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Historical Period: The Enlightenment

Updated on April 19, 2018
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Written by: Jason Wheeler, Film Frenzy Senior Writer & Editor.


Regarded by historians as an era where intellectualism and philosophy centered on reason dominated Europe, the Age of Enlightenment, or Age of Reason, is considered to have lasted throughout the 18th century. There is little consensus as to when the period began, though scholars usually cite the middle of the 17th century accompanying the dawn of the scientific revolution or the beginning of Louis XV’s reign in 1715 as starting points. The outset of the French Revolution in 1789 is often accepted as when the Age of Enlightenment ended.

Enlightenment philosophers advanced ideals such as liberty, progress, tolerance, fraternity, constitutional government, separation of church and state, individual liberty, and religious tolerance while emphasising the scientific method and reductionism along with a questioning of religious orthodoxy.

These beliefs were widely circulated through meetings at scientific academies, Masonic lodges, literary salons, coffee houses and in printed books and pamphlets. Many 19th century movements have their roots in the Enlightenment.

Notable philosophers of this time include Cesare Beccaria, Denis Diderot, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Montesquieu, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Adam Smith and Voltaire. Rulers and politicians attempted to apply Enlightenment thought from Frederick II of Prussia and Catherine II of Russia to Thomas Jefferson and James Madison who incorporates some of its ideals into the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution.


The Enlightenment saw the flourishing of Baroque art using contrast, movement, exuberant detail grandeur and surprise in order to achieve a sense of awe. Painters like Peter Paul Rubens and Pietro de Cortona made use of warm colors and avoided tranquil scenes in favor of great movement and drama. Baroque art was allegorical as well, telling stories and delivering messages to educated audiences, people expected to know and read into the work. Additionally, Baroque sculpture was inspired by ancient Roman statuary.

Music during the Enlightenment was characterized by two distinct styles. Baroque music had more elaborate musical ornamentation expanding the size, range, and complexity of musical performance. This is in contrast to subsequent Classical music, making use of less complex, lighter and clearer melodies. Some of the world’s most well known composers are from these two eras. Among them are Johann Sebastian Bach, Antonio Vivaldi, Johann Pachelbel, Giovanni Battista, and Henry Purcell in the Baroque era and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert and Luigi Boccherini in the Classical era.

Literature prospered in the Enlightenment, seeing the development of the modern novel and the exploration of social upheaval, reversals of personal status, political satire, geographic exploration and comparisons between natural and civilized man as themes. Jonathan Swift, Daniel Defoe, Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson are some prominent authors of the Enlightenment.

Science & Technology

Science played a leading role in the Enlightenment, incorporating significant advancements in astronomy, medicine, mathematics, and chemistry, development of biological taxonomy and a new understanding of magnetism and electricity. Science as a discipline also became more popular due to the increase in knowledge and education producing a more literate populace. Furthermore, public lectures and popular texts allowed amateurs and scientists alike to keep up with scientific developments.

Likewise, the Industrial Revolution began in the latter half of the century. Lasting from about 1760 until the mid-19th century, there were major innovations in textiles, iron making, steam power, and machine tools. Causing an increase in the standard of living for the general populace, many economic historians believe the Industrial Revolution to be the most important event in human history since the domestication of plants and animals.

Sociological Timeline

  • 1636 - Qing Dynasty established in China
  • 1637 - René Descartes publishes “Discourse on the Method”
  • 1639 - Wars of the Three Kingdoms in Scotland, Ireland and England begins
  • 1641 - Descartes publishes Meditations on First Philosophy
  • Oct. 23, 1641 - Irish Rebsteam ellion begins
  • Aug. 22, 1642 - English Civil War begins
  • May 14, 1643 - Louis XIV crowned King of France
  • 1644 - Ming Dynasty ends in China, succeeded by Qing Dynasty
  • 1651 - War of the Three Kingdoms ends
  • Sept. 3, 1651 - English Civil War ends
  • 1652 - Dutch East India Company founds Cape Town in South Africa
  • 1654 - British Museum opens
  • 1665 - Great Plague of London
  • Sept. 2-5, 1666 - Great Fire of London
  • 1670 - Charleston founded in South Carolina
  • Aug. 10-21, 1680 - Pueblo Revolt, Spanish driven out of New Mexico
  • 1682 - La Salle explores length of Mississippi River, claims Louisiana for France
  • 1683 - China annexes Taiwan
  • July 14, 1683 - Great Turkish War begins
  • 1687 - Isaac Newton publishes Phlosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica
  • 1689 - John Locke publishes Two Treatises of Government
  • Dec. 16, 1689 - English Bill of Rights receives Royal Assent
  • 1692 - Salem witch trials in Massachusetts
  • 1693 - The College of William and Mary founded in Williamsburg, Virginia
  • 1694 - Bank of England established
  • 1697 - Earliest known first-class cricket match
  • 1699 - Thomas Savery demonstrates first commercially used steam engine
  • Jan. 26, 1699 - Great Turkish War ends
  • 1701 - The Daily Courant and The Norwich Post become the first daily newspapers in England
  • 1703 - Saint Petersburg founded by Peter the Great, becomes Russian capital
  • 1706 - First english-language edition of Arabian Nights
  • 1710 - World’s first copyright legislation takes effect in Britain
  • 1715 - Death of King Louis XIV
  • 1718 - City of New Orleans founded
  • 1726 - Chinese encyclopedia Gujin Tushu Jicheng published
  • 1729-1735 - Charles and John Wesley begin Methodism in England
  • 1730-1760 - First Great Awakening in Great Britain and North America
  • 1734 - Voltaire publishes Letters Concerning on the English Nations
  • 1742 - Marvel’s Mill, worlds first water-powered cotton mill, begins operation
  • 1744 - First Saudi State founded by Mohammed Ibn Saud
  • 1754 - King’s College founded; French and Indian Wars begin
  • May 17, 1756 - Seven Years’ War begins
  • Feb. 15, 1763 - Seven Years’ War ends
  • 1763 - French and Indian Wars end
  • Nov. 1, 1765 - Stamp Act introduced to American Colonies
  • April 19, 1775 - American Revolutionary War begins
  • July 4, 1776 - United States Declaration of Independence adopted by Continental Congress
  • 1776 - Adam Smith publishes The Wealth of Nations
  • 1778 - James Cook becomes the first European to land on the Hawaiian Islands
  • 1781 - City of Los Angeles founded
  • Sept. 3, 1783 - American Revolutionary War ends
  • June 21, 1788 - United States Constitution ratified
  • May 5, 1789 - French Revolution begins; Age of Enlightenment ends
  • Nov. 9, 1799 - French Revolution ends


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