The best thing you can really say about the Age of Enlightenment is that it was nice while it lasted. Sure, it was better than the Dark Ages, but what wasn’t? In any case I have to wonder where it all got us in the end. To my thinking, without the Age of Enlightenment, we would still be a long way from the end.
The Age of Enlightenment can be considered to have begun with Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626) and the scientific revolution of the 17th century. Bacon is considered the Father of Empiricism, and disputed the long held belief that if sufficiently clever people discussed a subject long enough, they were certain to come upon either the truth or a deadly weapon. Bacon opined that truth required evidence, although he had no evidence to support this. In 1603, Bacon was knighted for his work by King James I and appointed keeper of the great seal, which greatly improved his standing among the lesser seals.
Bacon’s empiricism gave birth to Isaac Newton (1642 – 1726), considered the Father of Science, thus also somehow making Newton the father of Bacon. Don’t ask, they did things differently then. Even today, thanks to his work in mathematics, physics, optics, and astronomy, he is consistently voted the most influential scientist of all time. Thanks to his insecurities, depression, violent temper, and proven ability to destroy the reputation of anyone who criticized him, he is also usually voted the scientist you would least like to be stuck on a deserted island with. Newton was so far ahead of his time that he was the first scientist to be buried in Westminster Abbey.
The main reason though for this period in history being called the Age of Enlightenment is because it was full of philosophers. You pretty much couldn’t throw a stone without hitting one, which is just what people were warned would happen if they stopped doing that. Not since ancient Greece had deep thinking been this popular and produced so few casualties. Everyone and his brother believed themselves philosophers now and there was nothing you could do about it. Thinking had become the new stoning. It was starting to be understood that if you could throw a bunch of philosophers at a problem, there was about a 50 percent chance you’d either get results or more problems. At the time these were thought to be great odds.
Rene Descartes (1596 – 1650) has been known as the Father of Modern Philosophy ever since he rescued it from the streets of Paris and gave it a good home. Descartes was a Rationalist, and reasoned that if you weren’t a father, then you had no business trying to understand anything about life, particularly the nature of existence and the relationship of the mind to the body. To these points, Descartes mind said, “What relationship? I think, therefore I am in little need of a body.” To which Descartes body replied, “Well if his mind expects me to make the first move, forget about it. Bodies have gotten along just fine without minds for centuries.” This is an example of a rational argument. Descartes believed in free will and thinking for oneself, up to a point. The church made sure he was aware of that point. Descartes body died in Sweden, but his mind lives on in modern philosophers who need to get out more.
Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1679) is known as the Father of Modern Political Philosophy. Early enlightened thinkers believed you can never have too many fathers. This was considered a good joke among early enlightened mothers. Hobbes believed that people by nature are selfish, fearful, violent, and lacking in good morals and good hygiene, and that without a strong central authority, the life of man would be nasty, brutish, and short. All women, whether enlightened or not, believed this had the makings of a good joke too.
John Locke (1632 – 1704) shattered the idea that philosophers needed to be fathers, and so never married. This is considered one of his greatest achievements. Locke was born in England, which was one of the few countries not embroiled in the thirty years war, and so argued that people were naturally cooperative and reasonable. He believed that Hobbes just got up on the wrong side of the bed. He also believed that when people were born, their minds were a blank slate. In hindsight we can confirm that for many people, this was about the best that could be hoped for. Locke also strongly argued for the rights to life, liberty, religious tolerance, and a government by the consent of the people. These ideas went over big in America, especially once all the blank slates eventually came to believe they meant something completely different.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778) is known as the Father of the French Revolution because people have a short memory. Oddly enough he died before giving birth. Rousseau was famous for stating in The Social Contract that “man is born free yet everywhere is in chains,” his 1762 broadside on inequality. This and Emile, his critique on the education system, won him exile and accusations of being the antichrist, when all he really wanted was for people to like him. They loved him later in the French Revolution when he wasn’t around to critique it.
The Age of Enlightenment came to a sudden end in 1793 with the Reign of Terror. For obvious reasons, this is considered the beginning of the Romantic Period.