Enlightenment Thought

The Eighteenth-century gave way to the intellectual heirs of their past called the Newtonian science. Coined as such because of Sir Isaac Newton’s “natural laws of the physical universe” (Fiero, p. 134), “Enlightenment philosophers emphasized acquiring knowledge through reason, challenging unquestioned assumptions” (Norton, Sheriff, Katzman, Blight, Chudacoff & Logevall, p. 92). Also known as the Age of Reason, the movement occurred roughly between 1687 when Newton’s major physics work, called Principia, was released, to the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789 (Fiero, 2011). The discoveries of Newton, the rationalism of Rene Descartes, the skepticism of Pierre Bayle, the pantheism of Benedict de Spinoza, and the empiricism of Francis Bacon and John Locke—fostered the belief in natural law and universal order and the confidence in human reason that spread to influence all of 18th-century society” (Enlightenment, 2007).

Believing that they were wiser than in previous periods, the Enlightenment philosophers challenged early European philosophers who used more abstract reasoning to discover principles such as the phenomena of planetary motion (Norton et al. 2007). Enlightenment philosophers believed knowledge should come by reasoning and viewed human behavior as natural law (Fiero, 2011). This intellectual movement challenged the previous forms of life and culture. The unwritten, but divinely accepted law of nature had specific principles and beliefs of right and wrong that was inherent to all human beings. The reasoning of right and wrong that created a just society, as with Natural rights included the “right to life, liberty, property, and just treatment by the ruling order” (Fiero, p. 134).

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This type of thinking had a large affect on the clergymen heading the colonial colleges, government and heliacal authority, and the structure of societies. The wealthy and educated people in America and Europe, adopted a “common vocabulary and unified world-view” (Norton, et al. , p. 92), by joining them together in a search to understand God’s creation. However, some of the assumptions of John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) also led to an assault on people believed to be involved with witchcraft, astrology, and similar phenomenon (Norton, 2007).

Another of Locke’s work, Two Treatises of Government (1961), and works of other Scottish and French philosophers, challenged the “divinely sanctioned, hierarchical political order originating in the power of fathers over families” (Norton, et al. , p. 92). Locke proclaimed that men created their own governments and therefore should make adjustments, even by force if necessary, over a man in a position of authority who did not protect the patrons rights or failed some form of socially agreed upon contract (Norton, et al, 2007).

Scottish philosopher Adam Smith (1723-1790) epic synthesis, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, applied the idea of natural law “to the domains of human labor, productivity, and the exchange of goods” (Fiero, p. 140). He challenged that prosperity was obtained by the labor force and not a nations land or money, and that was a condition instinctive to mankind (Fiero, 2011). He believed if the government interfered in the natural law of supply and demand of a nation, it would infringe on natural order.

Smith “opposed all artificial restraints on economic progress and all forms of government regulation and control”, what is now known as free enterprise or laissez-faire (Fiero, p. 140). These free thinkers of the eighteenth century did more than just philosophize about political, economic, social conditions and beliefs of a society; they virtually ridiculed all forms of authority, and pressing to establish a “superior moral and social order” (Fiero, p. 141). Many noblewomen and common women desired a free and more public role that was socially accepted.

They organized group discussions to address matters such as “views on morality, politics, science, and religion” (Fiero, p. 141). In many town home salons, women were not only philosophizing about the great concerns of the world, they were discussing anything from diet to the latest fashion (Fiero, 2011). In Paris these groups of highly educated women were known as the philosophers, or intellectuals, whom dominated much of the literary activity during the Enlightenment (Fiero, 2011).

In terms of religion, “most philosophies held to the deist view of God as Creator and providential force behind nature and natural law, rather than personal Redeemer” (Fiero, p. 141). They regarded humans as essentially different from other living creatures, and that their soul was immortal, and that the Bible was myth rather than truth (Fiero, 2011). They challenged every aspect of the church, fostering its dislike and hatred towards the irrationality, superstition, and religious dogma it stood for.

The philosophies motivator, Ecrasez l’infame, translated as to Wipe out all evil, was what prompted the French Revolution and social reform (Fiero, 2011). As the Enlightenment period pressed on challenging religion and science, there finally came a time when the new thought was making a stance socially, religiously, and culturally. The Great Awakening first emerged in New England’s Puritan founding generation, sparked by evangelist Reverend George Whitfield, who arrived in the British colonies in 1739 (Norton, et al. 2007). Challenging the traditional and customary patterns caused a divide in the Protestant denominations. Old Lights followed the traditional teachings of their ministers. The New Light evangelicals attracted followers and preachers bringing in a divided world where you were either saved or damned, no mater what age, gender, or status (Norton, et al. , 2007). These religious beliefs are still the basis of most people in the United States and much of the Western world.


“Enlightenment: Background and Basic Tenets.” The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia. (2007). Pearson Education, publishing as Infoplease. Retrieved on 29 March 2012, from http://www.infoplease.com/ce6/society/A0858010.html Fiero, G. K. (2011). The humanistic tradition: The early modern world to the present. (6th ed., Vol. 2). New York: McGraw-Hill Humanities/Social Sciences/Languages. Hackett, L., & Hackett, L. (1992, January 1). History world. Retrieved on 29 March 2012, from http://history-world.org/age_of_enlightenment.htm Norton, M. B., Sheriff, C., Katzman, D. M., Blight, D. W., Chudacoff, H., & Logevall, F. (2010). A people and a nation. (8th ed.). New York: Houghton Mifflin College Div. (Norton, Sheriff, Katzman, Blight, Chudacoff & Logevall, 2010)

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