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The Enlightenment Period

Updated May 11, 2022
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The Enlightenment Period essay

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The enlightenment period gave way to a revolution of new wave thinking and challenged the traditional thoughts and ideas. There are multiple ways that the Enlightenment was experienced at the time when viewed by people of different backgrounds, some had a better experience than others. The movement changed people’s viewpoints and the way they approached critical thinking about life, earth, religion, politics, and societal issues. The Enlightenment or ‘Age of Enlightenment” in the late 17th and 18th centuries provided people with hope as it brought about more of an intellectual movement bringing in individualism, skepticism of the modern world order and reason, some would even call the Enlightenment philosophers and writers the liberals of their day. Along with new ideas came new music, art and literature that became popular because it provoked people’s minds. As urban European societybegan to change in different ways during the Enlightenment movement, several ideas of the past were still relevant to the time, but with people gained freedom of intellect, became more knowledgeable and powerful, they began to challenge traditional religious views and focused more on ideas based on science and philosophy.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality among Men, shows just one example of how the Enlightenment affected freedom of knowledge. As the middle class grew to become more educated, they also began to question what they knew about life thus far. Rousseau believed that there is hope for restoration of humanity and progress that can come from human reason and intellectual freedom or knowledge. Many key writers like Rousseau did not see religion as an end all be all, where one does not have to think deeper about the true meaning of why humans are alive, they wanted more than that. He attempted to describe the foundations underlying modern civil society and he sought to further dissect the natural world including man. When he delved further he saw that men do not naturally hold the things that had been believed to be necessary, such as property, politic, and law but instead found reasoning. He believed that need and corruption fed into the domination of man and that no one person could be free if they are reliant on others. In the text, Rousseau pondered the inequality of mankind, “One cannot ask what is the source of natural inequality, because the answer would be found in the simple definition of the word”(Lualdi, 95). Philosophers and all humans must look at the root of society and its shortcomings to find what is truly the nature of man. For European society, this aided people to look within themselves and ponder what they believe in, not just what was put in place for them. They were then introduced to the light of reason and truth rather than just opinions of rulers or the church.

Jacques-Lois Menetra in, Journal of My Life, exposed readers to his everyday life and experiences during the Enlightenment. At the end of the journal entry, Menetra wrote about an interaction with a friend of his, “His one and only response was to say to me All these mysteries must be believed because the Church believes them he said to me My friend you are enlightened It is necessary that for the sake of government nations live always in ignorance and credulity I answered him So be it” (Lualdi, Page 101). This goes to show that at the time and even as of now people often follow a belief that they don’t necessarily know the true meaning behind. This journal shows Menetra’s ideas as he challenged thoughts on God and why people are desperate to have something to cling to. Another quote discussing peoples’ firm belief in God and religion in his journal says, “We even worship a piece of dough which we eat in the firm belief that it is God And those idolators only worship all those things” (Lualdi, Page 101). Menetra also studied and then challenged religion and what it further meant at the time. Through this quote and the journal, it is apparent that he did not believe in the religious movement. He was curious as to why an inanimate object or food people would worship as if it is greater than themselves and humanity. He questioned religious tolerance at the time and the true meaning of the human spirit paired with intellectual freedom. This lead European society to stray further away from religion and God’s ideas and enabled them to have the freedom to think for themselves and find worship and enlightenment within.

Adam Smith, a Scottish philosopher during the time of the Enlightenment wrote, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, which became popular in discussions relating to economic markets and the governments interference within it, coming up with the “invisible hand” idea that is a self-sustaining force aiding in the natural flow of supply and demand. The three main ideas that Smith believed in and that helped shape how we think about government today include: enlightened self-interest, a more limited government, and a solid currency and free market economy. “As every individual, therefore, endeavors as much as he can both to employ his capital in the support of domestic industry, and so to direct that industry that its produce may be of the greatest value, every individual necessarily labors to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can” (Lualdi, 106). In this quote, Smith talks about how the free market and economy could work like gears grinding if every man put his effort in as much as he can for a better society. He gave many people the feeling of freedom and potential wealth for everyone including people who were of the lower class. The idea of having no government interference and having only the self-interest of the masses aiding the free market gave people a sense of community and will to work together.

In 1752, Frederick II wrote the Political Testament in which he discussed his modern views on politics and philosophy with strong Enlightenment period views. “All actions taken must be well reasoned, and all financial, political and military matters must flow towards one goal: which is the strengthening of the state and the furthering of its power” (Lualdi, 109) His focus was on government and philosophy becoming intermixed. He took part in enlightened absolutism, using one’s power for good of society as a whole. His work made for a revolution in Prussia and had lasting marks for government in Europe, because people started to realize there is more to the power than they were getting out of it. The social contract arose during this time, where the government began to see that in order to stay relevant and in power they had to do right by their people and create a better lifestyle for them and people would continue to allow them to stay in power. The hope was that rulers would use reason to make all decision and therefore creating a greater good for humanity. This gave the middle class a moment of relaxation and it changed how they spent their time, such as meeting with each other at salons to discuss current issues and to question the status quo.

An Italian aristocrat and lawyer, Cesare Beccaria wrote a model for legal reform during this time. Similar to Frederick II, he worked on the reformation of the judicial practices and the legal system as a whole. He claimed that the system by which the law took criminals in and dealt with them did not work and needed to find something new that would help society improve. He strongly believed that torturing criminals to get confessions out of them was wrong and ineffective, also one of the first people to speak against the death penalty. In more ways than that he was a pioneer in creating change within the law. “A strange consequence which necessarily follows from the use of torture is that the innocent are put in a worse position than the guilty. For, if both are tortured, the former has everything against him” (Lualdi, 103). His push for a more justice based program system and forward thinking laws remain important throughout history. These new findings in the judicial system impacted the way the middle class thought of criminality and equality. Society began to think deeper about the root of problems and finding a long-term solution rather than an instant fix. These new ideas were rich in positive change and community improvement.

In the final analysis of the Enlightenment, it is clear that Rousseau, Menetra, Smith, Beccaria and Frederick II among many other philosophers and writers helped form a new wave of thinking and a newfound cultural movement that has continued to this day by exposing people to different ideas and the understanding of life. These sources prove that the Enlightenment had a theme of freedom through intellect, using reason for decisions within government and law and cultivating a society where everyone is better off from listening to each other and cooperating together. People had previously been exposed to religion, but during this time they were introduced to ideas involving critical thinking and democracy. Society overall, but mainly the middle class, improved in many ways including women gaining more equality, people becoming more intellectual and pushing themselves to think deeper and question about what is going on in the natural world around them.

 

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