At the end of the 17th Century something remarkable happened in Europe. It began to break away from the old superstitions and embrace a new way of thinking that was based on reason. We now call this time the Enlightenment or the Age of Reason.
When Did It Begin?
The actual beginning of the Enlightenment is a matter of some debate. Most see it as spanning the time between the end of the Renaissance and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. In other words, from the mid 1600s to the late 18th century. However, the timescale is not all that important – what really matters is the thinking and radical ideas behind it. This was a time when Europe threw off the old ways of thinking and embraced a new age of reason, rational debate and scientific discovery.
For centuries everyday life had been based on myth and superstition, particularly that coming out of Rome and the Catholic Church. People believed the Bible was the true and absolute word of God; that humans had been around for only a few thousand years, Adam and Eve both existed and the universe revolved around the Earth. Magic and the supernatural were considered part and parcel of everyday life which meant there was a very real chance that the strange old woman living next to you could actually be a witch.
New ideas and new ways of thinking slowly began to spread throughout Europe and the invention of the printing press gave these ideas wings. In Italy the likes of Michael Angelo, Brunelleschi, and Leonardo Da Vinci sparked a revolution in cultural and artistic expression, while scientists such as Galileo made discoveries which directly contravened established teachings of the Church.
England was to become a hotbed of new ideas. The Civil War and removal of the King had seen an explosion of new ideas. For a decade during the 1650s, England had been a commonwealth and radical new democratic ideas began to flood around the country.
The environment was therefrore ripe for change and enabled the likes of Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton to lay down the frameworks of rational thought and scientific endeavour that would shape the Enlightenment.
Across the Channel in France the atmosphere was less conducive. Here absolutist monarchy reigned supreme, with free thinking fiercely controlled by the government. Even so, Paris was a hotbed of radical ideas. One of the pioneers of this time was the mathematician Rene Descartes. He proposed a massively overhauled version of the world – one created by a master ‘clock-maker’ or all powerful God. He’d built this perfect world and then left it to develop on its own. Truth, therefore, would come from observation and investigation rather than slavish devotion to the Church.
Such thinking naturally flew in the face of the establishment. These new thinkers retained their religious devotion, but increasingly saw the Catholic Church as their natural enemy – a force which had enslaved mankind.
Governments too came under threat as Enlightenment thinking spread across Europe and into the New World where it underpinned first the American and then French Revolution.
Finding a starting point for the Enlightenment, therefore, is no easy business. There is no starter’s pistol and we cannot come up with a single date. It was, instead, a phenomenon which grew out of the Renaissance and built on developments which had been centuries in the making.