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Outline of the Enlightenment

Outline of the Enlightenment - THE ENLIGHTENMENT I II III...

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THE ENLIGHTENMENT I Origin of the Term Enlightenment : Plato’s Allegory of the Cave II Immanuel Kant’s ‘What is Enlightenment’ III Francisco Goya’s Los Caprichos IV The Counter-Enlightenment and the Enlightenment’s Lasting Influence I Origin of the Term Enlightenment : Plato’s Allegory of the Cave The wealth flowing in from the American colonies was transforming Europe in the 1500s. Commerce was being greatly stimulated, and the population of towns grew rapidly. A new class of people saw its numbers grow: the urban middle class. From this milieu emerged a new set of ideas that radically challenged the existing social order across Europe. By the late 1700s a revolution in ideas had begun to take form, this revolution was known as the Enlightenment. The term ‘enlightenment’, which was used at the time to describe the contemporary trend in ideas, referenced an old but influential story from Classical Greek philosophy: ‘the allegory of the cave’ in Plato’s book The Republic written in the 400s BC. The famous men of the 18 th century Enlightenment, including Immanuel Kant, Francisco Goya, Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau took the allegory of the cave as their guide in two important ways. First, they held the pursuit of truth and knowledge (‘seeing the light’) to be of the upmost importance in the promotion of human progress. They believed that ignorance and fear were the natural enemies of happiness and freedom. The pursuit of knowledge about society required them to step outside of the ‘cave’ of commonly held ideas, where the appearance of things was intended to go unquestioned and therefore not rationally understood. They championed the power of reason to make the world intelligible to humans, regardless of whether or not it went against existing belief systems. Second, they recognized that their ‘knowledge’ and ‘new ideas’ would never succeed in improving the real conditions of people if they were not ‘popularized’ and taken up by the masses – in other words, they understood themselves to be popular educators . Like the protagonist of Plato’s allegory who decided to go back into the cave after he had seen the light in order to enlighten others, the men of the Enlightenment wanted to circulate their ideas among the populations of Europe so that they would become a living force in society, and not just idle speculation. For this purpose, they employed the means of ‘mass communication’ of their time to circulate their work, including the printing press and the newspaper. II Immanuel Kant’s ‘What is Enlightenment’ One of the most important names of the Enlightenment is Immanuel Kant. Kant was a Prussian philosopher who lived from 1724 to 1804. His short essay ‘What is Enlightenment’ published in 1784 is a classic text of the Enlightenment. The conditions surrounding the essay’s publication are revealing of the Enlightenment’s general purpose.
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