The Age of Enlightenment, or simply The Enlightenment, is a term used to describe a time in Western philosophy and cultural life centered upon the eighteenth century, in which reason was advocated as the primary source and legitimacy for authority.
Developing more or less simultaneously in Germany, France, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, and Portugal the movement spread through much of Europe, including the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Russia and Scandinavia as well as in America. It could be argued that the signatories of the American Declaration of Independence, the United States Bill of Rights, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, and the Polish-Lithuanian Constitution of May 3, 1791, were motivated by Enlightenment principles. Transhumanism and the use of science and technology to reach beyond human limitations can be traced back to Enlightenment principles.
The Enlightenment at its height
The enlightenment reached its height in the second half of the eighteenth century. The writers of the Enlightenment called themselves Philosophes. They were public intellectuals dedicated to solving the real problems of the world. They wrote on subjects ranging from current affairs to art criticism. Enlightenment books were snatched up quickly by their broad fan base, even when rulers or churches tried to forbid such things. The enlightenment acquired its name from 1740 to 1789, and even though it caused confrontation between the writers, the government and the churches, it gained widespread support.
The intellectual and philosophical developments of that age (and their impact in moral, social, and political reform) aspired toward more freedom for common people based on self-governance, natural rights, natural law, central emphasis on liberty, individual rights, reason, and the principles of deism. These principles were a revolutionary departure from theocracy, oligarchy, aristocracy, and the divine right of kings. The Enlightenment marks a principled departure from the Middle Ages of religious authority and censorship of ideas, towards an era of rational discourse and personal judgment, republicanism, liberalism, naturalism, scientific method, and modernity.
Use of the term
The Enlightenment does not represent a single movement or school of thought, for these philosophies were often mutually contradictory or divergent. The Enlightenment was less a set of ideas than a set of values. Its core was a critical questioning of traditional institutions, customs, and morals.
The Enlightenment is held to be the source of critical ideas, such as the centrality of freedom, democracy, and reason as primary values of society. The establishment of a contractual basis of rights would lead to the market mechanism and capitalism, the scientific method, religious tolerance, and the organization of states into self-governing republics through democracy. The tendency of philosophy in particular to apply rationality to every problem was the essential change. From this point on, thinkers and writers were held to be free to pursue the truth in whatever form, without the threat of sanction for violating established ideas.