The Enlightenment was period in the 1700s when European scientists and philosophers began examining the world through reason, or human intellect, rather than religious or spiritual faith. The Enlightenment's leading intellectuals included Sir Isaac Newton, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Denis Diderot and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. They were inspired by17th century thinkers such as John Locke, Francis Bacon, Pierre Bayle, Benedict de Spinoza and Rene Descartes. Their ideas touched many aspects of life including politics, economics, science and religion.
Prominence of Science
The Enlightenment thinkers celebrated the accomplishments of a wide number of scientists ranging from the 16th century astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus to the 18th century mathematician and physicist Sir Isaac Newton. However, Enlightenment thinkers disagreed on the impact science was having. The French philosopher, mathematician and political scientist Nicolas de Condorcet praised scientific progress as beneficial to prosperity and liberty while the French writer and philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau complained that science contributed to inequality and created technology for violence.
The Enlightenment thinkers found both the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches oppressive. They mistrusted traditional religious beliefs such as miracles, divine intervention and the claim that Jesus was the son of God. Although some Enlightenment thinkers, such as French-German philosopher Paul Thiry and French physician and philosopher Julien Offroy de La Mettrie, were atheists who didn't believe in God at all, the majority were deists who believed God created the universe and then left it alone.
Rights and Politics
The Enlightenment thinkers promoted the political concept known as natural rights. This theory was developed in the 17th century by the philosophers Hugo Grotius, John Locke, Thomas Hobbes and Samuel von Pufendorf. The theory of natural rights argues that people are born with certain rights that the government can not take away such as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness mentioned in the American Declaration of Independence. The promotion of natural rights prepared the way for the American and French revolutions. However, the majority of Enlightenment thinkers worked towards gaining civil liberties, such as free trade, freedom of religion and freedom of expression, from Europe's existing kings.
In 1748, the French philosopher Montesquieu published the book "The Spirit of the Law." In "The Spirit of the Law," Montesquieu explored the idea that the Western, or European, countries had developed from republics to modern capitalist monarchies while Eastern, or Asian, countries remained dominated by despotism, or rule by a few. Montesquieu's ideas developed into two different branches of thought. Conjectural history explored humanity's economic development through four stages: hunter-gatherer, nomadic, agricultural and commercial. The new social science of political economy, which later developed into economics, explored the relationship between production, buying, selling and government. Montesquieu's arguments in favor of constitutional government also heavily influenced the U.S. Constitution.