The Enlightenment, also known as The Age of Reason, marked a departure from the domination of the church and monarchies in the 17th and 18th centuries in favor of principles such as social progress, equality, liberty and personal responsibility. Many writers and philosophers such as Spinoza, Voltaire, Rousseu, Descartes, Kant and Wollstoncraft worked to push these principles to the forefront. Enlightenment ideas influenced the American, French and even Haitian revolutions. The American Declaration of Independence is infused with Enlightenment principles.
Spinoza's Ethics and the Idea of Unity
Baruch Spinoza, born of Portuguese immigrants living in Amsterdam, believed in religious tolerance and his most famous work, "Ethics," is a metaphysical philosophy based on the principle that God is actually one unifying energy and not the anthropomorphic, authoritative figure presented by religious institutions. He believed that through study, rational observance and ultimately, informed intuition, one could perceive the interconnectedness of all things. This idea was a radical notion at the time, for which he was excommunicated from the Jewish community. It also formed the foundation for many Enlightenment ideas of equality, democracy and religious tolerance.
A Push for Democracy and Freedom of Expression
In Jean Jacque Rousseau's "Social Contract," he challenges the idea that a monarch's power comes directly from God. Instead, he proposed that any leader's power comes from the people, therefore, who really holds the power are the people themselves, giving rise to the ideas on which democracy is based. French writer Francois-Marie Arouet, who used the pen name Voltaire, filled his books, including his most famous, "Candide," with satirical criticisms of the Catholic Church and the monarchy, criticizing the corruption of those institutions. Voltaire's own life was an example of the fight for freedom of expression, having been exiled and imprisoned for many years because of his criticisms.
The Age of Personal Responsibility
Descartes' famous statement “cogito, ergo sum” or “I think therefore I am” put responsibility in the hands of each individual to create his own understanding of reality, rather than be told what to think by the church or a king. In the later years of the Enlightenment, German philosopher Immanuel Kant published “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” in 1784. In it, Kant summarizes the drive of Enlightenment thinkers to break free from the limitations imposed by religious and political institutions with the statement: “immaturity is the inability to use one's own understanding without the guidance of another.”
Equality for All, Women Included
Though many of the Enlightenment thinkers and philosophers wrote about equality among men, many of them were behind when it came to ideas concerning equal rights for women. Women's role in Europe at the time was mainly as a householder, mother and wife. Education was extremely limited for women and participation in professional realms and in politics was practically nonexistent. In 1792, Mary Wollstoncraft wrote her famous treatise "A Vindication of the Rights of Women," insisting that women have the same rights to education as men and urging women to participate in traditionally male professions such as science and medicine. If the Enlightenment thinker Francis Bacon's statement that "knowlege is power" was true, then Wollstoncraft's treatise was accurately aimed at education for women.
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