The European Enlightenment: the men behind it

Essay by michellynetteCollege, UndergraduateB+, March 2008

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The European Enlightenment of the eighteenth century was a movement inspired by the era preceding it; the seventeenth century was full of scientific discovery which challenged age-old beliefs and built faith in man’s reason rather than superstition and religion. Impressed with the works and philosophies of men such as Descartes and Galileo, intellectuals began to construct new ways of thinking that relied on man’s ability to apply reason to not only physics, but to human nature. The conceptual force behind the Enlightenment therefore began in the seventeenth century with the rise of human reason above blind faith, and the concept took form and flourished in the eighteenth century due to a group of writers and intellectual thinkers called the philosophes. These men, among who were the influential Voltaire and Diderot, believed that reasoning and education could dispel the darkness of the past and propel people into progression.

The seventeenth century has been called the Century of Genius, and it was its scientific background that stirred the following century into its movement toward Enlightenment and reasoning.

European thinkers’ interest in the tangible world was developing into studies of earth science and astronomy, leading notables such as Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei to take old, beloved ‘truths’ of Aristotle and disprove them. René Descartes, dubbed the ‘Founder of Modern Philosophy’ would be hugely influential for the following philosophes in the coming century. His Meditations of First Philosophy provided people with a framework of discovering truth by constructing a fundamental set of principles that one could employ to uncover possible doubt. Employing his method of Methodological skepticism he assessed the truth of beliefs and ideas, doubting anything that could be doubted. Consequently, Descartes was willing only to fully accept his own and God’s existence, coining the famous phrase ‘’Cogito, ergo sum’’, ’I think,