Q. What was “enlightened” about the Age of Enlightenment? [UPSC- 2021]

Q. What was “enlightened” about the Age of Enlightenment? [UPSC- 2021]


  • Enlightenment was intellectual, philosophical, cultural and social movement. It spread throughout Europe (mainly Western Europe) during the 17th and 18th century. This period is called the Age of Enlightenment or the Age of Reason. It represented a huge departure from the Middle Ages of Europe. ©

Enlightened about the Age of Enlightenment:

  • The Enlightenment was not limited to innovations in philosophy, literature, mathematics, and science; in countries throughout Europe, it encompassed new thought and developments in a variety of other academic, artistic, and social fields. Most notable among these achievements were developments in economics, law, industrial technology, women’s rights, humanitarianism, and music.
  • Enlightenment was characterized by following fundamental features:
    • Reason/ Rationalism
      • There was glorification of human reason.
      • There was conviction that with the power of reason, humans could arrive at truth, discover natural laws regulating existence, improve the world and lead to human progress.
      • Enlightenment focused on man’s ability to reason, to look past the traditions and conventions that had dominated Europe in the past, and to make decisions for himself.
    • Naturalism/ Natural law
      • It presented scientific approach as a substitute for supernatural theological thoughts.
      • It was believed that natural laws (like Newton’s discovery) could be discovered which governs the universe.
      • The universe was considered as a giant machine whose functioning had been impeded because the machinery was not properly understood and once the basic laws that govern it is understood, this machine would operate properly.
    • Optimism of human progress
      • Enlightenment was based on the belief that steady betterment and ultimate perfecting of mankind is possible through increasing use of reason and broadening the knowledge of natural laws.
    • Humanism
      • It revolves around human-
        • human well being and welfare, human liberty, human dignity etc.
      • It rejects any idea or institution which restrains human. It may be society, church, absolutist monarchy etc.
      • Enlightenment challenged the authority of institutions that were deeply rooted in society, such as the Catholic Church.
    • Individualism
      • It emphasized the importance of the individual and his inborn rights.
    • Relativism
      • It was the concept that different cultures, beliefs, ideas, and value systems had equal merit.
  • Enlightenment ideas were reformative:
    • Reform in economy (for e.g. ideas of Adam Smith):
      • Laissez-faire became the slogan of the new economic liberty espoused by François Quesnay and his disciples and later popularised by Adam Smith (in Wealth of Nations)
    • Reform in law 
      • Ideas of Jeremy Bentham
      • During the Enlightenment, Italian scholar Cesare Beccaria (17381794) became a prominent voice in legal reform, questioning in the treatise On Crimes and Punishments (1764) how, in an enlightened age, atrocious legal unfairness and cruelty could go overlooked.
        • Beccaria demanded that firm legal codes be established based on reason rather than arbitrary decisions and that trials should be open to the public to ensure fairness.
      • The French satirist Voltaire also contributed to the fight for legal reform
    • Reform in Ethics
      • for e.g. ideas of Emmanuel Kant
    • Reform in religion
      • for e.g. ideas of Voltaire
    • Reform in society
      • Ideas of Rousseau
      • Women’s Rights:
        • The progressive thought of the Enlightenment also brought calls for increased women’s rights and equality. Olympe de Gouges, a writer and feminist activist in late-eighteenth-century France, solidified the movement with her 1791 Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen .
    • and so on.
  • Music:
    • The era also produced some of Western music’s most revered composers. These composers like Sebastian Bach synthesized styles and influences in a wide range of genres of both sacred and secular music.
  • During this age, there was struggle between ideas like struggle between:
    • liberty & despotism,
    • Protestantism & Catholicism,
    • authority & reason.
  • Enlightened despotism:
    • It is a form of absolute monarchy or despotism inspired by the Enlightenment. Enlightened monarchs (like Catherine the Great, Frederick the Great, Maria-Theresa and Joseph II of Austria) embraced its emphasis upon rationality. They tended to allow religious toleration, freedom of speech and the press, and the right to hold private property. Most fostered the arts, sciences, and education.
  • Answering the Question: What Is Enlightenment?” is a 1784 essay by Immanuel Kant, in which he explains about Enlightenment:
    • Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage (immaturity). Immaturity is man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another.
    • This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another.
    • Kant says that to truly reach enlightenment, man must be able to question and criticize the institution that is already in place, whether it be government or religion.
    • Kant says that the way is now being opened for men to proceed freely in this direction and that the obstacles to general enlightenment–to their release from their self-imposed immaturity–are gradually diminishing. In this regard, this age is the age of enlightenment. ©


Leave a Reply