A brief summary about ‘The Age of Reason’









The term “Enlightenment” refers to a loosely organized intellectual movement, secular, rationalist, liberal, and egalitarian in outlook and values, which flourished in the middle decades of the eighteenth century. The name was self-bestowed, and the terminology of darkness and light was identical in the major European languages—”Enlightenment” for English speakers, siècle des lumières in France, illuminismo in Italy, Aufklärung for Germans and Austrians. Although it was international in scope, the center of gravity of the movement was in France, which assumed an unprecedented leadership in European intellectual life. Emblematically, the single most famous publication of the Enlightenment was the French Encyclopédie, ou, Dictionnaire raisoné des sciences, des arts, et des métiers (1751–1772; Encyclopedia, or, Rational dictionary of the sciences, arts, and professions), a massive compendium of theoretical and practical knowledge edited in Paris by Jean Le Rond d’Alembert and Denis Diderot. The cosmopolitanism of the Enlightenment was genuine, however. It was a German admirer of d’Alembert and Diderot, Immanuel Kant, who produced the most enduring definition of the movement. In a famous essay of 1784, Kant defined enlightenment as “emancipation from self-incurred tutelage” and declared that its motto should be sapere aude —”dare to know.” Writers and thinkers associated with the Enlightenment were certainly capable of profound disagreement among themselves. But the common aspiration defined by Kant—knowledge as liberation—is what permits us to see a unified movement amid much diversity.


In a long-term perspective, the Enlightenment can be regarded as the third and last phase of the cumulative process by which European thought and intellectual life was “modernized” in the course of the early modern period. Its relation to the two earlier stages in this process—Renaissance and Reformation—was paradoxical. In a sense, the Enlightenment represented both their fulfillment and their cancellation. As the neoclassical architecture and republican politics of the late eighteenth century remind us, respect and admiration for classical antiquity persisted throughout the period. Yet the Enlightenment was clearly the moment at which the spell of the Renaissance—the conviction of the absolute superiority of ancient over modern civilization—was broken once and for all in the West. The Enlightenment revolt against the intellectual and cultural authority of Christianity was even more dramatic. In effect, the Protestant critique of the Catholic church—condemned for exploitation of its charges by means of ideological delusion—was extended to Christianity, even religion itself. At the deepest level, this is what Kant meant by “emancipation from self-incurred tutelage”: the Enlightenment marked the moment at which the two most powerful sources of intellectual authority in Europe, Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian, were decisively overthrown, at least for a vanguard of educated Europeans.

What made this intellectual liberation possible? The major thinkers of the Enlightenment were in fact very clear about the proximate origins of their own ideas, which they almost invariably traced to the works of a set of pioneers or founders from the mid-seventeenth century. First and foremost among these were figures now associated with the “scientific revolution”—above all, the English physicist Isaac Newton, who became the object of a great cult of veneration in the eighteenth century. Hardly less important were thinkers who are more typically classified as “philosophers” today, including the major figures of both the rationalist and the empiricist traditions—René Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz on the one hand, Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke on the other. Similarly honored were the founders of modern “natural rights” theory in political thought—Hugo Grotius, Hobbes, Locke, and Samuel Pufendorf. These thinkers did not see themselves as engaged in a common enterprise as did their successors in the Enlightenment. What they did share, however, was the sheer novelty of their ideas—the willingness to depart from tradition in one domain of thought after another. Nor is it an accident that this roster is dominated by Dutch and English names or careers. For the United Provinces and England were the two major states in which divine-right absolutism had been successfully defeated or overthrown in Europe. If the ideological idiom of the Dutch Revolt (1568–1648) and the English Revolutions (1640–1660, 1688) remained primarily religious, their success made possible a degree of freedom of thought and expression enjoyed nowhere else in Europe. The result was to lay the intellectual foundations for the Enlightenment, which can be defined as the process by which the most advanced thought of the seventeenth century was popularized and disseminated in the course of the eighteenth.


Logically enough, having supplied the great pioneers and precursors in the seventeenth century, neither the United Provinces nor England were to play a dominant role in the Enlightenment itself. What these countries did provide, however, was the indispensable staging ground for the central practical business of the movement, the publication of books. For most of the century, Amsterdam and London—together with the city-states of another zone of relative freedom, Switzerland—were home to the chief publishers of the Enlightenment, many of whom specialized in the printing of books for clandestine circulation in France.

For France was the leading producer and consumer of “enlightened” literature in the eighteenth century, occupying a dominant position in the movement comparable to that of Italy in the Renaissance or Germany in the Reformation. The reasons for this centrality lie in the unique position of France within the larger set of European nations at the end of the seventeenth century. At the end of the long reign of Louis XIV in 1715, Catholic France remained by far the most powerful absolute monarchy in Europe—yet one whose geopolitical ambitions had clearly been thwarted by the rise of two smaller, post-absolutist Protestant states, the United Provinces and Great Britain. The remote origins of the French Enlightenment can be traced precisely to the moment that the sense of having been overtaken by Dutch and English rivals became palpable. The key transitional work, the French Protestant Pierre Bayle’s Dictionnaire historique et critique (Critical and historical dictionary), was published from Dutch exile in 1697. As the Enlightenment unfolded in France, the promptings of international rivalry remained central. The major texts of its early phase, Charles-Louis de Secondat de Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes (1721; Persian letters) and Voltaire’s Lettres philosophiques (1734; Philosophical letters) both held up a critical mirror to what was now theorized as “despotism” in France—an imaginary Muslim one in the case of the first, a very real English mirror in the second. The critical edge of the Encyclopédie, the collective enterprise that defined and dominated the French Enlightenment at its peak, came from a still more urgent sense that intellectual modernization was a matter of national priority—demonstrated dramatically, indeed, by the magnitude of French defeat in the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763). The last years of the French Enlightenment saw the emergence of a distinctive school of political economy, whose conscious purpose was to find means of restoring the economic and political fortunes of France, in the face of British competition.

By this point, the example of the French Enlightenment had long since inspired or provoked a sequence of other national “enlightenments,” according to a similar dynamic of international rivalry and influence. Second only to France in terms of its contribution to the Enlightenment was its perennial ally in political and cultural contention with England: Scotland—which, in fact, had been absorbed into political union with England in 1707. The first major thinker of the Scottish Enlightenment was David Hume, whose precocious Treatise of Human Nature was published in 1740. Hume’s subsequent turn to history and politics paved the way for the works of Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, and John Millar in the 1760s and 1770s, which gave birth to modern economics and historical sociology—and whose common focus was precisely the issue of economic and social development across time. Italy, not surprisingly, as another zone of French influence, produced not a “national” but a great flowering of local “enlightenments,” the most important being the Milanese and the Neapolitan, both specializing in juridical thought and reform.

Beyond this western European core, the Enlightenment spread, in the second half of the century, to the western and eastern peripheries of European civilization. French and Scottish ideas were enthusiastically embraced in the English colonies of North America, and, with a slight lag, in the Spanish and Portuguese colonies in the South. As in France and Scotland, this was largely a spontaneous process, the work of an independent intelligentsia—even if some of the key figures of colonial “enlightenments” soon became statesmen themselves. In eastern Europe, by contrast, where the major absolute monarchies now reached their maturity, the Enlightenment tended to arrive with royal sponsorship: Frederick the Great’s engagement of the services of Voltaire and Catherine the Great’s of Diderot—or, for that matter, the Polish nobility’s solicitation of advice from Jean-Jacques Rousseau—are the most famous gestures of what came to be known as “enlightened despotism.” In any case, the last flowering of the Enlightenment as a whole came in Germany, where it found a philosophical consummation in Kant’s mature philosophy, completed during the years that the French monarchy fell victim to the revolution that ended the European Old Regime as a whole.


What were the key ideas of the Enlightenment, beyond the challenge to inherited intellectual authority noted by Kant? The Enlightenment never presented itself as a single theoretical system or unitary ideological doctrine—if nothing else, the necessities of adaptation to different national contexts made unity of that kind unlikely. But the variety of its ideas was not infinite. The best way to approach them is perhaps in terms of a sequence of domains of thought or “problem-areas,” in which a certain general consensus—often negative—can be discerned, together with a significant spectrum of differences of opinion.

Religion. No idea is more commonly associated with the Enlightenment than hostility toward established forms of religion—indeed, at least one major interpreter has characterized the movement in terms of “the rise of modern paganism” (Gay, 1966). It is certainly the case that the majority of adherents to the Enlightenment shared an intellectual aversion to theism in its inherited forms: specific objects of criticism included belief in miracles and other forms of divine intervention, the status accorded “holy” Scripture, and claims about the divinity of Jesus. At the same time, most Enlightenment thinkers regarded traditional churches, Catholic and Protestant, as engines of institutional exploitation and oppression. Hostility toward theism and a general anticlericalism did not, however, preclude an enormous variety of attitudes toward the supernatural and the “sacred” among followers of the Enlightenment. Forthright atheism did indeed make its public debut in Europe during the eighteenth century, in the works of figures such as Hume, Julien Offroy de La Mettrie, and Paul Thiry, baron d’Holbach. But this was a minority position. The bulk of Enlightened opinion opted for the compromise of “deism” or “natural religion,” which had the stamp of approval of Newton himself and which continued to attract a good deal of sincere devotion, in a wide variety of forms.

Science. It is a commonplace that the demotion of religion by the Enlightenment went hand in hand with the promotion of science—indeed, the very notion of a generic “science,” as a sphere of cognition distinct from religious “belief,” was undoubtedly a gift of the eighteenth century. The Enlightenment discovery or construction of science, in this sense, owed everything to the idea of a heroic age of scientific achievement just behind it, in the development of modern astronomy and physics from Nicolaus Copernicus to Newton. For all of the prestige that now attached to science, however, it would be a mistake to exaggerate agreement during the Enlightenment with regard to either its methods or findings. The philosophical heritage from the seventeenth century was far too various for that. Looking back at the eighteenth century, the last great philosopher of the Enlightenment, Kant, described an anarchic battlefield, divided ontologically between materialism and idealism and epistemologically between rationalism and empiricism. Moreover, there was also profound disagreement as to the social consequences of scientific advance, however defined. For every Condorcet, celebrating the beneficent effects of cognitive “progress” for liberty and prosperity, there was a Rousseau, decrying the contribution that science made to technological violence and social inequality.

Politics. The seventeenth century had seen a profound revolution in political thought, with the emergence of the modern “natural rights” tradition of Grotius, Hobbes, Locke, and Pufendorf. One of the major achievements of the early Enlightenment was to popularize and disseminate this tradition, via an endless array of translations, summaries, and commentaries. By the mid-eighteenth century, the basic conceptual vocabulary of the natural rights tradition—”natural rights,” “state of nature,” “civil society,” “social contract”—had entered the mainstream of Enlightenment political thought, which embraced, nearly unanimously, the belief that the only legitimate basis of political authority was consent. The path toward the vindication of “inalienable natural rights” in the founding documents of the American and French Revolutions lay open. Still, beyond this basic agreement about legitimacy, the practical substance of Enlightenment political thought was extraordinarily various. Only one major thinker, Rousseau, actually produced a theory of republican legitimacy—but in a form so radically democratic as to preclude its widespread acceptance prior to the era of the French Revolution. In terms of practical politics, the majority of Enlightenment thinkers accepted a pragmatic accommodation with monarchy—overwhelmingly still the dominant state-form in Europe—and instead pursued what might be termed a program of “proto-liberalism,” concentrating on securing civil liberties of one kind or another—freedoms of religion, self-expression, and trade.

Social science. Meanwhile, the most influential work of political theory of the Enlightenment turned its back on natural rights theory altogether. In De l’esprit des lois (1748; The spirit of the laws), Montesquieu set forth a global taxonomy of state-forms, dividing the world into a West that had seen a transition from the martial republics of antiquity to the commercial monarchies of modern Europe, and an East dominated by unchanging “despotism.” A succeeding generation of French and Scottish thinkers then developed Montesquieu’s legacy in two different directions. One was the genre of “conjectural” or “stadial” history, which traced the historical development of societies through specific socioeconomic stages—huntergatherer, nomadic, agricultural, and commercial in the most famous of these, known retrospectively as the “four stages” theory. The other direction was toward an entirely new social science, that of economics or “political economy”—probably the most important single intellectual innovation of the Enlightenment. Within the ranks of “conjectural” historians and political economists, however, there was significant disagreement about the political and moral upshot of their findings. Thinkers as close in outlook as Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson could disagree profoundly about the effects of economic progress on political life. The field of political economy itself was sharply divided between two quite different theoretical schools, French Physiocracy and the “system of liberty” set forth in Smith’s Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776). Finally, more conventional narrative historiography, which underwent a great flowering in the Enlightenment in the work of practitioners such as Voltaire, Hume, and Edward Gibbon, showed a not dissimilar variety. In the face of every legend about the shallow optimism of the Enlightenment, it is worth noting that its historiographical masterpiece, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–1788), recounted a tragedy of almost unimaginable proportions: the destruction of the classical world at the hands of “barbarism and religion.”

Imaginative literature. From the start, poetry, fiction, and plays provided natural vehicles for the expression of Enlightenment ideas. Here, above all, the watchword is variety. It is very striking that the two most enduring works of imaginative literature of the French Enlightenment should be so dark in outlook. Its earliest work, Montesquieu’s Persian Letters, is a stark parable about the lethal dangers of the pursuit of knowledge and freedom. Voltaire’s philosophical novella Candide (1759)—doubtless the most widely read eighteenth-century work today—is a caustic satire on the “optimism” of philosophical rationalism. At the other end of this spectrum, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s late operas, scarcely less popular with contemporary audiences, convey an infinitely sunnier sense of basic Enlightenment ideas—from the raucous celebration of social and gender egalitarianism in Le nozze di Figaro (1785; The marriage of Figaro), to the stately presentation of a stylized Freemasonry in Die Zauberflöte (1791; The magic flute). In fact, The Marriage of Figaro can be regarded as an emblem of Enlightenment cosmopolitanism—the incendiary play on which it is based the work of a French Protestant admirer of the American Revolution, its libretto furnished by an Italian Jew, its composer an Austrian Freemason.


Ideas naturally remain the primary focus of scholarly study of the Enlightenment. However, recent scholarship has devoted a steadily increasing amount of attention to what might be termed the “social history” of the Enlightenment—the form in which its ideas were expressed, the institutions by means of which they circulated, and the identities of the people who produced and consumed them. The theoretical inspiration for much of this research has come from the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas’s early book, Der Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit (1962; The structural transformation of the public sphere), which traced the development of a “bourgeois public sphere” for the exchange of ideas and information, which reached its climax in the eighteenth century—indeed, was at one with the Enlightenment (Habermas, 1989; Melton, 2001).

Habermas’s analysis laid special stress on the socioeconomic developments in the early modern period that made the “public sphere” in this sense possible. The most crucial development of all, he suggested, was a revolution in reading and writing in the eighteenth century to match the original “print revolution” of the sixteenth. The suggestion has been amply confirmed by subsequent scholarship, which has focused on three specific changes in the “print culture” of the Enlightenment. One is simply a tremendous leap forward not just in literacy rates, but in the very meaning of literacy, as “reading” itself deepened and widened and as large numbers of women joined the ranks of the literate for the first time. Secondly, the Enlightenment saw a vast expansion not just in the volume of printed matter in Europe, but also in its variety: different genres of books, multiplying in every direction, were joined by a wide range of periodicals, as well as weekly and even daily newspapers. Finally, authorship itself finally started to be modernized during the Enlightenment, as first the idea and then the reality of literary property began to take hold—traceable in the careers of such major writers as Voltaire, Hume, and Rousseau.

Beyond this transformation of the literate “public,” Habermas also suggested that the eighteenth-century “public sphere” depended on certain characteristic social institutions, which shared a kind of family resemblance as sites for the expression of a specifically Enlightenment “sociability.” Most striking of all was the Enlightenment salon—periodic social gatherings of writers and intellectuals for the exchange of ideas, presentation of written material, and display of works of art, typically under female leadership and direction. The salons of eighteenth-century Paris are the most famous, but those of London, Berlin, or Vienna contributed no less to the local circulation of Enlightened ideas. Secondly, there was a set of slightly more “public,” and certainly more masculine, establishments, part of whose allure depended on the consumption of intoxicants of one kind or another—the tavern, wine shop, and coffeehouse, pioneered in the United Provinces and Britain in the late seventeenth century and then widely imitated across Europe in the eighteenth. Finally, the propagation of Enlightenment ideas was a special concern of the network of Masonic lodges, again deriving from British origins, which then proliferated across the continent in the eighteenth century—the first secular, voluntary associations in modern Europe.

What was the social profile of those who attended Enlightenment salons, frequented eighteenth-century coffee shops, and joined Masonic lodges? In line with his Marxism, Habermas himself stressed the “bourgeois” or even capitalist origins and character of the “public sphere” of the Enlightenment. In fact, at its upper reaches, the movement was thoroughly mixed in social terms: the roster of its leading figures suggests a kind of united front between aristocrats—Montesquieu, Condorcet—and an emergent middle-class intelligentsia, typified by the careers of Voltaire or Diderot. Below this level, however, there is no doubt about the fundamentally bourgeois character of the Enlightenment, in the broadest sense of the term. In fact, one of the most important achievements of scholarship over the past thirty years has been the patient reconstruction of what the historian Robert Darnton called the “business of Enlightenment”—the commodification of Enlightenment ideas, in the book trade above all. Darnton has also been a pioneer in uncovering the diffusion of Enlightenment ideas down the social scale, far below the cosmopolitan elite of famous names, to what he termed the “Grub Street” journalism of an emergent popular culture (Darnton, 1979 and 1982).

As it happens, however, the liveliest sector of the current social history of the Enlightenment is concerned not with social rank but with gender. What was the role of women in the Enlightenment? The leading part taken by women in organizing and hosting salons, as well as the rising rate of female literacy, points to one kind of answer—that the Enlightenment indeed marked a watershed in the history of female participation at the highest reaches of European intellectual life (Goodman, 1994). At the same time, the absence of feminine names from the canon of the major writers of the epoch also suggests some of the limits of this emancipation. Early feminist ideas were in circulation in Europe from the late-seventeenth century onward: the works of Mary Astell (1666–1731) are a major reference point today. But Astell, a deeply devoted Anglican, was far from an Enlightenment thinker. On the whole, the actual record of eighteenth-century thought on women and gender suggests a kind of confused collision between competing values: the egalitarianism of Enlightenment social sensibilities was counterbalanced by a robust naturalism emphasizing the biological differences between the sexes. Not a few of the most famous writers of the era—Rousseau is the most notorious—adopted positions that can only be described as antifeminist. It very striking that the first great classic of feminist philosophy, Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), was written by an English radical who, while she identified very closely with the French Enlightenment and admired Rousseau, owed the publication of her work to a very different political context—that of the French Revolution.


This brings us in fact to an initial question about the place of the Enlightenment in the wider currents of European history. Its maturity as an intellectual movement coincided with the start of a cycle of political revolutions that ended, after a half-century of social convulsion and warfare, with the destruction of the Old Regime of early modern Europe. What was the relation between the Enlightenment and what the American historian R. R. Palmer called “the age of the democratic revolution”? For conservative critics of the French Revolution such as Edmund Burke or Joseph de Maistre, the answer was simple and dramatic: the Enlightenment caused the Revolution—Voltaire and Rousseau sketched a scenario for political transformation that was then willfully enacted by the Abbé Siéyès and Maximilien Robespierre. The idea is easy to dismiss in its hyperbolic or conspiratorial forms. But how in fact should we conceive of the relation between the intellectual movement of the Enlightenment and the political revolutions that overthrew the Old Regime?

Many scholars have stressed the practical thrust of the Enlightenment critique of political, social, and religious institutions, which certainly appeared to express a desire not merely to analyze but to change the world. At the same time, it also seems clear that the basic orientation of this criticism was reformist and not revolutionary. No major Enlightenment thinker ever advocated “revolution,” in the sense of a conscious change of political regime, even by peaceful means—the memory of the last serious example of such a project, the failed Commonwealth that issued out of the English Civil War, was a potent warning against such presumption. On the whole, the practical political energies of the Enlightenment were devoted to a far more modest set of ends, the securing of a set of basic civil liberties—freedom of religion, self-expression, trade—nor did many thinkers contemplate the extension of these liberties beyond an elite minority of white male property owners. It is perfectly appropriate that the most celebrated examples of Enlightenment activism should be the one-man campaigns mounted by Voltaire to “crush the infamy,” as his motto put it, of anachronistic religious persecution. Of course, Voltaire was not the only Enlightenment thinker to become more directly involved with affairs of state, on occasion. But the oxymoron of “enlightened despotism” suggests the limits of such episodes. In eastern Europe, this was largely a matter of rendering the rule of divine-right absolutism more rational and efficient. In the West, experiments in the practical application of Enlightenment ideas—for example, efforts to deregulate the grain trade in France, inspired by Physiocracy—tended to be short-lived fiascoes.

The immediate origins of both the American and the French Revolutions can be traced, not to the conscious plans of revolutionaries dreaming of overthrowing regimes, but to fiscal crises brought on by debts incurred in international warfare—disputes over the escalating costs of imperial defense in the case of the first, state bankruptcy brought on by bankrolling the American revolt itself, in the case of the second. The Enlightenment cannot be said to have “caused” either, in any plausible sense of the term. This is not to deny any relation between them, however. On the contrary, if the Enlightenment played a minimal role in the origins—largely spontaneous and contingent—of the American and French Revolutions, it was absolutely central to the processes of political and social reconstruction undertaken by both, once old regimes had collapsed. The various declarations of “natural rights” that accompanied every step of this saga, from Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence (1776) and the American state constitutions to the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789) and the American Bill of Rights (1791) and beyond, tell their own story—so many variations on the basic civil libertarianism of the Enlightenment. Politically, the Age of Revolutions afforded opportunities for state construction beyond what any Enlightenment thinker had envisaged. But the ensuing experiments in republican constitution making were all conducted in self-conscious continuity with eighteenth-century political thought. The one great success story here, the American constitution of 1787, with its antidemocratic machinery of “checks and balances,” is notoriously a creature of the Enlightenment. Neither the French Revolution nor the wars of liberation in Latin America succeeded in creating comparably durable state structures, of course. But by far the most significant sociopolitical accomplishment of the former, the Napoleonic Civil Code (1804), was itself a straightforward expression of the egalitarian and rationalizing designs of the Enlightenment. Moreover, the fact that the restoration of monarchy that followed the overthrow of Napoleon was so unstable and short-lived is a testament to the long-term impact of the Enlightenment in altering the social and political expectations of Europeans. When the dust settled after another cycle of political revolutions a half-century later—unifying and modernizing Italy, Germany, the United States, and Japan by means of revolution “from above”—the social and political landscape to be seen in Europe and North America was very much in line with the hopes and aspirations of the Enlightenment.

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After reading this general overview from the encyclopedia, it is true that the 18th century is considered the ‘Age of Enlightenment’ and liberal and reformists ideals extended from the bourgeoise or the peasants to women.  Attitudes towards women were changing and thinkers like Isaac Newton (1643-1727), John Locke (1632-1704), Voltaire (1694-1778), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) or Denis Diderot (1713-1784)thought science and reason could offer an explanation for everything in the world. In fact, they began to analyse women in terms of what they believed ‘natural’ rather than God-instituted.

They explained, however, opinions to which feminists and Mary Wollstonecraft reacted: for example, Locke said that women are foolish and careless creatures;  Rousseau said that women must be controlled because they are the source of sexual lust, and he even claimed that Satan was a woman, etc.  Hobbes and Locke, as well as others philosophers, examined the relationships within the family, and justified the ‘natural’ subordination of women with arguments like social convenience or men’s greater strength. It must be admitted that they saw women as independent and rational individuals, but they saw them especially as wives and mothers; as weak creatures who -paradoxically- could not escape the curse of Eve; as creatures whose interests were those of their families. In short, women could be granted no independent political rights. So I am going to explain in detail how several texts written by men during ‘The Age of Reason’ showed male chauvinism and considered women inferior to men. 

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