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  The Enlightenment is the blanket term for one of the dominant movements in 18th-century, European intellectual activity. Its roots can be traced back earlier, to the thinking behind the Reformation in the 16th century and humanism, the rise of ‘true’ science prefigured by such figures as Paracelsus and carried on by Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle (author of The Sceptical Chemist), Galileo, Newton and others, and the writings of Descartes and Pascal. Its prime impulse was in pre-Revolutionary France, in the work of such people as Buffon, Condorcet, Diderot (whose Encyclopedia was its first monument), Montesquieu, Rousseau and Voltaire. The basic premises of the Enlightenment were liberal, pro-science, anti-superstition, and that the state was a proper vehicle for improvement of the human condition. Its thinkers—a roll of honour in 18th-century thought and writing, including Benjamin Franklin, Edward Gibbon, Herder, David Hume, Thomas Jefferson, Kant, Lessing and Adam Smith—took it as self-evident that the human race had for too long been intellectually shackled. People\'s habits of thinking were based on irrationality, polluted by religious dogma, superstition, an overadherence to historical predecent and irrelevant tradition and that the way to escape from this, to move forward, was to seek for true knowledge in every sphere of life, to establish the truth and build on it. People\'s minds were, literally, to be ‘enlightened’: freed from murk.

Along with the contemporaneous Industrial Revolution (from which it obtained much inspiration and ammunition), the Enlightenment occasioned the profoundest change in the mind-set of the largest number of people in Europe since the advent of Christianity itself. Its basic principles and objectives, which became the matrix of the modern age, led to a ferment of activity in politics (ranging from the Declaration of Independence to Equality and the abolition of slavery) and in the scientific work of such people as Darwin, James Hutton and Joseph Priestley. It led to a new self-confidence (or selfimportance) in European ideas about civilization, and the need to spread such ideas to ‘less-favoured’ peoples throughout the world. In the arts it resulted in the view that literature, music, painting and theatre were tools for the moral and social improvement of humankind, and from there to expressive and individually-assertive experimentation of all kinds, most notably the Stürm und Drang and Romantic movements which followed it. KMcL

Further reading J. Redwood, Reason, Ridicule and Religion: the Age of Enlightenment in England; , B. Willey, The Eighteenth-century Background.



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