There are many debates and controversies about the Enlightenment, but the following features are generally agreed.
A common term applied to the Enlightenment is 'The Enlightenment project'. This implies that the Enlightenment
was coherent, possessing a unifying philosophyIts fundamental belief was that the increase of knowledge will produce happier, more virtuous people. This meant that it opposed and savagely mocked what it saw as bigotry and obscurantism, especially as represented by the Catholic Church. The Church responded by banning the French Encyclopédie in 1759.
was self-conscious, having a deliberate and proselytizing agenda
depended on the existence of a ‘public sphere’ in which ideas could be debated
Famous names include
David Hume (1711-76)
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78)
It is associated with certain characteristics:
1. Rationality, especially as represented with the empirical method associated with Isaac NewtonLandmarks include
2. An optimistic belief in progress (though Voltaire's Candide was a critique of facile optimism)
3. Admiration for the classical world (its aesthetics and values) seen in the writings of Gibbon, Winckelmann and the neo-classical architecture of Robert Adam
4. An increasingly secular approach to morality (Hume on suicide)
5. Cosmopolitanism (though in Germany the Enlightenment became associated with German nationalism)
6. Interest in non-Europeans and non-European cultures (the fashion for things Chinese, the cult of the noble savage)
7. A belief in a common, equal humanity (though this was inconsistently expressed)
8. A doctrine of natural rights (seen in the American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man)
9. Enlightenment rulers, most notably the cultivated despots Frederick the Great and Catherine the Great
The Encyclopédie (20 volumes, 72,000 articles)
Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary (pocket-sized)
Scientific discovery (Priestley, Lavoisier, Davy), the foundation of the Royal Institution
Medical innovation (inoculation, later vaccination)
Exploration (James Cook, Bougainville, Joseph Banks, Mungo Park).
We say Enlightenment, the Germans say Aufklärung
Although the Enlightenment is most commonly associated with Frenchmen like Voltaire and the other philosophes, and with Hume and the Scottish thinkers who followed him, the most famous description of the Enlightement came from the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, who in 1784 wrote a celebrated essay, 'What is Enlightenment?' Here's a sample:
'Enlightenment (Aufklärung) is man's emergence from his self-imposed nonage. Nonage is the inability to use one's own understanding without another's guidance. This nonage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one's mind without another's guidance. Dare to know! ... "Have the courage to use our own understanding", is therefore the motto of the enlightenment.'See what I mean, when I said that the Enlightenment was self-conscious?
However, though Kant told his readers to think for themselves, he wanted the Enlightenment to be under the patronage of appropriate rulers. He probably had in mind the King of Prussia, Frederick II ('the Great'). The American Thomas Jefferson used the ideals of the Enlightenment in order to attack George III, but I don't think Kant would have approved.
So -Enlightenment thinkers could be political conservatives or liberals.