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The Age of Enlightenment

The Age of Enlightenment began in Europe in the 17th century and fully developed in the 18th. In this exciting, formative period, also known as the Age of Reason, writers, philosophers, economists, and scientists developed a new profound optimism about the world and the future of mankind. Human beings stood at the center of their universe as they sought to figure out what would be the best government and the best laws to create a society which would protect the individual rights of all. Their fervent idealism, which recognized no limits on human potential, was considered naïve, misguided and even dangerous by many of their contemporaries and by some historians to this day. Nonetheless, their enthusiasm and optimism about the future would spread abroad to the American colonies as well as to other lands. It would contribute to the American and French Revolutions, to the struggle for individual rights in the antislavery and suffragette movements. To be sure, millions of people are still living in poverty and are denied basic human rights in oppressive, tyrannical societies. Yet, the ideas and visions of the Enlightenment philosophers have survived and are reflected not only in American laws and institutions but throughout the modern world. This class will introduce the major philosophers, their views, and beliefs, as well as the Enlightened Despots who adopted some of their proposals for reform. We will also discuss both the immediate and long-term impact of the Enlightenment.  


Mary Louise Loe taught in the History Department at JMU from 1973-2020. She has a B.A. from the University of Wisconsin- Madison and an M.A. and Ph.D. from Columbia University, New York. She is Professor Emerita at James Madison University. Her fields of specialty are Russian History, European History, and Modern Human Rights.

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