Although the intellectual movement referred to as the Enlightenment is often associated with eighteenth-century thought, its origins actually predate this. The roots of what we now refer to as the Enlightenment can be traced back to the Renaissance as well as the work of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century European scientists and philosophers, thinkers ranging from Galileo to Descartes. As the philosopher Kant put it, Enlightenment was mankinds final coming of age, the emancipation of the human consciousness from an immature state of ignorance and error.
Kant rightly believed that the process of mental liberation was actively at work in his own lifetime. The advancement of knowledge ” understanding of Nature, as well as human self-knowledge ” propelled this great leap forward. Sapere aude (dare to know) was Kants watchword. The body of progressive and liberal ideas and opinions advanced by the leading intellectuals of the day amounted to a decisive stage in human improvement. The Enlightenment thinkers were confident in the powers of abstract reason.
At the same time, in the light of the triumph of Newtonian science, the men of the Enlightenment also argued that experience and experiment, more than a priori reason, were the keys to true knowledge. During the later Middle Ages and the early modern age down to around 1650, Western civilization was based on a largely shared core of faith, tradition, and authority. By contrast, after 1650, everything, no matter how fundamental or deeply rooted, was questioned in the light of philosophical reason¦
The Enlightenment thinkers advanced the cause of social progress by emphasizing the need for knowledge and an end to blind-faith. Enlightenment was characterized by fierce political and religious criticisms that arose largely out of resistance the established power. The philosophers of Enlightenment not only challenged the centrality of religion, but also encouraged the use of science and reason to explore the control nature and to question what had previously been accepted as true. Many saw a need for a complete overhaul of traditional system of despotic authority.
If the centuries-old medieval view of the physical world had been overthrown by the power of reason, then the antiquity of an idea, or indeed of a law, a privilege, or a form of government, could no longer be seen as a guarantee of its worth. In most other major civilizations of the world, such as Indian or the Chinese or the Egyptian or the Mayan, the more ancient something was, the more revered and worshipped it would have been. That is the reason these civilizations could not progress beyond a point. The concepts of rebellion and revolution were not active in any of the other great world cultures.
However, by the time of Enlightenment, revolution and rebellion had already become prominent features of the Western Civilization: rebellion against orthodoxy, rebellion against the old in favor of the new, rebellion against ignorance and falsehood. Two major revolutions in the name of progress and freedom, the French and the American, would get underway in the final decades of the Age of Enlightenment. Further, the spirit of discovery and exploration that had so prominently characterized Western civilization since 15th century was also rooted in a rebellious stance of mind.
The very idea of human progress, that was so much propagated during Enlightenment, was an offshoot of rebellious thinking. The belief in progress became one of the distinctive features of the Western civilization. However, the notion of continuous progress is of course always accompanied by a permanent dissatisfaction with existing social conditions. Such deep discontent has also been a unique characteristic trait of Western civilization ever since Enlightenment. Rebelliousness and revolutionary attitude of the Western world were nurtured by this sense of discontent.