1-1: An Age of Reason

Assignment 1-1: An Age of Reason



Part 1 of 3: Read the secondary source below and create a cover for your Unit Homework Packet.  The Cover Page should contain your name, Unit Title (The Enlightenment and French Revolution) and 5 elements contained within the reading below. (Hard copy only, does not apply to online submissions)


 An Age of Reason

The diverse and often contradictory nature of eighteenth-century Enlightenment thought, commonly known as the Age of Reason, pays tribute to the tremendous intellectual achievements of the previous century. In the seventeenth century, the Scientific Revolution had provided a new model for how problems could be solved through rational thought and experimentation (The Scientific Method), rather than on the authority of religion or the ancients. In fact, the French philosopher, mathematician and scientist Rene Descartes had seen man’s ability to reason as the very proof of his existence, declaring “I think, therefore I am”.

The Scientific Revolution had actually begun in the mid-16th century with Copernicus’ new theory of the sun as the center of the universe, replacing the earth-centered model. This revolution culminated in the seventeenth century with Newton’s vision of a universe whose most basic workings could be calculated and understood rationally, but which was also the work of a Creator.

This triumph of science helped to produce another fundamental intellectual change. By the early eighteenth century, the focus of speculation was shifting from theological to secular concerns. The old religious hostilities that had divided Europe since the Reformation no longer preoccupied the continent. Science and rational inquiry now came to be seen as the common ground which reunited men of different religions. Reason provided a unifying doctrine, and the key to increasing human happiness taking over the position once held by religion. With the right use of reason, all society’s problems could be solved and all mankind could live prosperously and contentedly.

This optimism reflected a sense of growing economic opportunity. Europe in the eighteenth century was richer and more populous than ever before. Steady economic growth seemed to bear out the notion that the new key of scientific method could unlock the answers not only to the physical world (as Newton had done), but to theology, history, politics and social problems as well. Using the advances made possible through rational scientific inquiry, farmers pioneered improvements in agriculture and entrepreneurs experimented with new technologies and products.

In England, the political theories of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke were in the spirit of the same rational approach to problem solving, but had also been influenced by the dramatic conflicts that unfolded in Britain between the 1640s and the 1680s. Hobbes wrote in his masterwork, the Leviathan (1651), that men were motivated primarily by the desire for power and by fear of other men, and so needed an all- powerful sovereign to rule over them. He characterized their lives without a strong ruler as “solitary, nasty, poor, brutish, and short.” For Hobbes, the English Civil War, which began in 1642, and ended with the execution of King Charles I in 1649, was convincing evidence that men were ultimately selfish and competitive.

John Locke, a generation later, developed an entirely different notion of the basic nature of humankind, which he saw as innately good. Locke witnessed the almost bloodless, so-called “Glorious Revolution,” and became convinced that people could live amicably together, after discovering God’s law through the application of reason. In Locke’s Two Treatises of Government (1690), he outlined a theory of politics based on people’s natural rights: life, liberty, and the ownership of property. To Locke, the task of the state was to protect these rights. Government was a contract between ruler and subjects, as the events of 1688-1689 had demonstrated: rulers were granted power in order to assure their subjects’ welfare. His writings were seminal for the American revolutionary leader Thomas Jefferson, who closely followed Locke’s ideas in the Declaration of Independence.

This early critical inquiry into the nature of man and society, spurred by events in England, influenced a group of French thinkers who came to be known as the Philosophes. Many French thinkers came to admire the economically advanced country across the channel with its unique form of representative government.

In the first generation of French Philosophes, one of the most important contributions to Enlightenment political thought was made by Charles de Secondat, the Baron de Montesquieu (1689-1755). In his masterwork The Spirit of the Laws, published in 1748, he developed the notion that power should be divided among several branches of government. Another of the early Philosophes who wrote on the nature of government was the author and poet Voltaire (1694-1778). He harshly criticized the French noble society forcing him to flee France.

Rousseau (1712-1778) and Diderot (1713-1784), born a generation later, continued the Philosophe tradition. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) was an outspoken critic of the French social and political order. In his landmark work, The Social Contract, written in 1762, Rousseau rejected existing forms of government in favor of a community based on the choice of all its citizens, and their democratic participation in every major decision. These ideas were to be of central importance after the outbreak of the French Revolution.

The Enlightenment was a cosmopolitan movement, not restricted to England and France. In Germany, Italy and Spain, thinkers similar to the French Philosophes pursued their campaign against outmoded ideas and political and religious obscurantism. In colonial America, men like Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), corresponded with European thinkers on political and scientific topics. Through Franklin and Jefferson the critical, rationalist thought of eighteenth-century Europe exercised a decisive influence on American political and social theories. The Declaration of Independence (1776) is one of the clearest and most succinct articulations of the Enlightenment program to be penned in the entire eighteenth century.

For the men of the Enlightenment the basic question of the age was: how does one make mankind happy and rational and free? Their basic answer was: by discovering the underlying laws which would organize all knowledge into a clear, rational system, enabling individuals to become enlightened, and the societies in which they live to progress. It was a goal seen as obtainable to the people of the eighteenth century. Science and reason seemed to offer the key to the future, to a kind of paradise which would be realized not in the next world, as the theologians asserted, but in this world, here and now.


Part 2 of 3: Identify the bold Vocabulary words within the reading. The words should have the definition of who or what it is and a one sentence explanation of its connection to the Enlightenment. Please be sure to have the definition that makes sense in context. (ie concentration can mean focus, density or imprisonment, pick the right definition based on context)


  • Scientific Revolution:
    • The emergence of modern science during the 16th century, when developments in science and the methodology of discovery transformed views of society and nature.
    • The Scientific Revolution and its use of the scientific method helped scientists understand the natural world. The same methodology was then applied to human society to better understand human nature and interactions

Part 3 of 3: Complete the reading comprehension questions that follow the reading.

  1. What contributions did the Scientific Revolution make to the Enlightenment?
  2. What is one specific example of how the Scientific Revolution changed our understanding of the universe?
  3. How did the Enlightenment repair the religious divide that had dominated Europe since the Reformation?
  4. What are 2 ideas the Locke and Hobbes disagreed about?
  5. What contributions did Montesquieu make to the Enlightenment? Rousseau?


  1.  How did the US adopt Enlightenment ideals during and after its revolution?
  2. Why did the Philosophes admire the government of the English?
  3. Why did Europe become more secular during and after the Enlightenment?
  4. According to Enlightenment thinkers how can mankind be happy?
  5. The US is a product of the Enlightenment and Europe is not. What key differences are there between the US and Europe that might be because of this movement?