The Dawn of Reason – The Beginnings of the Enlightenment

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At the end of the 17th century a new way of thinking emerged based on philosophical and scientific concepts. We now call this time the Enlightenment or the Age of Reason.

When did it begin?

The beginning of the Enlightenment is a matter of some debate. Most see it as spanning the time between the end of the Renaissance and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, from the mid-1600s to the late 18th century.

However, the timescale is not all that important – what really matters is the thinking and radical ideas behind it. This was a time when Europe embraced a new age of reason, rational debate and scientific discovery.

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For centuries everyday life had been highly-influenced by several major authorities, especially the Church. People believed the Bible was the true and absolute word of God, that humans had been around for only a few thousand years, that Adam and Eve both existed and that the universe revolved around the Earth.

Many also believed in magic and the supernatural, leading to some of the most infamous witch trials in history during the 17th century.

What changed?

Isaac Newton laid down the principles of modern science.

New ideas and new ways of thinking slowly began to spread throughout Europe and the invention of the printing press helped these ideas spread.

In Italy the likes of Michael Angelo, Brunelleschi, and Leonardo Da Vinci sparked a revolution in cultural and artistic expression, while scientists such as Giordano Bruno and Galileo Galilei made discoveries which directly contravened established teachings of the Church.

In England, Civil War and the execution of the King had seen an explosion of new ideas. For a decade during the 1650s, England had been a commonwealth and radical new democratic ideas began to flood around the country.

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The environment was therefore ripe for change and enabled the likes of Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton to lay down the frameworks of rational thought and scientific endeavour that would shape the Enlightenment.

Across the Channel in France the atmosphere was less conducive. Here absolutist monarchy reigned supreme, with free thinking fiercely controlled by the government. Even so, Paris was a hotbed of radical ideas.

One of the pioneers of this time was the mathematician Rene Descartes. He proposed a massively overhauled version of the world – one created by a master ‘clock-maker’ or all powerful God.

Descartes believed God had built this perfect world and then left it to develop on its own. Truth, therefore, would come from observation and investigation rather than slavish devotion to the Church.

A portrait of Descartes by Frans Hals, 1648.

Widespread ramifications

Such thinking naturally flew in the face of the establishment. These new thinkers retained their religious devotion, but increasingly saw the Catholic Church as their natural enemy – a force which had enslaved mankind.

Governments too came under threat as Enlightenment thinking spread across Europe and into the New World where it underpinned first the American and then French Revolution.

It is difficult to find a single date when the Enlightenment began. It was, instead, a phenomenon which grew out of the Renaissance and built on developments centuries in the making.

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