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The Age of Enlightenment and its Influences the World

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            At the beginning of the 18th century in Europe, particularly France, Germany and Britain, there was a massive intellectual movement that offered relatively modern ideas on life and society and ushered in a new era: the Age of Enlightenment.  Although historians cannot reach a concrete agreement as to when this period ended, one thing is clear; the overwhelming influence it had in shaping the present day society in the fields of philosophy, natural and social sciences, religion, literature, to name a few. As society began to undergo a shift in the way they thought about themselves as an individual and the world in which they lived, and the impact of this change can still be felt today.

            According to Hyland (2003), in the Enlightenment: A sourcebook and reader, “a central feature of the Enlightenment was the emphasis that all kinds of scholars began to place upon the study of human nature. Human nature was regarded as a subject of special significance largely because it was believed to provide the foundation for all knowledge.”(p.3) In their quest to understand the nature of human beings, scholars and philosophers observed and analyzed human behaviour in order to reveal the secret of the mind and the though process.  This new emphasis on the study of man is a definite departure from the religious viewpoint which at that time taught society that man is insignificant in the face of god’s creation plans.  This shift of focus to the individual, according to Hyland, “led to the emergence of philosophical questions about the self, and to the rise of social sciences such as psychology, sociology and anthropology.”(p.4)

Beyond the field of natural and social sciences, in the field of political theory, this focus on man and not God also had significant contributions. John Locke, an English philosopher, claimed that the human mind begins at birth and adjusts itself into the social world by drawing experiences through sensory perception and reflection.  In essence, he claimed that human beings were all born the same and only the experiences that follow birth make us different.  This was a rather dangerous idea to state at a time when much of the aristocracy derived their ruling legitimacy by virtue of being born superior than the rest.  This idea of Locke’s, as well as others like it, brought to the limelight the need to improve the human animal through education, the fact that we are all essentially the same which gave rise to the idea of Universal Human Rights and that man has, within himself, the capacity to create his own destiny and not rely on the whims of the divine powers.

The shift from the religious perspective to the anthropological one can also be clearly seen in the works and discoveries of one man:  Isaac Newton.  This natural philosopher revolutionized the study of the physical world and laid the foundations of modern science.  His most famous work, Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, provided mathematical proof of the universal force of gravitation all because of the now-immortal falling apple story.  He however, with his groundbreaking discovery, did not intend to offend the established worldviews of the Church.  But he did and since then the domain of science had become in itself another form of religion, but directed neither by faith nor scripture but of natural physical laws of the world and the universe.

Although the Enlightenment happened many years ago, its effects can still be felt in modern-day society. The idea of human rights champion oppressed people everywhere. Wherever religious conflicts erupt, other methods beyond the divine are offered to find a solution. Although some would say that these ideas are essentially Western ones, their applicability have also become global. These landmark ideas have become absorbed into popular culture; and in honour of the people who fought valiantly for them, let’s stop taking them for granted.

References:

Hulme, P. & Jordanova, L. (ed.).1990. The Enlightenment and its Shadows. London:Routledge.

Hyland, P. (ed). 2003. The Enlightenment: A Sourcebook and Reader. London:Routledge.

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