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 scientific expression were seen in the New World as well, most notably from such intellectuals such as Tom Paine and other proponents of American independence. The rest of the essay will foray into the wider implications of the Enlightenment and try to capture its significance to the academia of today.
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. While it is difficult to categorize the newly evolving artistic manifestations of the time, a few broad trends could be noted. For example,
“At the opening of the century, baroque forms were still popular, as they would be at the end. They were partially supplanted, however, by a general lightening in the rococo motifs of the early 1700s. This was followed, after the middle of the century, by the formalism and balance of neoclassicism, with its resurrection of Greek and Roman models. Although the end of the century saw a slight romantic turn, the era’s characteristic accent on reason found its best expression in neoclassicism.” (Hackett, 1992)
As mentioned before, this rise of neoclassical artistic expression found its highest glory 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 academia of today. In many ways, the academia is burdened with the legacy of the Enlightenment, in that, modern societies have come to expect radical theories and systems of thought to emerge from the confines of a University. Also, most universities are adequately resourced in terms of comprehensive libraries and other resources. These factors make the modern academic environment the most suitable place for the continuation of the legacy of the Enlightenment (Hackett, 1992).
The area 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. The following passage gives a concise account of Rousseau’s contribution to modern political thought:
“Physical, intellectual and economic equality are beyond human remedy. The state, according to Rousseau can interfere with property only if legal and moral equality is jeopardized. In his book Emile he explains that the young must learn the compulsion of things but be protected from the tyranny of men. All must obey the general will as a law of nature, not as an alien command but because of necessity. This is only possible if society makes the laws which it obeys. Hence a radical political and social revolution is necessary. He demanded man’s mastery over nature and projected a moral rationalism.” (Gerhard Rempel, Age of Enlightenment)