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The Movement of Enlightenment in Europe from 1650-1780
The age of enlightenment was a period in early modern history where western societies made a shift from a religious based authority to one of scientific reason. The age embodied tremendous social and intellectual advancements. Centred in the 18th Century, the enlightenment intellectual movement was one that had its roots in philosophy and more importantly within the western philosophy. Despite the international scope of the movement it was more centred in France, which had assumed an unprecedented leadership in European intellectual life. It is a movement that marked a rise of the western influence in Europe from 1650-1780. Great thinkers in France, Britain and all over Europe began questioning traditional authority and started embracing the notion that humanity can be improved through rational change. European politics, science, philosophy, and communications were re-oriented during the course of the enlightenment movement.
As a result of the enlightenment movement, Europe’s sense of identity was defined and shaped. Through the movement, numerous inventions, scientific discoveries, laws, wars and revolutions, essays, and books were produced. Since there existed no unified Enlightenment, this essay will focus on the movement of Enlightenment in Europe from 1650-1780. This historical time frame existed when Isaac Newton published his Principia Mathematica and John Locke, who published his work: essay concerning Human Understanding. The two works formed the basis in a scientific, mathematical and philosophical sense for the enlightenment’s major advances. The essay will also focus on how the enlightenment movement shaped Europe’s sense of identity in religion, science, politics, social science, and imaginative literature.
Origins of the Enlightenment movement
The movement can be regarded as the third and the last phase of the process by which European thought and intellectual life was modernized in the early modern period. What preceded the movement were the stages of Renaissance and Reformation. Its relation to the two stages was relatively paradoxical since the Enlightenment represented their cancellation and fulfilment. The enlightenment marked the moment that the spell of the Renaissance which was the conviction of absolute superiority of ancient times over modern civilization was broken (ushistory.org).
The revolt against cultural and intellectual authority through the Enlightenment movement was very dramatic. As a result, the critique by the Protestants against the Catholic Church for its exploitation of its charges through ideological delusion was extended to Christian religion. Other than religion, the Enlightenment marked the period at which the most fundamental extreme sources of intellectual authority in Greco-Roman, Europe, and Judeo-Christian were overthrown. What made this intellectual liberation possible was the fact that, the primary thinkers of the Enlightenment were clear of the origins of their own set of ideas. These ideas could be traced back to the set of pioneers from the mid-seventeenth century. The founders had one thing in common in that they all had the idea of the willingness to depart from the tradition in one domain of thought after another. The result for this was the development of the most advanced though of the 17th Century which was popularized in the course of the eighteenth Century.
The Impact of Enlightenment in Europe
During the late 17th Century and the early 18th Century, scientists like Isaac Newton began challenging the old order. Newton’s law of gravity and motion explained the world in a more natural law rather than a spiritual one beyond any spiritual force or being. On the other hand, Locke a writer made clear the point of changing a government that never protected natural rights of life, liberty, and property. People began to question the existence of God who could predestine human beings to eternal condemnation and put into place a tyrant for a king (ushistory.org). Through these ideas, Europe could be forever changed since the ideas formed its sense of identity.
American intellectuals also read these ideas. Religious leaders began to change the old outdated ideas and positions. An emphasis on similarities rather than the differences between the Anglican Church and the Puritan Congregationalists began. The Massachusetts minister who was a strong advocate on existence of witches advocated for the use of science to immunize citizens against Smallpox. Harvard ministers also became very liberal such that there was the creation of Yale College which was founded with an aim of retaining the old Calvinist ideas. By the end of the Century, England ministers became so Unitarian that they started doubting the divinity of Christ.
The old way of life was defined through superstition, absolute submission to authority, and an angry God. However, the enlightened movement brought in a new way of thinking that championed the accomplishments of humankind. Individuals did not have to feel desperate since Science and reason could be a source of happiness and progress. Kings no longer ruled through divine right but on the basis that they had a obligation and a duty towards their subjects. Europeans have since pondered through the implications of the enlightenment movement. The paragraphs that follow will explain the main ideas behind the enlightened movement and how Europe was defined by those events and ideas.
Ideas behind the Enlightenment Movement
Prior to the enlightenment period religion was the dominant political force across Europe (Israel). The Catholic Church had established tremendous spiritual authority during the middle ages. Such authority is evidenced through the powerful investiture controversy that existed in the 11th Century. Despite the force that came with the enlightenment movement monarchs still tried to legitimise their authority using religion. However, the age of reason challenged the supremacy of religion in both the political and social life of the people of Europe. Hostility towards established forms of religion is regarded as the most commonly associated idea of the enlightenment. Conversely, the movement is characterized as where modern paganism has its roots. A majority of those who adhered to the movement were wholly averse to the idea of theism. They criticized the belief in miracles and all forms of divine intervention, the status accorded to the Bible and all claims associated with Christ’s divinity. Ardent followers of the movement were of the opinion that, Catholic and Protestant traditional churches were forms of institutional oppression and exploitation (Israel). Generally, the enlightened opinion of the great thinkers opted for the compromise of natural religion. Their opinion received a deal of sincere devotion in many different forms. Therefore, the enlightenment movement played a significant role in shaping the modern day religious identity in Europe and the whole country’s identity in general.
Through demotion of religion in Europe by the Enlightenment movement, there was promotion of Science (Israel). Natural philosophy as dictated by Newton began to spread across Europe based on the fact that Mathematics was the new universal language. The thought of Aristotle referred to as the Aristotelian thought was replaced by better and more accurate observations. Scientists made efforts to explain phenomena’s rather than devising complex theories. In the field of medicine, the old idea of humours came to an end and medical practitioners developed numerous ways of looking at the body and physiology in functional ways. Theories in medicine were done away with as the discovery of the microscope aided the physicians in physiological ways of looking at the body. On the other hand, alchemy lost its touch in its mystical and occult symbolism where a majority of the alchemists became physicists and chemists. Astrology’s influence also declined as a result of the invention of the telescope and Newtonian Physics transforming form astrology to astronomy. Astronomy took a much pragmatic role in trying to explain the universe. The new approach to knowledge also paved way to industrial revolution where geologists and engineers started to find coal and metal ores in order to start mass production of goods.
The 17th Century saw a profound revolution in political thought. The revolution was marked by the emergence of the modern natural rights tradition of Locke, Hobbes, Grotius, and Pufendorf. A primary achievement during this era was popularizing and disseminating this tradition through summaries, translations, and commentaries. By the 18th Century, natural rights, state of nature, and civil society which were all encompassed in the natural rights tradition entered into the Enlightenment political thought. The thought embraced wholly the idea that, the only legitimate basis of political authority was consent. Locke was of the idea that authority is derived from the consent of the governed. Before that people had the notion of the divine right of kings where nobody except God or the Pope could tell what a king ought to do or should do. In the sense of political politics, a majority of the thinkers during the enlightenment embraced a monarch type of administration which is still the dominant state-form in Europe.
The enlightenment movement viewed Classical era of Rome and Greece as a model for contemporary life. People like Johann Winckelmann regarded ancient Greece as a place where male friendship was celebrated, nudity encouraged and the male form admired (Israel). The fascination of ancient Greece led to the production of homoerotic poetry as translation from Greek to European languages. During this age of enlightenment, there was an increased sexual frankness that saw the production of numerous Pornographic materials and works of erotic acts. The most notable pornographic work was by John Cleland which featured graphics of both male and female homosexuality. Sex was also introduced in many other genres, opening a new era of candidness in matters related to sex. In addition, numerous cities during the enlightenment started acting upon homoerotic ideals. Particularly, male prostitution networks prospered in London and Paris.
Through imaginative literature, enlightenment ideas were expressed and communicated. Poetry, plays, and fiction were the primary vehicles for the expression of these ideas. In Europe, the torchbearers of enlightenment literature and philosophy were Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Jean was a strong advocate for social reforms of all kinds who invented the autobiography as it is known today. However, his most remarkable work was Emile a piece of non-fiction that argued for extensive and liberal education as a means for creating good citizenship. Jean’s work would remain influential in Europe and the entire world even after his passing. Voltaire on the other hand employed dry wit and sarcasm to entertain his readers while still making a conviction argument for reforms. Voltaire is considered as the pen name of Francois-Marie Arouet. The pen name shielded him from persecution which his writings strongly advocated for and encouraged. Voltaire used the terms intolerant and backward when referring to the churches during that time portraying his harsh criticism in his work. Voltaire and Jean are well-known for their works of literature that promulgated Enlightenment philosophy for the sake of making the world a better and fairer place. The fairness that exists in Europe today was shaped through literature works and ideas by writers and poets such as Jean and Voltaire who contributed to Europe’s sense of identity.
In conclusion, it is clear that the enlightenment have changed Europe and the entire world, just as much as the Reformation and the Renaissance before it. It has defined Europe across all fields including; religion, science, politics, social science, and imaginative literature. However, the change has not been easy since it has been interwoven in intended and unintended consequences. There is still no sign that the enlightenment is over unlike the Renaissance and the Reformation periods. The era of intellectual modernization through the enlightenment movement is far from over since there exist no intellectual movement that has yet to surpass it. The movement has attracted massive support and advocacy whose aim is to defend its political and intellectual legacy. The most famous promoter of the enlightenment movement today is Jurgen Habermas who has constantly urged the Left to embrace what he terms as the unfinished business of the enlightenment. Kant who is one of the great thinkers during the period answered the question of whether we live in an enlightened age by saying that we do not live in an enlightened age but in an age of enlightenment. Therefore, more change and a new Europe could be coming.
Israel, Jonathan I. Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750. New York: Oxford New York, 2001.
ushistory.org. “The Impact of Enlightenment in Europe.” 2015. 23 April 2015 <http://www.ushistory.org/us/7a.asp>.