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The Emergence of the Age of Reason

In the wake of the Scientific Revolution, intellectuals began to reassess obsolete conceptions regarding other aspects of society. Since they managed to obtain new understanding of such concepts as government, religion, education, and economics, scholars and philosophers impelled the emergence of the era of Enlightenment. This elite cultural period mobilized the power of reason, and advanced knowledge, and, undoubtedly, reformed society. Moreover, the 18th-century movement opposed intolerance, contributed to intellectual exchange, and contested abuses in the church. This paper is aimed at analyzing and researching one of the most vitally important intellectual activities in history, which changed completely the Europeans’ view about government and society.

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The word “Enlightenment” appeared in the first half of the 18th century as the analog to the French term ‘Lumi? res’. Immanuel Kant once said that this age was “the emancipation of the human consciousness from a [unformed] state of ignorance” (Hannote, 1). There is no doubt that the period challenged the established order and inaugurated the era of progressive development. The philosopher also mentioned that every human should have the courage to use his reason, therefore, the Enlightenment was often referred to as an “Age of Reason” (McLean 2010, 3). Thus, the origin of the new term describing a particular historical period can be explained from the perspective of new scientific development.

There is no consensus on the date of the rising of this age, however, the years 1701 and the middle of the 17th century are used as break points. Although the Enlightenment reached its peak and flourished in France in the mid-1700s, the background for this period can be found in the ideas of such political thinkers as J. Locke, B. Spinoza, P. Bayle, Voltaire, and T. Hobbes. The new ideas were then spread to the other centers across Europe: Italy, Spain, England, Scotland, the Netherlands, and the German states (Hannotte, 1). Thus, the new approach appeared popular and was spreading rather fast.

A New Form of Government

Jonathan Israel asserted that the intellectual revolution, which began in the mid-17th century, contributed to the political reversal at the end of the 18th century. The central theme of the new political philosophy became democratic republicanism (Whatmore 2011, 3). This age rearranged government and politics vigorously and significantly.

Hobbes’s Social Contract, Locke’s Natural Rights, and Montesquieu’s Separation of Powers

Locke and Hobbes were the first English intellectuals, who used the scientific approach to explore humans and their ambiance. Nevertheless, they came to absolutely different conclusions concerning the nature of a man and the government. Hobbes expressed his ideas in terms of political philosophy Leviathan, where he replaced a monarch’s rule, justified by divine right, with a social contract (Hannote, 19). The philosopher claimed that the power of government comes from the consent of governed, and, for the reason that people are naturally bad, they need a strong ruler to keep them under control. Besides, he argued that the best government is an absolute monarchy because only it can demand obedience and impose order (The Enlightenment in Europe, 195). Thus, the interpretation by Hobbes was rather autocratic and suggested the requirement in strict power.

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On the other hand, Locke had a different opinion: the philosopher believed that an individual could improve himself and learn from his experience. There was no social contract, which bound people and the government together. He refuted Hobbes, criticized absolute monarchy, and accepted the idea of self-government. Moreover, the objective of the representative bodies lies in protecting the natural rights of a human – property, liberty, and life (The Enlightenment in Europe, 196). Thus, the ideas of Locke are more humanistic and positive, and it is possible to conclude that they lie in the basis of modern democracy.

Montesquieu was an influential philosopher, who considered Great Britain as the most politically-balanced state. He called the separation of powers, the system when the power is divided into three branches, the most effective way of governmental organization. Each of them – executive, judicial, and legislative – is designed to check one another. He criticized French absolutism because the power was concentrated in one individual (The Enlightenment in Europe, 197). Therefore, philosophers of the Enlightenment period were concerned with several problems related to modern life and contributed to the development of the major aspects of political systems observed today.

The Relationship with the Church

The importance of religion and God was questioned since scientists managed to explain celestial mechanics and recurred to reason to investigate theological conceptions. In France, the church was criticized severely and attacked by the opponents of religious institutional power. The philosophes, which generally were not a big group, wanted to secularize the church. However, despite the fact that religion was subjected to serious attacks, the Age of Reason was not dominated by atheism (McLean 2010, 9). As religious persecution was an inalienable and unpreventable peculiarity of the Age of Reason, one of the urgent pleas was for religious toleration. John Locke launched a toleration campaign and, as such regularities became very common in Europe, they were introduced into state policy.

Women in the Enlightenment

Thanks to the growth in the number of gender studies during the Enlightenment, the role of women in society was reconsidered. They were established as important and active figures of this epoch, as participants, who could make their own, no less important, contributions to the process. Women took an active role in promoting the careers of philosophes and were able to help them avoid troubles with the government. Gradually, more and more women began participating in debating societies (McLean 2010, 8). In addition, Claudine Tencin and Marie-Th?r?se Geoffrin provided thinkers with useful social and political contacts. In contrast to the development of the new role of women in society during the Age of Reason, Rousseau assumed that women could not be given equal education with men. Besides, he excluded females from political life and argued that their purpose was restricted by domestic chores because of their psychological limitations. Montesquieu, in his turn, supported conventional views and expected men to dominate the institutions of marriage and family, although he claimed that females are not beneath males (The Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment (1500–1780), 79). These were the first steps of female emancipation and acquisition of civil rights comparable with the ones available for men.

Science and Technology

During the Age of Reason, science experienced important changes: the new approach promoted critical thinking. There was no place for wonders because such beliefs were substituted by reliance on reason and rationality (The Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment (1500–1780), 75). The critical analysis of everything and the belief that an individual’s mind can explain everything and find solutions – that was called the Enlightenment. Scientists popularized new theories, made new discoveries in chemistry, mechanics, physics, and biology. Among positive consequences of the Scientific Revolution, were the appearance of the scientific community aimed at the spread of knowledge. These organizations promoted the increase in importance and significance of scientific concepts among different states. The Age of Reason was probably one of the most important historical events because the progressive scientific method developed. Intellectuals refused to base their thinking approaches on ancient texts only and argued that a human could put an end to the authority of religion in society (77). The influence of science became tangible in literature: some poetry was saturated with scientific imagery, whereas some works were written on scientific themes (Hannotte, 34). At the same time, some scientists, Rousseau in particular, were convinced that scientific advances caused the distancing of mankind from nature and retarded development of people (McLean 2010, 19). Therefore, the Age of Reason was interpreted differently by its coevals: some considered it a way of improvement, while others its approaches as means for further degradation.

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The activists wanted to reduce the control of the government over the market. The philosophes that introduced new ideas regarding economic situation were called laissez-faire. They felt that the only way of economic prosperity and growth of a total output was agriculture. Laissez-faire considered that it would be acceptable to allow the prices of grain to increase, and, therefore, its production would also rise. In such a way, increased grain processing would make prices go back down and balance out the system. Wealth should not be restricted by one class, which means that everybody could have an equal possibility to achieve it. Therefore, they considered that the best strategy was to allow for the free development of the economy and market powers (Sandmo 2014, 10). In addition, these philosophers were strongly convinced that the ancient system should be eradicated and replaced by an equal basis for people.

At the same time, Adam Smith argued that the market and labor were top-priority mechanisms of achieving wealth. According to Smith, the state had to develop the institutional framework to enable functioning of the markets. Thus, the government’s task suggested the protection of the participants of the market operations and their lives from oppression, violence, and tyranny by other people. Lastly, Smith claimed that the state was required to elaborate such an economic system to prevent and discourage the appearance of monopolies.


Thus, the Enlightenment, or the Age of Reason, was a crucial and vitally important period in the history of Europe. It was the time, when the views regarding the government, political system, economy, women, science, and church were changed completely. Locke and Hobbes were the first intellectuals, who studied human and his ambiance using the scientific approach. They introduced new insight into the governmental system, although their opinions differed. The importance of religion and God was questioned and the church was criticized severely. Scientists started recurring to reason to investigate theological conceptions. The role of women was also reconsidered: they began to participate in debating societies, promoted the careers of the philosophes, and were able to help them avoid troubles with the government. Nevertheless, some intellectuals supported conventional views and excluded females from the political sphere. Besides, the scientific sphere experienced important changes: scientists popularized new theories and believed that individual’s mind can explain everything and find a solution. Communities, which spread knowledge, were created; nobody was no longer based on ancient texts. Lastly, the economy introduced new figures – laissez-faire – which strongly convinced that the ancient system should be eradicated and replaced by an equal basis for people. Thus, the Enlightenment was the age of revolutionary ideas and thoughts that paved the way for new intellectual heritage.

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