Notes for Professor Celia Easton's discussion of

The Enlightenment (1688-1789--roughly)
German: Die Aufklarung
French: Siecle de lumieres

Framed by two "revolutions: Glorious Revolution--French Revolution

Newton's Principia (Mathematical Principals of Natural Philosophy), 1687/9

Other names for the 18th century in Europe:

The Augustan Age (recalls 1st century BCE Rome)

The Neo-Classical Age (invokes 18th century's admiration for classical literature, art, architecture, etc.)

The Age of Reason (marks the age's admiration for science and belief in human improvement)

Philosophes--from the French, "philosopher," discussed non-metaphysical ideas on science, religion, education, and politics.

Enlightenment--primarily a secular movement of intellectuals who:

1. Celebrate science
2. Question religion
3. Propose social reform

--in the name of REASON, NATURE, and PROGRESS.


John Locke (Essay Concerning Human Understanding): Reason is that faculty that distinguishes humans from animals.

Immanuel Kant ("What is Enlightening?"): Reason is autonomous, independent thinking.

What has corrupted Reason?  Human institutions of bias and ignorance (e.g., religion, class, poverty, prejudice, superstition).

Denis Diderot ("Philosophe,"  The Encyclopedia): "Reason is to the philosophe what grace is to the Christian."


--that which is untouched and unimproved.  It is the "given" preceding social invention or "civil society."  For philosophes, "nature" is a basic set of moral and aesthetic standards.  The word "nature" is frequently interchangeable with the word, "God."

Denis Diderot (from On the Interpretation of Nature)

There are three principal means of acquiring knowledge available to us: observation of nature, reflection, and experimentation.  Observation collects facts; reflection combines them; experimentation verifies the result of the combination.  Our observation of nature must be diligent, our reflection profound, and our experiments exact.  We rarely see these three means combined, and for this reason creative geniuses are not common.


--the belief in the ability of humans to improve their lives through moral and reasonable human invention.

Marquis de Condorcet (French mathematician, late 18th century, Future Progress of Mankind): "Our hopes, as to the future condition of the human species, may be reduced to three points: the destruction of inequality between different nations; the progress of equality in one and the same nation; and lastly, the real improvement of man."

Through what institutions might human beings "improve"?

Education, Government, Laws, Prisons, Religion, etc.

RELIGION during the Enlightenment

Voltaire: "If God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him."

DEISM: A Creator is inferred through observation of an orderly universe.  The Deist God is a "Watchmaker."  Deism rejects revelation, original sin, and grace.  Deists approach God through Reason, not faith.

REASONING CHRISTIANITY: (e.g., Locke) Accepting the theology of Christianity without subscribing to undocumented assertions of miracles.

REVEALED CHRISTIANITY: Methodists and other "low church" Protestants who contrast the "reason" of the age with personal revelation and emotional religious response.

ATHEISM/SCEPTICISM (e.g., Hume)  God is falsely inferred from nature.

OTHER FORMS OF SOCIAL REFORM: Abandon Society?  "Primitivism"? Change Society? Improve education.  Reconsider the position of women.

Women are "confined and neglected in their upbringing; abandoned to the whims of fate…reduced to silence in adulthood; and suddenly subject to an indisposition that is preparing them to become wives and mothers."  Denis Diderot, On Women, 1772.

PROGRESS: (Swift) Is human nature improving or degenerating?


1. Limited political upheaval (England)
2. Proposed "enlightened despots"
3. Influence on the American and French Revolutions.