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Ashish Gautam

MA English (Previous)

The Designation of the Eighteenth Century in England as the Age of Reason

18th century throughout Europe was one of the most tumultuous times in terms of development of

some of the radical ideas which still permeate the modern thought. It can be asserted without any shred of

doubt that modern philosophy and liberal ideas as we recognize them today would not have been possible

if the intellectual movement that we designate as Enlightenment had not occurred. The Enlightenment

occasionally called the Age of Reason was an age dominated by ideas which centered and put utmost

emphasis on Reason as the primary source of knowledge. The legitimacy that reason had enjoyed

during that age made it possible for ideals like liberalism, tolerance , free speech, separation of church and

state, and multitude of other ideologies to flourish. Only the ideas which could survive the meticulous

critical rationalist inquiry were allowed the privilege of mainstream discourse.

To understand how the intellectual and philosophical movements gained so much momentum

which enabled such radicalism- undermining the religious order the power of the monarch-one has to

examine the contribution of the 17th century Scientific Revolution. Tracing the beginning of the

Enlightenment as far as the early 17th century facilitates analysis of the prevalent radicalism of the

subsequent century. There was already a deep current of rationalism deriving its influence from the

Renaissance that flowed during the 17th Century thought which produced thinkers like Hobbes, Descartes,

Francis Bacon, John Locke, Baruch Spinoza, Isaac Newton etc. These thinkers had already systematically

unified and formulated the systems of logic, ontology, epistemology, politics etc.

The 17th century is responsible for the conception of the two schools of philosophy that would

dominate the 18th century thought: empiricism and rationalism. In fact much of the 18th century

philosophical thoughts emerge out of dialectic between these schools. The empiricists belief all

knowledge could be gained only through the senses and experiences whereas the rationalist belief that all
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knowledge can be acquired from employing reason- which all the humans possess as an innate quality.

These strains of thoughts reconciled and clashed in the 18th century, out of this conflict emanated some of

the most radical thought systems in the history of Western Philosophy.

Inherited with the logical severity of the ideas of Hobbes and Descartes, the 18th century thinkers

incorporated concepts from both the schools in order to critique the traditional worldview which had a

devastating effect on the legitimacy of the Church. Since the 18th century thought considered reasonand

rationality as paramount it generated a bitter resentment against any doctrine that couldnt be verified

with scientific method marking the decline of supernatural mysticism. The dogmatic ideas of the Catholic

Church were the primary target and since the Church was intertwined with the monarchy the latter faced

the onslaught of radical thinkers culminating in the execution of Louis XVI of France and thus beginning

the demand of republics throughout Europe.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau influenced the ideals of the French Revolution with his two works which

are cornerstones in the Western political thought: The Social Contract and Discourse on Inequality. These

subversive works inspired the general populace of France and subsequently other nations to question the

authority of the monarchy and demand a society based on equality.

The scientific temperament was so deeply entrenched in the 18th century that religion itself was

appropriated in rational terms. An illustration of this is Deism, which is a philosophical position which

propounds that God after creating the Universe endowed it with some natural laws and left it to function

accordingly, never to intervene in its mechanisms. This non-interventionist concept of God relegated him

the position of the first mover of the natural laws and stripped him of the authority that he wielded in

moral and ethical matters that he had enjoyed hitherto. The word of God (scriptures) devoid of its

legitimacy could not succeed in opposing the proliferation of ideas deviating from the God-centric

worldview and the rise of dissenting ideas.

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The question whether Enlightenment was an overarching unifying phenomenon that occurred in a

similar fashion throughout Europe or whether there were different national Enlightenments has been a

contentious and controversial matter for a long time now. Perhaps a survey of two of the 18th Century

British philosophers would throw some light on the backdrop of Enlightenment in England. David Hume

a Scottish philosopher developed the schools of thought of empiricism and skepticism. He proposed that

all human behavior and thoughts are governed by passion rather than reason. Being an empiricist he

believed humans are born with no innate ideas and all our behaviors and knowledge are founded solely

on experience and sensual perception. Another philosopher whose ideas impacted much of the English

thought was Sir Isaac Newton who completely transformed the field of Science. Widely known in his

time as a natural philosopher he not only made groundbreaking contribution to the field of optics,

physics, mathematics he furthermore influenced other Enlightenment thinkers to appropriate his ideas

about natural law and the singular concept of nature to other fields such as social, physical and


Philosophers such as Locke and Voltaire employed Newtons idea of natural law to the domain of

politics to promote intrinsic rights. Adam Smith attempted to apply natural conceptions of psychology

and self-interest to his theory of economy; and sociologist of his time tried to use his universal law for

critiquing the social hierarchies of its time. It was due to Newtons theories about the harmony between

the natural world and its corresponding laws that Deism as a theology acquired prevalence.

One of the most intriguing characteristic of the age was how these profound ideas were

disseminated into the society. The Church deprived of its authority as the source of knowledge resulted in

emergence of the coffee houses where like-minded people would come together to discuss new ideas.

These coffee houses were perceived as grave threat and subversive by the nobility as they were

frequented by people from multitude of classes. A class which had sustained itself by perpetuating the

class disparity had valid reasons to resent institutions or platforms which allowed the dissipation of class

hierarchies and encouraged dialectics.

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The ideas of 17th century transferred their momentum to the subsequent age which rendered the

18th century as the Age of Reason. This emphasis on reason and rationality had permeated every aspect

of life that even the literature of this time dealt with issues of rationality producing poetry that was

excessively artificial, mechanical and impassive. Alexander Popes extremely technical poetry in terms of

its exactness and linguistic structure is demonstrative of the Enlightenment values into the literature of

this time.

This fixation on meticulous preciseness owes its wide use to the scientific temperament of the

age. Literature had to incorporate and integrate scientific themes and methods to its form as it had been

losing its prophetic character since the scientific revolution. Science had replaced Literature as the

domain of the intellectual and enlightened thus compelling writers to implement scientific elements to

survive in the face of great uncertainty about anything irrational.

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Works Cited

Heyller, Marcus. The Scientific Revolution: The Essential Readings 2003


Class Notes