The Enlightenment is a lengthy period of history lasting from the end of the 17th century until the end of the 18th century. All across Europe, philosophers, intellectuals, and scientists were arguing for belief based on scientific discoveries and human reason. They were moving away from a life revolving around serving sovereign and church, to a belief that the individual had rights and could control their own life. The church and monarch had been found to be corrupt. This led to the questioning of churches, religion and monarchs that did not care for the welfare of their subjects. The Enlightenment encouraged many political debates and theories of how people should be governed. These ideas circulated around Europe and across the Atlantic to the the Americas. The colonies were greatly impacted by these notions and revolted against Great Britain, causing the American Revolution.
Before the Enlightenment, European thinkers began to reject the existing thoughts and practices entered around the church, and took a scientific approach. This shift in thinking was known as the scientific revolution. This period gave rise to many new discoveries in astronomy, chemistry, medicine, and physics, many of which are still accepted today. A new approach to was developed known as the scientific method. This strategy involved forming a hypothesis and testing it through research and experiments. Ideas became more concrete because of this revolution; they were based on observations and logic. (Berlin 1957)
Enlightenment thinkers wanted to apply reason and the scientific method to laws that shaped human actions. Their goal was to build a society using the ideas from the scientific revolution. (Berlin 1957) Thomas Hobbes was an influential philosopher of the 17th century. He published Leviathan in 1651, which is considered one of the earliest of a social contract theory. Hobbes discussed the structure of society and reasonable government. He argued that without a strong central government there would be civil wars because of man’s natural drive for self-interest. Hobbes did not believe that men had the ability to govern themselves and an absolute monarch was necessary for order. (Nay 2001) “Out Of Civil States, There Is Alwayes Warre Of Every One Against Every One Hereby it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe…” (Hobbes 2002, 103) John Locke was another English political theorist and writer. His views differed from Hobbes’ drastically on the nature of man and social contract theory. Locke believed that man was born as a “tabula rasa” or blank slate. He argued that knowledge did not exist before observations made through the senses, this is known as empiricism, and therefore all men were created equal and independent. (Squandrito 1979) By reason of this proposal, in order for man to be governed, man had to agree to be governed. Locke said the purpose of government should be to secure the individual’s rights of life, liberty, and property. In contrast to Hobbes’ belief that a monarch held all of the power in a government, Locke believed that separation of powers was mandatory to ensure that no one person or branch had too much control. (Nardo 1999) There were many more great writers, philosophers, and artists during the Enlightenment. Paris became the capital of the Enlightenment. Intellectuals, scientists, novelists, musicians, and artists, came from all over Europe and the Americas would meet in Paris salons, hosted by gifted women in their homes. During these meetings religion, politics, science, and art were discussed and debated and networks were established. This facilitated the spread of ideas. Present at many of these gatherings, was one of America’s founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, who brought the ideas to the Western World. (Wikipedia)
Thomas Paine also contributed to the diffusion of ideas. He was a strong believer of the themes of the Enlightenment. He published the...
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Berlin, Isaiah. The Age of Enlightenment. New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1957.
Bernstein, R.B.. The Founding Fathers Reconstructed. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2009.
Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiastical and Civil. British Columbia: Project Gutenberg, 2002. EBook.
Nardo, Don. The Declaration of Independence A Model for Individual Rights. San Diego: Lucent Books Inc., 1999.
Squadrito, Kathleen M.. John Lock. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1979.
Wikipedia. “Age of Enlightenment”. Last modified September 28, 2011. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Age_of_Enlightenment.
Yero, Judith Lloyd. The Declaration of Independence. Washington D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2004.
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