AP European History
Key Concept 2.3:The popularization and dissemination of the Scientific Revolution and the application of its methods to political, social, and ethical issues led to an increased, although not unchallenged, emphasis on reason in European culture.


During the 17th and 18th centuries, Europeans applied the methods of the new science — such as empiricism, mathematics, and skepticism — to human affairs. During the Enlightenment, intellectuals such as Rousseau, Voltaire, and Diderot aimed to replace faith in divine revelation with faith in human reason and classical values. In economics and politics, liberal theorists such as John Locke and Adam Smith questioned absolutism and mercantilism by arguing for the authority of natural law and the market. Belief in progress, along with improved social and economic conditions, spurred significant gains in literacy and education as well as the creation of a new culture of the printed word, including novels, newspapers, periodicals, and such reference works as Diderot’s Encyclopédie, for a growing educated audience.

Several movements of religious revival occurred during the 18th century, but elite culture embraced skepticism, secularism, and atheism for the first time in European history, and popular attitudes began to move in the same directions. From the beginning of this period, Protestants and Catholics grudgingly tolerated each other following the religious warfare of the previous two centuries. By 1800, most governments had extended toleration to Christian minorities and in some states even to Jews. Religion was viewed increasingly as a matter of private rather than public concern.

The new rationalism did not sweep all before it; in fact, it coexisted with a revival of sentimentalism and emotionalism. Until about 1750, Baroque art and music glorified religious feeling and drama as well as the grandiose pretensions of absolute monarchs. During the French Revolution, romanticism and nationalism implicitly challenged what some saw as the Enlightenment’s overemphasis on reason. These Counter-Enlightenment views laid the foundations for new cultural and political values in the 19th century. Overall, intellectual and cultural developments during this period marked a transition in European history to a modern worldview in which rationalism, skepticism, scientific investigation, and a belief in progress generally dominated, although such views did not completely overwhelm other worldviews stemming from religion, nationalism, and romanticism.

Supporting Concepts and Examples

Rational and empirical thought challenged traditional values and ideas.

Intellectuals such as Voltaire and Diderot began to apply the principles of the Scientific Revolution to society and human institutions.

Works applying scientific principles to society:
Locke and Rousseau developed new political models based on the concept of natural rights.

Despite the principles of equality espoused by the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, intellectuals such as Rousseau offered new arguments for the exclusion of women from political life, which did not go unchallenged.

Individuals who challenged Rousseau’s position on women:

New public venues and print media popularized Enlightenment ideas.

A variety of institutions, such as salons, explored and disseminated Enlightenment culture.

Despite censorship, increasingly numerous and varied printed materials served a growing literate public and led to the development of public opinion.

Printed materials:
Natural sciences, literature, and popular culture increasingly exposed Europeans to representations of peoples outside Europe.

New political and economic theories challenged absolutism and mercantilism.

Political theories, such as John Locke’s, conceived of society as composed of individuals driven by self-interest and argued that the state originated in the consent of the governed (i.e., a social contract) rather than in divine right or tradition.

Mercantilist theory and practice were challenged by new economic ideas, such as Adam Smith’s, espousing free trade and a free market.

New economists:
  • Physiocrats
  • François Quesnay
  • Anne Robert Jacques Turgot

During the Enlightenment, the rational analysis of religious practices led to natural religion and the demand for religious toleration.

Intellectuals, including Voltaire and Diderot, developed new philosophies of deism, skepticism, and atheism.

  • David Hume
  • Baron d’Holbach
Religion was viewed increasingly as a matter of private rather than public concern.

By 1800, most governments had extended toleration to Christian minorities and, in some states, civil equality to Jews.

The arts moved from the celebration of religious themes and royal power to an emphasis on private life and the public good.

Until about 1750, Baroque art and music promoted religious feeling and was employed by monarchs to glorify state power.

Baroque artists and musicians who promoted religion or glorified monarchy:
  • Diego Velásquez
  • Gian Carlo Bernini
  • George Frideric Handel
  • Johann Sebastian Bach
Artistic movements and literature also reflected the outlook and values of commercial and bourgeois society as well as new Enlightenment ideals of political power and citizenship.

Artistic movements that reflected commercial society or Enlightenment ideals :
  • Dutch painting
  • Frans Hals
  • Rembrandt
  • Jan Vermeer
  • Neoclassicism
  • Jacques Louis David
  • The Pantheon in Paris

Literature that reflected commercial society or Enlightenment ideals :
  • Daniel Defoe
  • Samuel Richardson
  • Henry Fielding
  • Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
  • Jane Austen

While Enlightenment values dominated the world of European ideas, they were challenged by the revival of public sentiment and feeling.

Rousseau questioned the exclusive reliance on reason and emphasized the role of emotions in the moral improvement of self and society.

Revolution, war, and rebellion demonstrated the emotional power of mass politics and nationalism.

Romanticism emerged as a challenge to Enlightenment rationality.

Reading Assignments

Reading 1: Pages 502-505

The Enlightenment:
  The Paths to Enlightenment

Reading 2: Pages 505-508

The Enlightenment:
  The Philosophes and Their Ideas
    (Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Diderot)

Reading 3: Pages 508-516

The Enlightenment:
  The Philosophes and Their Ideas
    (The "Science of Man," Later Enlightenment)
    (Rousseau, "Women" in the Enlightenment)
    (Social Environment)

Reading 4: Pages 516-521

Culture and Society in the Enlightenment:
  Innovations in Art, Music, and Literature
  The High Culture of the Eighteenth Century

Reading 5: Pages 521-524

Culture and Society in the Enlightenment:
  Crime and Punishment
  The World of Medicine
  Popular Culture

Reading 6: Pages 524-528

Religion and the Churches
  The Institutional Church
  Popular Religion in the Eighteenth Century