The Age of Reason: Enlightenment and Its Impact on Europe and the American Colonies

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Term to describe the trends in thought and letters in Europe and the American colonies during the 18th century before the French Revolution. The phrase was employed by writers of the period, and convinced they were emerging from centuries of darkness and ignorance into an age enlightened by reason, etc.

During Enlightenment

  • People know that through reason and progress, it will be possible to progress in knowledge, in technical achievements, and moral values.

Attempt to Supplant Aristocracy and Established Churches

  • Enlightenment thinkers aimed to supplant aristocracy and established churches in social and political life, which they viewed as reactionary, oppressive, and superstitious.

Most Enlightenment Thinkers

  • Most Enlightenment thinkers didn't renounce religion; they practiced Deism, accepting God's existence and rejecting Christian theology. They saw the Church (Roman Catholic Church) as the force that enslaved the human mind in the past.

Philosopher's Homeland: France

France was the homeland of Enlightenment philosophers. Charles de Montesquieu, a political philosopher and jurist, published satirical works against institutions (Persian Letters 1721) and his study of institutions (The Spirit of Laws 1748). Denis Diderot began the publication of the Encyclopedie (1751-1772), intended as a compilation of knowledge and a polemical weapon, with the collaboration of many philosophers.

Voltaire, an influential and representative French writer, was known for his prolific pamphlets, essays, satires, and short novels, as well as his relationship with monarchs of Europe. He popularized science and philosophy.

Jean Jacques Rousseau, known for his social contract, had a deep influence on later political and educational theory and served as an impulse to romanticism.

Enlightened Absolutism

Most European monarchs adopted ideas or vocabulary of the Enlightenment. Voltaire and other philosophers who understood the concept of a philosopher king enlightening received very well the enlightened despots: Frederick II of Prussia, Catherine II of Prussia, and Joseph II of Austria.

Enlightenment ideas were useful to rulers, including educational and judicial reform, bureaucracy, tolerance of religious dissidents, and abolition of serfdoms.

Monarchs used this movement to promote their purposes and were more despotic than enlightened.

Philosophes united in support of tolerance, the rule of law, social welfare, secular education, and in their hostility to privilege. They weren't opposed to the state.

They viewed the state as a perfect medium for the realization of their ideals, as long as the ruler respected reason and law.

In Europe and Italy, enlightened thinkers were interested in strengthening the state to do its job properly instead of limiting its power. They hated the church and nobility.

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