Some of you may recall my brief obsession with the English Civil War this past summer. Given some of the books I had lined up for this past winter break, I think I can safely say that my latest mini-obsession is the Enlightenment, which is another subject I more or less pretended didn’t exist because, as a medievalist, everything after 1500 is news.
So today I’m (finally!) going to talk about the Enlightenment. Because it was sort of really important in helping the development of modern thinking, or whatever.
The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement in Europe during the 18th century. It tried to encourage reason as a way to reform society, as well as promoting science and intellectual discussion, instead of intolerance and abuses of the church and the state. It was most prominent in France, with the proliferation of salons, or groups of people who got together in someone’s house for a party and discussion of intellectual matters. These salons were often hosted by well-to-do ladies, with the intent that the people at the salon would become more cultured.
The Enlightenment serves as a good example of how the printing press was influential in European history, since it meant that greater quantities of information could be distributed faster to more people. In the Middle Ages and earlier times when books had been written out and copied by hand, there were very limited numbers of these books, which meant that fewer people had access to them and therefore knowledge was concentrated with very few people. With the advent of the printing press, however, books could be printed in larger quantities, which meant that more people could get them, so more people had reason to learn to read. This sort of thing happened during the Enlightenment; when one writer would publish something, it could be mass-produced and distributed all over the place – which is how the movement spread outside of France to the rest of Europe and even as far as the Americas. (In fact, some of the Enlightenment ideas were instrumental in the American Revolution.)
Some important people involved in the Enlightenment:
–Denis Diderot: A philosopher and writer who was co-founder, editor, and contributor to the Encyclopédie, a general encyclopedia published over the course of about 20 years. (For any younger readers, an encyclopedia is sort of like Wikipedia, except in book form. I used to use them in elementary school.)
–Voltaire: Philosopher, writer, historian extraordinaire. He advocated for lots of things we take for granted today, such as freedom of religion, freedom of expression, free trade, and separation of church and state.
–John Locke: I’m not sure how recently you’ve read the Declaration of Independence. But the line in there about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”? That was sort of stolen from Locke. His beliefs also inspired the revolutionaries in the American Revolution, especially the part about having the right to revolt if you think your ruler isn’t doing his job. (See: Declaration of Independence)
–Montesquieu: So you know how the U.S. government has three branches (executive, legislative, judiciary)? That was thanks to this guy.
–Isaac Newton: I sincerely hope I don’t have to explain who he is.
I could go on all day. I know you want me to. But I’ll spare you, and invite you to look some of this stuff up on your own, because as I discovered, it’s actually very interesting!
But I promise my next history post will be more medieval. Until next time!
Currently Listening To: Luke Bryan – “Muckalee Creek Water”
Currently Reading: Pandemonium by Lauren Oliver