Science, the Enlightenment and Politics: Which is more important?

This essay argues that the Enlightenment is the most important concept among the three given in the title. The Age of Enlightenment was a period in early modern history when western societies, led by its intellectuals, made a marked shift from religion based authority to one of scientific reason. Prior to this period, the Church and the State were intricately interlinked; and the Enlightenment sought to sever states and politics from religion through the application of rational analysis based on scientific observation and facts. This movement traces its origins to the seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe. Similar undercurrents of progressive thought were seen in the New World as well, most notably from such intellectuals such as Tom Paine and other proponents of American independence (Porter & Teich, 1981).

The Enlightenment has had a profound impact on the cultural evolution of Western Europe in particular and the whole of the continent in general. A landmark piece of scholarship that turned the tables in favor of scientific reasoning is Newton’s analysis and description of natural physical phenomena. The immediate impact was discernible in written literature of the day, due to the scope of this medium of art (Brians, Paul, 1998). On the other hand, it took longer for ideas of the Enlightenment to penetrate into art forms such as music and painting due to the emphasis on traditionally acquired technique in these art forms.

The Age of Enlightenment also gave birth to the neoclassical school of art, which found its highest expression in the Literature of the day. All forms of literature, ranging from prose, narrative verse, poetry, plays, etc were infused with newly discovered scientific truths and newly evolving systems of natural philosophy. Such luminaries as Alexander Pope, Phyllis Wheatley, Voltaire and Jonathan Swift among others were at the forefront of this paradigm change in socio-cultural expression. A special mention has to be made on the role of the Novel in this epoch making age. The broad scope of intellectual discourse offered by the Novel was utilized very cleverly and ingenuously by such writers as Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richarrdson, Henry Fielding, Aphra Behn, Fanny Burney, etc (Paul Brians, 1998).

Given the revolutionary change in the cultural landscape that the Enlightenment affected, it is easy to see its relevance to the world of today. The field of enquiry where the ideas of the Enlightenment made radical changes was in the realm of political thought and systems of civil administration. It has to be remembered that most geographical regions of the day were part of one kingdom or the other and totalitarianism in the form of monarchy was the accepted social order. The transformation from this oppressive political system to modern forms of democracy, as evident today, has to be attributed to the Enlightenment. Some of the most prominent thinkers who helped shape this new political consciousness were Diderot, John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Rousseau, Adam Smith, etc (Porter & Teich, 1981).

While there are critics in contemporary intelligentsia about the significance of the Enlightenment both during the period it played out as well as its legacy still manifest in modern institutions. But in reality, the cultural and intellectual trends started off by the Enlightenment have never been more vibrant and alive than they are today. Moreover, the idea of universal human rights, which was one of the outcomes of this period, is a source of support and inspiration for people across the world as they valiantly engage in fighting against governmental and corporate tyranny (Mueller-Vollmer, 1997).

Works Cited:

Study Books Used in Class: A History of world societies 8th ed McKay, Hill, Buckler, Erbey, Beck , Crowston, Wiesner-Hanks ISBN-13: 978-0-312-68297-2

Brians, Paul, March 11, 1998. The Enlightenment, retrieved from <http://www.wsu.edu/~brians/hum_303/enlightenment.html> on 15th June 2008.

Mueller-Vollmer, K, 1997, The Hermeneutics Reader: Texts of the German Tradition from the Enlightenment to the Present

Porter, R & Teich, M, 1981, The Enlightenment in National Context, Oxford University Press, London.