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The Enlightenment (1650–1800)

History SparkNotes

Key People & Terms

Summary of Events

The Roots of the Enlightenment

People

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)

An enormously influential German composer who rose to prominence in the early 1700s. Best known by his contemporaries as an organist, Bach also wrote an enormous body of both sacred and secular music that synthesized a variety of styles and in turn influenced countless later composers.

Francis Bacon (1561–1626)

An English philosopher and statesman who developed the inductive method or Baconian method of scientific investigation, which stresses observation and reasoning as a means for coming to general conclusions. Bacon’s work influenced his later contemporary René Descartes.

Cesare Beccaria (1738–1794)

An Italian politician who ventured into philosophy to protest the horrible injustices that he observed in various European judicial systems. Beccaria’s book On Crimes and Punishments (1764) exposed these practices and led to the abolition of many.

John Comenius (1592–1670)

A Czech educational and social reformer who, in response to the Thirty Years’ War, made the bold move of challenging the necessity of war in the first place. Comenius stressed tolerance and education as alternatives for war, which were revolutionary concepts at the time.

René Descartes (1596–1650)

A French philosopher and scientist who revolutionized algebra and geometry and made the famous philosophical statement “I think, therefore I am.” Descartes developed a deductive approach to philosophy using math and logic that still remains a standard for problem solving.

Denis Diderot (1713–1784)

A French scholar who was the primary editor of the Encyclopédie, a massive thirty-five-volume compilation of human knowledge in the arts and sciences, along with commentary from a number of Enlightenment thinkers. The Encyclopédie became a prominent symbol of the Enlightenment and helped spread the movement throughout Europe.

Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790)

American thinker, diplomat, and inventor who traveled frequently between the American colonies and Europe during the Enlightenment and facilitated an exchange of ideas between them. Franklin exerted profound influence on the formation of the new government of the United States, with a hand in both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832)

A German author who wrote near the end of the Aufklärung, the German Enlightenment. Goethe’s morose The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) helped fuel the Sturm und Drang movement, and his two-part Faust (1808, 1832) is seen as one of the landmarks of Western literature.

Olympe de Gouges (1748–1793)

A French feminist and reformer in the waning years of the Enlightenment who articulated the rights of women with her Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen (1791).

Hugo Grotius (1583–1645)

A Dutch scholar who, like Czech John Comenius, lived during the Thirty Years’ War and felt compelled to write in response to it. The result, a treatise on war and international relations titled On the Law of War and Peace (1625), eventually became accepted as the basis for the rules of modern warfare.

George Frideric Handel (1685–1759)

A German-English composer of the late Baroque period whose Messiah remains one of the best-known pieces of music in the world. Handel was an active court composer, receiving commissions from such notables as King George I of England, for whom his Water Music suite was written and performed.

Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679)

A philosopher and political theorist whose 1651 treatise Leviathan effectively kicked off the English Enlightenment. The controversial Leviathan detailed Hobbes’s theory that all humans are inherently self-driven and evil and that the best form of government is thus a single, all-powerful monarch to keep everything in order.

David Hume (1711–1776)

A Scottish philosopher and one of the most prominent figures in the field of skepticism during the Enlightenment. Hume took religion to task, asking why a perfect God would ever create an imperfect world, and even suggested that our own senses are fallible, bringing all observations and truths into question. Hume’s skepticism proved very influential to others, such as Immanuel Kant, and was instrumental in the shift away from rationalist thought that ended the Enlightenment.

Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826)

American thinker and politician who penned the Declaration of Independence (1776), which was inspired directly by Enlightenment thought.

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804)

A German skeptic philosopher who built on David Hume’s theories and brought the school of thought to an even higher level. Kant theorized that all humans are born with innate “experiences” that then reflect onto the world, giving them a perspective. Thus, since no one actually knows what other people see, the idea of “reasoning” is not valid. Kant’s philosophies applied the brakes to the Enlightenment, effectively denouncing reason as an invalid approach to thought.

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716)

Generally considered the founder of the Aufklärung, or German Enlightenment, who injected a bit of spirituality into the Enlightenment with writings regarding God and his perfect, harmonious world. Also a scientist who shared credit for the discovery of calculus, Leibniz hated the idea of relying on empirical evidence in the world. Instead, he developed a theory that the universe consists of metaphysical building blocks he called monads.

John Locke (1632–1704)

An English political theorist who focused on the structure of governments. Locke believed that men are all rational and capable people but must compromise some of their beliefs in the interest of forming a government for the people. In his famous Two Treatises of Government (1690), he championed the idea of a representative government that would best serve all constituents.

Baron de Montesquieu (1689–1755)

The foremost French political thinker of the Enlightenment, whose most influential book, The Spirit of Laws, expanded John Locke’s political study and incorporated the ideas of a division of state and separation of powers. Montesquieu’s work also ventured into sociology: he spent a considerable amount of time researching various cultures and their climates, ultimately deducing that climate is a major factor in determining the type of government a given country should have.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)

A genius Austrian composer who began his career as a child prodigy and authored some of the most renowned operas and symphonies in history. Mozart’s music has never been surpassed in its blend of technique and emotional breadth, and his musical genius places him in a category with a select few other composers.

Sir Isaac Newton (1642–1727)

An English scholar and mathematician regarded as the father of physical science. Newton’s discoveries anchored the Scientific Revolution and set the stage for everything that followed in mathematics and physics. He shared credit for the creation of calculus, and his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica introduced the world to gravity and fundamental laws of motion.

Thomas Paine (1737–1809)

English-American political writer whose pamphlet Common Sense (1776) argued that the British colonies in America should rebel against the Crown. Paine’s work had profound influence on public sentiment during the American Revolution, which had begun just months earlier.

François Quesnay (1694–1774)

A French economist whose Tableau Économique (1758) argued against government intervention in the economy and inspired Scottish economist Adam Smith’s seminal Wealth of Nations (1776).

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778)

An eclectic Swiss-French thinker who brought his own approach to the Enlightenment, believing that man was at his best when unshackled by the conventions of society. Rousseau’s epic The Social Contract (1762) conceived of a system of direct democracy in which all citizens contribute to an overarching “general will” that serves everyone at once. Later in his life, Rousseau released Confessions (1789), which brought a previously unheard-of degree of personal disclosure to the genre of autobiography. The frank personal revelations and emotional discussions were a major cause for the shift toward Romanticism.

Adam Smith (1723–1790)

An influential Scottish economist who objected to the stifling mercantilist systems that were in place during the late eighteenth century. In response, Smith wrote the seminal Wealth of Nations (1776), a dissertation criticizing mercantilism and describing the many merits of a free trade system.

Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677)

A Dutch-Jewish lens grinder who questioned tenets of Judaism and Christianity, which helped undermine religious authority in Europe. Although Spinoza personally believed in God, he rejected the concept of miracles, the religious supernatural, and the idea that the Bible was divinely inspired. Rather, he believed that ethics determined by rational thought were more important as a guide to conduct than was religion.

Voltaire (1694–1778)

A French writer and the primary satirist of the Enlightenment, who criticized religion and leading philosophies of the time. Voltaire’s numerous plays and essays frequently advocated freedom from the ploys of religion, while Candide (1759), the most notable of his works, conveyed his criticisms of optimism and superstition into a neat package.

Terms

Aufklärung

Another name for the German Enlightenment.

Deism

A system of faith to which many of the French philosophes and other Enlightenment thinkers subscribed. Deists believed in an all-powerful God but viewed him as a “cosmic watchmaker” who created the universe and set it in autonomous motion and then never again tampered with it. Deists also shunned organized religion, especially Church doctrines about eternal damnation and a “natural” hierarchy of existence.

Enlightened Absolutism

A trend in European governments during the later part of the Enlightenment, in which a number of absolute monarchs adopted Enlightenment-inspired reforms yet retained a firm grip on power. Frederick the Great of Prussia, Maria-Theresa and Joseph II of Austria, Charles III of Spain, and Catherine the Great of Russia are often counted among these “enlightened despots.”

French Revolution

A revolution in France that overthrew the monarchy and is often cited as the end of the Enlightenment. The French Revolution began in 1789 when King Louis XVI convened the legislature in an attempt to solve France’s monumental financial woes. Instead, the massive middle class revolted and set up its own government. Although this new government was effective for a few years, internal dissent grew and power switched hands repeatedly, until France plunged into the brutally violent Reign of Terror of 17931794.Critics saw this violence as a direct result of Enlightenment thought and as evidence that the masses were not fit to govern themselves.

Glorious Revolution

The name given to the bloodless coup d’état in England in 1688, which saw the Catholic monarch, King James II, removed from the throne and replaced by the Protestants William and Mary. The new monarchs not only changed the religious course of England and the idea of divine right but also allowed the additional personal liberties necessary for the Enlightenment to truly flourish.

Individualism

One of the cornerstones of the Enlightenment, a philosophy stressing the recognition of every person as a valuable individual with inalienable, inborn rights.

Mercantilism

The economic belief that a favorable balance of trade—that is, more exports than imports—would yield more gold and silver, and thus overall wealth and power, for a country. Governments tended to monitor and meddle with their mercantilist systems closely, which Scottish economist Adam Smith denounced as bad economic practice in his Wealth of Nations.

Philosophes

The general term for those academics and intellectuals who became the leading voices of the French Enlightenment during the eighteenth century. Notable philosophes included Voltaire, the Baron de Montesquieu, and Denis Diderot.

Rationalism

Arguably the foundation of the Enlightenment, the belief that, by using the power of reason, humans could arrive at truth and improve human life.

Relativism

Another fundamental philosophy of the Enlightenment, which declared that different ideas, cultures, and beliefs had equal merit. Relativism developed in reaction to the age of exploration, which increased European exposure to a variety of peoples and cultures across the world.

Romanticism

A movement that surfaced near the end of the Enlightenment that placed emphasis on innate emotions and instincts rather than reason, as well as on the virtues of existing in a natural state. Writers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe both contributed greatly to the development of Romanticism.

Salons

Gathering places for wealthy, intellectually minded elites during the years during and prior to the Enlightenment. The salons typically held weekly meetings where upper-class citizens gathered to discuss the political and social theories of the day.

Scientific Revolution

A gradual development of thought and approaches to the study of the universe that took place from approximately 1500 to 1700 and paved the way for the Enlightenment. Coming from humble beginnings with basic observations, the Scientific Revolution grew to a fever pitch when scientists such as Galileo Galilei, René Descartes, and Johannes Kepler entered the scene and essentially rewrote history, disproving Church doctrines, explaining religious “miracles,” and setting the world straight on all sorts of scientific principles. The result was not only new human knowledge but also a new perspective on the acquisition of knowledge, such as the scientific method.

Separation of Power

A political idea, developed by John Locke and the Baron de Montesquieu, that power in government should be divided into separate branches—typically legislative, judicial, and executive—in order to ensure that no one branch of a governing body can gain too much authority.

Skepticism

A philosophical movement that emerged in response to rationalism and maintained that human perception is too relative to be considered credible. David Hume brought skepticism into the spotlight by suggesting that human perceptions cannot be trusted, and then Immanuel Kant elevated the field when he proposed that humans are born with innate “experiences” that give shape to their own, individual worlds.

Social Contract

An idea in political philosophy, generally associated with John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, stating that a government and its subjects enter into an implicit contract when that government takes power. In exchange for ceding some freedoms to the government and its established laws, the subjects expect and demand mutual protection. The government’s authority, meanwhile, lies only in the consent of the governed.

Sturm und Drang

Literally meaning “storm and stress,” the name given to an undercurrent of the German Enlightenment during which German youths expressed their angst by rebelling against the pleasant optimism of the time. Influenced partly by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, participants in the Sturm und Drang movement harbored a depressed, more archaic idealism. Though it revealed a decided one-sidedness of the German Enlightenment, the movement did not sustain itself for very long.

Thirty Years’ War

A brutal, destructive conflict in Germany between 1618 and 1648. The Thirty Years’ War began when Bohemian Protestants revolted out of a refusal to be ruled by a Catholic king. The battle would eventually spread throughout Germany and involve many other countries on both sides, resulting in the death of nearly a third of the German population and unfathomable destruction. Enlightenment thinkers such as John Comenius and Hugo Grotius reacted against the war with treatises about education, international relations, and the nature of war itself.

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