Age of Enlightenment

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For other uses, see Enlightenment.
Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. ~ Immanuel Kant

The Age of Enlightenment (or simply the Enlightenment or Age of Reason) was a cultural movement of intellectuals beginning in the late 17th- and 18th-century Europe emphasizing reason and individualism rather than tradition. Its purpose was to reform society using reason, challenge ideas grounded in tradition and faith, and advance knowledge through the scientific method.

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  • The problem of Enlightenment is not merely discovery of the truth but the conflict between the truth and the beliefs of men, which are incorporated into the law. Enlightenment begins from the tension between what men are compelled to believe by city and religion, on the one hand, and the quest for scientific truth on the other. … The innovation of the Enlightenment was the attempt to reduce that tension and to alter the philosopher’s relation to civil society. … The earlier thinkers accepted the tension and lived accordingly. Their knowledge was essentially for themselves, and they had a private life very different from their public life. They were themselves concerned with getting from the darkness to the light. Enlightenment was a daring attempt to shine that light on all men, partly for the sake of all men, partly for the sake of the progress of science. … Enlightenment was not only, or perhaps not even primarily, a scientific project but a political one. It began from the premise that the rulers could be educated, a premise not held by the Enlightenment’s ancient brethren.
  • Swift objects to Enlightenment because it encourages a hypertrophic development of mathematics, physics and astronomy, thus returning to the pre-Socratic philosophy that Aristophanes had criticized for being unselfconscious or unable to understand man. But, unlike pre-Socratic philosophy, which had no interest in politics at all, this science wished to rule and could rule. The new science had indeed generated sufficient power to rule, but in order to do so had had to lose the human perspective. In other words, Swift denied that modern science had actually established a human or political science. All to the contrary, it had destroyed it.
  • Enlightenment presented the thinker not as the best man but as the most useful one. Happiness is the most important thing; if thinking is not happiness, it must be judged by its relationship to happiness.


  • The Continental Enlightenment was impatient for the perfected state – which led to intellectual dogmatism, political violence and new forms of tyranny. The French Revolution of 1789 and the Reign of Terror that followed it are the archetypal examples. The British Enlightenment, which was evolutionary and cognizant of human fallibility, was impatient for institutions that did not stifle gradual, continuing change. It was also enthusiastic for small improvements, unbounded in the future. (See, for instance, the historian Jenny Uglow’s book Lunar Men.) This is, I believe, the movement that was successful in its pursuit of progress, so in this book when I refer to ‘the’ Enlightenment I mean the ‘British’ one.
    • David Deutsch, The Beginning of Infinity (2011), Ch. 3 : The Spark


  • Die bürgerliche Gesellschaft ist beherrscht vom Äquivalent. Sie macht Ungleichnamiges komparabel, indem sie es auf abstrakte Größen reduziert. Der Aufklärung wird zum Schein, was in Zahlen, zuletzt in der Eins, nicht aufgeht.
    • Bourgeois society is ruled by equivalence. It makes dissimilar things comparable by reducing them to abstract quantities. For the Enlightenment, anything which cannot be resolved into numbers, and ultimately into one, is illusion; modern positivism consigns it to poetry.
  • Human beings purchase the increase in their power with estrangement from that over which it is exerted. Enlightenment stands in the same relationship to things as the dictator to human beings. He knows them to the extent that he can manipulate them. The man of science knows things to the extent he can make them. Their “in-itself” becomes “for him.”
  • The arid wisdom which acknowledges nothing new under the sun, because all the pieces in the meaningless game have been played out, all the great thoughts have been thought, all possible discoveries can be construed in advance, and human beings are defined by self-preservation through adaptation—this barren wisdom merely reproduces the fantastic doctrine it rejects: the sanction of fate which, through retribution, incessantly reinstates what always was.
  • Thought is reified as an autonomous, automatic process, aping the machine it has itself produced, so that it can finally be replaced by the machine. Enlightenment pushed aside the classical demand to “think thinking.” … . Mathematical procedure became a kind of ritual of thought.


  • Modernism began in the mid-nineteenth century as a response not only to the restrictions and hypocrisies of everyday life, but also as a reaction to the Enlightenment's emphasis on the rationality of human behavior. ...The founders of the Royal Society thought of God as a mathematician who had designed the universe according to logical and mathematical principles. The role of the scientist—the natural philosopher was to... decipher the codebook that God had used in creating the cosmos.
  • The Modernist reaction to the Enlightenment came in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution, whose brutalizing effects revealed that modern life had not become... mathematically perfect...
  • Aufklärung ist der Ausgang des Menschen aus seiner selbstverschuldeten Unmündigkeit. Unmündigkeit ist das Unvermögen, sich seines Verstandes ohne Leitung eines anderen zu bedienen. Selbstverschuldet ist diese Unmündigkeit, wenn die Ursache derselben nicht am Mangel des Verstandes, sondern der Entschließung und des Mutes liegt, sich seiner ohne Leitung eines andern zu bedienen.
    • Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance 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.
  • Whatever the conceptions of Enlightenment toward God might have been, whether they pictured Him as nonexistent, or as a pale being without personality, sunk in sleep, or at least disinterested toward the fate of the individual, that period took a negative attitude toward the next world. Enlightenment was antimetaphysical and geocentrical. In the framework of such a philosophy, devoid of otherworldliness, the human beings and their existence assumed automatically a different significance. The meaning of life, human happiness, and all the other basic values were projected into this world and that change brought an enormous thirst for "justice," earthly justice, of course, which in turn was nothing else but an initially veiled and finally open demand for absolute equality.


  • There are people whose whole life consists in always saying no. It would be no small accomplishment to be able to say no properly, but whoever can do no more, surely cannot do so properly. The taste of these nay-sayers is like an efficient pair of scissors for pruning the extremities of genius; their enlightenment is like a great candle-snuffer for the flame of enthusiasm and their reason a mild laxative against immoderate pleasure and love.
  • It is the courage to make a clean breast of it in the face of every question that makes the philosopher. He must be like Sophocles’ Oedipus, who, seeking enlightenment concerning his terrible fate, pursues his indefatigable inquiry even though he divines that appalling horror awaits him in the answer. But most of us carry with us the Jocasta in our hearts, who begs Oedipus, for God’s sake, not to inquire further.
  • A mother gave her children Aesop’s fables to read, in the hope of educating and improving their minds; but they very soon brought the book back, and the eldest, wise beyond his years, delivered himself as follows: "This is no book for us; it’s much too childish and stupid. You can’t make us believe that foxes and wolves and ravens are able to talk; we’ve got beyond stories of that kind!" In these young hopefuls you have the enlightened Rationalists of the future.
    • Arthur Schopenhauer, “Similes, Parables and Fables,” Parerga and Paralipomena, vol. 2, § 395.
  • The only loyalty to enlightenment consists in disloyalty.
    • Peter Sloterdijk, in Critique of Cynical Reason (1983), as translated by M. Eldred (1987), p. 6


  • Pietism and methodism reemphasized personal guilt, personal experience, and individual perfection. They were not intended to deviate from ecclesiastical conformity, but unavoidably they did deviate; subjective piety became the bridge of the victorious reappearance of autonomous reason. Pietism was the bridge to Enlightenment. But even Enlightenment did not consider itself individualistic. One believed not in a conformity which is based on biblical revelation but in one which should be based on the power of reason in every individual. The principles of practical and theoretical reason were supposed to be universal among men and able to create, with the help of research and education, a new conformity.
  • The courage to be as oneself within the atmosphere of Enlightenment is the courage to affirm oneself as a bridge from a lower to a higher state of rationality. It is obvious that this kind of courage to be must become conformist the moment its revolutionary attack on that which contradicts reason has ceased, namely in the victorious bourgeoisie.


  • The only gospel we should read is the grand book of nature, written with God’s own hand, and stamped with his own seal.
    • Voltaire, The Important Examination of Long Bolingbroke (1767), p. 60.
  • Every sect, as one knows, is a ground of error; there are no sects of geometers, algebraists, arithmeticians, because all the propositions of geometry, algebra and arithmetic are true. In every other science one may be deceived.
    • Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary, “Tolerance”.
  • We have never intended to enlighten shoemakers and servants—this is up to apostles.
    • Voltaire, Letter to d’Alembert, September 2, 1768.

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