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Subject Religion

Key-Topics Enlightenment, The

DOI: 10.1111/b.9780631198963.2005.x


The term ‘Enlightenment’, which passed into general circulation only in the closing decades of the nineteenth century, remains resistant to precise definition. Any number of such definitions of the movement can be offered; these have all proved unsatisfactory, on account of their reductionist tendencies. It is a loose term, defying precise definition, embracing a cluster of ideas and attitudes characteristic of the period 1720–80, such as the free and constructive use of reason in an attempt to demolish old myths which were seen to have bound individuals and societies to the oppression of the past. If there is any common element underlying the movement, it perhaps lies more in how those who were sympathetic to its outlook thought than in what they thought. The term ‘Age of Reason’, often used as a synonym for the Enlightenment, is seductively misleading, in that, it implies that reason had been hitherto ignored or marginalized. In one sense, the Middle Ages was just as much an ‘Age of Reason’ as the Enlightenment; the crucial difference lay in the manner in which reason was used, and the limits which were understood to be imposed upon it. Nor was the eighteenth century consistently rational in every aspect. In fact, the Enlightenment is now recognized to be intellectually heterogeneous, including a remarkable variety of anti-rational movements such as Mesmerism or Masonic rituals. ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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