The Legacy of the Scientific Revolution

During the Scientific Revolution, physics, philosophy, earth science, astronomy, and mathematics all experienced bold new innovation. Even more significant, the methods of scientific exploration were refined. The thinkers of the Scientific Revolution generated the concepts of inductive and deductive reasoning, as well as the general observe-hypothesize-experiment methodology known as the scientific method. Ultimately, these movements yielded the work of Newton, who is considered one of the most influential scientists of all time. His approach to the world encouraged observation and the realization not of causes but of effects. Just as important, Newton showed that scientific thought and methods could be applied to nonscientific topics—a development that paved the way for numerous later thinkers of the Enlightenment.

Exploration and Imperialism

In addition to these scientific milestones, political and cultural change was taking place in Europe as the result of exploration and the extension of overseas empires, especially in the Americas. In addition to the brand-new discovery of America, European explorers also used new transportation technologies to explore already-known locales in Africa and Asia in greater depth than ever before.

As these explorers returned from across the world with stories of peoples and cultures never previously known, Europeans were introduced to drastically different lifestyles and beliefs. Some explorers brought foreign visitors to Europe, which introduced common people—who wouldn’t otherwise be able to travel—to these foreign influences. The Orient especially mystified Europeans: its religions, familial relationships, and scientific discoveries astounded Westerners to such a degree that the emulation of Chinese culture briefly came into fashion. All in all, this worldlier perspective provided Enlightenment-era thinkers with the inspiration and impetus for change.

The Declining Influence of the Church

Yet another major change in the lives of Europeans prior to the Enlightenment was the weakening of adherence to traditional religious authority. The questioning of religion itself can largely be traced to the tensions created by the Protestant Reformation, which split the Catholic Church and opened new territory for theological debate. Additional seeds were planted by Baruch Spinoza (16321677), a Jewish lens grinder and philosopher from Amsterdam who developed a philosophy emphasizing ethical thought as the guide to conduct. Spinoza called into question the tenets of both Judaism and Christianity: he believed in God but denied that the Bible was divinely inspired and rejected the concept of miracles and the religious supernatural. He claimed that ethics determined by rational thought were more important as a guide to conduct than was religion.

As other seventeenth-century thinkers similarly questioned the authority of organized religion, it became much more common in European intellectual circles to put the concepts of religious belief to question. Although the Church’s influence still remained strong, especially among the lower classes, the ideas of Spinoza combined with the new discoveries of the Scientific Revolution threatened the supremacy of Church doctrine considerably. Most devastating was the philosophical approach many scientists were taking, which often led to conclusions that God either did not exist or at least did not play much of a role in daily life.

Moreover, these advances in thought coincided with anti-church and government sentiment that was already growing among European commoners. The Catholic Church at the time was famously corrupt, and it often ruled using intimidation, fear, and false knowledge and was violently intolerant toward dissenters and heretics. Subsequently, when Enlightenment philosophers came along praising liberty and self-empowerment, they found willing ears.

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