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The Age of Enlightenment

The Age of Enlightenment was an eighteenth-century movement in Western philosophy. It was an age of optimism, tempered by the realistic recognition of the sad state of the human condition and the need for major reforms. The Enlightenment was less a set of ideas than it was a set of attitudes. At its core was a critical questioning of traditional institutions, customs, and morals. Some classifications of this period also include the late 17th century, which is typically known as the Age of Reason or Age of Rationalism.

The term “Age of Enlightenment” can more narrowly refer to the intellectual movement of The Enlightenment, which advocated reason as the primary basis of authority. Developing in Germany, France and Britain, and the Enlightenment influenced most of Europe, including Russia and Scandinavia. The era is marked by such political changes as governmental consolidation, nation-creation, greater rights for common people, and a decline in the influence of authoritarian institutions such as the nobility and church.

There is no consensus on when to date the start of the age of Enlightenment, and a number of scholars simply use the beginning of the eighteenth century or the middle of the seventeenth century as a default date. Many scholars use the beginning of the Napoleonic Wars (1804–15) as a convenient point in time with which to date the end of the Enlightenment. Still others capstone the Enlightenment with its beginning in Britain’s Glorious Revolution of 1688 and its ending in the French Revolution of 1789.

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Updated: April 27, 2010 — 6:10 am
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