During the middle ages, Europe experienced a dogmatic style of leadership from the church and state respectively. The Catholic Church was then an established church thus making Christianity the prevailing religion in Europe. The state, on the other hand, was governed by monarchs. These two established institutions had an overwhelming authority. While the church practiced orthodox Christianity, tyranny was the state’s way of leadership.
Undermining the authority of these institutions meant prosecution or sometimes even death. Therefore, absolute adherence to the principles and dogmata of both, the church and state was the only option.
But, as time passed by, change became eminent and all efforts by the church and state to subdue people and then make them succumb to their wimps and caprices became a mirage. (Israel 2001) This was the beginning of the Enlightement movement. It was the time of rebirth of Europe and the time that will never be forgotten by humanity.
From 1650-1700, there was a movement in Europe which was spearheaded by intellectuals who sought to change the abuses in the church and the tyranny in the state. This movement which was one of the greatest the world had ever seen, is often described or referred to by scholars as the “Age of Enlightement” or “Age of Reason.” (Staloff 2005)
As already aforementioned, prior to the “Age of Enlightement,” the church and state respectively were the institutions that controlled people and the state of affairs, in general. Anything outside the confines of the church’s teachings was considered to be evil and satanic. The Catholic Church had zero tolerance to anyone who objected or acted contrary to its orthodox and rigid teachings. In the case of the state, any person, or group of persons who dared to challenge its tyranny was prosecuted.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, precisely from 1650-1700, intellects across Europe campaigned for societal reforms. Such great people like, Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, John Locke, Baruch Spinoza, Pierre Bayle and others were part and parcel of the Enlightement movement. During this time, the movement which had originally started in France quickly spread throughout Europe and even America. (Staloff 2005)
Scholars have various opinions about the actual purpose of the Enlightement movement. While some believe that political and economic reasons were responsible for the agitation, others think differently.
However, it is important to note that, prior to the “Age of Enlightement,” civilization was based on faith in the teachings of the Catholic Church as well as absolute respect for the monarch’s authority, thus, giving immense power to such institutions. But the movement agitated for democracy instead of tyranny and the dogmatic way the church taught. The “Age of Enlightement” played a significant role in the history of Europe and indeed the entire world.
Prior to the “Age of Enlightement’” the Catholic Church was the established church in Europe which made Christianity the religion prevalent among Europeans. But the church was dogmatic in its teachings and the Pope being in charge of the Catholic Church, had an immense power. Due to the powers that were bestowed on the Pope, any challenge, deed or act that contravened the teachings of the Catholic Church meant outright prosecution to the people involved.
During the dark ages, the church killed thousands of people. Furthermore, the rigidness of the church was a stumbling block to development and scientific discoveries. For instance, Galileo Galilei was prevented from teaching because in the year in 1632 he had written that the earth moved round the sun. He was a catholic priest and he was taken to the Vatican and made recant his writings and beliefs.
His theory about the earth’s movement was absolutely correct. The church was against it because the Bible explicitly states that the sun moved round the earth and not vice versa. As a clergy and a scientist, Galileo was in a very good position to defend his theory but the church never gave him that privilege. Any other person in Europe with a scientific discovery that contradicted the church’s dogmata would not have dared to publish it due to the powers of the Pope. (Sorkin 2008)
What is more, the church never witnessed for slavery. The failure of the church to out rightly condemn slavery made things a lot easier for the Europeans. During the 16th and 17th century when slave trade was the trend in Europe, the Catholic Church was the only institution that was powerful enough to confront the state, however, it chose to remain mute. All these were the acts of the church prior to the “Age of Enlightement.”
But after the Enlightement campaign, scientific discoveries were freely and openly made even if they contradicted or disputed the Bible. People became bold and more enlightened due to the impact of the Enlightement Age. Religion survived the Enlightement era but it weakened due the impact of the movement. Furthermore, the Catholic Church was transformed significantly bearing a slight resemblance to what it had been before .
In the early ages most European countries were ruled by monarchs. This means that royal families ruled nations and members of such families were treated with respect. The entire wealth of nations was used for the upkeep and welfare of the royal families at the expense of the social class. Due to the absence of human rights, the masses didn’t have a say so they continued to live in abject poverty while the monarchs flourished in stupendous wealth and luxury.
The Enlightement movement agitated for democracy which would cater for the well being of the masses. It also made people realize that with democracy, social amenities like hospitals, educational facilities, flexible health systems and industries would be provided. Having realized this fact, the masses were quick to believe the ideologies of the philosophers who led the Enlightement campaign.
As people began to realize the benefits of living in a democratic state, they began to speak up and demand justice. This led to declaration of the rights of man and of citizens in France. In Poland, the Polish-Lithuanian constitution was written in 1791. But this change was not limited to Europe as well. It also had an impact on the America’s political systems. In the United States of America the Enlightement campaign led to a revolution and its later declaration of independence. (Robin & Kaiser 2003)
Notable figures who led the Enlightement campaign in America were Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. As time went by, the bill of rights was passed and included into the constitution of the United States of America. Germany, England, Spain, Scotland, Russia, Italy and Austria were other European nations where the Enlightment movement influenced their political systems.
By the beginning of the 18th century, almost the entire Europe had been changed politically. The monarchy was totally abandoned for democracy and within a century, it became a pale shadow of its self.
Europe’s social class was the group of people who had suffered the tyranny of monarchs and enjoyed the era of Enlightement. Prior to the “Age of Enlightement,” the elite in the society were the few who were privileged to be either relatives or cronies of the monarchs.
It was changed during the movement and Europe was reborn. The average man and woman who made up the social class could voice out their displeasure when necessary and also demand their due royalty.
This was totally unattainable during the era of the monarchs. Furthermore, the dividends of the Enlightement philosophy were directly beneficial to the social class who had earlier been marginalized by tyrants. The abolishment of slave trade and the establishment of equal human rights regardless of age, race or height are examples of how the Enlightement impacted the social class. (Melton 2001)
Another tremendous impact of the Enlightement movement on the social class is the coming of democracy. Apart from the abolishment of slave trade, people were now free to contest for political positions and rule nations. Leadership was only made for monarchs but democracy changed such situation. So, the average man or woman was considered ordinary who could also take up political positions.
The democracy changed Europe as well as other parts of the world like Africa. This would have been impossible if the intellects who led the Enlightement campaign had not spoken up against the church and state.
Also, the declaration of human rights in many European nations was another important achievement of the Enlightement philosophy. With the declaration of human rights and with millions of human rights activists in the world today, it is impossible to enslave people again.
The Enlightement has reformed the society and librated humanity from ignorance and tyranny. Its impact is still being felt.
Israel, Jonathan. Radical enlightenment. Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 58, no.4 (2001): 585-625.
Melton, James. 2001. The Rise of the public in Enlightenment Europe. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Robin W. Winks and Thomas E. Kaiser. 2003. Europe from the Old Regime to the age of revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Sorkin, David. 2008. The religious Enlightenment: Protestants, Jews, and Catholics from London to Vienna. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Staloff, Darren. 2005. The politics of Enlightenment. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.