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Ap Euro Enlightenment Philosophers Essay

Note: This article was released prior to the 2015-2016 revision to the AP European History exam. In order to see what is still in the Course and Exam Description, explore the course framework here.

The Enlightenment, otherwise known as the Age of Enlightenment or the Age of Reason, took place from the 1650s through the 1780s. The Age of Enlightenment is characterized by social, economic, and political advancement of thought through reason, science, and an increase in literate skill. This AP European History crash course on The Enlightenment will cover the core concept, explore the purpose of this age in European history, and review eventualities in which you might encounter The Enlightenment on the AP Euro test. Continue reading for an AP European History review of the Enlightenment!

The Enlightenment: what is it?

Perhaps the best way to unpack and examine the information presented here about this time period is to understand the great German Philosopher Immanuel Kant’s interpretation of The Enlightenment: this time period was about obtaining the freedom to exercise your own intelligence. With that in mind, read through this AP European History crash course on the Age of Enlightenment understanding that this time period was pivotal in the development of modern thought.

As previously stated, The Enlightenment took place from the 1650s through the 1780s throughout Europe. This time period is earmarked by an increase in literacy, scientific breakthroughs, and a willingness to challenge the long-standing institutions of European society, namely the Catholic Church.


During The Enlightenment, much of Europe experienced an increase in the availability and, subsequently, the publishing of texts that covered philosophical concepts rather than theological concepts. Increased literacy as well as the availability of non-religious texts aided in the spread of new ideals and belief systems. Some of these texts include d’Alembert and Diderot’s Encyclopédie and Voltaire’s Dictionnaire philosophique as well as Letters on the English.


The Enlightenment also coincided with a scientific revolution that saw Isaac Newton’s rise to prominence. Newtonian physics highlighted the scientific and mathematical patterns in the natural world, which inspired certain intellectuals to attempt to apply the logic and reason found in the natural world to the society of Europe. The empirical principles of Newtonian scientific analysis bled over to works of philosophy, such as John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, which sought to explain the world empirically, utilizing an analysis of experience rather than Christian morality.


Before this time period, religious entities were entrenched in many European states. Throughout the Enlightenment, however, the standing of these ecclesiastical traditions and institutions within the state was questioned. With the rise of scientific inquiry and the pursuit of empirical analysis of the natural world, religious fanaticism and intolerance were questioned, thus weakening the standing of most religious traditions in Europe.

A Brief Survey of Enlightenment Topics

Use this section to guide your study on the AP European History exam. The following topics are of great importance to your understanding of the Enlightenment and its role in the development of subsequent European societies.

The Philosophes

Due to the rise of the print culture during the Enlightenment, the Philosophes rose to prominence as writers and critics. They lead the way toward acceptance of Enlightenment ideals. Voltaire is considered to be one of the first philosophes.


Religious tolerance, though not really extant outside of England during the Enlightenment, was vitally important to the entire movement. The point, so to speak, of the Enlightenment was to allow for divergent points of view on the natural world that were not bound by religion. Learn the basic thoughts of authors like David Hume, Voltaire, Edward Gibbon, and Immanuel Kant to maximize your understanding of tolerance’s place in Enlightenment-era thought.


One of the greatest contributions of Enlightenment thinkers was the Encyclopedia. Diderot and d’Alembert’s 1751 publication of the Encyclopedia spoke to the Enlightenment ideals of empirical study of the natural world, freedom to express one’s self, and criticism of ecclesiastical entities and authoritarian governments.

Other societal themes are criminal law reform, economic freedom and growth, and social progress.

Rousseau and The Social Contract (1762)

Understand Rousseau’s 1762 book The Social Contract. Rousseau explores themes of personal freedom and the improvement of society. This book reconciled these themes and taught Europeans how to be personally free while remaining loyal to a larger society.

Enlightened Criticism

Understand the works of Kant, Herder, and Diderot insofar as they were critics of imperial systems.

Women of the Enlightenment

Though most philosophes could not be considered feminists, many advocated broadened education for women. Read and analyze Rousseau’s Emile and Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women to gain an understanding of two opposing points of view on the role of women in Enlightenment-era Europe.

Enlightened Absolutism

Know these names and the roles of these monarchs. They all championed religious tolerance, freedom of speech, and the right to private property.

Frederick the Great of Prussia: the best example of enlightened absolutism

Joseph II of Austria: concerned with centralization and the improvement of his people’s lives

Catherine the Great of Russia: expanded Russian land holdings and economy

The Enlightenment on the AP European History Exam

The AP European History exam has undergone a redesign for the 2015-2016 school year. Luckily, most Enlightenment-era Free Response Questions will still be viable study aids because the new FRQs will be, by design, less in-depth than the older versions. The purpose of this redesign is to allow for more pointed and expansive analysis of fewer topics. That being said, consider the following FRQ from the 2014 AP European History exam’s response section.

In about 35 minutes, “Analyze the differences in the ideas held by various Enlightenment figures concerning the roles of women in European society” in an essay with a relevant thesis, that addresses all parts of the question, that supports the thesis with specific evidence, and that is well organized.

Any of the topics discussed in this AP European History crash course could conceivably work in your favor while studying for the FRQ section. These are all macro-level, important topics that align with the new goals of the redesigned exam.

The Enlightenment—The Bottom Line

The Enlightenment was a key period in the development of modern thought. Understand the ideals involved, freedom of expression, individuality, rationality and scientific inquiry as an understanding of the natural world, and you should be in good shape if you encounter questions over this time period on the AP European History exam. After this crash course in AP European History, how do you plan to continue studying?

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Chapter 18: Toward a New World-view

The Scientific Revolution

  1. Introduction
    1. The scientific revolution of the seventeenth century was the major cause of the change in world-view and one of the key developments in the evolution of Western society
    2. Modern science— precise knowledge of the physical world based on the union of experimental observations with sophisticated mathematics
  2. Scientific Thought in 1500
    1. European ideas about the universe were based on Aristotelian-medieval ideas
      1. Ten crystal spheres moved around a motionless earth fixed at the center of the universe and beyond the spheres was heaven
      2. Earth was made up of four imperfect, changeable elements: air, fire, water, earth
      3. A uniform force moved an object at a constant speed and the object would stop as soon as that force was moved
    2. Aristotle’s ideas about astronomy and physics were accepted with minor revisions for two thousand years
      1. Offered an understandable, commonsense explanation for what the eye saw
      2. Suited Christianity because it positioned human beings at the center of the universe and established a home for God (science in this period was primarily a branch of theology)
  3. The Copernican Hypothesis
    1. The desire to explain and thereby glorify God’s handiwork led to the first great departure from the medieval system by Nicolaus Copernicus
    2. Copernicus, a Polish clergyman and astronomer, believed that that the sun was the center of the universe and that all the stars and planets, including Earth, revolved around the sun (Copernican hypothesis)
      1. Was cautious with this idea and did not publish his On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres until the year of his death (1543)
    3. This heliocentric theory had enormous scientific and religious implications
      1. Destroyed the main reason for believing in crystal spheres capable of moving the stars around the earth: stars’ movement is simply a result of the earth’s rotation
      2. Suggested a universe of staggering size: the earth moved around the sun and yet the stars appeared to remain in the same place
      3. Destroyed the basic idea of Aristotelian physics—the earthly world is quite different from the heavenly one—by characterizing Earth as just another planet: where is Heaven?
    4. The Copernican hypothesis created doubts about traditional Christianity and brought sharp attacks from both Protestant and Catholic religious leaders
  4. From Brahe to Galileo
    1. Tycho Brahe was a Danish astronomer that agreed with the Copernican hypothesis
      1. Established himself as Europe’s leading astronomer with his detailed observations of a new star that appeared in 1572
      2. Built the most sophisticated observatory of his time with generous grants from the king of Denmark
      3. Greatest contribution was his mass of data
      4. Believed that all the planets revolved around the sun and that the entire group of sun and planets revolved in turn around the earth-moon system (part Ptolemaic, part Copernican)
    2. Brahe’s assistant, Johannes Kepler, formulated three laws of planetary motion that mathematically proved the precise relations of a sun-centered (solar) system
      1. Orbits of the planets around the sun are elliptical rather than circular
      2. The planets do not move at a uniform speed in their orbits
      3. The time a planet takes to make its complete orbit is precisely related to its distance from the sun (came close to formulating the idea of universal gravitation)
    3. Galileo Galilei was a Florentine that challenged all the old ideas about motion
      1. Greatest achievement was the elaboration and consolidation of the experimental method (conducted controlled experiments to find out what actually did happen instead of speculating)
      2. Formulated the law of inertia: an object continues in motion forever unless stopped by some external force (rest is not the natural state of objects)
      3. Tried for heresy by the papal Inquisition in 1632 and forced to recant his views after openly criticizing the traditional views of Aristotle and Ptolemy in his Dialogue on the Two Chief Systems of the World
    4. The traditional religious and theological world-view, which rested on determining and accepting the proper established authority, was beginning to give way in certain fields to a critical, modern scientific method (greatest accomplishment of the entire scientific revolution)
  5. Newton’s Synthesis
    1. In his famous book, Principia (1687), Newton integrated the astronomy of Copernicus and Kepler with the physics of Galileo
      1. Found a single explanatory system that comprehended motion both on earth and in the skies
      2. United the experimental and theoretical-mathematical sides of modern science
      3. The key feature in his synthesis was the law of universal gravitation: every body in the universe attracts every other body in the universe in a precise mathematical relationship, whereby the force of attraction is proportional to the quantity of matter of the objects and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them
  6. Causes of the Scientific Revolution
    1. Medieval intellectual life and universities provided the framework for the new science
      1. In 1300, philosophy took its place alongside law, medicine, and theology in universities --> medieval philosophers developed a limited but real independence from theologians and a sense of free inquiry
      2. Science was able to emerge as a minor but distinct branch of philosophy: leading universities established new professorships of mathematics, astronomy, and physics
    2. The Renaissance stimulated scientific progress
      1. Greek mathematics was recovered
        1. Greatly improved European mathematics
        2. Showed that classical mathematicians had their differences --> Europeans were forced to resolve these controversies
      2. Various rulers and wealthy business people supported scientific investigations
    3. The navigational problems of long sea voyages in the age of overseas expansion generated scientific research and new instruments
      1. Science and scientific education was turned to in an attempt to solve the problem of fixing longitude (scientists had an honored role in society for the first time)
    4. Development of better ways of obtaining knowledge about the world improved scientific methods
      1. Francis Bacon advocated empirical, experimental research
        1. Greatest early propagandist for the new experimental method
        2. Formalized the empirical method into the general theory of inductive reasoning known as empiricism
        3. Helped provide a radically new and effective justification for private and public support of scientific inquiry
      2. René Descartes stressed mathematics and deductive reasoning
        1. Discovered analytical geometry
        2. Greatest achievement was developing his initial vision into a whole philosophy of knowledge and science known as Cartesian dualism: his reasoning reduced all substances to “matter” and “mind,” or to the physical and the spiritual
      3. The modern scientific method is based on a synthesis of Bacon’s inductive experimentalism and Descartes’s deductive, mathematical reasoning
    5. After the Counter-Reformation, the Catholic Church discouraged science while Protestant countries tended to be more “proscience”
      1. Countries that lacked a strong religious authority and/or religious unity could not impose religious orthodoxy on scientific questions
  7. Some Consequences of the Scientific Revolution
    1. An international scientific community emerged whose primary goal was the expansion of knowledge
    2. A modern scientific method arose that was both theoretical and experimental and refused to base its conclusions on tradition and established sources
    3. Because the link between theoretical, or pure, science and applied technology was weak, the scientific revolution had little effect on daily life at the time

The Enlightenment

  1. Introduction
    1. Scientific revolution = single most important factor in the creation of the new world-view of the Enlightenment
    2. Three central concepts stand at the core of Enlightenment thinking:
      1. The methods of natural science could and should be used to examine and understand all aspects of life; reason (most important and original idea)
        1. Rationalism – everything is to be submitted to the rational, critical, scientific way of thinking
      2. The scientific method was capable of discovering the laws of human society as well as those of nature (social science)
      3. Progress—the creation of better societies and better people—is possible
        1. The birth of social science led to progress
    3. The Enlightenment had a profound impact on the thought and culture of the urban middle classes and aristocracy but did not hold much appeal for the urban poor and peasants
  2. The Emergence of the Enlightenment
    1. The time between the publication of Newton’s Principia in 1687 and the death of Louis XIV in 1715 tied the knot between the scientific revolution and a new outlook on life
    2. Many writers made scientific thought understandable for the educated elite
      1. Bernard de Fontenelle set out to make science witty and entertaining for a broad nonscientific audience and stressed the idea of progress (most famous and influential popularizer)
      2. Fontenelle and other writers of his generation were instrumental in bringing science into conflict with religion as opposed to seventeenth-century scientists who believed that their work exalted God
    3. The crisis in European thought had its roots in several intellectual uncertainties and dissatisfactions
      1. Demolition of Aristotelian-medieval science
      2. Question of religious truth: skeptics such as Pierre Bayle asked if religious truth could ever be known with absolute certainty and concluded that nothing can ever be known beyond all doubt (skepticism)
      3. Rapidly growing travel literature on non-European lands and cultures: Europeans learned that other lands had their own different beliefs and customs --> changed their perspective --> ceased to look at truth and morality in absolute terms
      4. John Locke published Essay Concerning Human Understanding (one of the dominant intellectual inspirations of the Enlightenment)
        1. Insisted that all ideas are derived from experience
        2. The human mind at birth is like a blank tablet (tabula rasa) on which the environment writes the individual’s understanding and beliefs: human development is determined by education and social institutions
  3. The Philosophes and the Public
    1. Philosophes’ work brought acceptance of the new Enlightenment ideas
      1. Philosophe is the French word for “philosopher”
    2. The Enlightenment reached its highest development in France for three reasons:
      1. French was the international language of the educated classes in Europe, whose education came from French tutors supporting Enlightenment ideas
      2. Intellectual radicals in France did not face the overwhelming restraints found in eastern Europe
      3. The philosophes were committed to reaching and influencing all the European elites, or the public (the educated or enlightened)
        1. The public was quite different from the great majority of the population, which was known as the common people, or simply “the people”
    3. Philosophes could not write as freely as they wished because it was illegal in France to openly criticize either church or state --> used different genres of literature filled with satire and double meanings to spread their message to the public
    4. One of the greatest philosophes was the baron de Montesquieu
      1. Wrote a social satire titled The Persian Letters, in which he cleverly criticized existing European practices and beliefs
      2. Argued for the separation of powers in government: political power divided and shared by a variety of classes and legal estates holding unequal rights and privileged
        1. Believed that “power checks power”
    5. The most famous and representative philosophe was Voltaire (François Marie Arouet)
      1. Due to early-life experiences, he struggled against legal injustice and unequal treatment before the law
      2. Influenced by his long-time companion Madame du Châtelet
        1. Studied physics and mathematics and published scientific articles and translations
        2. Discriminated against because of her gender --> became uncertain of her ability to make scientific discoveries --> concentrated on spreading the ideas of others
        3. Her translation with an accompanying commentary of Newton’s Principia into French was her greatest work
      3. Did not believe in social and economic equality
      4. Challenged the Catholic church and Christian theology; believed in a distant, deistic God and hated religious intolerance
    6. Greatest and most representative intellectual achievement was the seventeen-volume Encyclopedia: The Rational Dictionary of the Sciences, the Arts, and the Crafts
      1. Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert edited the Encyclopedia
      2. Examined all of human knowledge and attempted to teach people how to think critically and objectively
      3. Summed up the new world-view of the Enlightenment
  4. The Later Enlightenment
    1. Thinkers began to seek originality by exaggerating certain Enlightenment ideas to the exclusion of others as the new world-view became increasingly accepted by the educated public; built rigid and dogmatic systems
      1. Baron Paul d’Holbach argued that humans were completely controlled by outside forces in his System of Nature (free will, God, and the immortality of the soul were myths)
      2. David Hume argued that our reason cannot tell us anything about questions that cannot be verified by sense experience (in the form of controlled experiments or mathematics) since our ideas ultimately reflect on our sense experiences
      3. Marie-Jean Caritat, the marquis de Condorcet, transformed the Enlightenment belief in gradual, hard-won progress into fanciful utopianism
      4. Jacques Rousseau attacked rationalism and civilization; The Social Contract argued that the general will is sacred and absolute, reflecting the common interests of all the people
  5. Urban Culture and Public Opinion
    1. The cultural transformation brought on by the Enlightenment was related to a growth in the market for books (tenfold increase)
      1. Most of the new book buyers came from the middle classes, the clergy, and the aristocracy
      2. Publishing in the fields of art and science grew the most
      3. Majority of the new books were published outside of France and then smuggled in because of France’s censorship policies
      4. All of this resulted in a new emphasis on individual and private reading (a “reading revolution”)
    2. Philosophes and the public resorted to discussion and social interchange in order to get around censorship; Enlightenment ideas—including new ideas about women’s rights—were spread in the salons of upper-class women
      1. The salons were often presided over by women but attracted a wide range of men
      2. One of the most famous salons was that of Madame Geoffrin, the unofficial godmother of the Encyclopedia (gave the encyclopedists financial aid)
      3. These salons seemed to have functioned as informal “schools” for women
      4. A diverse, educated public could debate issues and form its own ideas (public opinion)
      5. The salons united members of the intellectual, economic, and social elites

The Enlightenment and Absolutism

  1. Introduction
    1. The philosophes believed that a benevolent absolutism offered the best opportunities for improving society
    2. Necessary to educate and “enlighten” the monarch, who could then make good laws and promote human happiness (enlightened absolutism)
    3. Enlightenment thinkers turned toward rulers because rulers seemed to be listening, treating them with respect, and seeking their advice
    4. The philosophes distrusted “the people” and believe they were deluded by superstitions
  2. Frederick the Great of Prussia
    1. Frederick II used the War of the Austrian Succession to expand Prussia into a great power by seizing Silesia from Austrian ruler Maria Theresa
    2. The Seven Years’ War saw a failed attempt by Maria Theresa, with the help of France and Russia, to regain Silesia
    3. The Seven Years’ War brought Frederick to consider how more humane policies for his subjects might also strengthen his state
      1. Allowed freedom in religious and philosophical matters
      2. Promoted education: advancement of knowledge, improvement of his country’s schools, allowance of scholars to publish their findings
      3. Legal reform: laws were simplified, torture of prisoners was abolished, judges decided cases quickly and impartially, Prussian officials became famous for their hard work and honesty
      4. Economic growth: promoted the reconstruction of agriculture and industry
    4. Frederick’s dedication to high-minded government did not extend to the conditions of the serfs and oppressed Jews
  3. Catherine the Great of Russia
    1. Catherine set out to rule in an enlightened manner; she had three goals:
      1. Tried to bring the sophisticated culture of western Europe to Russia: imported Western culture to Russia (people and art) and patronized the philosophes
      2. Domestic reform: better laws (restricted the practice of torture, allowed limited religious tolerance, tried to improve education and strengthen local government)
        1. The nobility attained its most exalted position and serfdom entered its most oppressive phase: the uprising of serfs led by Emelian Pugachev stopped Catherine from reforming the system of serfdom and led her to give nobles absolute control of their serfs
      3. Territorial expansion: partitioned Poland with Prussia and Austria
  4. The Austrian Habsburgs
    1. Maria Theresa of Austria introduced reforms that aimed to make Austria stronger and more efficient
      1. Introduced measures aimed at limiting the papacy’s political influence
      2. Strengthened the central bureaucracy, smoothed out provincial differences, and revamped the tax system
      3. Sought to improve the lot of the agricultural population (cautiously reduced the power of lords over their hereditary serfs and their peasant tenants)
        1. Tenant – a person who occupies land or property rented from a landlord
    2. Joseph II, Maria Theresa’s successor, was a dedicated reformer
      1. Controlled the established Catholic church even more closely in an attempt to ensure that it produced better citizens
      2. Granted religious toleration and civic rights to Protestants and Jews
      3. Abolished serfdom and decreed that all peasant labor obligations be converted into cash payments
        1. Rejected by the nobility and the peasants (peasants had a barter economy)
    3. Because of opposition from both the nobles and the peasants, Joseph’s reforms were cancelled in order to re-establish order
  5. Absolutism in France
    1. Some philosophes, such as Voltaire, believed that the king was the best source of reform while the aristocracy drew on thinkers such as Montesquieu to limit the king’s power
    2. Favored by the regent duke of Orleans, the French nobility regained much of the power it had lost under Louis XIV after his death
      1. Restored the right of the parlements to evaluate royal decrees publicly in writing before they were registered and given the force of law (counterweight to absolute power)
        1. Asserted that the king could not levy taxes without the Parlement of Paris’s consent
    3. The French chancellor René de Maupeou began the restoration of royal absolutism under Louis XV
      1. Abolished the existing parlements and exiled the members of the Parlement of Paris to the provinces
      2. Established a new parlement of royal officials
      3. Began to tax the privileged groups
    4. Maupeou’s measures were responded to with widespread criticism; most philosophes and educated public opinion as a whole sided with the old parlements
      1. These attacks on the monarchy ate away at the foundations of royal authority: presented the king as a loathsome degenerate as opposed to God’s ordained one
    5. Louis XVI revoked Maupeou’s work and reinstated the old parlements when he came into power
    6. The country drifted toward renewed financial crisis and political upheaval as a weakened but unreformed monarchy faced judicial opposition
  6. The Overall Influence of the Enlightenment
    1. In France, the rise of judicial and aristocratic opposition (combined with liberalism) caused a decline in the French monarch’s ability to govern in a truly absolutist manner
    2. In eastern Europe, enlightened absolutism combined state building with the culture and critical thinking of the Enlightenment to expand the role of the state in the life of society


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Aboukhadijeh, Feross. "Chapter 18: Toward a New World-view" StudyNotes.org. Study Notes, LLC., 18 Nov. 2015. Web. 10 Mar. 2018. <https://www.apstudynotes.org/european-history/outlines/chapter-18-toward-a-new-world-view/>.

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