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What Was the Enlightenment? A Historian‘s Perspective

The Enlightenment was a transformative intellectual and cultural movement that swept through Europe and the Atlantic world in the 17th and 18th centuries. At its core, the Enlightenment was a philosophical project that sought to liberate human reason from the constraints of tradition, religion, and superstition. Enlightenment thinkers aimed to apply the tools of rational inquiry and scientific method to every aspect of human life, from politics and economics to art and education.

Historical Context

To understand the origins and significance of the Enlightenment, we must situate it within the broader historical context of early modern Europe. In the centuries leading up to the Enlightenment, Europe underwent a series of profound social, economic, and political transformations, including:

  • The Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, which challenged traditional authorities like the Church and Aristotelian philosophy in favor of empirical observation and mathematical reasoning. Pioneers like Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton overturned ancient models of the cosmos and laid the foundations for modern science.

  • The growth of global trade and the rise of a new merchant class, fueled by the colonization of the Americas, the Atlantic slave trade, and the establishment of joint-stock companies like the Dutch and British East India Companies. This commercial expansion undermined the traditional land-based aristocracy and gave rise to new forms of wealth and power.

  • The decline of feudalism and the rise of centralized nation-states, as monarchs like Louis XIV of France and Frederick the Great of Prussia consolidated their authority and built up professional bureaucracies and standing armies. This process of state formation was accompanied by the growth of nationalism and the idea of the sovereign state.

  • The Protestant Reformation and the wars of religion, which shattered the unity of Western Christendom and gave rise to new forms of religious diversity and conflict. The spread of Protestantism also encouraged literacy and individual interpretation of the Bible, paving the way for the Enlightenment ideal of free inquiry.

  • The influence of the printing press and the spread of literacy, which made books and pamphlets more widely available and created new spaces for public debate and discussion, such as coffeehouses and salons. By the 18th century, a vibrant "public sphere" had emerged in which ordinary citizens could participate in intellectual and political life.

Against this backdrop, the Enlightenment emerged as a powerful intellectual current that sought to apply the methods of reason and science to the problems of human society. Its leading thinkers came from diverse backgrounds and nationalities, but they shared a common commitment to the power of human reason and the possibility of progress.

Key Thinkers and Ideas

At the heart of the Enlightenment were a group of philosophers, scientists, and writers who challenged traditional authority and advocated for new ways of thinking about the world. Some of the most influential figures of the Enlightenment include:

  • John Locke (1632-1704), an English philosopher whose "Two Treatises of Government" (1689) argued for the natural rights of life, liberty, and property, and the idea that governments derive their legitimacy from the consent of the governed. Locke‘s ideas had a profound impact on the American and French Revolutions and the development of modern liberal democracy.

  • Voltaire (1694-1778), a French writer and satirist who was a fierce critic of religious intolerance, censorship, and absolutism. Voltaire‘s works, such as "Candide" (1759) and "Treatise on Tolerance" (1763), championed freedom of thought and expression, and helped to popularize Enlightenment ideas among a wide audience.

  • Montesquieu (1689-1755), a French political philosopher whose "The Spirit of the Laws" (1748) advocated for the separation of powers and a system of checks and balances to prevent tyranny. Montesquieu‘s ideas influenced the framers of the US Constitution and the development of constitutional government around the world.

  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), a Swiss-born philosopher whose "Discourse on Inequality" (1755) and "The Social Contract" (1762) argued that the original state of nature was one of equality and freedom, and that the legitimacy of government rests on the general will of the people. Rousseau‘s ideas inspired the French Revolution and the romantic movement.

  • Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), a German philosopher who defined the Enlightenment as "the liberation from self-imposed immaturity" and argued that reason was the foundation of morality and knowledge. Kant‘s "Critique of Pure Reason" (1781) and other works had a lasting impact on Western philosophy and the development of modern ethics.

  • Adam Smith (1723-1790), a Scottish economist and philosopher whose "The Wealth of Nations" (1776) laid the foundations for classical liberal economics and the theory of free markets. Smith argued that individuals pursuing their own self-interest could, through the "invisible hand" of the market, promote the greater good of society.

These thinkers, along with many others, helped to shape the core ideas and values of the Enlightenment, including:

  • The primacy of reason and science over tradition and superstition
  • The natural rights of individuals to life, liberty, and property
  • The social contract theory of government based on the consent of the governed
  • The separation of powers and checks and balances in government
  • Freedom of thought, expression, and religion
  • The idea of progress and the possibility of improving human society through reason and education
  • The value of tolerance, cosmopolitanism, and cross-cultural exchange

While the Enlightenment was not a monolithic or unified movement, these core ideas and values formed a common language and framework that shaped intellectual and political life in the 18th century and beyond.

Impact and Legacy

The impact of the Enlightenment was felt across a wide range of fields and disciplines, from science and medicine to politics and the arts. Some of the most significant impacts include:

  • The development of modern medicine and public health, as Enlightenment thinkers like Edward Jenner and John Snow applied scientific methods to the study of disease and pioneered new techniques like vaccination and epidemiology. The Enlightenment also saw the establishment of modern hospitals, clinics, and medical schools.

  • The rise of abolitionism and the campaigns against slavery, as Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke and Antoine-Nicolas de Condorcet argued for the natural rights and equality of all human beings. The Enlightenment helped to inspire the Haitian Revolution, the first successful slave revolt in history, and the gradual abolition of slavery in the Atlantic world.

  • The emergence of modern feminism and the push for women‘s rights, as Enlightenment thinkers like Mary Wollstonecraft and Olympe de Gouges challenged the patriarchal assumptions of their time and argued for the education and emancipation of women. The Enlightenment also saw the growth of female literary and intellectual circles, such as the salons of Paris.

  • The influence on literature, music, and the arts, as Enlightenment ideas of reason, progress, and individual expression shaped the work of writers like Voltaire and Goethe, composers like Bach and Mozart, and artists like David and Goya. The Enlightenment also saw the rise of public museums, libraries, and cultural institutions.

  • The development of modern universities and systems of education, as Enlightenment thinkers emphasized the importance of reason, science, and critical thinking in the curriculum. The Enlightenment saw the establishment of new institutions like the École Polytechnique in France and the University of Göttingen in Germany, which became models for modern research universities.

Beyond Europe and North America, Enlightenment ideas also had a profound impact on the rest of the world. In Latin America, thinkers like Simón Bolívar and Andrés Bello drew on Enlightenment ideas to justify their struggles for independence and the creation of new republican governments. In Asia, Enlightenment ideas were selectively adopted and adapted by reformist thinkers like Fukuzawa Yukichi in Japan and Kang Youwei in China, who sought to modernize their societies while preserving traditional values. In the Islamic world, thinkers like Rifa‘a al-Tahtawi and Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani engaged with Enlightenment ideas in their efforts to reconcile Islam with modernity and resist European colonialism.

However, the Enlightenment was not without its critics and limitations. Some traditionalists and conservatives opposed the Enlightenment as a threat to social order and religious faith, while others criticized its emphasis on reason and individualism as neglecting the importance of emotion, tradition, and community. In the 19th century, the Romantic movement arose as a reaction against the Enlightenment‘s perceived coldness and hubrism, emphasizing instead the value of passion, imagination, and national spirit.

More recently, postcolonial and critical theorists have challenged the Enlightenment‘s claims to universalism and progress, arguing that its ideals of reason, liberty, and equality were often used to justify European imperialism, slavery, and cultural supremacy. Thinkers like Edward Said and Gayatri Spivak have argued that the Enlightenment was not a purely emancipatory project, but also a form of cultural hegemony that marginalized and excluded non-European peoples and ways of knowing.

Despite these criticisms, the Enlightenment remains one of the most significant and influential intellectual movements in human history. Its ideas and values continue to shape modern politics, culture, and society, from the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights to the scientific method to the ideal of liberal democracy. As historian David Hollinger has argued, the Enlightenment "provided the philosophical foundations for the modern world, and its legacy is still with us today, even as we continue to debate its meaning and implications."


The Enlightenment was a complex and multifaceted movement that defies easy summary or characterization. At its core, it was a philosophical project that sought to apply the tools of reason and science to every aspect of human life, from politics and economics to art and education. Enlightenment thinkers challenged traditional authorities and ways of thinking, and advocated for new ideas of individual rights, social progress, and human emancipation.

While the Enlightenment had its limitations and critics, its impact on the modern world is undeniable. From the American and French Revolutions to the rise of modern science and medicine to the growth of global trade and communication, the Enlightenment helped to shape the institutions, values, and ways of thinking that define our world today.

As historians, our task is not to uncritically celebrate or condemn the Enlightenment, but to understand it in all its complexity and contradictions. By studying the ideas, contexts, and legacies of the Enlightenment, we can gain a deeper appreciation for the ways in which the past continues to shape the present, and the ongoing struggles for reason, justice, and human flourishing that define our common humanity.


  • Bristow, William. "Enlightenment." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University, August 29, 2017.
  • Dupré, Louis. The Enlightenment and the Intellectual Foundations of Modern Culture. Yale University Press, 2004.
  • Gay, Peter. The Enlightenment: An Interpretation. W.W. Norton & Company, 1996.
  • Hollinger, David A. "The Enlightenment and the Genealogy of Cultural Conflict in the United States." In What‘s Left of Enlightenment?: A Postmodern Question, edited by Keith Michael Baker and Peter Hanns Reill, 7-18. Stanford University Press, 2001.
  • Israel, Jonathan I. Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750. Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Outram, Dorinda. The Enlightenment. Cambridge University Press, 2019.
  • Pagden, Anthony. The Enlightenment: And Why It Still Matters. Random House, 2013.
  • Porter, Roy. The Enlightenment. Palgrave Macmillan, 2001.

Data and Statistics:

  • Literacy rates in Europe increased from around 20% in 1600 to over 50% by 1800, with even higher rates in cities like Paris and London (Outram, 2019).
  • The number of books published in Europe grew exponentially during the Enlightenment, from around 1,000 titles per year in the early 17th century to over 10,000 titles per year by the late 18th century (Porter, 2001).
  • The population of Europe grew from around 100 million in 1700 to over 200 million by 1800, driven by improvements in agriculture, trade, and public health (Gay, 1996).
  • The share of the European population living in cities grew from around 10% in 1700 to over 20% by 1800, reflecting the growth of commerce, industry, and cultural life (Israel, 2001).
  • The Atlantic slave trade reached its peak during the Enlightenment, with over 6 million Africans transported to the Americas between 1700 and 1800 (Pagden, 2013).