Until the 1600s, everyone believed that the Earth is the center of our universe, and in this Geocentric model of the cosmos, the Sun, Moon, and Stars were but lights revolving around our planet. Because telescopes were not invented back then, our universe was restricted to only what we could see with our naked eyes. In this little world of our imagination oblivious to the rest of the universe, we fell into the assumption that we were the center of the universe, and this finite universe was made for us.
But there was a man who held an entirely distinct view. His name was Giordano Bruno. Bruno didn’t like the idea of a finite universe. For, how could his infinite God create such a finite world? According to him, the idea of a finite world and a world solely made for us were irreconcilable to the idea of the infinite God he worshipped. He envisioned an infinitely grander cosmos consisting of innumerable worlds, far greater and beyond imagination. He expanded the cosmic theory of Copernicus and concluded that neither Earth nor Sun is the center of the universe. The universe is just too big to find a center.
Unfortunately, his vision of the universe brought him into conflict with the Church. Freedom of thought wasn’t a thing in medieval Europe, and the church regarded his views about innumerable worlds as blasphemous. Those days, heresies were regarded as the gravest crime even worse than murder. It was a crime against God. Giordano Bruno was arrested by the Inquisition in 1592. When even after rigorous imprisonment and torture for seven years the inquisition failed to make him change his views, he was condemned to public execution. The inquisition burnt him alive for his acts against God. But Bruno became a martyr for science and reason.
By today’s standards, heresy might not seem a crime. But in those dark days, science and reason did not pervade the collective consciousness of human society as it does now. For centuries, religion and traditional beliefs had been the source of our intellectual and moral behaviors. Even to understand the dynamics of the physical world around us, people would turn to supernatural belief in demons or mythical figures. For example, to explain solar eclipse, Vikings believed in two mythical wolves known as Skoll and Hati. They believed that during a solar eclipse, the Sun was eaten by these two wolves. Now of course today, we know that Solar eclipses take place when the Moon comes between the Earth and the Sun, and leaves a shadow on the Earth’s surface, and not because of the two mythical wolves that Vikings believed in.
On a similar note, to govern our moral and ethical behaviors, humans created dreadful afterlife stories of eternal damnation. But now because we understand human behavior at least more than ever we could, some of those dreadful afterlife stories might seem unreasonable to a lot of us if examined in the light of reason. Even in our political systems in the past, the rulers turned to religion to legitimize their kingship, claiming the king to be the shadow of God on earth. The divine status not only legitimized their exploitative rules, but it equipped them with unquestionable authority. For, God cannot be questioned.
How did the Age of Enlightenment begin?
The scientific discoveries in Europe in the late medieval and early modern period unleashed new waves of intellectual and cultural pursuits and rejuvenated the philosophical traditions, which had long died in the dark ages following the fall of the Roman Empire.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Europe encountered a series of events— the radical intellectual movements which challenged the long-established social, political, and religious institutions and undermined their authority, culminating infamously called the age of enlightenment. The scientific and philosophical movements based on reason and inquiry transformed human thought throughout Europe and would inspire the whole world in the time to come.
Before the Enlightenment, the Catholic Church was the strongest religious institution that governed the society and politics of Europe until the sixteenth century, but the period of enlightenment undermined its authority and hindered its influence. By the early seventeenth century, the separation between Church and State became more and more distinct. The age of enlightenment unleashed secular thought in Europe and re-interpreted ideas like freedom, liberty, and the rights of man in the light of reason. Later on, these remarkable ideas were adopted by the greatest democracies of the world and remain the benchmark for humanity to follow and progress.
How did the Age of Enlightenment transform human thought?
But because the Age of Enlightenment had arrived riding the chariot of the Scientific, Intellectual, and Philosophical Revolution, the methods of fact-based observation, reason, and inquiry were expected to be applied to all aspects of the society. The Enlightenment thinkers like Immanuel Kant believed societies based on reason and inquiry would be more egalitarian and just, thereby a series of radical reforms were introduced.
Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire actively encouraged the idea of the separation of church and state. And, by the end of the 18th century, the idea of the formal separation of church and state became more and more dominant in the French Revolution.
Separation of powers between the three governing bodies: the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary was proposed. And, each branch was supposed to be independent of one another, while also maintaining the check and balances.
The enlightenment thinkers like Thomas Hobbes promoted the equal rights of man.
The notions of hierarchy that were earlier defended by the Church and State were now questioned. The theological notions like the ‘God-given right of kings’ were now interrogated by thinkers and statesmen like Maximilien Robespierre.
The Scientific Revolution made social thinkers turn to a mechanistic understanding of human life. The materialistic ideas began to shape the political and social discourses.
The Enlightenment ideas like liberty, equality, fraternity, and rights of man continue to shape our society and have served as the cornerstone of liberal democracies across the globe. The remarkable progress that the human society has made over the centuries and is still fostering, has been made possible by generations of thinkers who strictly adhered to a simple set of rules— test ideas in light of reason, inquire into them, and cast-off institutions which fail to conform to the notions of liberty, equality, and fraternity.