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The Enlightenment (1650–1800)

History SparkNotes

Other Arenas of the Enlightenment

The German Enlightenment

The Legacy of the Enlightenment

1717 Handel writes Water Music
1758 Quesnay publishes Tableau Économique
1764 Beccaria publishes On Crimes and Punishments
1769 Watt invents improved steam engine
1776 Smith publishes Wealth of Nations
1787 Mozart writes Don Giovanni
1791 De Gouges publishes Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen
Key People
François Quesnay -  French economist; advocated less government intervention in the economy in Tableau Économique
Adam Smith -  Scottish economist; espoused hands-off government policies in favor of “invisible hand” of the economy in Wealth of Nations
Cesare Beccaria -  Italian judicial reformer; appealed for fairness in trials and punishments in On Crimes and Punishments
James Watt -  Scottish inventor who vastly improved efficiency of the steam engine, enabling development of factories
Olympe de Gouges -  French feminist and women’s rights activist; wrote landmark Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen
Johann Sebastian Bach -  German organist and composer; wrote a vast body of both sacred and secular music
George Frideric Handel -  German-English composer; won numerous court commissions and was enormously popular during his life
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart -  Austrian composer considered a musical genius and perhaps the greatest composer of all time; created remarkable body of music for orchestra, opera, and voice

Developments in Other Fields

The Enlightenment was not limited to innovations in philosophy, literature, mathematics, and science; in countries throughout Europe, it encompassed new thought and developments in a variety of other academic, artistic, and social fields. Most notable among these achievements were developments in economics, law, industrial technology, women’s rights, humanitarianism, and music.


A common complaint among intellectuals in eighteenth-century Europe was that politics was too closely tied to economics. For one, serfdom, which kept peasants bound to disadvantageous feudal contracts, was still prevalent, as was the use of tradition and class hierarchy for deciding occupations. Probably the most disadvantageous development was that of mercantilism, a much-touted economic system that encouraged governments to closely monitor their import-to-export ratio so as to maintain a favorable balance of trade. Under mercantilism, domineering governments exercised an extraordinary degree of control over their respective economies.

The impetus for change arrived when French economist François Quesnay (16941774) explained in his Tableau Économique (1758) that a natural order of trade, with limited government intervention, would be much more beneficial to both society and the individual. This idea was subsequently elaborated upon and popularized by Scottish economist Adam Smith (17231790) in his landmark Wealth of Nations (1776), which established the nature of economics in three laws: first, that people work more productively when they have self-interest; second, that competition leads to a balanced marketplace; and third, that true supply and demand are a product of free trade.

Smith’s advocacy of this laissez-faire (“hands-off”) economics, as it came to be called, was revolutionary at the time. Simply put, Smith insisted that it is when individuals are most unburdened by trade regulation that they will be most prosperous, because a free system will allow the “invisible hand” of the economy to operate. Smith’s ideas in Wealth of Nations had enormous influence on the Western world and established economics as a science. Numerous modern nations, most notably the United States, implemented Smith’s policies and benefited from considerable economic growth.


The state of European law in the eighteenth century was chaotic, as laws were not always written down and court rulings and sentences were often arbitrary and unfair. Aristocratic privilege and religious affiliation provided safeguards against prosecution, while speaking out against either of those institutions was a sure way to invite prosecution. During the Enlightenment, however, Italian scholar Cesare Beccaria (17381794) became a prominent voice in legal reform, questioning in the treatise On Crimes and Punishments (1764) how, in such an enlightened age, such atrocious legal unfairness and cruelty could go overlooked. Beccaria demanded that firm legal codes be established based on reason rather than arbitrary decisions and that trials should be open to the public to ensure fairness. In cases of guilt, punishments should be standardized and never involve torture. Beccaria’s work was highly influential, and he lived to see a number of European countries adopt his ideas. The French satirist Voltaire also contributed to the fight for legal reform, albeit using a caustic rather than scholarly voice to point out injustices.


The Industrial Revolution in the Western world in the late 1800s had its roots in Enlightenment-era Europe. Beginning in the mid-1700s, industrialization truly exploded in 1769 when Scottish inventor James Watt (17361819) substantially improved the steam engine, which enabled the development of a primitive factory system. Afterward, Europe saw the number of industry-related patents increase tenfold before 1800. The industrial boom had a number of positive effects: it attracted capitalist investors, who in turn precipitated more growth; it created jobs that provided more stability for families; and, as a result, it prompted population growth.

Industrialization was not without its downsides, however. When factories first opened, there was no industrial regulation in place. Factory smokestacks polluted the European landscape so severely that some regions have yet to recover. Poor, willing workers quickly found themselves working grueling eighteen-hour workdays, receiving unfair wages, and facing brutal disciplinary measures. Moreover, without age restrictions on work, it was frequently young children who had to endure such conditions. When workers tried to band together to form early labor unions, they were dissuaded with death threats and other forms of intimidation. Until labor unions finally grew large and well organized enough to command respect, workers had to tolerate the mistreatment.

Women’s Rights

The progressive thought of the Enlightenment also brought calls for increased women’s rights and equality. Olympe de Gouges, a writer and feminist activist in late-eighteenth-century France, solidified the movement with her 1791 Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen . An obvious stab at the French Revolution’s 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, de Gouge’s declaration called for equal rights and liberty for women, including more control over marriage.


The push for women’s rights was emblematic of the changes that were taking place in European society during the Enlightenment. Beyond heightened respect for women, the era also marked the beginning of the end for such atrocious practices as slavery and witch burning. Children, who had previously been treated essentially as miniature adults, began to enjoy more contact and affection with their parents—a shift that owed much to Rousseau’s Émile and his other Romantic writings. Jews, who had long been ignored or vilified, started to receive a warmer welcome throughout Europe as well.


Given that the Enlightenment had already reinvented pretty much every other field in existence, it’s little surprise the era also produced some of Western music’s most revered composers. Working during the late Baroque period of the early 1700s and the early Classical period of the late 1700s, these composers synthesized styles and influences in a wide range of genres of both sacred and secular music.

Johann Sebastian Bach (16851750) of Germany quickly built a reputation as a master organist but was also was an enormously prolific composer—a fact that was not entirely appreciated until after his death. His major works include the Brandenburg Concerto, his Mass in B Minor, the St. Matthew Passion, and countless other vocal and instrumental works, both for the Church and for secular purposes.

George Frideric Handel (16851759), conversely, found enormous fame as a composer during his life. Born in Germany but working primarily in England, Handel was a celebrated court composer who won numerous commissions and wrote enormously popular operas. Some of his best-known works include the Messiah, an oratorio set to biblical text, and the Water Music, a suite written for King George I and performed on the river Thames.

The major figure in music at the tail end of the Enlightenment was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (17561791), who ushered in the Classical era. A child prodigy of nearly unfathomable gifts, Mozart was composing music by age six, touring Europe by eight, and writing full-length operas by twelve. As he got older, however, he lacked the business savvy of Handel and, as a result, sometimes had trouble securing work. He worked as an underappreciated court musician for a time before going out on his own, though he remained on the verge of bankruptcy all the while. Mozart died at an early age from an undetermined ailment, though not before finishing an astonishing collection of operas, including The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and The Magic Flute. He also wrote more than forty symphonies, significant chamber music, concertos, sonatas, and sacred works and masses, including the famous Requiem.

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