physical world and more often than not, their findings contradicted church doctrine. Two of the key pioneers of the Scientific Revolution and who many historians consider being the fathers of the Enlightenment were Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and Rene Descartes (1596-1650. In addition to their individual contributions to their particular areas of scientific study they also started to define how science operates; the scientific method.”

“Francis Bacon is known for his association with empiricism, experiment and induction. He made careful observation of the natural world and collected as much data as possible and then he would draw conclusions or general laws” (Norton). Descartes’ method took the opposite approach. Rationalism and deduction were what he was associated with. “He argued that the scientist starts with an idea subjects it to logical, mathematical reasoning and finally tests it against the natural world” (Garber). Even though they had opposite approaches they were also complimentary and together both formed the basis of modern science. “Another prominent thinker of the Enlightenment and also a major contributor to science was Galileo” (Galileo). He reinvented the telescope by making it more powerful than it already was. Galileo constructed the ultimate telescope which allowed you to view objects that would appear nearly one thousand times larger and over thirty times closer than their natural vision.

Galileo’s reconstruction of the telescope had him viewing the world differently. He used this instrument to his full advantage to overlook the seas and territories in depth. He took a closer look at the moon the stars and a few of the planets. With this instrument, he was able to realize that the moon was imperfect and had holes and craters on it. Then, he was able to find a method to measure their distances apart. The philosophers of the Enlightenment were for the most part French intellectuals. They were writers, professors, and social reformers and they came mainly from the nobility and the middle classes. While many of the philosophers held different viewpoints, they all agreed that philosophy could be the foundation for bettering society just as scientists from the Scientific Revolution agreed that through understanding, humans could improve the world. Additionally, the philosophers were captivated by reason and secularism; the scientists of the Scientific Revolution advocated the use of reason for understanding the physical world and more often than not, their findings contradicted church doctrine.

The Enlightenment was a broad and sweeping intellectual movement with many characteristics and implications. The Enlightenment was most notably a decisive break with the Christian worldview. It embraced reason over religion, superstition, and tradition. “Enlightenment thinkers and followers believed that reason and secularism were necessary for political, economic, and social progress. The Enlightenment can attribute many of its ideas to the Scientific Revolution; however, the Scientific Revolution concerned itself with the use of reason and the scientific method in order to discover the laws governing the physical world while the Enlightenment was concerned with using reason to discover laws governing society” (Hartford). Also, the work of the scientists of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment philosophers both directly or indirectly attacked Christianity; Christian doctrine was incompatible with many of the scientific discoveries made during the Scientific Revolution despite the fact that these scientists wanted to exalt God through their work and Christianity was seen by Enlightenment thinkers as something characterized by superstition, not reason.

The most radical of the Enlightenment philosophers was Denis Diderot. Diderot condemned Christianity; he saw it as fanatical and unreasonable. He argued for a materialistic conception of life; according to Diderot, there was no spirit or soul. This argument accorded with the scientific method championed by the scientists of the Scientific Revolution. The scientific method entailed direct observation, and the soul to Diderot had its grounding in superstition, not in science or reason. He attempted to classify, organize, and understand society just as the scientists of the Scientific Revolution attempted to do the same with the physical world. Diderot, like the scientists of the Scientific Revolution, believed that by using the tools or methods of science, one could understand anything in the world. Diderot placed religion under scientific scrutiny, that is, religion was not something that provided definitive answers, and rather, science and reason were. This shows that once the public is given complete freedom, enlightenment is almost inevitable.

It is destructive to implant prejudices, mainly because they will eventually “revenge themselves upon their authors, or their authors, descendants” (Kant). Kant reveals that society expects us never to argue and agree with what we are told. We find restrictions on freedom everywhere and are expected to keep up with these expectations and never argue. This shows how the public’s use of reason should be free at all times because it will bring enlightenment to mankind. The rise of modern science had many consequences. “Went hand in hand with the rise of a new expanding social group-the international scientific community” (Hartford). Members linked together by common interests and shared values as well as by journals and the learned scientific societies founded in many countries in the later 17th century and 18th century.

Expansion of knowledge was the primary goal of this community and scientists’ material and psychological rewards depended on their success in this endeavour. Thus science becomes quite competitive and even more scientific advance was inevitable. The scientific revolution had few consequences for economic life and the living standards of the masses until the late 18th century at the very earliest. “True, improvements in the techniques of navigation facilitated overseas trade and helped enrich leading merchants, but science had relatively few practical al economic applications. The close link between theoretical, or p7ure, science and applied technology, which we take for granted today, simply did not exist in any of the world’s civilizations before the 19th century” (Hartford).

Works Cited

  • “Galileo.” Student’s Encyclop�dia. 2009. Britannica Student Encyclop�dia. 9 Apr. 2009 <http://student.britannica.com/comptons/article-9274476/Galileo>.
  • Garber, Daniel (1998, 2003). Descartes, Ren�. In E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge. Retrieved April 10, 2009, from ttp://www.rep.routledge.com/article/DA026
  • Hall, A.R. The Scientific Revolution, 1500-1800, 1966.
  • Hartford, Charles. A History of World Societies. Houghton Mifflin Company: 2007. 04. April. 2009. < http://books.google.com/books?id=Hy3- CMB0BsC&printsec= frontcover&source=gbs_summary_r&cad=0>
  • “Kant, Immanuel.” New World Encyclopedia. 21 Oct 2008, 22:41 UTC. 9 Apr 2009, 23:57 <http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Immanuel_Kant?oldid=835933>.
  • Kramnick, Issac. “Thematic Essay: Political and Social Thought of the Enlightenment,” Microsoft(r) Encarta(r) Online Encyclopedia 2009
  • http://encarta.msn.com (c) 1997-2009 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved.
  • Norton, Rictor “Sir Francis Bacon”, Gay History and Literature, updated 14 June 2008 <http://rictornorton.co.uk/baconfra.htm>.

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