What Was ‘The Enlightenment’? | History Hit

What Was ‘The Enlightenment’?

A painting of the storming of the Bastille. Many felt the French Revolution represented the realisation of the Enlightenment dream.

In simple terms, the Enlightenment was a period in history, occuring roughly between the late-16th and 18th century, that completely transformed western culture. People began to reconsider and question the long-established monarchies, religious institutions, social systems and hierachies that had dictated their way of life for so long.

Ideas of liberty, reason and religious tolerance soon traversed Europe, creating social upheaval, revolution and change – but what exactly were these changes and what did they mean for the future of humanity?


One of the earliest achievements of the Enlightenment lay in establishment of the laws of scientific investigation. There grew a realisation of the importance of scrutiny and expermientation within the field. Previously unquestioned theories were now challenged and new theories had to be proven with actual evidence. There were several chief architects of theses laws, perhaps most notably Galileo Galilei, Sir Francis Bacon and Sir Isaac Newton.


Sir Isaac Newton. Image Credit: Public Domain

Galileo was an Italian astronomer and physicist famous for his astronomical observations. He championed heliocentrism (the theory stating that the Earth and other planets in the solar system rotated around the Sun). This belief led Galileo into direct conflict with the teachings of the Church and ancient astronomers such as Aristotle amd Ptolemy, both of whom’s belief that the Earth was the centre of the Universe had been accepted for centuries.

Similarly to Galileo, Drake became known for laying down the practical methods of scientific investigation based on observation and reason as a means of reaching a logical conclusion.

Entirely innovative at the time, Bacon championed a new scientific method that involved gathering data and analyzing it by performing experiments to observe nature’s truths in an organized way. Through this approach, science could be utilized as a tool to better humankind by expanding common knowledge of the world.

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English polymath Isaac Newton was another key figure in the Scientific Revolution, best known for drawing up the famous Laws of Gravity. Like Galileo and Drake, he is often regarded as one of the father figures of modern science.

It’s thanks to figures such as Newton and Galileo that we have a scientific method to follow – one based on rationality, reason and observable fact.

Exploration and Discovery

The Age of Enlightenment most certainly corresponded with the Age of Discovery – both in geographic and scientific terms. In this period, European nations sent voyages across the world and to every corner of the globe, marking and mapping new territories they discovered and bringing back objects and fauna that could be examined back in the metropole.

Pioneers and explorers such as Sir Francis Drake and later Captain James Cook set about removing contemporary unknowns and expanding humanity’s knowledge of the world.

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Cook’s three famous expeditions were particlularly notable in that they all held the purpose of gaining knowledge and henceforth improving humanity’s capability of progress. Whether this involved attempting to work out the size of the solar system, debunking the myth of Terra Australis Incognito or searching for a potential Northwest Passage in the North Pole, the search for enlightenment lay at the foundation of the voyages and Cook’s motivation.

Cook’s trust in science was another facet of his expeditions that often gets overlooked, but is extremely important when we consider the impact of the Enlightenment.


HMS Resolution and Adventure in Tahiti, painted by William Hodges during James Cook’s second voyage in 1776. Image Credit: Public Domain

Cook trusted the scientists and astronomers he brought on board, such as Charles Green and his chief botanist Sir Joseph Banks. He truly believed that the size of the solar system could be mathematically deduced from studying the Transit of Venus, and he trusted, for example, that by providing his crew with sauerkraut, they would be less likely to suffer from vitamin deficiencies such as Scurvy.


The Age of Enlightenment caused trouble for the monarchies of Europe. As people around the world embraced the idea of life, liberty and happiness, the thought occurred that the powers that be may have been giving them a raw deal. Philosophers such as John Locke and Montesquieu advocated a system of government in which power was no longer concentrated in the hands of one man.

As a result of its Civil War in the mid-17th century, this way of thinking had already somewhat permeated throughout England. And so, while the nation chose to restore its monarchy in 1660, King Charles II first had to promise to rule in cooperation with Parliament.


The Bill of Rights being presented to William III and Mary II. Image Credit: Public Domain

28 years later, in 1688, England expelled King James II and replaced him with William of Orange in an event that became known as the Glorious Revolution. The subsequent ‘Bill of Rights’ that was drawn up in 1689 required William, the new monarch, to accede the throne with dramatically reduced powers and a duty to work very closely with Parliament.

In France the teachings of Enlightenment thinkers such as Descartes, Voltaire, Rousseau and Montesquieu had been more literally put into practice. Triggered by years of dicontent caused by frivilous spending of King Louis XVI, the nation rose up and revolted against its monarch. The French Revolution saw the removal of the crown (and his head!) followed by the establishment of a new republic.

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Similarly in America, the writings of John Locke and Charles Montesquieu had heavily influenced the founding fathers of the United States, such as Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine and George Washington, and hence their proposed philosophy of human rights in the Declaration of Independence.

Other monarchical rulers such as Frederick the Great chose to embrace the Enlightenment and actively supported artists and thinkers such as Voltaire. While he forged Prussia into a major state he set himself up as a living embodiment of Voltaire’s vision of an enlightened monarch.

Philosophy and Religion

For centuries the Catholic Church had dominated life in Europe, but now it had to watch its step. The Reformation had already eroded the power of Rome, and this new scientific and intellectual revolution presented another major challenge.

The big problem for the church was the concept of Deism, espoused by thinkers such as Voltaire and Descartes.


René Descartes was one of the most important figures of the Enlightenment. Image Credit: Public Domain

Deism was the philosophical position that rejected revelation as a source of religious knowledge and asserted that reason and observation of the natural world was sufficient to prove the existence of a Supreme Being or creator of the universe. This God did not involve himself in the day-to-day operations of the world. Instead, he had simply created the universe and left it to its own devices.

The problem for any established church was that this new ‘absentee landlord’ version of God left them less significant.

Their initial reaction, therefore, was to retaliate. They pressed governments to ban the works of influential thinkers. In the end however, despite their best efforts, the Church of Rome was forced to accept it no longer dominated the lives of individuals.

Luke Tomes