What was The Enlightenment?
by Olivia Pierson
The Enlightenment was the most important cultural movement to ever sweep the world. 18th Century Western civilisation convulsed with a vibrant intellectual energy fueling commerce, politics and art, turning the world upside down - it could be said the right way up. It lasted from the late 1600s to the early 1800s and is marked by history as a period of intense human questioning, education and change. It is remembered now as the Age of Reason.
Above all, The Enlightenment valued scientific inquiry through factual analysis, especially in respect to the physical universe and its natural laws. Dogmatic religious beliefs found themselves at war with reason. This threatened the very structure of state governments and ruling monarchies, calling into doubt the idea that kings should rule people through God-given divine right.
All of Europe and America was affected by The Enlightenment over this 100 year intellectual thunder, but how? Through the widespread availability of printed books, a result of the printing press. The printing press was to people living in this time what the internet is to us today - a powerful way to spread ideas and learn. Cultures bound together and influenced each other, some separated over their differences. In 1776 America broke away from the English king George III, and fought a fierce and bloody revolution; thus beginning the noble experiment of democratic self-governance.
Standing in stark contrast to the Dark Ages, the thousand years which came before it, The Enlightenment can be thought of as a time when the lights in the mind of the common man started to glow brighter. The road for this had already been paved by the philosophers, artists and writers during the Renaissance period, who steadily questioned what in the world was true and consistent with facts. Did the earth orbit the sun or did the sun orbit the earth? Did God make the world or did it begin as a result of purely physical laws? If God did exist, did he intervene in the lives of men? Should nations have a favoured religion or church power? Why should a king be obeyed instead of a parliament of men? What makes something beautiful? What is great art and what purpose does it serve, if any? How do human beings live a good life? What is happiness?
Enlightenment flourishing was really a direct result of The Renaissance, which had occurred 200 years earlier, and the period in which the printing press had been invented. Renaissance literally means "rebirth" - and the ideas which were reborn as popular again had once been the quests of Ancient Greece and Rome, the classical period from 2000 years before, the time in which democracy had first been practised. Most essentially their quests were: Reason, Freedom and Beauty.