What age preceded modernity?

the Age of Enlightenment

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The the Age of Enlightenment refers to an epoch in the intellectual development of Western society in the 16th to 18th centuries, which is particularly characterized by the endeavor to free thinking from traditional, rigid and outdated ideas, prejudices and ideologies and to create acceptance for newly acquired knowledge.

Education in general

Kant: "What is Enlightenment?"

Under enlightenment In the general sense, one understands a social emancipation process, the aim of which is to critically question traditional authoritarian attitudes based on piety in order to promote a disenchanted culture of the mind. The enlightened person should no longer trust the instructions of the authorities, but rather go out of "his or her self-inflicted immaturity" (Immanuel Kant) and take his life into his own hands.

Examples of enlightenment processes are the Greek Enlightenment in the age of antiquity or the modern European Enlightenment, which is based on the former.

The modern European Enlightenment begins with the rebirth of the ancient spirit in the Renaissance. These and the Reformation form the prelude to the so-called the Age of Enlightenment. Between this prelude and the "actual" reconnaissance, however, lies the Thirty Years' War, and so will the enlightenment also referred to as the continuation of the renaissance after the Thirty Years' War.

The the Age of Enlightenment often becomes short enlightenment called, although the Enlightenment process has a human and world-historical dimension and did not begin in Western Europe in the 17th century and did not end at the end of the 18th century.

The Age of Enlightenment can also be divided into early enlightenment, enlightenment and late enlightenment with the romance scholar Werner Krauss. Then one understands by Enlightenment in the narrower sense the period in the middle of the 18th century, which in French intellectual history was determined by the discussions about the Encyclopédie.

With the time of this Enlightenment, scientific and technical advances in knowledge went hand in hand. He also strongly influenced the formation of humanistic ideas, because ethics should also be subjected to rational criteria.

Historical background

The the Age of Enlightenment is the epoch of European intellectual history in the 17th and 18th centuries. It was shaped by a movement of secularization and a turning away from the absolutist to a democratic conception of the state and the emergence of liberalism with its concept of human and civil rights. The movement advocated rational thinking and against prejudices and religious superstitions, against which it developed a "religion of reason"; Science and education should be promoted and disseminated to all social classes.

The Enlightenment came mainly from England, France, Poland and Germany. The most important prerequisites for the Enlightenment were the previous renaissance, the new discoveries overseas and the new worldview that emerged from them, papermaking and printing. This made buying books affordable for the bourgeois public, and a publishing company with newspaper production and a book market came into being.

Travel literature was in vogue by the late 17th century. If the Europeans (and Christians) had previously been thought to be superior, one now read that some non-believers or unbelievers, such as the Chinese, could very well have high principles and their own high culture. The travel literature of those days criticized European society more or less clearly. In fictional travelogues, e.g. Montesquieu's Persian Letters, in which two Persians visit Europe, readers see their world through the eyes of strangers - with illuminating comic-satirical effects.

One of the most important achievements of the Enlightenment is the adoption of the first democratic constitutions in the USA in 1787, Poland in 1791 and France in 1791.

General characteristics


Light as a symbol of enlightenment

The most important principle of the Enlightenment was that reason is able to bring the truth to light. Quite a few supporters of the Enlightenment ended up under lock and key like Galileo because of this conviction and their research results or had to flee.

Kant's motto: "Have the courage to use your own understanding!" ("Sapere aude.") Aims at external resistance against the Enlightenment, but also at internal liberation from paternalism (see also "Theory of priesthood deception"). In his theological-political treatise of 1670, Spinoza advocated the thesis that Judaism and Christianity were merely transitory phenomena without absolute validity. The Enlightenment's demand for freedom of thought and belief was based on, among other things, John Locke's "Letters on Tolerance" (1689). John Toland published a book in 1696 claiming that the Bible was in part a forgery and that the Church had an interest in deceiving people. Jean Meslier went far beyond Toland in his observations and demands. Pierre Bayle attacked the superstition that comets herald calamity and other prejudices, while the Dutchman Balthasar Bekker targeted the witch trials. His compatriot Gerhard Noodt, as rector of the Leiden University, spoke out in a rector's speech in 1699 that the prince's power could be taken from the people. In a further speech in 1706 he advocated the absolute freedom of subjects in religious matters vis-à-vis the prince.

The people of the Enlightenment were inspired by the belief that reason and freedom would redeem humanity from oppression and poverty in the foreseeable future. Many also believed in Francis Bacon's slogan “Knowledge is Power”. This is how the famous Encyclopédie was created in France. It was edited by Denis Diderot and Jean d'Alembert, and a number of big names such as Voltaire and Montesquieu wrote articles for the major work of the Enlightenment.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau also took part. However, not everyone calls him a scout. In his paper on the sciences and the arts of 1750, he denied the question of whether these had contributed to the moral progress of mankind. His political writings influenced key representatives of the French Revolution.

Voltaire was a relentless opponent of the Church and a innovator of historiography. He owes a large part of his good reputation to his successful fight against blatant errors and arbitrary judgments of the judiciary.

The Enlightenment was primarily a matter for the wealthy, especially the economically successful bourgeoisie. Some aristocrats even sympathized with the movement and supported educators who got into legal or financial distress. Condorcet went so far as to give up his title of nobility entirely.

Due to the strict censorship in France, some French printing works were working in Amsterdam, where famous Enlightenmentists also found refuge. Writings were smuggled into France from there. The same pattern was evident in Austria; many printed works appeared in Germany.

The Enlightenment was not the only cause of the French Revolution, but it shaped it in many ways: its leaders, radical followers of the Enlightenment, abolished the influence of the Church and rearranged the calendar, clock, measures, monetary system and laws on the basis of purely rational criteria . The French Revolution generally marks the end of the Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment's extreme emphasis on reason and objectivity led to the counter-movement, romanticism, which emphasized individuality and subjective experience and saw people as prisoners in a world in which values ​​and rules were determined solely according to the criteria of reason.

However, the Age of Enlightenment also included some significant non-rational movements, such as mesmerism.

The Enlightenment is criticized even more strongly by postmodernism and deconstructivism, which deny absolute objective values ​​and truths and do not see logic as the sole basis of human knowledge.

Typical characteristics

  • Movements of thought in all areas
  • Critical questions, thoughts and doubts become virtues
  • Tolerance of religions required
  • This world orientation of people (no longer focus on life after death)
  • Citizens gain self-confidence through economic changes such as manufacturing, which makes the bourgeoisie the economically most important class; Cosmopolitanism
  • Growing importance of knowledge from sensory perception (empiricism)
  • Growing relevance of the ability to think based on the mind (rationalism, logical and independent thinking)
  • Wisdom and intellect become virtues
  • Virtue and its promotion become the main goal of the epoch
  • The “good” and the “reasonable” are equated
  • Nature instead of revealed religion as a reference
  • Human mind as an instrument of perception
  • Freedom instead of absolutism; Equality instead of class order; Experience, scientific knowledge instead of prejudice and superstition, tolerance instead of dogmatism
  • "Man is naturally good, you just have to show him."

Well-known representatives of the Enlightenment

In alphabetic order:


  • Immanuel Kant: “Enlightenment is the way people come out of their self-inflicted immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one's mind without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-inflicted if the cause of it is not a lack of understanding, but a lack of resolution and courage to use it without guidance from someone else. "


  • Collective of authors, French reconnaissance. Bourgeois emancipation, literature and awareness-raising, Leipzig: Reclam 1974
  • Ehrhard Bahr (Ed.): What is education? Theses and definitions. Stuttgart: Reclam 1974 (Inexpensive collection of central sources: texts by Kant, M. Mendelssohn, Wieland, Herder, Lessing, etc.)
  • Ernst Cassirer, The philosophy of the Enlightenment, Hamburg: Meiner 1998, ISBN 3787313621
  • J. Stenzel (Ed.): The Age of Enlightenment. Munich 1980
  • Gudrun Hentges: The dark side of the Enlightenment / The depiction of Jews and "savages" in philosophical writings of the 18th and 19th centuries; Wochenschau Verlag, Schwalbach / Ta 1999, 298 pages, ISBN 3-87920-485-3
  • Panajotis condylis, The Enlightenment within the framework of modern rationalism, Hamburg: Meiner 2002, ISBN 3787316132
  • W. Krauss: Studies on the German and French Enlightenment. Berlin 1963
  • Peter Puetz: The German Enlightenment. Darmstadt 1978
  • Jochen Schmidt (Ed.): Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment in European literature, philosophy and politics from antiquity to the present. Darmstadt: Scientific Book Society 1989
  • Peter Lang in: Helmut Reinalter (Ed.): The Enlightenment in Austria. Ignaz von Born and his time. (Series of publications by the International Research Center Democratic movements in Central Europe 1770-1850, Vol. 4), Frankfurt / a. M. et al. 1991, 146 pp., ISBN 3-631-43379-4

Web links

See also