The Enlightenment


The historical analysis of different events enhances the understanding of the key processes in the societies of the world as well as their intercultural influence. It brings the understanding that even distant continents may be connected by similar philosophic ideas and concepts, which allow people forming their states. A vivid example of this is the history of the US, the beginning of which was significantly influenced by great European thinkers. One of the most impactful philosophic ideas in this respect is the Enlightenment. It is characterized as the boom in core scientific and philosophic ideas that allowed the European societies becoming free from the rule of the Catholic Church and evolving to other constitutional forms. One of the most important aspects in this respect is the fact that the power of the Enlightenment was so great that its ideas transited to America and became the foundation for its Constitution. This paper investigates the historical processes preceding the Enlightenment and this philosophic and scientific movement as well. It puts special accent at the formation of ideas of government and their further influence on the American Enlightenment. The preformed investigation allows stating that the ideas of the European Enlightenment such as the forms of government, the importance of freedom and tolerance was of critical importance for the formation of the American Government. This analysis is an important procedure for those interested in international relations as it demonstrates the impact of international ties at the early stages of constitutional development.

The Dark Ages

It is critical to characterize the historical periods that preceded the Enlightenment because of their contrasting nature and impact on the social life. In this respect, one of the most controversial periods in the history of Europe is the Dark Ages. Its beginning is mostly associated with the fall of the Roman Empire that left numerous previously invaded countries on their own without the leadership of the emperor. As a result, the European monarchs and the Catholic Church gradually started oppressing the predominantly illiterate population of their countries. One of the instruments serving as the basis for oppression was a set of religious dogmas, which, as it turned out later, resulted in tortures practiced by the representatives of the Church. In general, this period was extremely bloody because of the two factors, which are the Inquisition and Crusades. During these events, people did not have a choice but to obey the Church and their rulers because any objection led them to a capital punishment that was death. The influence of the Catholic Church during that period grew so strong that it even endangered the monarchs leading to concealed struggle for the state power. Hundreds of thousands people were threatened by the Church because they could be proclaimed heretics for any deed that opposed dogmas, which resulted in quick Inquisition inspection, torturing and deaths. This systematic brutal punishment took a period of over six centuries becoming a legal framework throughout most of Europe depriving heretics of their estate and assets that became the possession of the Catholic treasury. Moreover, it is the period when torturing became a form of a brutal art and numerous torturing machines and techniques were invented. As a consequence, no wonder that any attempt or, most often, publically expressed idea that contradicted a set of Christian dogmas led to the death of the “heretic.”


One of the examples of oppression of the representatives of philosophic and scientific ideas and the Church is the case of Galileo Galilei and the Roman Catholic Inquisition. Thus, a scientist published the results of his observations in telescope in 1610 where he stated that the heliocentric theory of Nicolas Copernicus of 1543 seemed to be correct. This fact immediately attracted the attention of the Inquisition and the scientist had a series of meetings with the Pope Paul V, Cardinal Bellarmine attempting to defend himself. It was not a surprise that his ideas were proclaimed heresy, but he was lucky to be released with a promise of non-publishing his heretic discoveries. In 1624, Galileo has meetings with Pope Urban VIII, who allows him publishing his ideas in a form of mathematic theories. However, he managed to publish in Vatican a later work of 1630 discussing the Ptolemaic and Copernican models, which led to a series of interrogations and his home arrest until his death. Therefore, a period of Dark Ages that lasted from the fifth to the fifteenth century was extremely difficult for the European citizens and severely restrained development of scientific and philosophical ideas. However, further rise of the European nations was impossible to stop because of the unstoppable interest to science, arts and philosophy.

The Renaissance and the Reformation Period

It is significant to mention that critical social changes associated with Reformation became possible due to the period in European known as the Renaissance. It lasted from the fourteenth to the fifteenth century and its critical characteristic is reawakening of public interest to knowledge, science, art and culture. The revival of art and literature started in Italy, because after the fall of Constantinople a lot of Greek scholars migrated to Florence, and gradually spread to the rest of Europe. One of the most critical ideas of this period is the revision of the attitude towards the position of a human in the world. Thus, man becomes the centre of interest and the subject of analysis of different artistic approaches developing individualism and the cult of creative personality. Moreover, the European thinkers turned to the ideas of ancient Greek scholars searching for the source of their own concepts applied towards the society. As a consequence, scholars stated that Europe faced with new cultural phenomena that were urban and bourgeois, being the remarkable economic progress after 1000 A. D.. Thus, one of the main features of Renaissance was that arts were no longer associated as separate activities but were a part of the general social, cultural and philosophical pattern of human activity.

Furthermore, the period of Reformation is characterized with a transition of social accents from arts to science making it a period of scientific discoveries. As a result, this period is associated with “debates over the authority of the papacy, the sacraments of the church, and the lives and the miracles of the saints”. In these debates, surprisingly, the representatives of science and the emerging religious movements used the examples of the lives of the saints and their miracles against the Catholic Church. Therefore, scholars claim that the Reformation both shaped, and was shaped by, the history of the medieval church. In this respect, one should mention the role of Martin Luther King, one of the Christian scholars that impacted the period of Reformation. He was outraged by the policy of selling indulgences by popes that provided absolution to sinners demonstrating corruption. One of King’s works named “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” became known as “The 95 Theses”, which debated Christian dogmas. As a result, Protestant Reformation initiated with the formation of a new religious movement branching from Catholic Christianity. Therefore, despite the critique and change of religious dogmas were not yet secular, it proved the fact that the power of Church significantly weakened leaving the space for a free philosophic and scientific thought.

Scientific Revolution

The impact of the ideas of Renaissance and Reformation was so significant that it gradually changed the approach to philosophy and investigations giving the birth to modern scientific approach. The quantity of questions put before the Catholic Church because of contradicting natural evidence was increasing. In a situation when even Christian scholars such as Martin Luther King were criticizing the Catholic Church the dogmatic system started collapsing. As a result, the Age of Scientific Revolution is characterized as the beginning of the descriptive and theoretical science that shaped such areas as chemistry, biology, physics, astronomy and other. Another aspect is that scientists at that time started rejecting Aristotelian way of thinking, which was based mostly on pagan reflections. Instead, observation, practice and analysis entered the scientific world making it more rational and objective. As a result, the vast number of scientific ideas emerged starting interdisciplinary discussions that, to a great irritation of the Catholic scholars, were contradicting with or even bypassing different religious dogmas. For instance, the disputed ideas of heliocentrism, gravitation, the nature of electricity, chemical reactions and atomic nature of things were proclaimed as a heresy. However, because the power of Catholic Church was degrading, it was impossible to stop scientific curiosity. Additionally, the evidence that heresy is actually a scientifically approved truth led scientists to further questioning about the nature of things resulting in different inventions and devices. Among them were thermometer, hydrometer, calculating machines and other, which were of a great use for the scientists following the forming principle of Baconian experimental approach. One of the important aspects in this respect is that the ideas of natural science were shifting to the sphere of politics forming different social theories.

The Age of Reason

Formation of new social theories was a part of a European intellectual movement of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries known as the Age of Reason. It strongly opposed tradition and dogmas and emphasized individualism and reason, which gave the name to the whole historical period. The ideas expressed by the philosophers of the 17th century such as Locke and Newton gave the basis for the Age of Reason serving as the critical basis of that time. For instance, in one of his works, “Dissertations on Prophesies”, Newton reviewed Christian dogmatic miracles and other aspects taken for granted from the point of view of science. As a result, it turned out that the major part of miracles breaks the fundamental laws of physics or even the simplest calculations connected with weight and volume of objects. Such works served as the basis for stating that mind should be free from the ideas of myth and magic as they are unnatural traditional superstitions. Therefore, the works similar to the Newton’s one started practicing a scientific approach regarding any investigated object demonstrating the influence of idea of the Age of Reason in action. One more scholar of that time, whose works were of tremendous importance for the Age of Reason, was John Locke. An example of his work at that time is an essay “Concerning Human Understanding” published in 1690 where he discusses the nature of known and unknown objects. Characterizing its influence, scholars state that it is “an inquiry into the extent and limits of human knowledge together with the grounds and degrees of belief, opinion and assent”. Furthermore, he rejected the possibility of existence of innate ideas and claimed that ideas in brain appear as a result of the physical stimuli. These and other important concepts added to the scientific milestones of the Age of Reason finally ending the abuses practiced by the state and the church.

Enlightened Ideas of Government

It is significant to denote that the scientific ideas of the Enlightenment discussed not only the nature of objects and the human mind, but the principles of functioning of the society as a whole. Therefore, one can say that the Enlightenment was the source for the ideas forming the concept of the republic and the government. In this respect, one of the most significant works at that time was John Locke’s “Treatises of Government” released anonymously in 1829. This work has a nature of political and philosophical reflections about the nature of the state and the governing powers that impact its development. Originally, the author intended entering a social dispute justifying the ascension of William III to the throne of the Duch Republic after the overthrow of King James II of England. However, the paper turns out to addresses different ideas that form a modern framework for the formation and function of the government. Thus, the first part of the publication discusses the unjust regulation of the society by patriarchism justified by the divine origin. As a result of contesting the postulates of the Scripture, the author concludes that the ideas expressed there are totally senseless in attempts of justifying the divine nature of kings’ power. Furthermore, Locke did not stop on criticism and proposed his view of the state of the civil society introducing the concept of the state of nature arguing that all people are naturally equal. As a result, this statement gave birth to such concepts as civil liberty, freedom of choice, the ideas about property, and the principles of functioning of civilization as a whole. Thus, it was Locke that introduced the idea that governments should only exist by the agreement of the governed, which creates a precedent of legitimacy. In contrast, Locke states that non legitimate governments formed without consent of the citizens should be overthrown. At the same time, the author also expressed revolutionary views upon religion that oppressed people for several centuries. Thus, according to Locke’s “A Letter About Toleration” only tolerant and non-aggressive religions are possible in the society. Therefore, the ideas of Locke formed shaping a social view that further led to a series of revolutions opening the way to republican forms of the Government. At the same time, international connections with America allowed these views shaping its own ideas towards forming a republic.

The American Enlightenment

The American Enlightenment was a specific form of a social and political movement, which, though was influenced by its European counterpart, took a specific form connected with the need for freedom and Revolution. Thus, one of the core ideas derived by the American Enlightenment was rationalism and rejection of traditional dogmas supporting the role of church and monarchy expressed by Locke. The American thinkers accepted the concepts of justice, freedom and equality, which were considered fundamental human rights. However, the fundamental American difference from the European Enlightenment is its history. Thus, first American citizens experienced no oppression from the Catholic Church and monarchy though attempted to recover their traditional way of life. The positive aspect of this historical reality is that American governmental bodies were free from the elements of feudalism and monarchy, which was a common thing in Europe. As a result, there was practically no restraint for the development of the political and philosophical ideas of the Enlightenment brought from Europe. This led to the formation of the new concepts in politics, government and religion preparing the basis for the change of colonial America. Scholars characterize them as six key ideas shaping the American Enlightenment consisting of deism, liberalism, republicanism, conservatism, toleration and scientific progress. Considering religion, one should note that due to the fact that there was no pressure from the church, colonial America had different religious flows in coexisting agreement. Thus, toleration was practiced in mostly religious aspect of life but had a perspective of consideration of racial differences. This led to the fact that deism, or the belief that God created the universal laws governing nature, became popular in political thinkers. Furthermore, liberalism postulated that ell human beings have equal rights with republicanism stating that such societies should function in a form of republic that grants justice and equality. At the same time, conservatism was the opposing political and philosophical movement in America and aimed at adapting traditional British ideas in local realities. Lastly, American thinkers and scientists accepted the evidence of European scientific discoveries with a great enthusiasm initiating the American Philosophical Society with Benjamin Franklin as its first president.

Furthermore, there is a need for characterizing the key figures of the American Enlightenment, who significantly forced its shaping and bridged its ideas to Revolution. Thus, along with Franklin, who belongs to one of the most significant individuals in the American history, the American Enlightenment was inspired by the ideas of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and John Adams. All of them constituted scientific, philosophical and political elite of the country that successfully put their theoretical reflections into practice. For instance, Franklin actively discussed and promoted ideas of industry, philanthropy and voluntarism, Jefferson developed ideas of property, Madison formed the critical concepts of the Constitution and Adams was a successful promoter of republicanism. Therefore, mentioned political leaders successfully used the realities of their days in order to develop the best ideas of the Enlightenment and its leaders such as John Locke and put into practice. Consequently, American Enlightenment was one of the most important periods in the history of America leading to the Revolution and formation of the republican form of the government.


Summarizing the presented information, the paper concludes that the European Enlightenment had a significant impact on the American Enlightenment and further formation of this country as a republic. The historical analysis of the core philosophical, scientific and political ideas demonstrates that European citizens had hard times during the Dark Ages. Monarchy and the Catholic Church were oppressing people restraining their individual and social development. However, gradually, the philosophical and scientific ideas emerged as a result of Renaissance were preparing the ground for further scientific, philosophical and political revolution. The core ideas expressed by Martin Luther King, Newton and Locke were one of the most important for the Age of Reason forming the concepts of a society free form church and kings’ power. These ideas were so powerful, that they reached America and impacted formation of its own social and political processes known as the American Enlightenment. Furthermore, American political and philosophical elite of that time, Franklin, Jefferson, Madison and Adams developed the concepts of the American Enlightenment and put them into practice leading the nation to revolution. Therefore, both European and American Enlightenment movements gradually shaped the idea of the modern civil society where all individual has equal rights and liberties. Further revolutions of the world led to the actual establishment of the republican form of government where there was no place for monarchy oppressing people.

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