What were the Main Ideas of Enlightenment?

The ideas of the Enlightenment, in particular, its faith in scientific method of investigation, its optimism that the new era of scientific-technological advancement and industrialization would lead to a world filled with happiness for all and its attempts to create a social order based on the principles of human reason, tolerance and equality, affected a profound social and intellectual revolution.

Although votaries of Enlightenment had little political clout in the first half of the 18th century, theirs was perhaps the most popular voice by the end of that century.

Certainly it was the most effective in determining what constitutes a ‘modern’ outlook.

The distinction that they posited between tradition and modernity, religion and science, their reliance on reform and state initiatives for re-structuring society provided a model of development that would be endorsed not only in the advanced industrialized societies but also in the colonized world.

Enlightenment – Lesson 188 | Lovekey

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Indeed, all over the world Enlightenment was to become synonymous with modernity.

The influence of Enlightenment is evident as much in the modernization theories that dominated the study of societies in the mid-twenties century as it is in the social reform movements of the nineteenth century in India.

The former invoked Enlightenment’s understanding of the past and present, tradition and modernity to rank societies and to construct a model of a modern, democratic polity.


The latter drew upon the humanist liberalism of the Enlightenment and attempted to bring religion and custom in line with the principles of human reason. They subjected traditional practices to critical scrutiny and struggled to change those that violated the fundamental principles of equality and tolerance.

So strong was the impact of the Enlightenment upon these reformers that they welcomed the new ideas that came with the British rule and believed that when they ask for self-government it would be granted to them although the exploitative nature of the colonial rule is readily acknowledged today, the Enlightenment conception of individual and its faith in scientific knowledge and free enterprise continue to dominate the popular imagination even today.

The Age of Enlightenment (or simply the Enlightenment) is a term used to describe a time in Western philosophy and cultural life, centered upon the eighteenth century, in which reason was advocated as the primary source and legitimacy for authority.

Developing more or less simultaneously in Germany, France, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, and Portugal, and buoyed by the American colonists’ successful rebellion against Great Britain in the American War of Independence, the culmination of the movement spread through much of Europe, including the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Russia and Scandinavia, along with Latin America and instigating the Haitian Revolution.


It has been argued that the signatories of the American Declaration of Independence, the United States Bill of Rights, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, and the Polish-Lithuanian Constitution of May 3, 1791, were motivated by “Enlightenment” principles.

The term “Enlightenment” came into use in English during the mid-nineteenth century, with particular reference to French philosophy, as the equivalent of a term then in use by German writers, Zeitalter der Aufklarung, signifying generally the philosophical outlook of the eighteenth century.

The terminology “Enlightenment” or “Age of Enlightenment” does not represent a single movement or school of thought, for these philosophies was often mutually contradictory or divergent. The Enlightenment was less a set of ideas than it was a set of values.

At its core was a critical questioning of traditional institutions, customs, and morals. Thus, there was still a considerable degree of similarity between competing philosophies. Also, some philosophical schools of the period could not be considered part of the Enlightenment at all.

Some classifications of this period ‘also include the late seventeenth century, which is typically known as the Age of Reason or Age of Rationalism.

There is no consensus on when to date the start of the age of Enlightenment and some scholars simply use the beginning of the eighteenth century or the middle of the seventeenth century as a default date.

If taken back to the mid-1600s, the Enlightenment would trace its origins to Descartes’ Discourse on the Method, published in 1637.

Others define the Enlightenment as beginning in Britain’s Glorious Revolution of 1688 or with the publication of Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica which first appeared in 1687.

As to its end, some scholars use the French Revolution of 1789 or the beginning of the Napoleonic Wars (1804-15) as a convenient point of time with which to date the end of the Enlightenment.

Historian Peter Gay asserts the Enlightenment broke through “the sacred circle whose dogma had circumscribed thinking. The Enlightenment is held to be the source of critical ideas, such as the centrality of freedom, democracy, and reason as primary values of society.

This view argues that the establishment of a contractual basis of rights would lead to the market mechanism and capitalism, the scientific method, religious tolerance, and the organization of states into self-governing republics through democratic means. In this view, the tendency of the philosophers in particular to apply rationality to every problem is considered the essential change.

No brief summary can do justice to the diversity of enlightened thought in 18th-century Europe. Because it was a value system rather than a set of shared beliefs, there are many contradictory trains to follow a variety of 19th-century movements, including liberalism and neo-classicism, traced their intellectual heritage back to the Enlightenment.

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