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The effects of Enlightenment thought soon permeated both European and American life, from improved women’s rights to more efficient steam engines, from fairer judicial systems to increased educational opportunities, from revolutionary economic theories to a rich array of literature and music.
These ideas, works, and principles of the Enlightenment would continue to affect Europe and the rest of the Western world for decades and even centuries to come. Nearly every theory or fact that is held in modern science has a foundation in the Enlightenment; in fact, many remain just as they were established.
Yet it is not simply the knowledge attained during the Enlightenment that makes the era so pivotal—it’s also the era’s groundbreaking and tenacious new approaches to investigation, reasoning, and problem solving that make it so important.
Never before had people been so vocal about making a difference in the world; although some may have been persecuted for their new ideas, it nevertheless became indisputable that thought had the power to incite real change. Just like calculus or free trade, the very concept of freedom of expression had to come from somewhere, and it too had firm roots in the Enlightenment.
Enlightenment: Summary of events
On the surface, the most apparent cause of the Enlightenment was the Thirty Years’ War. This horribly destructive war, which lasted from 1618 to 1648, compelled German writers to pen harsh criticisms regarding the ideas of nationalism and warfare. These authors, such as Hugo Grotius and John Comenius, were some of the first Enlightenment minds to go against tradition and propose better solutions.
At the same time, European thinkers’ interest in the tangible world developed into scientific study, while greater exploration of the world exposed Europe to other cultures and philosophies. Finally, centuries of mistreatment at the hands of monarchies and the church brought average citizens in Europe to a breaking point, and the most intelligent and vocal finally decided to speak out.
Enlightenment: Key people and terms
The Roots of the Enlightenment
Ultimately, from this slew of scientific, cultural, social, and political developments in Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries emerged three fundamental ideas that encompassed everything the Enlightenment would stand for.
>>> First among these was individualism, which emphasized the importance of the individual and his inborn rights.
>>> The second, relativism, was the concept that different cultures, beliefs, ideas, and value systems had equal merit.
>>> Finally, rationalism was the conviction that with the power of reason, humans could arrive at truth and improve the world.
These three ideas reveal the fundamental concepts that would pervade the Enlightenment—man’s ability to reason, to look past the traditions and conventions that had dominated Europe in the past, and to make decisions for himself.
The English Enlightenment
The French Enlightenment
The German Enlightenment
Other Arenas of the Enlightenment
The Legacy of the Enlightenment
The Enlightenment had an indisputably positive effect on the Western world. Scientific advances laid an indestructible foundation for modern thought, while political and other philosophies questioned and ultimately undermined oppressive, centuries-old traditions in Europe.
After several transitional decades of instability in Europe, nearly everyone in Europe—along with an entire population in the United States—walked away from the Enlightenment in a better position.
The movement resulted in greater freedom, greater opportunity, and generally more humane treatment for all individuals. Although the world still had a long way to go, and indeed still does, the Enlightenment arguably marked the first time that Western civilization truly started to become civilized.