The Enlightenment

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Critical Overview

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Literary historians describe The Enlightenment as a movement that profoundly affected not only literature but also science, philosophy, politics, and religion. Because it lasted for over one hundred years, it evolved and came to have many manifestations. In The Enlightenment, author Norman Hampson comments, “Within limits, The Enlightenment was what one thinks it was.” He adds that “the Enlightenment was an attitude of mind rather than a course in science and philosophy.” Critics almost universally applaud The Enlightenment for its insistence that the world should be analyzed and that authorities should be subject to questioning. In The Party of Humanity: Essays in the French Enlightenment, Peter Gay remarks:

The philosophes were the enemies of myth. . . . Their rationalism was, one might say, programmatic: it called for debate of all issues, examination of all propositions, and penetration of all sacred precincts. But I cannot repeat often enough that this critical, scientific view of life was anything but frigid. The philosophes . . . laid the foundation for a philosophy that would attempt to reconcile man’s highest thinking with his deepest feeling.

The influence of the Enlightenment on the French Revolution is without question. Critics and historians agree that the revolution was built on the intellectual advances made by Enlightenment writers, especially Rousseau. Further, scholars often credit the Enlightenment with bolstering the resolve of the Americans in the American Revolution and with shaping both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. In an essay entitled “The Age of Enlightenment,” Whittaker Chambers sheds light on the spirit of freedom and rebellion that arose from the Enlightenment to inspire some of history’s most passionate conflicts:

The vision of the Enlightenment was freedom—freedom from superstition, freedom from intolerance, freedom to know (for knowledge was held to be the ultimate power), freedom from the arbitrary authority of church or state, freedom to trade or work without vestigial feudal restriction. . . . [The] Enlightenment finally reversed the whole trend of European culture.

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Essays and Criticism