What is the Age of Enlightenment

The Age of Enlightenment was the roughly hundred year period between the Glorious Revolution of 1689 in Britain to the start of the French Revolution in 1789.  An extension of the earlier and well named Age of Reason, the Enlightenment brought to the Western World, for good or ill, most of what is now thought of as Western Thought and Civilization.

One writer has said that the Enlightenment was all about the “recovery of nerve” (Gay, Science, 3), about people taking risks and seeking new and inventive ways of doing things.  Also the Enlightenment was about “criticism and power”, the ability to examine the world calmly and with a rational outlook and also taking the power to transform the world as needed for improving human life (Gay, Paganism, xi).

In politics, Locke and Hobbes the great English political philosophers wrote and through their very ideals of political liberty, equality and representative government have been placed “irrevocably on the Western agenda.” (Jacob, The Enlightenment, 168). And while many people today protest against the arrogant and tyrannical central bureaucracy state, it is obvious that the bureaucracy represents the best and most rational organization for the effective administration of huge populations and national resources (Gerth and Mills, 50).

In economics, Adam Smith wrote “The Wealth of Nations”, in 1776. Smith was trying to theorize about economics using direct observations and basically created the science of economics. (Hollander, “Adam Smith”, 61).  Despite the challenge of Marxism, the capitalist system is still the preeminent way to encourage economic growth and dispense goods and services within an economy.

History was made into a science during the Enlightenment as historians sought accuracy, using authentic sources and finding “cause and effect” in the past.  The best example of this is Gibbon’s “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, which represents an attempt to rationalize historical inquiry and is still read and cited today.

In conclusion, the Enlightenment, as an intellectual movement, had the goal of finding and applying some kinds of immutable laws to human nature. Yet the failure of that is demonstrated by the fact that the Enlightenment writers, such as Voltaire, Rousseau and Jefferson reached many different conclusions regarding government, history and the other social sciences.  If there were a set of absolute laws of human nature, as there are a set of absolute laws of the physical world, then no different conclusions could be possibly.  There would be one clear and correct answer.  However, these disagreements did not stop the Enlightenment philosophers from trying.  Perhaps last word on the Age of Enlightenment should be left to David Hume: “Even, Mathematics, Natural Philosophy, and Natural Religion, are in some measure dependent on the science of MAN; since the lie under the cognizance of men, and are judged of by their powers and faculties.”  (Hume, Treatise, 1740)


David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Introduction, (1740) http://www.gutenberg. org/files/4705/4705-h/4705-h.htm#2H_INTR

Gay, Peter. “The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, The Rise of Modern Paganism”. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1966.

Gay, Peter. “The Enlightenment: The Science of Freedom”. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1969.

Gerth, Hans Heinrich and Charles Wright Mills, “Introduction to From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology”. (Oxford, Routledge, 1991).

Hollander, Jacob H. “Adam Smith 1776-1926.” The Journal of Political Economy, Volume 35(2). (April 1927): 153-197. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1823420

Jacob, Margaret C. “The Enlightenment: a Brief history with Documents “. (New York: Bedford-St. Martin’s Press, 2000).


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