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The Age of Enlightenment in Europe

Updated on February 20, 2018
Eugene Delacroix's "Liberty Leading the People" (French: La Libert guidant le peuple) commemorating the July Revolution of 1830 in France.
Eugene Delacroix's "Liberty Leading the People" (French: La Libert guidant le peuple) commemorating the July Revolution of 1830 in France.

The Enlightenment Era consumed the majority of the eighteenth century in Europe. It was a time where many forward-thinking individuals, scientists, and philosophers sought to understand the world in a reasonable, logical, and scientific way instead of solely relying on religious belief. Many people now believe that the Enlightenment period is where the basis of modern thought begins1, for the ideas and concepts that circulated during this time have remained omnipresent in our society.

Political Background

The European political scene during the Enlightenment era was largely an absolute monarchy during the beginning of the eighteenth century. This was especially true in France, Spain, Austria and Prussia. Their monarchs were seen as supreme beings with unlimited power in making laws and forming political policy.

This extreme form of government did not last, however, because of the radical changes that Europe underwent prior to the Age of Enlightenment. These changes included the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the discovery of the New World. These changes led to fundamental new ways of thinking for the people of Europe, and “contributed to the eventual failure of absolute monarchy and profoundly influenced the development of future governments.”2

A Shift in Consciousness

Before the Americas were discovered, everyone assumed the world was just a flat surface. Now people realized they actually had very little knowledge of the planet they inhabited. This realization of general worldly ignorance is what shaped the new schools of thought born in this era.

Many people today agree that the first major contributer to the Enlightenment was the polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus. Copernicus developed the theory of a heliocentric (sun-centered) model of the universe that entirely disagreed with the contemporary geocentric model that had been in place since the time of Aristotle. While we know today that his belief was in fact correct, the Catholic Church gave Copernicus much grief for his radical ideas. This new cosmic design that Copernicus suggested threatened the importance of mankind in relation to God and the scripture.

The goal of the Enlightenment thinkers was not to eradicate all belief in God. Their goal was to find a way to rationally explain the world without blindly believing in the explanations for the world found in religious scripture. Many thinkers were able to formulate their beliefs to be very scientific and still hold a strong belief in God.

One of these thinkers was the French philosopher Rene Descartes. Descartes, creator of the famously profound statement “I think, therefore I am,” reasoned that if people are able to acknowledge their own existence, they “can prove the existence of God, with mathematics and reason, not just with faith.”3

The Taking of the Bastille
The Taking of the Bastille
Joseph Bonnier de la Mason
Joseph Bonnier de la Mason

Art and the Enlightenment

The artwork created during the Enlightenment era largely mimicked the social, political, and scientific breakthroughs taking place on the European continent.

One famous French painting created during the eighteenth century was Jean-Pierre Houel’s The Taking of the Bastille . This painting depicts the historically iconic event that occurred during the tumultuous French Revolution. The French Revolution occurred in France alongside the Enlightenment. The Bastille was a medieval fortress prison in France that was symbolic of France’s royal authority. The fortress was destroyed in the war.

This particular painting is effective in conveying the emotion and importance of this event. Gray, ominous skies reside at the top of the painting, with the fortress under attack in the center. Chaos abounds in the foreground as soldiers and horses storm forward, ensuring the prison will be completely ruined.

Another important piece of artwork from the Enlightenment era is Jean-MarcNattier’s Joseph Bonnier de la Mosson . This painting was created in the middle of the eighteenth century and is indicative of Enlightenment schools of thought because it depicts a scholarly, well-dressed man reading a textbook in an elegant library setting. This illustrates the growing desire people had to expand their horizons. The painting itself is very direct, dark, and profound.

Jean-Jaques Rousseau
Jean-Jaques Rousseau

Le Devin du Village

Musical Masterpieces of the Era

The musical style of the Enlightenment is referred to largely as Baroque. This type of music mirrored the ideas and outlooks of the people of this time, as order, reason, logical balance and form were all aspects of this genre.

One particular musician, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, gained significant notoriety during this period. Rousseau was not only a composer of the Enlightenment. He was also a legendary philosopher and writer whose ideas can be found in almost every trace of modern philosophy today. "Somewhat complicated and ambiguous, Rousseau's general philosophy tried to grasp an emotional and passionate side of man which he felt was left out of most previous philosophical thinking.”4

One of Rousseau’s musical pieces, an opera titled Le Devin du Village was a well-known and highly popular piece in France during the Enlightenment. This piece is a wonderful example of music from this time period because it was written during the tumultuous French Revolution, and there is a sense of conflict and confusion in the piece.

I enjoyed listening to this musical composition because there was so much variation to it. While it is a very long piece of music, it is almost enchanting in the sense that it seems to be telling a story. The music starts out very slow and melancholy, and over time it escalates to very loud and exciting parts, and eventually it falls back into the deeper, lower tones. Rousseau’s work is not very well known today, he was a very popular musician during that time.

A Tale of a Tub
A Tale of a Tub | Source

Literary Contributions

The Enlightenment era also gave way to many new and engaging pieces of literature. One piece in particular, Jonathan Swift’s prose parody titled A Tale of a Tub , is a well-noted religious satire published in 1704.5 Swift also authored the more popular Gulliver’s Travels. A Tale of a Tub emerged at the beginning of the Enlightenment era during a time when politics and religion were still quite closely linked.

The story follows the tale of three brothers, each one representing a different sect of Christianity. The first brother, Peter, is named after St. Peter and represents the Roman Catholic religion. The next brother, Jack, is named for John Calvin and stands for all Protestant denominations. The final brother, Martin, represents Martin Luther and the Church of England.6

The story explains that the three brothers each inherited a coat from their father. The coats are symbolic of religious practice and the father is symbolic of God. The brothers are armed with their father’s will (implying the Bible) to guide them, and the will expresses adamantly that no alterations shall be made to the coats. However, the brothers immediately start altering the coats despite what their father has asked of them.7

I will prove this very skin of parchment to be meat, drink, and cloth, to be the philosopher's stone and the universal medicine." In consequence of which raptures he resolved to make use of it in the most necessary as well as the most paltry occasions of life. He had a way of working it into any shape he pleased, so that it served him for a nightcap when he went to bed, and for an umbrella in rainy weather. He would lap a piece of it about a sore toe; or, when he had fits, burn two inches under his nose; or, if anything lay heavy on his stomach, scrape off and swallow as much of the powder as would lie on a silver penny--they were all infallible remedies.8

Swift’s ability to creatively portray the Protestant’s way of manipulating the Bible into any way they see fit is very comical and historically accurate. Satire was a common technique used during the Enlightenment by authors who wanted to express their frustrations with society. A Tale of a Tub , however, was widely misunderstood at the time it was published.

This book is a fascinating account of the many issues with religious belief that were present during the time of the Enlightenment. The story is seen by many to be an allegory. It acts as an apology for the actions of the Church of England and their blatant refusal to conform to the demands of Puritans and the bond between the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church.9


Overall, the Age of Enlightenment was able to establish a whole new understanding of the function of humanity in the world. It incorporated new scientific and rational views of life into society while not completely disregarding a belief in God.

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1 History of the World, “The Age of Enlightenment: The European Dream of Progress and Enlightenment,”
2 Encyclopedia Britannica, “The Age of Revolution: The Enlightenment Politics”,
3 French History, “Thinkers of the Enlightenment,”
4 The Literature Network, Jonathan Swift: A Tale of  a Tub,
5 All Experts, A Tale of a Tub,
6 Ibid.,
7 The Literature Network, A Tale of a Tub, Section XI,
8 Ibid.
9, The Taking of the Bastille, 14th July 1789,
10 The Enlightenment: Age and Its Art, Jean-Marc Nattier, 


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    • profile image


      3 years ago

      This is very important one i am also a writer i have writing more than one article and essay papers online have a many writing service are available one of the most popular writing service is custom essay writing service( most of the students are get essays and thesis papers form this article this is very important one.

    • Spongy0llama profile image

      Jake Brannen 

      6 years ago from Canada

      I've covered this topic at school so many times. We have so much to thank these groundbreakers for. I couldn't imagine how terrible life would be if state and church were still so closely bound and if blind faith and doctrine still reigned as the dominant belief system.


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