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The European Enlightenment, often referred to simply as the Enlightenment, was an intellectual and cultural movement that swept across Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. It was characterized by a profound shift in thinking, emphasizing reason, individualism, and skepticism toward established authority. The Enlightenment played a pivotal role in shaping modern Western thought, philosophy, and politics.

Reason and Rationalism: Central to the Enlightenment was the belief in the power of human reason to understand and improve the world. Enlightenment thinkers championed critical thinking, logic, and empirical observation as means of acquiring knowledge.

Skepticism and Critique: Enlightenment thinkers were often critical of traditional religious, political, and social institutions. They questioned established authority and sought to challenge and reform existing systems, including absolute monarchies and the Catholic Church.

Empiricism: The Enlightenment promoted the empirical method, which emphasized the collection and analysis of data through observation and experimentation. This approach influenced fields like science and social sciences.

Secularism: Enlightenment thought was characterized by a secular outlook. It encouraged the separation of church and state and the promotion of religious tolerance. Philosophers like Voltaire were vocal advocates of religious freedom.

Individualism: Enlightenment thinkers celebrated the individual and individual rights. Concepts like liberty, equality, and human rights became central to Enlightenment philosophy.

Social Contract Theory: Enlightenment philosophers, including John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, developed social contract theories. These theories proposed that individuals entered into a social contract to create a government, with the government's legitimacy depending on the consent of the governed.

Philosophes: Philosophes were Enlightenment intellectuals who disseminated Enlightenment ideas through their writings. Prominent figures included Voltaire, Montesquieu, Diderot, and Rousseau. Their works often challenged prevailing norms and institutions.

Spread of Ideas: The Enlightenment was facilitated by the growth of print culture and the widespread distribution of books, pamphlets, and periodicals. Coffeehouses and salons served as important gathering places for intellectual discussions.

Political Impact: Enlightenment ideas influenced political developments, such as the American and French Revolutions. The American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen were informed by Enlightenment principles.

Scientific Revolution: The Enlightenment was closely linked to the Scientific Revolution. Enlightenment thinkers embraced scientific methods and sought to apply rationalism to all aspects of human life.

Encyclopedias: The Encyclopédie, edited by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d'Alembert, was a major Enlightenment project that aimed to compile and disseminate knowledge. It served as a compendium of Enlightenment thought.

Legacy: The Enlightenment left a lasting legacy, influencing modern thought, political systems, and the development of liberal democracy. Concepts like individual rights, secularism, and the separation of powers continue to shape modern societies.

While the Enlightenment had a profound impact on European thought and politics, it was not without its limitations and contradictions. Some Enlightenment thinkers held views that we now consider discriminatory or ethnocentric, and the movement itself did not fully address issues of gender and racial equality. Nonetheless, the Enlightenment remains a critical period in the history of ideas, advocating for the importance of reason, liberty, and progress in human society. > World History > European Enlightenment