Every period of cultural history is essential to the evolution of Western Civilization, but the Enlightenment may be most important because it founded the institutions of modern society and continues as the most powerful set of ideas or social systems shaping and directing human life on Earth.
Modern institutions and values established during the Enlightenment or Age of Reason
Modern constitutional states (esp.
Scientific Revolution (continuing from
stops): modern astronomy, biology, chemistry + technological developments
involving steam power, electricity, fossil fuels; improvements in public
hygiene, nutrition, medicine.
Invention in 1781 by James Watt of steam engine powered by coal, beginning dependence on fossil fuels as energy source and environmental threat.
De-emphasis of religious authority as organizing principle of public life.
Forms, principles, and values associated with the Enlightenment / Age of Reason
Surface simplicity or clarity
Logical, formal, or mathematical sequences / progressions rather than emotional or sensational effects
The Enlightenment in North America / early USA--"the Founders" or Founding Fathers
Major figures of the European Enlightenment who shaped modern science and society
Major literary figures of English & French Enlightenment
Literature: Voltaire, Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, Dr. Johnson, Benjamin Franklin
Scientific Revolution: Sir Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Boyle (modern chemistry), Francis Bacon (scientific method), William Harvey (blood circulation), William Gilbert (magnetism and electricity), Robert Boyle & Robert Hooke (vacuum pump)
Epistemology or method of thinking: reason + empiricism: empirical = observational; conclusions or judgments are based on real-world observations, concrete evidence perceptible to the senses, subject to reason. Contrast revealed knowledge, tradition, or innate / a priori ideas, which the Enlightenment does not reject but marginalizes.
Dirty little secret: Enlightenment thought may appear conservative, but science and capitalism are the two most revolutionary factors or principles in human society.
"Each person shares 99.99% of the genetic material of every
other human being. In terms of variation, people from the same race can be more
different than people from different races."
In literary studies, the Enlightenment often appears as the least favorite period of most English and Comparative Literature majors, perhaps because . . .
Enlightenment thought disfavors the feelings and passions or spiritual revelation as dependable guides or frameworks for human society.
But the Enlightenment never thinks that emotional or spiritual feelings or motivators just disappear. Instead, such elements of human behavior are factored, balanced, and controlled so that they do not disrupt the proper functioning of society.
Long-term cultural effects: Most institutions of Western culture were established during the Enlightenment:
After 200+ years, the Enlightenment and the American Revolution may not seem very revolutionary, but they start the "revolution that can't be stopped," the mechanisms of modernity by which constant change is built into the system and the present always looks more like the future than the past. (Modernity / Tradition)
Satire & Irony
It's as good as we can do, but don't expect it to work perfectly: U.S. Constitution: "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union . . . "
your fondest dreams will be disappointed, but the system may work better because of that.
Life never was perfect, never will be, but it can be managed to minimize suffering and enhance productivity and pleasure.
Satire not revolution but reform, with laughter as correction
Historical logic (cause-and-effect) of the Enlightenment:
Classical Era (6cBC-4cAD): classical learning, beginnings of modern science, philosophy, literature, architecture, politics
Middle Ages (4c-14cAD): classical civilizations collapse, reform in Roman Catholic Church, which maintains parts of classical learning; rise of Islam + additional maintenance of classical learning
Renaissance (1400s-1600s): “re-birth” or rediscovery of neglected dimensions of classical learning; printing press
+ “Age of Discovery”: Early Spanish, British, Portuguese empires (+ Dutch!)
+ Protestant Reformation & Catholic Counter-Reformation: height & depth of European religious expression
Height: Many great religious leaders and writings; early days for many national Protestant faiths + defense of Catholic Church lead to searching spiritual expressions and “reformation” of souls (Music: Monteverdi, Bach; Painting: Valasquez, Rembrandt; Literature: John Donne, George Herbert, William Law)
Depth: Religious warfare, witch-crazes and witch holocaust
Effect on our present: establishes religious institutions, especially as national denominations; inaugurates continuing Protestant Reformation, in which new churches constantly branch off from established ones
(e.g. Church of England > Methodism > Assemblies of God > Pentecostals
Church of England > Puritans > Baptists, Mormons, others
[transition: generations of religious enthusiasm, divisions, torture, warfare leaves culture exhausted, ready for different approach . . .
Decades to centuries of scientific and technological advance improve quality of life (hygiene, medicine, nutrition)
Enlightenment (late 1600s -> 1700s) a.k.a. Age of Reason, Neo-Classical Era
thinkers and authors concentrate on the here and now of the material world.
Except for a comparatively few radical thinkers, most do not dismiss or reject
the idea of a transcendent God; instead, God is elevated or delegated beyond
their immediate interests and regarded as unable to be resolved or concluded.
God as “Creator” or “
Effect on our present:
Romantic era (late 1700s-1800s): The Romantics continue to value reason as a mental faculty but extend the Enlightenment’s interest in the actual natural world to project a spiritual dimension, which reflects, satisfies, or challenges human longing for transcendental meaning and emotional attachment instead of objective detachment.
Effect on our present: popular culture in 21st century constantly replays and reinforces Romantic attitudes and aesthetics
Overall, Romanticism indulges an unreal or mystical aspect of
the human mind that is otherwise not satisfied by empirical rigor or excellence.