Contributions of the Enlightenment to Western Civilization

In short, just about every aspect of Western civilization was created or influenced in some manner by the Enlightenment.  For good or ill, the Enlightenment brought to the front those factors of human life that are most associated with Western Europe and its cultural offshoots in other parts of the world. Those aspects are individual or human rights, secularism, capitalism, rationality, technical and societal innovation.  These factors gave rise to technical superiority, military prowess and the modern centralized bureaucracy state structure.

As Gay puts it the Enlightenment was about the “recovery of nerve” (Gay, Science, 3). About humanity taking chances and seeking new and innovated ways of doing things.  Also the Enlightenment was about “criticism and power”, the ability to examine nature with a calm and rational outlook and having the power to make the world change as required for improving the human condition (Gay, Paganism, xi).

In the arena of politics, moderns still discuss and argue about Locke and Hobbes. Through there writings the Enlightenment ideals of political freedom, democracy and republicanism have been placed “irrevocably on the Western agenda.” (Jacob, The Enlightenment, 168). Even absolute tyrannies such as the Soviet Union, Fascist Germany and Theocratic Iran pay or paid lip service to the “will of the people” and had and have the forms of free Western democratic republics, if not the functions of them.   Also as much as moderns may rail against overweening and oppressive centralized bureaucracy state structure, it is clear that the bureaucracy represents the best and most rational organization for the precise and effective administration of large populations and vast resources (Gerth and Mills, 50).

Adam Smith’s opus: “The Wealth of Nations”, published in 1776, was Smith’s attempt to observe and theorize about economics and represented the “dawn of a science”; the science of economics also became the bible for modern capitalist thought and philosophy   (Hollander, “Adam Smith”, 61).  Despite the best attempts of Marxists, the capitalist system is still the best way to foster economic growth and distribute goods and services within an economy.

Western military prowess is a direct result of “Western ideals of freedom . . . (the) concept of consensual government and an open economy. . .” (Hanson, 54).  Not that that prowess was always used in good and noble causes, because it most certainly was not.  But it does go to prove that the only way non-Western armies could defeat Western armies was to adopt and imitate Western ideals.

In conclusion, one would be hard pressed to find any part of Western culture and civilization that was not touched by Enlightenment ideals.


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).

Hanson, Victor Davis. Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power. New York: Anchor Books, 2001.

Hollander, Jacob H. “Adam Smith 1776-1926.” The Journal of Political Economy, Volume 35(2). (April 1927): 153-197. (accessed 9 Sept, 2010)


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