Age Of Enlightenment: Social Contract And Natural Rights

Read Complete Research Material

Age of Enlightenment: Social Contract and Natural Rights

Age of Enlightenment: Social Contract and Natural Rights


The Enlightenment can be most conveniently defined as the principal intellectual event of eighteenth-century Europe, at once the cause and effect of a dramatic and sweeping rethinking of the nature and aims of philosophy, politics, and religion.

Predominately Western European in its scope (from Scandinavia on the north to the Mediterranean on the south, and from the British Isles on the west to Russia on the east) and eighteenth century in its period (from the 1680s of the English Glorious Revolution to the 1790s and the French Revolution), the Enlightenment has been largely defined in scholarly and popular imaginations as an “age of reason,” its many strains unified by a core commitment to the use of reason for the promotion of happiness via the amelioration and improvement of the practical conditions of human life.


The advantage of this definition is that it provides us with a place to begin as we attempt to understand what the Enlightenment was (and is) and why it matters. Yet, recent years have also seen many attempts to reassess the nature and aims of the Enlightenment and its legacy. Many such efforts are inextricable from methodological questions of how the Enlightenment is best studied.

For brevity's sake, we might divide the debate into two camps: the monolithic and the pluralistic. In the former are those who tend to adhere to the view of Enlightenment set out in our introduction. This camp takes its cue from the most influential contemporary definition of the Enlightenment.

In 1784, Immanuel Kant published a newspaper piece as a contribution to a debate on the Enlightenment's meaning. Pithily summarizing its creed as Sapere aude!—“Dare to be wise!”—and defining the task of enlightened intellect as liberation from its self-imposed immaturity, Kant's definition achieved iconographic status as a result of its brevity and clarity, its rhetorical appeal, and its author's credentials. The unified or monistic view of an Enlightenment project thus took both optimistic and pessimistic forms.

Yet, in time, debate shifted from the question of optimism versus pessimism to the question of the sufficiency of the monistic definition itself. On this front, a second diverse group of scholars challenged what came to be seen as a reductive definition of Enlightenment, which in fact was neither quite as unified nor quite as reason-obsessed as the monistic view suggested.

Rightly reminding us that the English language lacked even the word enlightenment until it was invented in the nineteenth century as an equivalent for terms in other European languages; skeptics to the monistic view have encouraged us to take a much broader perspective. This call was driven in part by new methodological approaches to the history of ideas.

Social Contract

Social contract theory is an approach to questions of political legitimacy and obligation that seeks to ground claims to sovereignty on an agreement among people to form a political community. Social contract theory was the dominant approach to such questions in early modern Europe, ...
Related Ads