Origins of the meaning "Enlightenment"

01 - Path to the Enlightenment

The Enlightenment was an eighteenth-century philosophical movement of intellectuals who were impressed with the achievements of the Scientific Revolution. They hoped that by using the scientific method, they could make progress toward a better society. Words such as reason, natural law, hope, and progress were common words to the thinkers of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was especially influenced by the ideas of Isaac Newton and John Locke. To Newton, the physical world and everything in it was a giant machine. Because Newton had discovered natural laws that governed the physical world, the intellectuals of the Enlightenment thought they could discover the natural laws that governed human society. John Locke’s theory of knowledge also greatly affected eighteenth-century intellectuals. Locke believed that people were born with blank minds and were molded by the experiences that came through their senses from the surrounding world. He believed that if environments were changed and people were exposed to the right influences, people could be changed and a new society could be created.

02 - Philosophes and Their Ideas
The intellectuals of the Enlightenment were known by the French name philosophe. To the philosophes, the purpose of philosophy was to change the world. A spirit of rational criticism was to be applied to everything, including religion and politics. Three French philosophers, Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Diderot, dominated Enlightenment thought. Montesquieu’s most famous work, The Spirit of the Laws, was published in 1748. This work was a study of governments. Montesquieu tried to use the scientific method to find the natural laws that govern the social and political relationships of human beings. He identified three basic kinds of governments: republics, despotism, and monarchies.

In his study of the English monarchy, he identified three branches: the executive, the legislative, and the judicial. The government functioned through a separation of powers. In this separation, the three branches limit and control each other in a system of checks and balances. By preventing any one person or group from gaining too much power, this system provides the greatest freedom and security for the state. Montesquieu’s work was translated into English and influenced the U.S. Constitution.

The greatest figure of the Enlightenment was François-Marie Arouet, known simply as Voltaire. He wrote many pamphlets, novels, plays, letters, essays, and histories, which brought him both fame and wealth. He was especially well known for his criticism of Christianity and his strong belief in religious tolerance.
He believed in deism, an eighteen-century religious philosophy based on reason and natural law. Deism was built on the idea of the Newtonian world machine.

In the Deists’ view, a mechanic (God) had created the universe. The universe was like a clock. God had created it, set it in motion, and allowed it to run without his interference, according to its own natural laws. Denis Diderot was a writer who studied and read in many subjects and languages. His most famous contribution to the Enlightenment was his Encyclopedia. This was a 28-volume collection of knowledge that he edited. The purpose of the Encyclopedia was to “change the general way of thinking.” Many of its articles attacked religious superstition and supported religious toleration. Other articles called for social, legal, and political improvements that could lead to a more tolerant and humane society. The Encyclopedia was sold to doctors, clergymen, teachers, and lawyers, and helped to spread the ideas of the Enlightenment.

03 - Toward a New Social Science

The philosophes’ belief that there are natural laws that govern human society led to the development of the social sciences (areas such as economics and political science). The Physiocrats and Adam Smith are considered the founders of the social science of economics. The Physiocrats believed that if individuals were free to pursue their own economic self-interest, all society would ultimately benefit. They believed that government should not interrupt the free play of natural economic forces by imposing regulations on the economy.
This doctrine became known by its French name, laissez-faire, meaning to “let (people) do (what they want).” The best statement of laissez-faire was made by Adam Smith in his work The Wealth of Nations. Smith believed that government should not interfere in economic matters. He believed that government should only have three basic roles: protecting society from invasion (the army); defending citizens from injustice (the police); and keeping up certain public works, such as roads and canals. By the eighteenth century, most European states had developed a system of courts to deal with crime. Punishments for crimes were often cruel. It was believed that extreme punishments were needed to deter crime. One philosophe proposed a new approach to justice. His name was Cesare Beccaria. He argued that punishments should not be cruel. He also opposed capital punishment. He did not believe that it stopped people from committing crimes.

04 - The Later Enlightenment

By the late 1760s, there was a new generation of philosophes. The most famous was Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In his Discourse on the Origins of the Inequality of Mankind, Rousseau argued that people had adopted laws and government in order to protect their property. In the process, they had become enslaved by government. In another work, The Social Contract, Rousseau explained his concept of the social contract. Through a social contract, an entire society agrees to be governed by its general will. Individuals who wish to follow their own self-interests must be forced to abide by the general will.
Unlike many Enlightenment thinkers, Rousseau believed that emotions, as well as reason, were important to human development. He sought a balance between emotions and reason.

05 - Rights of Women

By the eighteenth century, female writers began to express their ideas about improving the condition of women. Mary Wollstonecraft is often viewed as the founder of the movement for women’s rights. In her book, AVindication of the Rights of Women, Wollstonecraft identified two problems with the views of many Enlightenment thinkers. She argued that if government based on the arbitrary power of monarchs was wrong, the power of men over women was equally wrong. She also argued that the Enlightenment was based on the idea of reason in all human beings. Because women have reason, they are entitled to the same rights as men.

06 - Social World of the Enlightenment

The common people, especially the peasants, were mostly unaware of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment had its greatest appeal with the aristocrats and upper classes in large cities. In the eighteenth century, publishing and reading began to grow. This was important to the spread of the Enlightenment. Many books were now directed at the new reading public of the middle classes, which included women and artisans. The development of daily newspapers and magazines for the general public began in the eighteenth century. The first daily newspaper was printed in London in 1702. Enlightenment ideas were also spread through the salon. Salons were elegant drawing rooms of the wealthy upper class. Guests gathered in these salons and discussed the ideas of the philosophes. The salons brought writers and artists together with aristocrats, government officials, and wealthy middleclass people. The women who hosted the salons were in a position to sway political opinion and influence literary and artistic taste.

07 - Religion in the Enlightenment

Although many philosophes attacked Christianity, most Europeans in the eighteenth century were still Christians. Many people sought a deeper personal devotion to God. In England, the most famous new religious movement was Methodism. This was the work of John Wesley, an Anglican minister. Wesley preached to the masses in open fields. He appealed especially to the lower classes. His sermons often caused people to have conversion experiences. Many of these converts joined Methodist societies in which they helped each other do good works. In this way, Methodism gave the lower and middle classes a sense of purpose and community. It proved that the need for spiritual experience had not been eliminated by the eighteenth-century search for reason.


#1 - Enlightenment Part 1 by Mr. Driscoll's screencast

#2 - Enlightenment Part 2 by Mr. Driscoll's screencast

#3 - Age of Enlightenment (AKA - Age of Reason)