The Age of Enlightenment, also called the Age of Reason was an intellectual revolution which dominated Europe during the 17th and 18th century. Enlightenment was the emergence and creation of ideas which challenged the existing notions of the world. It questioned the existing set of ideas and conceptions about religion, society and politics. Before this period, Europe was essentially a land dominated by religion. This intellectual movement was carried out by the Enlightenment philosophers like Baron de Montesquieu, Voltaire, David Hume and Adam Ferguson.
According to some, the beginning of the Enlightenment was after the publication of René Descartes’ philosophy of ‘Cogito, ergo sum’ (“I think, therefore I Am”) in 1637, while others belief the publication of Isaac Newton’s ‘Principia Mathematica’ (1687) began the Scientific Revolution and the beginning of the Enlightenment.
The philosophers and intellectuals challenged the clergy men who supported the traditional view of society. These new ideas influenced cultural practices like writing, painting, printing, music, sculpture and architecture. There was also significant progress in technology and medical science.
The key ideas of the Enlightenment were Reason, Empiricism, Science, Universalism, Individualism, Secularism, Freedom and similar others. The thinkers stressed on the primacy of reason to establish rationalist ideas based on fact. The key to expanding human knowledge was shifted upon empirical facts and scientific experiments. This concept of scientific reason was considered universal and could be applied to all situations. Philosophers opposed all traditional religious authority and stressed on the importance of knowledge free from all religious biases. They pointed out the creation of a form of knowledge which was not influenced by any religious ideas or superstitions. A secular idea was born and this spread quickly throughout Europe. This led to the belief that all individuals are same and equal despite their religious and philosophical views.
It was the idea of Individualism which was the starting point of all scientific knowledge. Science was the supreme form of knowledge as scientific facts were based on observation and experiments. This led to an increase in objective ideas and decrease in belief of superstitions. The philosophers wrote in a very direct way and took clear positions. They wrote about important changes and transitions going on in the society. A traditional social order was replaced by a modern State. The formation of a political State took place and the powers shifted from the hands of the Church to the State. Society was no longer dependent on the traditional religious institutions. It was believed that the application of reason and scientific knowledge could remove the cruelty and injustice from social institutions. The works of Voltaire instilled a desire for new ideas and belief in progress among the Europeans.
Thinkers like Saint Simon greatly influenced the societal processes. According to him modern society was threatened by anarchy and disorder. To bring back social order a Science of Society would be necessary. He constructed a ‘Social Physiology’ to bring order and stability in the society. He believed that modern society would flourish if science and industry were used for the service of humans. A major social re-organisation would be necessary to bring about order and proceed towards a successful social change which would bring about societal progress. Although his ideas were neglected at first, as Europe became engulfed with disorder and war, these ideas started influencing people. Eventually Saint Simon became a key figure in the liberal political movements of Europe.