The Enlightenment is a general term for the intellectual and cultural changes experienced in much of Europe in the C18th. Generally it was characterised by a rejection of religious authority over intellectual questions, and a dismissal of traditional and superstitious beliefs in favour of new scientific discoveries.
Some of the most important philosophers of the time include René Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke. The philosophical thought that dominated during the period was a common belief in the power of human beings to reason rationally. The thinkers of the time argued that human beings were good and were able to act in a rational manner. Education was seen as an important way for human beings to better themselves and society. The pursuit of truth and knowledge was extremely important.
In the scientific world, Isaac Newton's discovery of the existence of gravity was profoundly important.
Many thinkers of the period developed a sceptical view of the church. During the Middle Ages the church had been the source of much teaching which led to human degradation. The church was frequently criticised for its decadent displays of wealth, its control of the political system, and its efforts to stifle free thought. One of the main characteristics of the period was a desire to question all previously unquestioned ideas, conventions, and values. Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher, summed up the era by suggesting that people should ‘dare to know'. Instead of blindly following the church's dogmatic rules and teachings, human beings were encouraged to think for themselves.
There were a number of important writings of the period which encapsulate the zeitgeist (that is, ‘the spirit of the age'). Encyclopédie (1751-1772) by Denis Deiderot outlined many of the most important ideologies of the period. Voltaire's plays and poems, as well as his essays and pamphlets were also extremely significant.
The American Revolution was seen by the European philosophers of the time as being the embodiment of their ideals. In fact, they thought that it was putting their ideologies into action. The Age of Enlightenment is generally considered to finish at the start of the French Revolution in 1789. While the thinking from the period may have been one of the causes of the French Revolution, many of the philosophers became disgusted with how bloodthirsty it ultimately became