18 April 2007

The Enlightenment

I mentioned that liberalism was a product of the Enlightenment. A few words about this movement are in order.

For a thousand years after the fall of the Roman Empire (in AD 476) Europe lived in the Dark Ages. Science, art and philosophy were lost. Ignorance and superstition were rampant. The Catholic Church ruled the continent with an iron fist. Then the Scientific Revolution happened. Beginning in 1543 with the discoveries of Copernicus and Vesalius, it climaxed in the 17th century with the work of Galileo and Newton.

Intellectuals were in awe of these achievements. It set them thinking: the foundation of mathematics and science is reason, and if reason could reveal universal truths for science, couldn't it do the same for human life? Couldn't it be applied in politics and economics? Couldn't it be used to fight against ignorance, injustice and inequality? Couldn't it be used to build the perfect man and the perfect society?

The movement began in France (Voltaire, Rousseau) before spreading to other European countries like England (John Locke, Adam Smith) and eventually to America (Jefferson, Franklin). This period (1600's and 1700's) in European history is also called the Age of Reason. Today if we take democracy, liberty, equality and fraternity for granted, it is due in no small measure to the Enlightenment.

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