The Enlightenment was a cultural and intellectual movement developed at the end of the 17th century, until the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789. It owes its name to the consequences it brought with it: the light to the mentality of many people who were still blinded by the religious mandates of the Middle Ages. A series of characters demonstrated that there is not only one way of doing things; by logic and nature, everything is destined to grow and change.
The Enlightenment movement gave power to knowledge, seeking to combat the influence of the aristocracy, a fact that ended the blind faith and the burden of guilt that had been established in society. It was also the greatest challenge to the power of the Church: people’s lives up to that time had been based on following what that institution ordered, curtailing their curiosity to find out what the world had in store for them.
Basically, the work of the enlightened produced a role reversal concerning the concept of “free will.” The Church stipulated that following God’s laws freed one from sin and condemnation, therefore actions and beliefs should be limited. The illustration, on the other hand, left the following message: just because one is determined and convinced to do something, does not mean that it can be done correctly. Thus, the only reasonable option is to study and investigate in advance before acting, that is, to work the mind and let its fruit feed the decisions.
Their protagonists continue to speak to us through the works they bequeathed to humanity. The passion and conviction with which they worked are admirable as if it were a great mandate. Here are three of their most important representatives:
Isaac Newton (1642- 1727)
Newton was an English physicist, theologian, inventor, alchemist, and mathematician. Cloistered in Cambridge University, following a solitary lifestyle, with observation and analysis as his companions, he discovered that everything that happens in nature follows invisible laws, and these are fulfilled in everything else. Newton’s dynamics or laws led to the discovery of gravity.
He also discovered that the color spectrum observed when white light passes through a prism is inherent to that light, and does not come from the prism (as had been postulated by Roger Bacon in the 13th century); he argued for the possibility that light was composed of particles, developed a Law of Thermal Convection that describes the cooling rate of objects exposed to air, studied the speed of sound in air and proposed, in a justified manner, the theory on the origin of stars. He was also a pioneer of fluid mechanics, establishing a law on viscosity.
François-Marie Arouet (1694- 1778)
Known worldwide as Voltaire, which means the little volunteer, he was the most astute and prolific writer in France, something that required a lot of courage in that time of repression. He was the voice of the underprivileged. He took very seriously the defense of the victims of the legal horrors committed by authoritarian regimes. His greatest obsession was the fight against religious intolerance. He feared the fanaticism of his time and its terrible consequences. Voltaire dedicated his life to a struggle for freedom of speech and press through 20,000 letters, dozens of novels, and plays.
Denis Diderot (1713-1784)
This man proved that it has no limits and, unlike Voltaire, he did not belong to the aristocracy of France. His great work was the creation of the encyclopedia, the engine of the Enlightenment. Although it may seem commonplace to us today, in its time it was a book admired by some and feared by others, due to the specialization of information it entailed. Let us remember that it was not convenient for authoritarian kings to have educated people who were aware of the use of tools for acquiring knowledge.
In 1749 Diderot was imprisoned on Royal orders, after having written that knowledge comes from the senses and not from heavenly revelation, a thesis also defended by the empirical philosopher David Hume, a member of the Scottish Enlightenment. After a period behind bars and much patience, Diderot has released thanks to a friend of the King who was close to him.
Against all odds, this thinker managed to bring together great minds of the time to unite knowledge, not only scientific but also of the professions, especially the lower class and the people who obtained all the knowledge of that time in print, which prevail to this day.
These men were not only great thinkers, but they were also warriors who won with the only weapons that can give a true victory: science, knowledge, and understanding; if they could make that great leap in the History of Humanity, with all the tools and advances we have today, we can do it too.
Story originally published in Spanish in Cultura Colectiva