What is the main idea of the Enlightenment?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Enlightenment was a very complex intellectual movement, and so it contained a number of very important ideas. However, if one had to isolate a single idea, then it would probably be the secularization of knowledge . For centuries in the Western world, human knowledge had been controlled to a...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

The Enlightenment was a very complex intellectual movement, and so it contained a number of very important ideas. However, if one had to isolate a single idea, then it would probably be the secularization of knowledge. For centuries in the Western world, human knowledge had been controlled to a large extent by the various churches. As such, knowledge tended to be regarded as something that should in some way reinforce the Christian message. A number of thinkers and scientists—most notably Galileo—fell foul of the authorities because their ideas flatly contradicted church teachings.

Under the influence of the scientific revolution of the seventeenth-century, this attitude gradually changed. Science had developed in such a way that its conclusions often challenged the prevailing Christian orthodoxy. It was a discipline which, of its very nature, could only operate effectively without the constraints placed upon it by the church authorities. In other words, science had to be thoroughly secularized if man wanted to know more about the natural world around him. Enlightenment thinkers extended this insight into other areas of human knowledge such as philosophy and law, which eventually became independent disciplines in their own right, and like science, were no longer required to act merely as the handmaidens of Christian theology.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Enlightenment was an intellectual and philosophical movement which originated in Europe in the 1700s. This was a very complex movement in which many different ideas came to the fore but, in my opinion, it was the questioning of traditional forms of authority which is the most important. 

Prior to the Enlightenment, many countries in Europe had absolute monarchs who ruled the nation with complete power. But the philosophical ideals of the Enlightenment completely changed this. In 1690, for example, John Locke published his Two Treatise of Government in which he argued that political authority was not divinely ordained and, in fact, grew out of a social contract between the governor and the governed. This was a very well-received and influential book.

The best example of this idea in practice is the French Revolution (1789-1799) in which France abolished its monarchy and, over a period of time, became a democratic republic, founded on the principles of democracy. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team