The Enlightenment 1660-1770
A Handbook to Literature Defines the Enlightenment as “a philosophical movement of the eighteenth century, particularly in France but effectively over much of Europe and America.” The Enlightenment celebrated reason, the scientific method, and human beings’ ability to perfect themselves and their society.
The Enlightenment was a European phenomenon that spread to America. People were dissatisfied with life as they found it. They believed that they could improve it. The fundamental notion was that human nature is fundamentally good. Institutions have corrupted it.
Fundamental Problem How to eliminate abuses and maintain social order and stability. The French Revolution (1789) scared both the English and Americans who felt that the French way was too dangerous.
philosophes • A group of thinkers who made a critical examination of previously accepted institutions and beliefs from the viewpoint of reason and with confident faith in natural laws and universal order. • They agreed on faith in human rationality and the existence of discoverable and universally valid principles governing human beings, nature, and society. • They opposed intolerance, restraint, spiritual authority, and revealed religion.
Religion • Men and women no longer automatically assumed God’s benign supervision of human affairs or the primacy of their own Christian obligations. • Deists believed that the fullness and complexity of the physical world testified to the sublime rationality of a divine plan. • However, The Planner did not necessarily supervise the day-to-day operations of His arrangements.
The Watchmaker God A popular analogy suggested that God resembles a watchmaker who winds the watch and leaves it running.
Society • One of the insistent themes of the literature of the period is the discrepancy between well-defined codes of behavior and the actual behavior that those codes helped to disguise.
Political Influence • In America, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson were profoundly influenced by the principles of The Enlightenment. • The Enlightenment was the intellectual ferment out of which the French Revolution came. • The Enlightenment gave philosophical shape to the American Revolution and the two basic documents of the United States: The Declaration of Independence and The Constitution.