Radical Thought and the Enlightenment

The Enlightenment was the time of radical changes in people’s thoughts and visions of economics, culture, religion, politics, and science. This new thinking was a serious threat to the previously established regime and the way of thinking. The Age of Enlightenment took place mainly in the Western Europe since the 16th till the 18th century. However, it also spread to other parts of the world. It was the transformation of the Western World that came after the Middle Ages. The Enlightenment was the era that made a great impact on the formation of modernity. Historians admitted that the Age of Enlightenment substituted old ideas and implemented new radical thoughts relating to socio-economic and political changes. It is characterized by the development of an intellectual movement that encouraged people to revive after a long sleep. Many enlighteners manifested new freedoms in the new world in order to improve the society. Under the influence of new ideas, people were ready to change their attitudes towards blind authority and began to struggle for their independence from the authorities. A new way of thinking and realizing the world allowed them to fight for their personal freedoms. They received new chances to realize their talents and provide free trade. The enlighteners proclaimed the importance of experiment and experience in the improvement of the society. Many philosophers generated new ideas and radical thinking, which were absolutely new over the course of the 16th and 18th centuries. This paper aims to explore how radical thoughts and people’s desire to receive more freedom led to the Age of Enlightenment that determined the future development of democracy and capitalism.

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A Historical Review

The Enlightenment began not just as a new thing; it was determined by many reasons. During the Middle Ages, people had no freedoms, they lived under the influence of the authorities without a right to free thinking. New philosophers and thinkers implemented radical thought into new ideas and propagated them to the public. Uneducated people who used to live in horror were inspired by new ideas and opportunities to change their lives for better. This new thought challenged the Old Regime where people had to blindly obey the authorities. People realized that things should be justified rather than blindly accepted. The Enlightenment intellectuals manifested new ideas that stood in conflict with the traditional static norms. Rapid changes, pluralism, and fluidity began to form new modernity. These changes profoundly changed everything what was valued before.
The background to the radical thought developed in the Age of Renaissance, which led to the profound changes in the Enlightenment. The evolution of critical thought continued during the 16th and 18th centuries and achieved its culmination at the end of the 18th century by establishing new standards of life and their further improvement. Many studies suggested that the Enlightenment’s greatest thinkers, such as Francis Bacon, Voltaire, David Hume and Isaac Newton put the main stress on reason. In the period from the 1650s till the 1780s, the Western intellectuals refused from traditional obedience and emphasized individualism, analysis, and reason. The main places to generate new ideas were Masonic lodges, salons, and coffee shops. It was hard to object the authority that was supported by the Catholic Church and the ruling class. Changes in people’s minds led to the development of new ideas, mainly in France, England, Germany, and Italy. The development of new ideas produced many changes that occurred not only in the intellectual dimension, but also in economic, political, and social ones.
Radical New Visions of the World
The Enlightenment brought about a new interpretation of the world by means of new ideas that were considered to be radical in that period. The greatest impact was done by the contemporary thinkers and philosophers. They ignored traditional authority and manifested improvement of the society through rational changes. The historians argued that the French and American Revolutions were inspired by Enlightenment ideals. The enlighteners were full of energy and new ideas to change the society and develop new methods of governance and people lifestyles. For example, they began to discuss the idea of human differences, or the shock of the human “new”, the human other. Theoretical and speculative writings of that period began to discuss the problem, focusing on human diversity, in particular in terms of skin color, culture, language, and, in Enlightenment terms, their stages of social development. The need for changes in the society was introduced by Voltaire in his satirical pamphlet Candide where he pointed out that people should cultivate a place to live. Voltaire’s optimism was transferred to his readers and empowered them to fight for new opportunities in life.

The research asserts that new ideas concerning the political structure, scientific knowledge in different fields of study, and the position of women in the society gave a new path to the human sciences. New inventions occurred with an attempt to explain questions about the moral and natural world. David Hume, for example, who was called by the contemporaries and scientists the “Newton of the Moral Sciences”, gave many new ideas about philosophy, sociology, and economics. The Enlightenment was rich in new names, who invested a lot in the development of anthropology, moral philosophy, critical history, and linguistic studies. The Enlightenment was a starting point for many natural sciences and Liberal Arts. In other words, it was a beginning of a scientific study of the humankind, e.g. their life and behavior. It was the time of the introduction of a scientific method based on observation – the observational method. New sciences were introduced through observation of human life.
New ideas observed human life in the common course of the world. First of all, an experiment was introduced to observe what was scientific in human life, and what was not. Secondly, a new emphasis was put on the method and the analysis of the human phenomena and the material conditions of the human existence. The contemporaries tried to explain what distinguishes the human in the sciences. In order to explain this, different dimensions were taken into consideration, such as the power of rational choice, and the importance of individual self-preservation. Much attention was paid to the process of mental analysis. The enlighteners began to show a great interest in natural sciences and Liberal Arts, which identified the historical development of the human society and “the anatomy of the mind.” Modern scholars emphasize the importance of the Enlightenment as a historical entity.

Critical Visions of Authority in the Renaissance

Radical changes in authority in the Renaissance were met by strong resistance. Several revolts occurred in Europe over implementing new ideas into life. The protest demonstrated a desire to put an end to the existent way of life. The most active philosophers and economists such as Adam Smith and David Hume fought for industrial division of labor. They assumed that this division will help not only to increase profit, but also improve human life. Economists and moral philosophers issued books where they described new ideas about human improvement of their present miserable conditions. Changes were observed in different dimensions such as religious, political, economic, and cultural.
In their findings, many historians often go back to the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who became a victim at the hands of his own community because of his religious thoughts about God as nature. It was a push to new activity to the contemporary thinkers. Previously, science began to ascend in the Renaissance. Under the influence of John Dee, Francis Bacon wrote his authoritarian utopia New Atlantis, which led to the formation of the authoritarian society. Bacon argued that the improvement of nature and people’s life should be done by discovering and utilizing God’s laws rather than taking them for granted. Many Royal Society members preferred their personal laws to God’s. Darnton assumed that Francis Bacon and his work influenced the direction and evolution of natural science and western political thought. Bacon, supported by Locke and Hobbes, manifested the importance of knowledge in general and learning in particular. Bacon struggled against ignorance and suggested advanced learning regardless of the will of God or the state.
The authorities considered knowledge as a sin because they were accustomed to control citizens and keep them in whole obedience. However, with the beginning of the Age of the Enlightenment, people got an opportunity to obtain a new way of life. Due to the new knowledge about the world, political structure and so on, people began to struggle for their own rights. As a result, it was a challenge to the social order of the Old Regime. In the universities, Aristotle’s natural philosophy formed the basis for learning about the universe. A new sense of order and coherence was introduced through learning. Bacon’s idea about religion did not allow scientific investigation to interfere with the will of God.

New Ideas That Changed the World

New ideas in the fields of science, economy, sociology, and religion empowered thinkers to produce new discoveries and inventions in different sciences. These ideas were important for a considerable growth of new thinking. The origin of the Enlightenment can be found in the previous cultural strands including the Renaissance and the Reformation. Expanded contacts with countries influenced many countries throughout the world. Educated Europeans were impressed by the world heritage, especially by the ancient learnings of Confucian China. The research asserts that new discoveries were made in a broad spectrum of scientific fields such as chemistry, biology, physics, and astronomy. During this historical period, scientific societies (e.g. British Royal Society) were founded to bring scientists together. Scientific books aimed to educate people, particularly upper classes, about the universe. Many scientists manifested an idea that humans should control state laws as any other part of nature. Some writers began to think about future life, which would be better than before. It was the time of application of the new scientific methods and principles of study. Enlightenment thinkers began to analyze and expose faults in traditional social institutions. According to Darnton, the scientific revolution introduced new challenges to the ruling class, e.g. if nature was not ordered hierarchically, neither was the society. The enlighteners manifested that neither class could be favored by law. They also claimed that nobody could monopolize power by birth. They insisted that a person must be judged by his/her personal achievements and not by their socioeconomic background.
Historians reported that the center of the Enlightenment was in Paris, France. Social critics, or philosophers, who wrote for the upper class, offered a traditional analysis to solve the problems of their time. Salons that were created for intellectuals by the rich women were elegant social gatherings for reading, discussions, and serious conversations. These gatherings had a great impact on the French Revolution. One of the most famous leaders was Denis Diderot who was a chief editor of Encyclopedia that popularized learning of that period. Enlightenment writers considered the two main issues: the existence of God and the role of religion. They assumed that after creating the world, God refrained from intervening in human life. Some thinkers turned to atheism. Enlightenment thinkers tended to review the position of women in the society. They struggled against their inferiority and demanded to give women more rights. However, there was not much change with their conditions: women remained uneducated, unemployed, and could be abused by their husbands. A new approach to the government and its power was observed and developed during the years of the Enlightenment. For example, John Locke offered a new governmental arrangement, e.g. the government should be elected by the citizens and have limited powers.
Israel assumed that the 18th century was the culmination of new ideas that were developed during the previous on hundred years. The political ideas of John Locke and Thomas Hobbs gave rise to the development of democracy in many states. By the middle of the 18th century, the greatest economist Adam Smith developed new theories that gave rise for modern capitalism. New scientific inventions and the rise of education and learning became the basis for the scientific revolution. Many educational institutions were established at that period such as the St. Petersburg Academy, the Berlin Academy, and many others. Scientists compiled the knowledge and experience of the previous decades and communicated them to the broad public. Many scientists in different fields of study made important inventions. For example, Leonhard Euler made contributions in mechanics, optics, naval science, and others.


The Enlightenment was the age of transformation of radical thought into new ideas about economics, science, religion and social thinking. It was a great challenge for the previous mode of life and the beginning of new inventions and ideas. The Age of Enlightenment is considered to be the transformation of the Western World that replaced an authoritative power into a more democratic one. The research has shown that the Enlightenment made a great impact on the formation of modernity. This age substituted old ideas into new progressive ones and empowered people to review their visions of the government, politics, religion, and culture. The development of the intellectual movement fostered a scientific revolution. The research has proved that the Enlightenment was one of the most important historical periods that promoted the establishment of human freedoms and the development of democracy and capitalism.

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