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The Age of Enlightment

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Free «The Age of Enlightment» Essay Sample


XVIII century is one of the most brilliant periods in the history of human culture. This period of European history, which is, relatively speaking, between the two revolutions – the so-called “Glorious Revolution” in England (1688-1689) and the French Revolution 1789-1795, – is called the Enlightenment. Indeed, the central phenomenon of cultural and ideological life of the XVIII century was the movement of the Enlightenment. It included political and social ideas, such as progress, freedom, fair and reasonable social system, development of scientific knowledge and religious tolerance.

The famous philosopher of XVIII century, Kant, who was the first to have summed up the trends of this era, devoted the Enlightenment in 1784 a special article, “What is Enlightenment?” Kant called this age “the output of the man of state of the minority”. Enlightenment thinkers were convinced primarily that rational change along with improvement of the social forms of life can change everyone for the better. On the other hand, according to the philosopher, a reasonable person is capable of moral improvement and education, and education of each person will improve society, as a whole. The “Age of Reason” is another common name of the XVIII century. However, unlike the Renaissance cheerfully-optimistic belief in the limitless possibilities of the human mind, the rationalism of XVII century considered rational knowledge as the only reliable comprehension of the world. Furthermore, a world of the Enlightenment features an understanding that the mind is limited by experience, a feeling, and a sense of a human-being. Enlightenment optimism at times coincided with irony and skepticism, while rationalism was intertwined with sensationalism.

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Let us consider the features of the culture of the Enlightenment thinking of this era and the people, who lived in that era. 

Culture of the Enlightenment

Diversity of ideas, beliefs, and attitudes of the era was reflected in its basic styles, the main among them are classical, rococo and sentimentalism.

XVIII century classicism sought to develop the idea of “proper art”, and it tried to achieve clarity of language and harmony of the composition. Ordering reality in images, classicism is involved with all moral problems of civilian life. On the contrary, the literature approach of the Rococo addressed private life of the man, his psychology, and it was showing humane indulgence to his weaknesses. Furthermore, rococo was looking for lightness, ease and grace of the artistic language, while preferring witty, ironic tone of the narration. Sentimentalism focuses on the image of the human senses, his emotional life; however, it also relies on honesty and compassion, argues on the superiority of the “heart” over the “mind”, and contrasts rationality to sensitivity. Based on this, system of genres is made up in each direction: for example, classicism is especially retained in the “high” genres – tragedy, epic, Rococo prefers love-psychological comedy, whereas sentimentalism develops a new, “mixed” genre of drama. However, all these syles feature a variety of prose genres, such as a short story, novel, and philosophical novel. Although, during this period poetry was developed, as well, poems, elegies, epigrams, ballads, still, the Age of Enlightenment deserved reputation as a “century of prose”. Educational movement has given impetus to the development of various forms of journalism. Therefore, since the beginning of the XVIII century, strong emphasis was given to newspapers and magazines, and many writers of this era were journalists or began as journalists. The central phenomenon of the literary life of the Enlightenment was a philosophical novel and the novel, with Bildungsroman above all. Educational biases and the pathos of the conversion of the man find the most vivid expression in this trend. The Enlightenment was a time of closer than ever communication and interaction between national literatures and cultures. The result was the creation of a single European followed with world literature. The words of the great German educator Goethe, who is among celebrities of that time, summarize the cultural development of the XVIII century: “Now we are entering an era of world literature”.Theater received particularly outstanding development in this era.

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Earlier theaters were mostly open to the public, and they were acting in London and Paris only. However, towards the XVIII century theatres would open up even in small towns, in Europe. Comedies by Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (Moliere) were the most well-known and regarded plays performed.The role of music was changed, as well. Earlier, it was meant to accompany worship, court festivals, performances, and, in the XVIII century, music started to sound on its own. Harpsichord, piano, violin, flute became concert instruments. Composers and performers appeared in the spotlight of secular audience, they were invited by kings and nobles. Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven became world-renowned composers and performers.

Painting became available to the public, during this time. An exhibition of paintings were held, then discussed in the salons and the press. Painting of Nicolas Poussin, Jacques-Louis David enjoyed the greatest popularity.

Neoclassical artists believed that art should educate and ennoble man. They were looking for a hero, ready to achievement and exemplary. 

Thinking and Religion of the Age of Enlightenment

Putting the idea of identity formation forward, educators have shown that a person has a mind, spiritual and physical strength. According to philosophy of that time, people come into the world as equal, with their needs, interests, and their satisfaction affect the establishment of reasonable and equitable forms of human society. Minds of educators were concerned about the idea of equality, not only before God, but also before the law or other people. The idea of equality of all people before the law and the mankind are the prominent features of the Enlightenment times.

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New science involves a change in world perceptions. An empirical study of the world becomes the center of interest. Only towards the XVIII century, understanding of the solar system proposed by Copernicus in the XVI century becomes generally accepted. Aristotelian notion of the form is replaced by mechanical-atomistic view of the world: the world is made up of constant space, and things are made of particles, which are mechanically interacting with each other. The man does not accept the substantial form anymore, but only material units which are the basic elements of the universe.

The consequence of this mechanistic explanation of nature is a fundamental opposition between the finite and the infinite, between matter and spirit, sensual and extrasensory. Thus it is far removed not only from the old scholastic metaphysics, but from the picture of the world in the original Lutheran (with its “ftnitum capax infmiti”), as well.

Rational explanation of nature and the rationalist moral teaching arise as consequences of the new relationship. For Enlightenment, naive faith in man and his capabilities is typical.

New understanding of the state in the Renaissance was built on an optimistic faith in reason; the person was capable to organize political power so that it served the common good.

It took a long time before the Enlightenment infiltrated the area of theology seriously. It was only in the second half of the XVIII century that neology or rationalist theology emerged, in Protestant circles in Germany. However, the overall change in the mindset earlier left a clear trail also in this area.

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The most influential among the new ideas of the Enlightenment theology is the idea of natural religion. It develops in the English deism, in the XVII century. Herbert Cherbury in the treatise “De veritate” (1625) articulated the idea that, regardless of the testimony, a common, natural religion exists, by which a person can be saved, not even knowing about the revelation. Christ is seen as a wise teacher, first of all, as an example of virtue. Thus, even here there is widespread of the pivotal idea of the Enlightment, whereby the doctrine of “God, virtue, and immortality” is the main essence of religion.

In the XVIII century deism takes radical form, such as in the famous work of Tyndall “Christianity, old as creation” (1730), or in the works of French philosophers of the Enlightenment and the German rationalism (such as “Wolfenbuttel fragments” by Reimarus, for an example). 

Man of the EnlightenmentExplaining, who the man of the Age of Enlightenment is, might probably be as difficult as trying to give an answer to the famous question posed by Kant, in 1784: “What is Enlightenment”? Seeking to understand how historians cope with this question we will inevitably reflect on ideas of some prominent tinkers. Marxist historiography suggested, a man of the Enlightenment was the bourgeois, who created the ideological premises of a new culture. The French Revolution crushed the old order and adopted a new model of inequality, based on the class differences, unlike the estate.

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However, not all historians are inclined to such generalizations. Franco Venturi refused mechanical schematic of sociological systems and concluded that the environment of the philosophers involved in the political struggle was not homogeneous: some of them were nobles, the bourgeois, the laity, and church leaders. Venturi attempted to define who the utopians were, then switched to study the Enlightenment (seeing it as a pole that lay between utopia and reform), and finally shifted to Italian XVIII century examination, through the prism of reform projects.

In order to decide how Enlightened people considered themselves, probably it is best to start with the term “philosopher”. The concept of “philosopher” in the interpretation, which it received from the beginning of the XVIII century, has incorporated several archetypes which are rooted in the distant past. First, it reminded of the sage-Platonist, a person that is knowledgeable, and, consequently, has the right to give advice on the fabric of life of the city, the society or the state. Some authors gravitated to such an interpretation, in early XVIII century, for example Giambattista.

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Vico, Paolo Mattia Doria, Gian Vincenzo Gravina trusted in the ability of culture to bring order and system in life. Secondly, the philosopher had also features of Stoic sage, that is the person who consciously turns away from earthly passions. There was a third significant archetype, a stable ideological construction which dates back to the universality of Renaissance culture. According to this interpretation, sage belonged to a particular community, which lay outside the state and outside of religions and is managed by its own laws. After the collapse of “res publica christiana”, caused by the Reformation, this illusory community has found a new way for associations (due to its flexibility and resilience) in the space of European culture and intellectual contacts, “res publica literaria”.

Bayle has played a key role, not only because he has subjected the traditional culture to critical thinking, but also because of his “moral atheist”, that was an explicit call of the time. The idea that non-religious society can be guided by ethical standards was the virtual refraction to the intelligence of philosophical freedom that Spinoza was trying to teach his readers as a scientist in the “Theological-Political Treatise”. Adrian Bayeux, one of the authors of the crisis of European consciousness, reconstructing the life and work of Descartes, was the first to use the “hero of thought” approach, which for centuries was used only for the rulers, saints and members of the nobility. That Bayeux outlined the most important characteristics, which in the future will be applied to philosophers: discourse, method, reason, study, truth, and topic.

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It should be said that the great industrial revolution in England and the French Revolution were the harbinger of a new order of things in which the driving force of social development are the scientific and cultural ideas, and the main subject of historical change is intelligentsia. Since then, no major events in Europe took place without the leadership and direct involvement of this particular segment of the population. Enlighnment has created a new type of people: intellectuals, men of science and culture. These people were recruited from all walks of life, but above all of the Third Estate, which was released into the arena stories and declared about itself in the arts. Approval of educational ideas went largely on behalf of this estate.

The successes of the Enlightenment were made possible only because another powerful social force came to the historical scene, the bourgeois class that played a dual role in the intellectual history of Europe. On the one hand, the bourgeoisie attracted men of energetic, enterprising and intelligent stamina to its ranks, who acted as the main sponsor of Culture. On the other hand, bourgeoisie imposed its narrow utilitarian, mundane goals and ideals to intellectuals. In other words, the bourgeoisie supported the culture. In the end, this development led to a creation of a new form of culture, popular culture, which is often referred to as the vulgar, or bourgeois. Thus, we can assume that the end of the Age of Enlightenment was the emergence of mass culture, in the view light of the cultural perspective.

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Furthermore, it should be noted that the Enlightenment brought the idea of a person’s upbringing to the forefront. Belief in education was strengthen by the authority of English philosopher Locke, who argued that man is born as “clean sheet”, on which all the moral, social ”letters” can be traced; it is only important to be guided in this by reason.


As public opinion trend, Enlightenment was a form of unity. It comprises a certain state of the mind, intellectual inclinations and preferences. The goals and ideals of the Enlightenment embrace freedom, prosperity and happiness, peace, non-violence, tolerance, as well as the freedom of thinking, critical attitude to any authority, and the rejection of dogma, including church.

The Age of Enlightenment was a major turning point in the spiritual development of Europe, influencing virtually all spheres of social, political and cultural life. Debunked of political and legal norms, aesthetic, and ethical codes of the old estate society, educators have made a titanic work to create a positive thinking man, regardless of his social status. This system of value organically entered the flesh and blood of the Western civilization.

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Enlightenment thinkers were coming from different classes and estates: the aristocracy, nobility, clergy, officials, representatives of trade and industry.. In each country, the educational movement bore the imprint of a national identity.

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