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The Enlightenment (1650–1800)


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Another name for the German Enlightenment.


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.


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


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.

The Enlightenment (1650–1800): Popular pages