The Enlightenment: 17th - 18th century AD

The term Enlightenment, applied to ideas which develop during the 17th century and are most clearly expressed by the 18th-century French philosophes, describes a tendency to make reason the guiding principle of life. This is accompanied by a conviction that the application of reason will guarantee progress in all aspects of human existence.

In one sense this is yet another wave of reaction against the Middle ages, when faith and authority are the prevailing themes. More positively it is an offshoot of 17th-century science (the discoveries of Galileo and Newton being based on rational assessment of material evidence) and philosophy (following the example of thinkers such as Descartes).

The Enlightenment has faith in a natural order. Galileo and Newton have revealed the mechanics of the universe. These marvels of ethereal clockwork are taken by the Deists (the rational Christians of the day) as evidence of the genius of a rational creator.

By the same token it is assumed that there is a natural structure for human society, in which individuals have both freedom and rights. The injustices visible everywhere in the world are seen as the result of corrupt and superstitious institutions, imposed by unenlightened priests and kings. But human resolution can transform the political scene, as is made evident in the confident assertions of the American Declaration of independence.

It is an article of faith that in a rational society the people will choose what is good for them. The Enlightenment abounds in educational theories to speed up the spread of reason.

But the education of the people must inevitably be a long process. This practical problem is taken as justifying one slightly paradoxical aspect of the Enlightenment - the acceptance of the enlightened despot, the all-powerful ruler who disregards the short-term wishes of his subjects and enacts, for their own good, often unpopular measures of social improvement. There are many such rulers in the last decades of the 18th century, Frederick the great in Prussia being merely an early and outstanding example.

The passion of the Enlightenment for the improvement and reform of society makes it an important element of the climate of opinion which prevails in the early stages of the French revolution (and survives today in the ideals of the social services of democratic nations).

But such principles contain their own flaws. The Enlightenment's optimism can be a recipe for disappointment and is easily mocked (as by Voltaire himself in candide). And too much reason is dry fare. People crave something more emotionally nourishing. This is provided in religious terms by the 18th-century Revivalists. And the need to listen to the emotions is forcefully expressed by a child of the French Enlightenment, Jean-Jacques Rousseau.