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Age of Enlightenment

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The Age of Enlightenment was an 18th century cultural movement in Europe. It had its center in France and there it was led by philosophers like Descartes and Denis Diderot. Diderot spread the enlightenment's ideas with the Encyclopédie, the first big public book of reference.

The most important idea of the Enlightenment was the belief in people's reason, that all people can think for themselves. Therefore, a person should not automatically believe in what an authority claims. People do not even have to believe what the church teaches or what the priests preach. Another important thought was that a society is best developed when all its members, regardless of status, collaborated equally in its design.[1] It was thought therefore, that the special rights and privileges of the nobility should be abolished. These were dangerous thoughts for those in power, and many enlightenment philosophers were at times imprisoned or were forced into exile.

The ideas of the Age of Enlightenment contributed to the French revolution of 1789. Some people in power from different countries took some of the ideas of the Age of Enlightenment and made changes to their countries although they kept power for themselves. Examples of these so called "enlightened despots" include Catherine the Great of Russia, Frederick the Great of Prussia and Gustav III of Sweden.

During this period of time the Enlightenment, as more and more people began to use reason, some came to disagree with the idea that God created the world. This brought on conflicts and later war. The Enlightenment is held to be the source of important ideas, such as the centrality of freedom, democracy and reason as primary values in society. The enlightened argued that the establishment of a contractual basis of rights would lead to capitalism, the use of scientific method, to religious tolerance, and to the organization of states into self-governing republics held together through democratic means. The application of rationalism to every problem is considered the essential change. From this point on, thinkers and writers were held to be free to pursue the truth in whatever form, even if the pursuit of truth or the new truth violated established ideas.

The Enlightenment also had an effect on many of the founding fathers of America. They were influenced by the Enlightenment's idea of duty and of the role of government for the people.

The Enlightenment was different from its earlier movement, the Renaissance. Renaissance figures helped the rise of arts by using religion (such as the Reformation). During the Enlightenment, its figures started thinking with reason and natural science. Lots of them also gave the Catholic Church severe attacks. The movement gave rise to Capitalism and Socialism.

It was followed by the 19th-century Romanticism movement (figures: Victor Hugo, Charles Darwin) and the 20th-century Existentialist movement (figures: Jean-Paul Sartre).

Important Enlightenment figures

  • John Locke (1632-1704) English intellectual and philosopher known as the Father of Modern Empiricism and as the Father of Liberalism. Known as the main influence on Thomas Jefferson and The Founding Fathers' United States Declaration of Independence, particularly regarding the notion of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
  • Voltaire (1694-1778) (Francois-Marie Arouet) French philosopher, writer, playwright, and deist, famous for his wit and criticism. His clashes with Church and State led him to numerous exiles and imprisonments. His most famous work is the Dictionnaire Philosopphique. His ideas influenced the French Revolution. Many people considered the 18th century to be le siecle de Voltaire or, the "Century of Voltaire"
  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) Swiss-born French philosopher, writer, and educator. His criticisms of the French State were one of the most powerful of his time. In his book Emile, or On Education he stated many of his opinions on education. Also considered to be a figure of the Counter-Enlightenment.
  • Baron de Montesquieu (1689-1755) French political thinker. He is famous for his articulation of the theory of separation of powers, taken for granted in modern discussions of government and implemented in many constitutions all over the world.
  • Denis Diderot (1713–1784) Denis Diderot was the founder of the Encyclopedia, producing a 28 volume set of books. In those works he contained all learning things.
  • Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) Prussian (German) philosopher, writer, and physicist. He was one of the key figures of the German Enlightenment and in studying the theory of knowledge. Between 1781 and 1790 he produced three important works in the history of philosophy: Critique of Pure Reason, Critique of Practical Reason, and Critique of Judgement.
  • David Hume (1711–1776) Scottish. Historian, philosopher and economist. Influenced Kant and Adam Smith.
  • Thomas Paine (1737–1809) English. Pamphleteer, Deist, radical republican, and polemicist, most famous for Common Sense attacking England's domination of the colonies in America. Also wrote The Age of Reason, a critique of the Bible, and The Rights of Man in defense of the French Revolution.
  • Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) American statesman, political philosopher, and deist. Patriot during American Revolution and took part in the writing of the United States Declaration of Independence (1776) and the United States Constitution (1787).
  • Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) American statesman, author, scientist, poet, and civil servant. Patriot during American Revolution and took part in the writing of the United States Declaration of Independence (1776) and the United States Constitution (1787). Discovered the nature of lightning and contributed as a civil servant to Philadelphia's public service.
  • Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) Natural philosopher and theologian whose search for the operation of the soul in the body led him to construct a detailed metaphysical model for spiritual-natural causation.
  • Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716) German philosopher and mathematician, leader of the German Enlightenment, founder of calculus.
  • Christian Wolff (1679–1754) German philosopher who continued the philosophy of Leibniz.
  • Adam Smith (1723–1790) Scottish economist and philosopher. He wrote The Wealth of Nations, in which he argued that wealth was not money in itself, but wealth came from the value added to things by capital and labour. He is sometimes considered to be the founding father of the laissez-faire economic theory. Earlier, he wrote Theory of Moral Sentiments, explaining how humans function and interact through what he calls sympathy, setting up context for The Wealth of Nations. His books brought many changes to the Western world.