Up until the 1700s, Europe had been dominated by the thoughts and teachings of religious leaders and spiritual beliefs. The Age of Enlightenment was a very popular movement brought about new ways of understanding the world thanks to the scientific work and intellectual studies of key European scientists and philosophers, including Sir Isaac Newton and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who were in turn inspired and influenced by the likes of John Locke and Francis Bacon. The Age of Enlightenment was incredibly influential, radically leaving its stamp upon the political, economical, scientific and religious worlds forever.
Religion vs. Reason
Supporters of the Age of Enlightenment were considered to be modern thinkers with rational minds. Instead of looking to religion, deities and spirituality for the answers to human existence and its place in the natural world, this group of intellectuals began to turn towards thought, reason and scientific proof. The Age of Enlightenment became a hunt for the truth, led by a group of individuals with particularly inquisitive minds. Sir Isaac Newton’s scientific discoveries were some of the most influential in the uprising of the Age of Enlightenment and are theories that are still taught in mainstream schools across the western world today.
As scientific reasoning continued to grow, a clear and major shift in power began to occur. The Church had to make way for the emergence of nation-states which were ruled by kings and parliaments. Religious figures were still consulted in matters of the state, but at the will of the monarchs and governing bodies in charge at the time. Different “political parties” also began to develop and the idea of belonging to a particular party, faction or school-of-thought became popular.
Anything is possible
The modern ideas brought about by the Age of Enlightenment gave people reason to develop ambitions. Self-confidence and optimism about possibilities for the future were strengthened during the period and people were encouraged to think freely and to avoid listening to prejudiced ideas. John Locke was most famous for writing a book entitled, “Essay Concerning Human Understanding” (1690). He was a huge believer in the idea that man's nature can be changed and that it can also be improved by his environment, which was an incredibly radical idea for the time and which directly opposed all schools of Medieval thought and teaching.
Due to its expressive nature, the arts was less affected by scientific discoveries and philosophical ideas which prevailed during the Age of Enlightenment. However, it is fair to say that the arts didn’t escape the effects of this important movement entirely. Artists were highly motivated by a return to structure, logic and reason. They focused almost all creative efforts on reproducing in art what they saw in real life. This meant that neoclassicist painting, sculpture and architecture dominated the period.