5.1A The Enlightenment


AP Theme

Cultural Developments and Interactions

Learning Objective 5A

Explain the intellectual and ideological context in which revolutions swept the Atlantic world from 1750 to 1900.

Historical Development 1

Philosophers applied new ways of understanding the natural and physical worlds. They developed new ideas about religion’s role in society, individual rights, natural rights, and the social contract.

Historical Development 2

Enlightenment ideas that questioned established traditions preceded revolutions and rebellions against governments.


What Was the European Enlightenment?

Main idea

The European Enlightenment was a movement that debated the best way to promote individual liberty.

The Age of Enlightenment was a period in European history during the 17th and 18th centuries when scholars and philosophers openly discussed and debated the relationship between people and their governments and the best to promote individual freedoms. The Enlightenment led to the development of modern western democracies, emphasizing personal freedoms and limited government power.
The Enlightenment was inspired by
The Renaissance
The Scientific Revolution

Topics of debate during the Enlightenment included: 

  • What is liberty?

  • How to promote social progress?

  • How to promote tolerance between people?

  • How to promote a sense of community among people?

  • How to protect freedoms from oppressive governments?

Click through the image below to explore how Enlightenment ideas found their way into European art.

Enlightenment Ideals in Art

Primary focuses of the Enlightenment

Below are three concepts that many philosophers wrote about and debated in their quests to answer the above questions.

The social contract

Enlightenment thinkers developed ideas about managing relationships between people and governments. They called this relationship “the social contract.” Every society has a unique social contract comprising the rules and laws governing the country. These laws define the rights and responsibilities of different people, groups, and societal institutions like the government. In modern democratic societies, elected leaders in parliaments and congresses manage the social contract by writing and passing laws. In authoritarian states like China, small groups of powerful, well-connected elites administer the contract without public input.

  • Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) wrote that all humans live in a state of nature without rules. His state of nature was a violent, dangerous, and insecure world. Hobbes argued that people come together into societies and create social contracts that limit our freedom. In exchange for giving up the complete freedom of our state of nature, we gain safety and protection. Further, he said that we authorize our governments to make decisions and agree to live by their decisions when we enter these social contracts.

The role of the individual in society: Enlightenment philosophers also debated the responsibilities of individuals in shaping the social contract. They wanted to understand when public participation in governance was beneficial and what types of participation should be allowed. It was also important to many to set limits on participation to prevent too many voices from preventing the government from functioning.

  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) wrote that a government was only legitimate if it protected “the general will” of the people. He defined the “general will” as decisions that improve the lives of the majority of people.

Natural rights: Many Enlightenment philosophers agreed that all people were born with fundamental human rights that no one or no government could take away. They called these rights “natural rights.” Over time, different philosophers defined these natural rights.

  • John Locke (1632-1704) included thought, religion, and property in his list of natural rights. Later thinkers added new rights to Locke’s list.

The Philosophers of the Enlightenment

Main idea

Various philosophers shaped modern western beliefs on the importance of protecting individual rights by limiting government power.

The Enlightenment produced hundreds of well-known philosophers. Below are the thinkers whose ideas most impacted modern views on the social contract, the individuals, and natural rights.

John Locke created the foundation of the Enlightenment. Many later Enlightenment thinkers added to and expanded his ideas.

He wrote that 

  • All people are born with natural rights, including life, liberty, and property. 
  • Governments exist to preserve natural rights. 
  • God does not choose monarchs.
  • The people should be sovereign (rule).
  • Governments get their right to lead from the consent (authorization) of those they lead.
  • Consent to govern should come through democratic actions such as voting.

“The obvious answer is that rights in the state of nature are constantly exposed to the attack of others. Since every man is equal and since most men do not concern themselves with equity and justice, the enjoyment of rights in the state of nature is unsafe and insecure. Hence each man joins in society with others to preserve his life, liberty, and property.” –John Locke

Montesquieu (1689 – 1755) built on Locke’s ideas of how to preserve liberty.

He believed that

  • Individuals, when given a chance, will abuse political power.
  • To prevent the abuse of political power, divide government roles into branches (executive, legislative, and judicial).

“Political liberty is to be found only in moderate governments; and even in these it is not always found. It is there only when there is no abuse of power…When the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or in the same body of magistrates [government employees], there can be no liberty… Again, there is no liberty if the judiciary power be not separated from the legislative and executive…” –Baron de Montesquieu

Rousseau developed ideas about the “general will” and argued people had a right to revolt against oppressive governments.

He argued that 

  • Governments should protect “the general will.”
  • The “general will” is what is best for most people.
  • The people can break the contract and rebel if the government does not protect their rights (a revolution).

“From whatever side we approach our principle, we reach the same conclusion, that the social compact [contract] sets up among the citizens an equality of such a kind, that they all bind themselves to observe the same conditions and should therefore all enjoy the same rights. ” –Jean-Jacques Rousseau 

Voltaire (1694 – 1778) expanded natural rights further than prior Enlightenment thinkers.

He thought that 

  • Freedom of thought, expression, and religion are fundamental natural rights.  
  • The separation of church and state protects fundamental rights.

“From whatever side we approach our principle, we reach the same conclusion, that the social compact [contract] sets up among the citizens an equality of such a kind, that they all bind themselves to observe the same conditions and should therefore all enjoy the same rights. ” -Voltaire 

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759 – 1797) argued that women deserved more social and political rights.

She wrote that a women’s first duty is to be a good mother. But for that to happen

  • Women should be able to decide what is best for themselves.
  • Women should not be entirely dependent on their husbands. 
  • Women should receive an education equal to a man’s education.

“I do not wish [women] to have power over men; but over themselves.” – Mary Wollstonecraft 

The Effects of the Enlightenment

Main idea

The Enlightenment set the stage for social and political revolution, starting in the mid-18th century. These revolutions placed limits on government power by guaranteeing people certain rights. These rights continue to exapand to new and more diverse groups.

Over the long term, the Enlightenment radically reshaped western society. New ideas about liberty and freedom resulted in political and social revolutions across the Americas and Europe.

A few significant changes included:

European monarchs' power declined

Movements of nationalism created new nations in the Americas.

Democratic systems developed in Europe and the Americas. 

Individual rights, such as freedom of speech, increased.

Abolitionists fought to end slave systems. 

Women struggled for the right to vote. 

Religious freedom increased. 

The Industrial Revolution started. 

The expansion of Enlightenment rights

Initially, new rights went to wealthy white European men—poor whites, women, and enslaved Africans saw little to no improvement in their conditions. However, as the 19th century progressed, Enlightenment rights spread to new groups. Women increasingly demanded political and social rights equal to men. By the start of the 20th century, women in western nations began gaining the right to vote and hold political office. The African slave trade was also outlawed, and enslaved Africans began gaining their freedom—though not equality. The expansion of rights continues today through modern movements for black civil rights, immigrants’ rights, and legal protections for those who identify as LGBTQIA+.