The Enlightenment

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When did the Enlightenment start?

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Historians do not agree on the exact start of the Enlightenment. The consensus is that the period began somewhere between the last half of the seventeenth century and the beginning of the eighteenth century, with the end coming in 1789 after the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon. The Enlightenment was primarily an eighteenth-century movement.

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The Enlightenment period, or the Age of Reason, was primarily an eighteenth-century movement in which philosophical thinkers attempted to take Europeans out of the Dark Ages. Prior to the movement, superstition and blind adherence to rules, tenets, and accepted theories dominated over free-thinking and reason. Intellectuals sought to change European culture to one of openness to and acceptance of new ideas. Experts do not agree on the precise beginning date of the Enlightenment, but the period began somewhere between the middle of the seventeenth century and the beginning of the eighteenth century, ending in 1789 with the French Revolution and the reign of Napoleon.

One of the reasons the specific start of the period remains unclear is the manner in which it spread through Europe and beyond. Philosophical thinkers postulated their theories on a local basis in the regions where they resided in many countries, but mostly in Britain and France at the early stages. It did not begin as a unified European radical movement on a specific date. Instead, intellectuals, who were often radical in their thinking, spread their theories from small regions until the movement grew larger. Traditional authority and blind acceptance of strict principles were questioned regularly throughout European villages and towns until the birth of a widespread notion that humanity would be better served by embracing rationality in thought processes affecting social ideals.

A good example of one of the sparks that ignited the movement is found in Descartes’s concepts of rationalism. While his famous shift in thinking expressed in his principle of cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am) predates the start of the Enlightenment Era, his thought processes were explored more closely by early proponents of the Enlightenment movement. His postulate found consideration in scientific studies, books, essays, and laws that exploded during the movement.

The Enlightenment inspired the widespread belief that human beings could improve their plights in life through the rational consideration of principles of freedom, knowledge, and general happiness. Reason was accepted as the primary source of new ideas. For philosophers like Immanuel Kant, reason triumphed over strict religious and political dogmas. In his The Critique of Pure Reason (1781), Kant wrote:

All the interests of my reason, speculative as well as practical, combine in the three following questions: 1. What can I know? 2. What ought I to do? 3. What may I hope?

Kant believed freedom, will, and rationality provided life with purpose.

The Enlightenment also saw the start of empiricism, which spread by virtue of the newfound openness of thought promoted by the movement. British empiricists like Jeremy Bentham believed that the best method of achieving the greatest degree of happiness in life was to acquire knowledge through experience, not innate rationality alone.

Nearly the entire eighteenth century in Western civilization was permeated by Enlightenment thinking. Strict dogmas were refuted and many prejudices and superstitions were eliminated.

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