The Enlightenment , also known as the “Century of Lights,” was a European intellectual movement that emerged in France in the seventeenth century.

The main feature of this current of thought was to defend the use of reason over faith to understand and solve the problems of society.

What is Enlightenment:

The Enlightenment was a philosophical and intellectual movement that took place between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Europe, especially in France. Enlightenment thinkers defended individual freedoms and the use of reason to validate knowledge.

Also called the “Century of Lights,” the Enlightenment movement represents the rupture of ecclesiastical knowledge, that is, of the dominion that the Catholic Church exercised over knowledge. And it gives rise to scientific knowledge, which is acquired through rationality.

Enlightenment is a movement of the Modern Age that broke with theocentrism – a doctrine that places God at the center of everything – and came to see the individual as the center of knowledge.

The origin of enlightenment

During the Middle Ages, between the 5th and 15th centuries, European society was marked by the strong influence of the Catholic Church .

The church defended a theocentric view of society and much of the knowledge was the result of religious beliefs, prophecies, and people’s own imaginary.

Between the late Middle Ages and early Modern Ages, the progress of science begins to question much knowledge and the very understanding of the world proposed by religion.

The discovery that the earth was not the center of the universe, for example, shook the supremacy of ecclesiastical knowledge.

The absolutist regime was also another factor of dissatisfaction for much of the population. These societies were divided into estates, and the clergy and nobility – who were at the top of the social pyramid – enjoyed privileges, which were supported by the people’s taxes.

This set of discontent on the part of the population would lead to the French Revolution, which was inspired by Enlightenment ideas and represents the main milestone of this intellectual movement.

Understand also the meaning of absolutism and know the characteristics of absolutism .

What was the Enlightenment?

Enlightenment can be understood as a break with the past and the beginning of a phase of progress of humanity. This phase is marked by a revolution in science, the arts, politics, and legal doctrine, for example.

The Enlightenment wanted to free themselves from the darkness and obscurity afforded by absolutist regimes and the influence of the Catholic Church. Many of them were against instituted religion, but they were not atheists, they believed that man would come to God through reason.

Contrary to what religion preached, the Enlightenment intellectuals argued that man was the keeper of his own destiny and that reason should be used for understanding human nature.

Reason was therefore a central element of Enlightenment ideals, after all, only rationality could validate knowledge . They believed that education, science and knowledge were the key to this liberation.

This understanding contrasted with knowledge based on religious beliefs and mysticism, which for Enlightenment philosophers, blocked the progress of humanity.

Painting of priests studying astronomy and geometry in the late 15th century in France.
Painting of priests studying astronomy and geometry in the late 15th century in France.

Understand the meaning of reason .

Key Enlightenment Ideas

  • End of church dominion over knowledge
  • Reason as a driver of knowledge
  • Individual as center of knowledge

Enlightenment and the progress of science

During this period, knowledge breaks the boundaries of imagination and is built on scientific observations, with empirical experiments.

It was at this moment that man discovered how the orbit of the planets and the blood circulation in the human body worked. The creation of the microscope allowed the field of view to be expanded and the understanding of nature to be expanded.

 Robert Hooke (1635-1703) created the compound microscope and is considered the discoverer of the cell.
Robert Hooke (1635-1703) created the compound microscope and is considered the discoverer of the cell.

Electricity, the process of formation of planet Earth, the principle of vaccine operation, the existence of bacteria and protozoa, and the law of universal gravitation were discovered.

All of these advances in science were instrumental in making the Industrial Revolution possible years later.

Learn more about the Industrial Revolution .

Enlightenment and the development of politics

The Illuminists were also responsible for the evolution of political thought and the role of the state in society. These thinkers were generally opposed to absolutist regimes, where a small portion of the population enjoyed privileges and the rest of the population was oppressed.

Central to the Enlightenment’s political discussions was the individual freedoms of citizens. For these philosophers, the state should guarantee individual rights, freedom of expression, legal equality, justice and the possession of goods.

Learn more about democracy and monarchy .

Enlightened Despotism

Democratizing principles, however, were not applied in all countries influenced by Enlightenment ideals. In some countries what has become conventionally known as “enlightened despotism,” an absolutist political system that implemented some ideas of the Enlightenment .

In these countries, the monarchs continued to exercise their absolute power, but they should know the Enlightenment principles or be advised by philosophers of this current.

In these cases, however, no reforms were undertaken to restructure society or to ensure greater participation of the people in political decisions.

See also the meaning of despotism .

Enlightenment Characteristics

  • Defense of rational knowledge;
  • Opposition to mercantilism and monarchical absolutism;
  • Supported by the bourgeoisie;
  • Defense of the natural rights of the individual (freedom and free possession of goods, for example);
  • God is present in nature and in man himself;
  • Defense of economic freedom (without state interference);
  • Advocacy for greater political freedom;
  • Anthropocentrism.

Know what anthropocentrism was.

Enlightenment Thinkers

Meet some of the leading Enlightenment philosophers and their ideas:

Voltaire (1694 – 1778)

Voltaire, pseudonym of François-Marie Arouet, was a French philosopher member of the bourgeoisie. An ardent critic of the absolutism and power exercised by the Catholic Church, his philosophy was based on freedom of expression and thought .

He argued that the state should be a constitutional monarchy and that the monarch should be advised by philosophers. Voltaire was an admirer of the English Constitution and in his work “Philosophical Letters” compared religious tolerance and freedom of expression in England to the backward French society.

Understand the meaning of freedom of expression .

Montesquieu (1689 – 1755)

French and linked to the aristocracy, Montesquieu developed in his main work – “The Spirit of Laws” – the Doctrine of the Three Powers. Most modern states today have their structure based on this idea.

This doctrine defends the division of power between legislative, executive and judiciary. For the philosopher, “every man who has power is tempted to abuse him,” thus separation of powers would be a way of curbing such abuses.

Learn the differences between the Legislative , Executive and Judiciary .

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778)

Rousseau was born in Switzerland, but lived much of his life in France. The philosopher was a defender of democracy and a critic of private property , which for her was the origin of inequalities and social ills.

His main work was “Social Contract,” where he describes that in order to build a harmonious society, people must obey the general will. This would only be possible with a Social Contract , whereby men should give up some rights for the benefit of the community.

Understand the meaning of private property.


The Enlightenment exalted the power of reason over faith and religion. With this, they believed that they could restructure society, still tied to the knowledge inherited from the medieval tradition.

Through the union of philosophical, social, and political schools of thought, the Enlightenment sought to extend rational criticism in all fields of human knowledge.

Thus, they emphasized the defense of rational knowledge to deconstruct religious prejudices and ideologies. These, in turn, would be overcome by the ideas of human progress and perfectibility.

In their criticisms, Enlightenment thinkers argued against mercantilist and religious determinations .

They were also averse to absolutism and the privileges given to the nobility and clergy. This shook the foundations of the absolutist political and social structure.

In this way, philosophers such as Diderot and D’Alembert sought to gather all knowledge produced in the light of reason into a 35-volume compendium: the Encyclopedia (1751-1780).

First page of Encyclopedia edition

The publication of the Encyclopedia was attended by several Enlightenment exponents such as Montesquieu and Rousseau.

His ideas spread mainly among the bourgeoisie, which held most of the economic power.However, they had nothing equivalent in political power and were always on the sidelines of decisions.

Enlightenment Characteristics


In literary halls like this one began to spread the Enlightenment works

The Enlightenment rejected the medieval heritage. Therefore, they came to call this period the “Dark Ages”. It was these thinkers who came up with the idea that nothing good had happened at this time.

Therefore, they advocated for the limitation of clergy and church privileges; as well as the use of science to question religious doctrines.


In opposition to Mercantilism , the state should practice liberalism. Instead of intervening in the economy, the state should let the market regulate it. These ideas were expounded mainly by Adam Smith.


Contrary to Absolutism , the Enlightenment held that the king’s power should be limited by a council or a constitution. Equally, subjects should have more rights and be treated equally.

This meant that everyone should pay taxes and minorities as Jews had to be recognized as full citizens.

Enlightened Despotism

Enlightenment ideas spread in such a way that many rulers sought to implement Enlightenment-based measures to modernize their respective states.

This happened without abdication of its absolute power, but only by reconciling it to popular interests. Thus these rulers were part of Enlightened Despotism .

Enlightenment ideals had serious sociopolitical implications. As an example, the end of colonialism and absolutism and economic liberalism, as well as religious freedom, culminating in movements such as the French Revolution (1789).

Enlightenment in Brazil

The Enlightenment came to Brazil through publications that were smuggled into the colony.

Enlightenment ideals in Brazil motivated the Inconfidência Mineira (1789), the Fluminense Conjuration (1794), the Tailors’ Revolt in Bahia (1798) and the Pernambucana Revolution (1817). Here too, economic and political freedom and the end of absolutism were defended.

The Enlightenment served as a motivation for the 18th century separatist movements in Brazil and was of great importance in the political development of the country.

Likewise, several students who went to the University of Coimbra also came into contact with the Enlightenment ideas and began to spread them.

These ideas began to question the colonial system itself and foster the desire for change.

Thus, the movement of the Lights influenced the Inconfidência Mineira (1789), the Bahian Conjuration (1798) and the Pernambucan Revolution (1817).

Key Enlightenment Thinkers

Below are the main Enlightenment philosophers :

  • Montesquieu (1689-1755)
  • Voltaire (1694-1778)
  • Diderot (1713-1784)
  • D’Alembert (1717-1783)
  • Rousseau (1712-1778)
  • John Locke (1632-1704)
  • Adam Smith (1723-1790)

See also the meaning of misconception .


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *