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Enlightenment refers to a movement that took place during the eighteenth century, particularly in the Western part of the world. Like various other intellectual movements, it did have an immense influence over the literary, artistic and philosophical works of the time.
Contrary to the understanding that has been predominate historically that the movement viewed rationality as to be absolute—and hence was called the ‘age of reason’—, modern readings tell us that the ideas propagated and views held by thee pundits of the age were not uniformed but heterogenous that included rationalism, empiricism, humanism, etc.
What may be said to be common was perhaps the contempt for irrationality and superstitious practices that all the thinkers of the time strongly kept. The aim was to free the society of all the practices and believes that had chained human mind to the darkness of the irrationality and had taken it away from the light of human reason and, therefore, to make society more humanistic than superstitious.
Enlightenment did not only influence our view of the artistic and philosophical world but also had an impact on the questions of politics/political and economics of the time. Eighteenth century was an age filled with political, social and economic turmoil that was going to lead us to a kind of social setup that will remain a dominate socio-economic system for the times to come.
Capitalism is the name and form that the social setup that has its root, say, in eighteenth century has taken today. In other words, many prevalent ideas of liberalism and democracy that are taken to be normal today, took birth during the French revolution of eighteenth century.
Pre-democratic societies suffered severely from ‘political absolutism’, where the society and its politics and economics is dictated by a single and absolute power such as the Church or the King. This didn’t provide much liberty to the people and a violent kind of suppression of thought, ideas and individual desires persisted.
It can be said what began with Renaissance i.e. a fight and ambition for individual freedom reaches a certain kind of fulfilment with French revolution, which was, theoretically, the product of the Enlightenment.
Individual freedom, prominence of rationality, pursuit of knowledge and a social setup that was based on the principles of democracy all these ideas seemed, to any educated mind, worth fighting for but, if looked critically, as also argued by M.A.R Habib, they were all meant to clear space for the rise of bourgeois class.
The principles of the enlightenment finally lead to “newer, rational attitudes toward banking, investment, trade, and manufacture, and harbouring profound implications for the status of science and technology.” All these developments will only contribute to the prosperity of liberalism or capitalism as we know today.
On the other side, enlightenment has had its critics from eighteenth century to today. Jean-Jacques Rousseau had critiqued the philosophy for ignoring the importance of instincts and emotions. David Hume, a well-known empiricist of his time, who realized the importance of reason had said, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”
Many Enlightenment ideas were incorporated into the founding documents for the United States.
Important Questions Relating to Enlightenment Criticism