What is the Enlightenment?

The following is an excerpt from my book Public Administration and Enlightenment Ethics

 The Enlightenment was a philosophical revolution that grew out of Europe in the 16th century and spread to the Americas in the 17th and 18th century (Szalay, 2016). This movement, also referred to as the Age of Reason is often contrasted against the irrational and superstitious Middle Ages and focuses on rationality, skepticism of customs and authority, freedom of thought, natural rights, and individual liberty (Shermer, 117). The ideals that emerged from this period are credited with spurring the American and French Revolutions and influencing their founding members and constitutions (Szalay, 2016).

The most influential thinkers from the Enlightenment are those of Voltaire, Thomas Hobbes, Adam Smith, David Hume, Rousseau, and Descartes to name a few. In the United States, the likes of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, John Adams, and George Washington along with most of the founders “were educated men of the international Enlightenment” (Allen, xv; Brinkley, 104). In fact, contrary to popular beliefs, the founders and the framers of the constitution were influenced more by the works of John Locke and Adam Smith than they did of any religious doctrine making the understanding of the Enlightenment that much more important to those who study American Government (Holmes, 2006; Allen, xv). Indeed, many of the Founders relied on empirical evidence and were staunch skeptics – it was not an uncommon quality among them. For example, John Adams once said to Thomas Jefferson that “we can never be so certain of any prophecy or the fulfillment of any prophecy; or of any miracle, or the design of any miracle” – this sort of skepticism is but a symptom of those influenced by the Enlightenment (Jacoby, 2004, 13).

The ideas from the Enlightenment were spurred by an earlier scientific revolution “in the wake of the Newtonian intellectual revolution” which held that “the universe was comprehensible place governed by laws which could be understood through scientific inquiry” (Allen, 163). The founders deliberately “adapted the scientific method of gathering data, running experiments, and testing hypotheses to their construction of the nation” Micheal Shermer explains in Scientific Naturalism: A Manifesto for Enlightenment Humanism (2017). Shermer continues to explain how the founders used enlightenment principles to shape governance, “they thought of political governance as a problem solving technology…they thought of democracy in the same way that they thought of science – as a method, not an ideology” (Shermer, 2017). This took the power of knowledge out of the hands of kings and theologians and into the hands of the common man who began, utilizing the scientific method of inquiry, deciding his own fate. In The Science of Liberty, author and scientist notes that “the founders often spoke of the new nations as an ‘experiment’. Procedurally, it involved deliberations about how to facilitate both liberty and order” (Ferris, ). These deliberations are our experiments – public administrators and public servants are the scientists in a grand experiment to find what works. Jos Raadschelders (2009), when stressing the importance of learning the history of public administration, observes that “it is ironic that contemporary American public administration scholarship has limited sensitivity to and interest in the past since the founders of this country and – later – the founders of the study of public administration in the U.S. were keenly aware of the importance of understanding the past.” (pg 2).

it is important to note that the Enlightenment is not an end-all ideal. It simply clears the way for better ideas. That is, as people made their way through history, they were at the whim of the powerful, the rich, the royalty, and the papacy to reason for them. Once the Enlightenment freed them from these chains, people were finally free to rule themselves and it is from this freedom where we find the cooperation, toleration, civil servants, accountability, and more familiar values citizens are accustomed to at present. The Enlightenment has set a standard to work with – the movement laid the foundation with which to build off of.

One of the most influential philosophers of the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant, provides the greatest description of the Enlightenment as the 

“emergence of man from his self-imposed infancy. Infancy is the inability to use one’s own reason without the guidance of another. It is self-imposed, when it depends on a deficiency, not of reason, but of the resolve and courage to use it without external guidance. Thus the watchword of enlightenment is Sapere aude! [Dear to know] Have the courage to use one’s own reason!” (Kant, 1784, pg 1). 

This infancy is the reliance on authority, customs, other people, and superstition to make decisions – this is contrasted by the principles of the Enlightenment which “demands that an individual should subject all his beliefs to criticism and accept nothing on authority” (Honderich, 237). In short, the general ideals of this Age of Reason values not “what the man of science believes that distinguishes him, but how and why he believes it” (Russell, 486). The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (1995) lists eight general principles attributed to the Enlightenment:

  1. Reason is man’s central capacity
  2. Man tries, by nature, to be rational and good.
  3. Both an individual and humanity as a whole can progress towards perfection.
  4. All men are equal in respect of their rationality and should be granted equality before the law and in individual liberty
  5. Tolerance of other creeds, religions, and ways of life – which is an extension of individual liberty.
  6. Beliefs are to be accepted only on the basis of reason, not on the authority of priests, sacred texts, or tradition.
  7. Devaluement of local prejudices and customs
  8. In general, the recognition and down play of the non-rational aspects of human nature. 

The separation of facts and values along with the idea that “all men are at all times and in all places fundamentally the same in nature” were huge factors in the liberation of people’s reliance on churches and kings and allowed the people to decide their own fate – These indispensable principles of the Enlightenment “established the ideals of popular sovereignty, equality before the law, and liberalism” in the Western World and most definitely in the American Government (Jacoby, 2008, 30; Shermer, 3). The enlightenment has been credited for numerous benefits society generally takes for granted such as more liberty and democracy, better education, more equality, greater wealth, production, and safety, more human cooperation, higher life expectancy, and greater human flourishing in general and it is the duty for social scientists and administrators to uncover these facts to “build institutions most amenable to freedom, wealth, safety, and happiness”  (Pinker, pg 322 – 325; McCaffree, 62). 


Allen, B. (2006) Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers. Chicago, IL: Ivan R. Dee.

Brinkley, A. (1999) American History: A Survey. 10th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Holmes, D. L. “The Founding Fathers, Deism, and Christianity” Encyclopaedia Britannica, December 21, 2006. Retrieved November 17, 2018 from www.britannica.com/topic/The-Founding-Fathers-Deism-and-Christianity-1272214.

Honderich, T. (1995) The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. New York: Oxford University.

Jacoby, S. (2004). Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. New York: Metropolitan Books.

Jacoby, S. (2008). The Age of American Unreason. New York: Pantheon Books.

McCaffree, K. (2018). Are human rights natural rights? Skeptic Magazine, 23(3), 60-63.

Pinker, S. (2018). Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

Raadschelders, J.C.N. “The Future of the Study of Public Administration: Embedding Research Object and Methodology in Epistemology and Ontology.” Public Administration Review. Vol. 71, No. 6 (November/December 2011), pp. 916- 924.

Russell, B. (1996) History of Western Philosophy. London, UK: Routledge.

Shermer, M. (2015) The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom. New York: Henry Holt.

Shermer, M. (2017) “Scientific Naturalism: A Manifesto for Enlightenment Humanism” Theology and Science, DOI: 10.1080/14746700.2017.1335060.

Szalay, J. “What was the Enlightenment?” Livescience July 7, 2016. Accessed September 28, 2018 from https://www.livescience.com/55327-the-enlightenment.html.

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