The Age of Enlightenment (or simply the Enlightenment or Age of Reason) was a cultural movement of intellectuals in the 17th and 18th centuries, first in Europe and later in the American colonies. Its purpose was to reform society using reason, challenge ideas grounded in tradition and faith, and advance knowledge through the scientific method.
They eagerly embraced scientific progress and geographical discoveries, and were dismayed at the corruption, superstition, hypocrisy and injustice condoned if not fostered, by the church and the state. To them ignorance was evil and they blamed this evil on the religious and political leaders, leaders who claimed to be the special agents of God's revelation in order keep the common people shackled in ignorance. The philosophes felt that human progress would only come through intellectual and spiritual enlightenment—not blind obedience to authority. Enlightened humanity could bring an end to poverty, injustice, racism, and all the other ills of society.
The diverse and contradictory nature of eighteenth-century Enlightenment thought, commonly known as the Age of Reason, pays homage to the tremendous intellectual ferment of the previous century. In the seventeenth century, the Scientific Revolution had provided a new model for how problems could be solved through rational thought and experimentation, rather than on the authority of religion or the ancients.
The Enlightenment is called "diverse and contradictory" because it truly spans a long period of time and a vast number of disciplines. During the time of the Enlightenment when people had trouble defining the very time they lived, Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant published an essay that defined the meaning of enlightenment well.
Charles Louis de Secondant, Baron de Montesquieu, wasn't interested so much in promoting open scientific inquiry as he was in the science of politics. In 1748 he published Spirit of the Laws. Inspired by the British political system, he advocated a separation of powers amongst the various branches of government. The English constitution had divided state powers into three independent branches of government: the executive, the legislative, and the judicial. This he felt would create a system of Checks and Balances. As a member of the aristocracy de Montesquieu's views were a bit ambivalent. He didn't favor a republic but he was against slavery.
Diderot devoted the majority of his time and attention to the creation of the Encyclopédie, of which he was joint editor along with Jean Le Rond D’Alembert from 1751 to 1765. He and the other ‘Encyclopédists’ envisaged incorperating all the principal discoveries of their time into one set of publications in order to initiate the process of recording the knowledge supplied by the universe of truth which reason was exposing. Rather than a mere work of reference, the Encyclopédie, under and as a result of Diderot’s instruction (Diderot continued to work underground and publish abroad where necessary in the face of growing oppoistion from religious groups and other domains), became a program for change.
Spirit of the Laws is seen as the main work of political science from the Enlightenment. Montesquieu, although preceding a later generation of philosophes who became concerned with discovering man's natural place in the universe, moves past this and excepts as common sense that man is an intelligent being created by an intelligent God. He reflected the materialist thinkers of England who sought to discover the laws through which God set the world in motion. Through such beliefs Montesquieu began to discover the laws by which men were supposed to govern themselves. He shared most of the same Enlightenment dismay over intolerance and oppression.
John Locke’s contributions to the enlightenment had a great deal to do with the inspiration of America today. He was a philosopher who developed the philosophy that there were no legitimate government under the rights of kings theory. The king’s theory is that god chooses the rulers and when the ruler is being challenged you are challenging god. Locke didn’t think this was right so he wrote his own theory to challenge it. One idea in his theory was the power to be a governor has to be granted by the people, maybe through voting.
The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions: for men [are] all the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker; all the servants of one sovereign master, sent into the world by his order, and about his business.
This is a quote from John Locke's "Second Treatise of Civil Government". At the time his theories sounded very anti-religion because it went against powerful religious and political figures. Rather than God bestowing power on a few individuals to rule over the rest, he believed God bestowed power on everyone equally, and through that power the people could work together to create law and government.
Many people today agree that the first major contributer to the Enlightenment was the polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus. Copernicus developed the theory of a heliocentric (sun-centered) model of the universe that entirely disagreed with the contemporary geocentric model that had been in place since the time of Aristotle. While we know today that his belief was in fact correct, the Catholic Church gave Copernicus much grief for his radical ideas. This new cosmic design that Copernicus suggested threatened the importance of mankind in relation to God and the scripture.
The scientific discoveries during this time proved that people didn't know much about their surroundings, such as a heliocentric model and the world being round and not flat. This helped prompt the movement away from superstition and blind faith and toward the scientific process and rational thinking.
For Kant, Enlightenment is the capacity and courage to think for ourselves, and to resist tradition, convention or authority as sources of wisdom and knowledge. This idea has been, and continues to be, one of the most inspiring and also controversial in the history of philosophy. At its foundation is the notion that the world is comprehensible to the human mind. It also heralded a new understanding of the significance of the individual, who could now be seen as equipped to decide matters of both empirical fact and moral value for himself (‘herself’ came a bit later).
The Enlightenment is one of the crucial periods in Western history. For both admirers and critics alike, it is considered the beginning of modernity, the time when the basic questions facing our world were posed, though not answered, at least adequately... its shapers and followers undertook a far-ranging critique of the world they had inherited. All aspects of traditional life--religion, political organization, social structure, science, human relations, human nature, history, economics, and the very grounds of human understanding--were subjected to intense scrutiny and investigation.
In the century of the Enlightenment, educated Europeans awoke to a new sense of life. They experienced an expansive sense of power over nature and themselves: the pitiless cycles of epidemics, famines, risky life and early death, devastating war and uneasy peace--the treadmill of human existence--seemed to be yielding at last to the application of critical intelligence. Fear of change, up to that time nearly universal, was giving way to fear of stagnation; the word "innovation", traditionally an effective term of abuse, became a word of praise.