The period known as The Enlightenment refers to the Western philosophy in the 18th century, from around 1740 to 1789, prior to the French Revolution (1789-1799). There were remarkable cultural changes characterized by a loss of faith in traditional religious and political sources of authority and where reason based on democracy, human rights and science was advocated as the primary source for authority. The term Enlightenment was used by writers of the time, aware they were emerging from centuries of darkness and ignorance into a respect for humanity and reason. “Dare to know,” coined by German philosopher Immanuel Kant, was the motto of the age. The period is also referred to as the Age of Reason.
The signatories of the Declaration of Independence, including Ben Franklin, were motivated by the principles of Enlightenment, which were based more on a set of values and not on ideas or shared beliefs. The Bill of Rights, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, and the Polish-Lithuanian Constitution of May 3, 1791 were all motivated by the values and principles of Enlightenment.
The precursors to The Enlightenment stemmed from new discoveries in science by Copernicus and Galileo, by philosophical rationalists Descartes and Spinoza, political philosophers Hobbes and Locke and skeptical thinkers such as Bayle in the 17th century. The most important common belief to philosophers and intellectuals of this period were an abiding faith in the power of human reason.
The Enlightenment ended with the French Revolution, which some see the social and political ferment of the period as being responsible for the Revolution. Conservatives believed the Enlightenment was too radical, while romantic writers and artists who came after the period found it to be without passion or soul.
The Enlightenment’s effects on the 19th and 20th centuries marked a decline of the church and growth of modern secularism and served as the model for political and economic liberalism.
Now you’re a little smarter, Girlfriend — And so am I.