Enlightenment – the age of reason

"Have courage to use your own mind!"

"Sapere aude!", or in German: "Have courage to use your own mind!" – that was the motto of the Enlightenment. This sounds quite logical to us today, of course you should use your common sense! However, the Age of Enlightenment was an epoch that brought about many changes and upheavals and set the course for the "modern world" posed. What characterized this period and who should be enlightened by whom at all?

Enlightenment - the age of reason

The philosophical enlighteners wanted to fight prejudices and superstitions by means of reason. Image: Illustration in the "Encyclopedia" 1772, the "truth revealed in the circle of the arts and sciences represents

The Age of Enlightenment, or simply the Enlightenment, was a period between the 17th century and the present. and 18. The nineteenth century, which was characterized by certain ideas and intellectual developments. The Enlightenment started in England, France, the Netherlands, and later in Germany, and then spread to North America. In Germany, the Enlightenment movement was particularly effective in the period between 1720 and 1800.

In general, the term "enlightenment" is understood to mean the project of finding answers to questions and eliminating doubts, prejudices or false assumptions through knowledge and new insights. In the Age of Enlightenment, human reason was declared to be the standard of all action: As already mentioned, one of the principles of the Enlightenment was to use one’s own intellect – only that which could be grasped and explained by it was taken as the basis and measure of all action Recognized for decisions and actions. One also speaks of the philosophical current of "rationalism" – This term is derived from the Latin word "Ratio" from, which means reason.

Break with old ideas

Enlightenment - the age of reason

The picture shows the physicist Galileo Galilei, who in the 17. He was accused by the church in the sixteenth century because he claimed that the earth revolved around the sun.

There was an effort to free oneself from old ways of thinking and former ideas. People should – unlike in the past – use their heads and not take anything for granted without questioning it by means of reason. This was mainly directed against blind obedience to the church and other authorities, against prejudices and superstitions, such as the witchcraft craze. In the eyes of the Enlightenment thinkers, reason alone was capable of bringing the truth to light, and reason and freedom were the right means to redeem people from oppression and poverty.

An important factor was education, because a saying that we still know today was also one of the guiding principles of the Enlightenment: "Knowledge is power". This phrase was coined by the English philosopher Francis Bacon and means that it is only through education and knowledge that a person is enabled to use his mind and become an independent and self-reliant person. Education and science were to be promoted and above all spread among all strata of the population. The Enlightenment thinkers wanted freedom and equality for all people as well as tolerance towards other religions – a demand that was extremely new and incisive in the society of the time.

Society in the Age of Enlightenment

Enlightenment - the age of reason

The society of the estates was divided into clergy (all clergy and church representatives), nobility, and citizens and peasants.

The call for freedom, equality and democracy was so groundbreaking and daring because the form of government at the time was "absolutism" was. This means that there was one person who ruled without restriction and interference from the outside. Society was divided into estates – if you belonged to one estate, it was almost impossible to become a member of another estate.

The society of the estates was divided into clergy (all clergy and church representatives), nobility (regardless of whether one was a higher or lower-ranking noble), and burghers and peasants. At the very top of the hierarchy were the bishops and the pope in the case of the clergy, and the princes, the king or the emperor in the case of the nobility. They ruled over the third estate, to which the majority of the population belonged. People at that time saw this order of estates as a God-given order. It was considered irrevocable, each person had his fixed place.

An idea starts rolling

Enlightenment - the age of reason

This painting by Theobald von Oer depicts Schiller reading in the Weimar circle of writers: Wieland and Herder sit on the left, Goethe stands in front of the column on the right.

In the 18. In the nineteenth century, criticism of this system, in which citizens and peasants had few rights and yet had to bear a heavy burden, began to be voiced. The peasants in particular had a hard time, because in addition to paying taxes to the state, they also had to pay taxes to the landlords whose land they used. Criticism of the old order of estates came mainly from the bourgeoisie, especially from scholars. But also some noblemen took a liking to the Enlightenment thoughts.

At first, the Enlightenment thinkers met only in small circles, but gradually the ideas became more widespread. Reading societies were formed, philosophers began to teach the principles of the Enlightenment at the universities, and through the arts they finally wanted to reach the general population. Before, it had been common for writers to receive their commissions from nobles or from the church, but now it was suddenly different: as is common today, authors and poets began to write for publishers, who in turn sold the books and writings to other people.

Enlightenment in art and literature

Enlightenment - the age of reason

The poet Gotthold Ephraim Lessing introduced something completely new to the world of theater: the bourgeois tragedy play, which no longer places aristocrats but bourgeois people at the center of the action.

Art played a very important role in the Age of Enlightenment, after all, it was the best way to reach not only the rich and the learned, but also the general public.
For with the help of art, the new ideas could be pleasantly packaged and thus better communicated. People did not have the impression of being instructed, but enjoyed a poem or a play and still got the ideas of the Enlightenment thinkers along the way.

The Enlightenment thinkers found certain genres ("text types") and forms of literature particularly suitable for teaching people. For example, fables were very popular in the Enlightenment, featuring animals that had human features and behaved like humans. The famous poet Gotthold Ephraim Lessing also introduced something completely new to the world of theater: the bourgeois tragedy play. Before that, it had been customary for the main characters in such tragedies to be exclusively noblemen. Lessing, however, put commoners at the center of his plays. Novels were also very popular during the Enlightenment to convey the new ideas to readers. In addition to the works written in Germany, novels, stories and plays were translated from French and English and published in Germany.

Important Enlightenment thinkers

Enlightenment - the age of reason

Immanuel Kant is considered the most important philosopher of the Enlightenment – in his work "What is Enlightenment??" he explains what the Enlightenment is all about.

The Age of Enlightenment, in addition to G. E. Lessing also produced a whole series of poets and thinkers who, because of their great influence, are still known to us today. The poet Christoph Martin Wieland, for example, is considered to be the most important narrator of the Enlightenment, because he wrote the first "Bildungsroman wrote. Well-known Enlightenment thinkers and philosophers are, for example, the German Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the French Rene Descartes, the Briton John Locke or the Scotsman David Hume.

The most important philosopher of the Enlightenment is considered to be the German thinker Immanuel Kant, who also wrote the guiding principle of the Enlightenment: "Have the courage to use your own intellect!", comes. According to Kant, enlightenment is "the exit of man from his self-inflicted immaturity" – This sentence has also become famous. His most important work is called "What is Enlightenment??" and explains exactly what the Enlightenment was all about.

Among the most important representatives of the French Enlightenment was the writer and philosopher Voltaire, whose works were also translated and eagerly read in other countries. He strongly condemned absolutism and also criticized the supremacy of the Catholic Church. Voltaire was characterized by the fact that his writings were easy to understand and also had a mocking undertone.

The consequences of the Enlightenment

Enlightenment - the age of reason

The declaration of human and civil rights as an achievement of the French Revolution, which was shaped by the Enlightenment

The Age of Enlightenment represented a major turning point in history and had serious repercussions. Thus, the events and upheavals at the time of the French Revolution in 1789 were largely determined by the Enlightenment. Although the "great revolution" can be in France cannot be attributed solely to the Enlightenment movement, but the revolutionary leaders were all adherents of Enlightenment ideas – the guiding principles of the revolution were "Liberty, Equality and Fraternity".

As a result of the Revolution, absolutism was abolished in France. Among the most important achievements of the Enlightenment were the enactment of the first democratic constitutions and the establishment of indispensable human rights. The first of these constitutions, based on the thoughts and ideals of the Enlightenment, was the Declaration of Independence of the founding colonies of the USA in 1776, followed 15 years later by the democratic constitutions of France and Poland.

Criticism of the Enlightenment’s view of man

Enlightenment - the age of reason

The animal as a complicated machine: Descartes assumed that animals do not possess minds. But he also imagined the human body in the sense of an automaton, which, however, can make contact with the human mind.

There is no doubt that the Age of Enlightenment set the course for the "modern world". At the end of the 17. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the ideal of "reason-driven action" became a reality but also increasingly questioned – some of the criticism came from representatives of the Enlightenment itself. The English philosopher and Enlightenment philosopher Shaftesbury, for example, assumed a "sense of the moral who is not guided by rational strategies, but by feelings. The one-sided "dominion of the mind was seen by critics as a departure from sentiment and fantasy, against which, for example, from the late 18. The "Romantics" of the nineteenth century turned.

Many contemporary thinkers, writers and artists criticized the fact that the Enlightenment conception of man did not take into account the "whole person" and reduce him to a being of intellect that lives in a machine-like body. Similarly, the faith in progress – the naive trust in the achievements of science and technology – was denounced. Doubts arose as to whether the problems and conflicts in human coexistence could be eliminated in a social order guided by reason, and whether the world could actually be made "better and better" through scientific progress and become fairer.

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