Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth-century numerous brave European explorers embarked on scientific expeditions into the New World enduring intense environmental conditions to gain knowledge of botany and natural characteristics of North America, which at the time was considered almost alien (to Europeans). These scientist-explorers wrote and published detailed reports and personal accounts that excited the population back in Europe, piquing the European public’s interest in science and innovation (McKay 513). In the years following and throughout the seventeenth century a scientific revolution took place in which a considerable amount of scientific advancements including the development of empiricism by Francis Bacon, an English politician and writer, and the proposition of the existence of atoms and the development of the study of chemistry by Irish philosopher Robert Boyle occurred.
Throughout the eighteenth century, as science became widely accepted, numerous scientists and thinkers began to challenge the traditional views held in Europe such as widespread extreme and unquestionable religious faith and the unquestionable authority of government.
The increasingly common use of science to prove or disprove ideas/held beliefs and personal philosophy to challenge/critique ideas and societal norms throughout the 18th century initiated a decline in the power of religion and government as people started to challenge their authority. Just as in the manner of scientists, people during the enlightenment desired to be able to prove concepts, not believe them solely due to faith, a way of thinking known as rationalism. In comparison to the traditional thought/views widely held during the 17th century regarding trust in religion and government, European thought and societal views underwent a significant change during the 18th century.
Before being challenged by scientists, philosophers, and even the general public, support for the persecution of those who challenged religion, the discouragement of questioning, and punishment for presenting new scientific and philosophical ideas were prevalent. Some of these views in action can be exemplified by the persecution of Florentine physicist and astronomer Galileo Galilei. After expressing his support and evidence for the Copernican theory: the idea that the sun was in the center of the solar system rather than the earth, Galilei was accused of heresy and imprisoned in 1614 (History – Galileo Galilei). Galilei was later forced to “renounce and curse” his theory since his research went against the church’s teachings, even though it was backed up by almost irrefutable astronomical evidence he had gathered after countless observations of the skies. The Church’s ruthless persecution of any person spreading ideas they deemed unholy demonstrated their opposition to new ideas that they believed threatened their teachings. As hard as they tried, this did not stop society from questioning and rejecting traditional European ideas, many of which the Church desperately tried to uphold.
Isaac Newton, an English mathematician, writer, physicist, and astronomer from the mid 17th century to early 18th century had crucial effects on the popularization of science. Newton’s discovery of gravity and the laws of motion provided an explanation for natural occurrences and the behavior of heavenly bodies. Newton used science and reason to prove why natural events occurred as opposed to believing things happened the way they did because god “made them that way” (a popular pre-enlightenment explanation for how and why events happened). Newton’s discoveries made sense, causing many to doubt religious teachings that contradicted these theories weakening the power of the Church and causing widespread questioning of religious explanations and other information that had previously been blindly accepted. This decrease in religious faith and increase in questioning and proving/disproving information scientifically led to an enormous increase in the use of science during the 17th century and eventually a widespread age of reason during the 18th century.
Throughout Europe, enlightened ideas spread relatively quickly. These ideas did not just spread by word of mouth though. Due to the explosion of scientific and philosophical research during the 18th century, the number of books printed and read increased significantly, especially books that focused on arts and sciences rather than religion which were extremely popular at the time. As more and more secular books were published and read people became more knowledgeable about secular topics. A chain reaction occurred, and the larger number of people reading these publications caused an increase in interest, knowledge, and public dialogue about these topics leading to a “reading revolution” in which literacy, reading, and questioning of texts became commonplace (McKay 522). This reading revolution led to a widespread increase in broad public knowledge, criticisms of traditional and widely held beliefs, and debates of scientific and philosophical claims causing a rapid public acquisition of knowledge in Europe and generating a widespread “enlightenment”.
Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher and professor in East Prussia stated in his 1784 pamphlet entitled What Is Enlightenment? that the “motto of the enlightenment” was, “[having] the courage to use your understanding (Kant, Immanuel).” As Kant sums up, using one’s knowledge and intellect to understand the world was a main belief of the enlightenment, going against the traditional pre-enlightenment view that it was sacrilegious to question the church and treason to question the government. His publications promoting enlightenment ideas popularized the idea that citizens should be encouraged to question the world around them. For a long time, citizens simply trusted the government, the Church, or society to give them the information they assumed to be true and that they needed to live wisely. Thinkers like Kant plainly stated and promoted the enlightenment concept of questioning the world. People began desiring to seek their knowledge and make their discoveries (at least in a more widespread manner than they previously did).
In stark contrast to the traditional values of pre-enlightenment Europe’s ruling class, an ever-increasing number of European monarchs ruled in the style of “enlightened absolutism” who, instead of shunning new scientific and political thought, as was common practice among pre-enlightenment rulers and the Church since they feared for their power if their subjects began to question the validity of their state/religion or its practices (especially the monarch/Pope and his/her claim to power). Many enlightened rulers happily funded scientific and philosophical research to attain more knowledge. Catherine the Great of Russia was one of these enlightened monarchs. Even though Catherine supported a change in society (as per her enlightened beliefs) she didn’t have any desire to change the structure of government and stayed firm in her opinion that absolute monarchy was the most favorable type of government, although, she strived to rule in an enlightened manner and encouraged the education of her subjects in enlightenment era ideas. She even published books she thought were intellectually important that had been banned elsewhere due to their encouragement of free thought, questioning, and criticism (e.g. the Encyclopedia which had been banned by the French) (McKay 531). Seemingly progressive policies like this, though, oftentimes had selfish goals as, although not present in every state with an enlightened government, many rulers would provide generous funds for scientific and philosophical research in an attempt to, through money, control scientific and philosophical ideas and have research done that supported the validity of their views and regulations, attempting to back up their beliefs rather than propose new ones.
The views of the public shifted immensely during the 18th century in Europe, changing from the widespread blind following of/belief in ideas set out by the Church/government that many people hold to, with the help of numerous scientists, philosophers, and enlightened rulers, questioning the world around them and seeking information for themselves. In comparison to the traditional thought/views widely held during the 17th century regarding trust in religion and government, European thought and societal views underwent a significant change during the 18th century. Even though this change in worldview may seem insignificant, without the enlightened societal and governmental reforms that occurred during the 1700s, Europe and the world would be a very different place today.