It is known as the Illustration to an intellectual and cultural movement born in Europe in the middle of the seventeenth century, mainly in France, Germany and England, and which in some cases lasted until the nineteenth century.
Its name comes from its faith in reason and progress as illuminating forces of human life. For this reason, the 18th century, in which it had its true flowering, is known as the “Age of Enlightenment”.
The elementary postulates of the Enlightenment argued that human reason was capable of fighting the darkness of ignorance, superstition and tyranny, in order to build an ever better world. This spirit made its mark on the European politics, science, economics, arts and society of the time, making its way between the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy.
The French RevolutionIn this sense, it will represent a very problematic symbol of this new way of thinking, since when they got rid of the absolutist monarchy they also did so from the feudal order, in which Religion and the Church played a preponderant role.
The ideas of the Enlightenment
The characteristic ideas of this movement can be summarized as:
- Anthropocentrism. As in the rebirth, the world’s attention is focused on man rather than on God. The human being is considered, reason and thought through, as the organizer of his destiny, which translates into a secular order, in which man is capable of learning what is necessary to live better. Thus was born the notion of progress.
- Rationalism. Everything is understood through the filter of human reason and the experience of the sensible world, relegating superstitions, religious faith and also the emotional aspects of the psyche to the place of the dark and the monstrous. The cult of rationality does not look favorably on the unbalanced, the asymmetrical or the disproportionate.
- Hypercriticism. Enlightenment undertook the revision and reinterpretation of the past, which led to a certain political and social reformism, which will lead to the desire for political utopias. In this context, the works of Rousseau and Montesquieu will be key in the at least theoretical formulation of more egalitarian and fraternal societies.
- Pragmatism. A certain criterion of utilitarianism is imposed on thought, in which that which obeys a task of transformation of society is privileged. That is why certain literary genres such as the novel enter into crisis and the essay, learning novels and satires, comedies or encyclopedias are imposed.
- Imitation. Faith in reason and analysis often leads us to think of originality as a defect (especially in the highly restrictive French neoclassicism) and to think that works of art can be obtained simply by deducing and reproducing its constitutive recipe. In this aesthetic panorama, good taste reigns and the ugly, the grotesque or the imperfect is rejected.
- Idealism. A certain elitism in this model of thought rejects the vulgar, as a refuge from superstitions, retrograde morals and unworthy behaviors. In matters of language, cultured speech is privileged, purism is pursued and in artistic matters “distasteful” subjects such as suicide or crimes are rejected.
- Universalism. Against the national and traditional values that later the Romanticism exalted, the Enlightenment declares itself cosmopolitan and assumes a certain cultural relativity. Travel books are welcomed, and the exotic as a source of the human and the universal. Thus the Greco-Roman tradition is also imposed, considering it as “the most universal” of the existing ones.
Importance of Enlightenment
The Enlightenment was a decisive move in the history of Western thought, since it broke with the traditional precepts forged during the Middle Ages, thus displacing religion, the feudal monarchy and the Faith for scientific reason, bourgeois democracy and secularism and secularization (power passes to civil instances).
To that extent, it laid the foundations for the contemporary world and for the emergence of the Modernity. Science as the ruling discourse of the world, as well as the accumulation of knowledge, became important values, as evidenced by the appearance of the Encyclopedia, the sudden development in matters of physics, optics and mathematics, or the appearance in the Fine Arts of a Greco-Roman Neoclassicism.
Paradoxically, these foundations gave rise to the later appearance of the German romanticism, which opposed to the rationalist model the unbridled emotionality of the poet as the supreme value of the human and the artistic.
On the other hand, the Enlightenment witnessed the rise of the bourgeoisie as the new prevailing social class, which will be accentuated throughout the next century, relegating the aristocracy to a secondary role. Thanks to this, it begins to speak of constitutions and Liberalism, and later the Social Contract (in the verb of Jean Jacques Rousseau), Utopian Socialism, and political economy, from the hand of Adam Smith and his text will emerge. The Wealth of Nations (1776).
The mapping The world becomes an important objective, since the dark and secret world of medieval religion becomes the known and solar world of reason. Likewise, the first attempts at sanitation and medical development as a discourse of social importance are due to enlightened thinking.