What Was the Enlightenment and Why Was It Important?

(Last Updated On: February 4, 2020)
What Was the Enlightenment and Why Was It Important?

There are certain periods in history that have ripple effects centuries later, changing the way people live and think. The Renaissance is a classic example, with some of the stunning pieces of artwork and sculpture lauded well into the modern-day. While the Enlightenment produced far less tangible artifacts that could be admired in museums, it is equally worthy of our attention. Here are some key facts about the Enlightenment and its importance. 

What Was the Enlightenment?

Most historians consider the Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Reason, to span the period between 1685-1815. In essence, this period was a time when a lot of the great thinkers across Europe began to question the bounds of conventional authority and embraced the idea of rational thinking as a way to enforce change. This mentality arguably initiated a cultural shift that was clearly visible in art, science, and politics. In fact, a lot of modern ideas and concepts are rooted in this philosophy.

In a lot of ways, the Enlightenment represented a return to the classic ideas and thoughts we saw in ancient Greece and Rome. These ideas stood in contrast to those of the Middle Ages, where the rules of Christianity superseded everything else. Underappreciated work of the past, like that of Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, Galileo Galilei  and Johannes Kepler, was revisited during this time.

It’s important to note that the Enlightenment took different forms in different countries. For example, if you compared the work of Voltaire in France to Thomas Jefferson in the English colonies, you’d see a lot of differences. However, the two key traits that tied Enlightenment thinking together were 1) using reason as a base of questioning and 2) coming together to debate ideas through dialogue.

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The Role of Science

The discipline of science, as a counterbalance to religious study, also came to the forefront during the Enlightenment. Many schools and universities were founded for the purpose of furthering teachings, and great thinkers like Isaac Newton became prominent during this time. Buildings like salons and coffeehouses also became popular, as they served as a place for educated people to come together and have public discussions about different ideas and concepts.

The peak, and what many would see as the start of the decline, of Enlightenment thinking was marked by the American and French Revolutions, which took place close together. Monarchy, which was largely based on the concept of divine right, went under greater scrutiny as the great thinkers of the era began to demand more logic and representation in their systems of government. This led to revolutions, but also the beginning of the end as we know it for the Enlightenment.

In many ways, the interest in reason stoked the desire for opposing ideologies, based in emotion and feeling. These explorations would lead to a cultural shift toward the concept of Romanticism. At the same time, many of the societies born out of Enlightenment thinking were having growing pains. The Reign of Terror in France is a key example, and the fledgling United States was not without its share of issues. Not to mention, this is also blighted as the time where the slave trade was at its highest internationally, with slaves being shipped from Africa to colonies across the globe. 

The Enlightenment’s Legacy

Even though Enlightenment-style thinking is not as commonplace as it was at the movement’s peak, the remnants of the era are all around us. The scientific theories of figures like Newton are still powering a lot of our work today, and the same can be said for other fields, like economics. Not to mention, the French and American Revolutions created political ripple effects that helped to construct most of the modern world. Indeed, western political culture as we know it, with fundamental theories like the social contract and the right to life, liberty, and prosperity, all have their roots in this era.


Brush up on your knowledge about Enlightenment figures with these quizzes:

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