Most historical events and philosophies, if not all, deviate from a clear dichotomous separation between good and bad, and offer unique underlying perspectives, such as with the Enlightenment project of the eighteenth century. The Enlightenment project was a rather ambitious initiative, as it strove to radically alter the long ingrained philosophies of society. Through the work of Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke, Immanuel Kant, and Voltaire, the ideas of equality, liberty, reason, and constant progress were consistently emphasized to support practices of industrialization, constitutionalism, and religious tolerance. One of the largest ideological shifts encouraged by the Enlightenment was that from reliance in solely religious beliefs for truths to one that separated religion from the government and used both scientific and moral reasoning to make decisions for the overarching public good. Ultimately, the Enlightenment project aimed to introduce the notion of thinking for oneself and having the courage and intellect to be able to decide what is best for oneself and one’s community. Many Enlightenment leaders believed that this self-realization and fundamental concept of self-worth would drive individuals to understand that the government got its power from its people and that accordingly, it must serve to fulfill the needs its people express; in the case it didn’t do so, they would understand that the people have the right to stand up for their beliefs. While this Enlightenment project of the eighteenth century was not utterly successful in achieving its goals, many events and outcomes of the twentieth century depicted a successful integration of Enlightenment ideals and a fundamental ideological shift.
In the early 1900s, an enlightened need for continuous progress and improvement spurred a technological revolution to best advance exploration and communication practices. In a society that optimistically sought rapid industrialization after the Enlightenment project, it became of the utmost importance to place one’s faith in technology for both growth and opportunity. This socially rooted desire for progress resulted in the development of many new forms of technology in the twentieth century, some of which include automobiles, telephones, incandescent light bulbs, steam turbines, and even airplanes. The Enlightenment project also gave a voice to new scientific and philosophical ideas, which resulted in more expression of both needs and ideas, consequently increasing technological output. Leading scientists and innovators of the time reinforced this ideology, like when Orville and Wilbur Wright mentioned, “if we worked on the assumption that what is accepted as true really is true, then there would be little hope for advance.” On the other hand, prior to the integration of Enlightenment ideals in society, scientists like Galileo Galilei found that members of society refused to allow eccentric ideas to be shared and rather chose to “[remain] hostile not so much [even] toward the things in question as toward their discoverer.” The differences in beliefs between the two time periods epitomize the shift in ideology that had taken place since the Enlightenment project and how ideals of growth and creativity then outweighed religious doctrines that were for so longed simply accepted as the truth. While there were labor issues as a result of rapid industrialization and weapons of destruction being developed for war, the integral role of the other technologies developed then in helping progress our societies is undeniable even today. Like Alexander Graham Bell said, “you cannot force ideas. Successful ideas are the result of slow growth,” and this gradual acceptance of Enlightenment ideals is precisely what we observed through the technological revolution of the twentieth century.
Apart from that, despite the Enlightenment project failing to abolish gender conformity entirely in the eighteenth century, it also introduced the idea of equality and encouraged reasoning in decision-making which successfully set the scene for the Women’s Suffrage Movement. Denis Diderot, who was a prominent French philosopher of the Enlightenment age, shared, “Freedom is a gift from heaven, and every individual of the same species has the right to enjoy it as soon as he is in enjoyment of his reason.' Like Diderot, many Enlightenment thinkers of the 1700s, of whom the majority were men, proposed ‘classical liberalism’ and the notion of suffrage and “unalienable rights” for all men, selectively disregarding women in those discussions. Accordingly, throughout the 1700s and most of the 1800s, traditional gender roles and inequalities based in sexuality were very prevalent. Yet, the discussions of Enlightenment ideals alone began to encourage women to explore self-awareness and helped them realize that they too had the right to certain foundational freedoms. For years, rights that were supposedly unattainable for women given the ingrained role of religion, were soon within reach as without an emphasis on religious doctrines, it then required very little logic to propose that women should also be considered in context of Enlightenment principles.
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With a clear shift in the attitudes of women regarding their own rights, women used Enlightenment ideas to enhance their intellect and drive their movement. An example of this is author Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote extensively about women’s rights during the eighteenth century and is most well known for her book Vindication of the Rights of Woman. In it, Wollstonecraft specifically states, “there must be more equality established in society, or morality will never gain ground, and this virtuous equality will not rest firmly even when founded on a rock, if one half of mankind be chained to its bottom by fate.” In the entirety of the text, she emphasizes a need to revolutionize the expected mannerisms of women on the basis of logic, education, and simply morality which were heavily enforced by the Enlightenment project. Thereafter, famous women’s rights leaders of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, referred extensively to her work. Anthony even wrote a dedication to Wollstonecraft and acknowledged her as the “founding mother and philosopher of the women’s rights movement,” thereby reinforcing her support of Wollstonecraft’s enlightened ideas and her personal willingness to carry those forward. In her 1906 speech, Anthony again shared that Wollstonecraft was “a great woman with eloquent and unanswerable arguments on behalf of the liberty of womankind.” Ultimately, through women’s continued push for equality, the nineteenth amendment was successfully passed and all American women were granted the right to vote. While certain gender-based inequalities continue to persist in facets of our lives, the accomplishments of Women’s Rights Movements of the twentieth century are clearly rooted in women’s developed ability to think for themselves and to logically advocate for impartial equality, both of which are philosophies deeply entrenched in Enlightenment ideals.
Additionally, although certain Enlightenment principles supported industrialization practices that led to class conflicts, Enlightenment ideals also encouraged self-awareness and liberty which helped inspire the labor unions of the twentieth century. During the Enlightenment project itself, famous Enlightenment thinker John Locke emphasized the need for our society to realize that “the labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his.” Many other Enlightenment thinkers also drew attention to this concept of individualism and “power to the people”, under which workers of all kinds realize that they are granted certain uninfringeable rights that must not be taken away from them. The Enlightenment ideals ultimately helped the workers see their self-worth and ask for their rights on the basis of reasoned logic rather than submit themselves to political authorities. This ideology is finally reflected in the twentieth century with powerful labor movements that urged for higher wages, shorter hours, and safer working conditions for all workers. Specifically, Samuel Gompers, founder of the American Federation of Labor and a key labor union leader in the early 1900s, said, “to be free, the workers must have choice. To have choice they must retain in their own hands the right to determine under what conditions they will work.” The spread of such Enlightenment ideals led to an increase in labor union participation nationally, which ultimately resulted in the passing of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938. This law provided all workers with the right to a minimum wage and overtime pay, while also outlawing child labor. Therefore, principles of the Enlightenment project successfully manifested themselves as the fundamental inspiration behind many twentieth century workers’ fights for their rights.
Enlightenment ideals also emphasized liberty and equality which led to the first abolitionist movements of the 1900s and made thinkable the freeing of all slaves under the notion of universal morality. Many Enlightenment principles are strongly reflected in our country’s founding documents, including both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution which were heavily referred to in the Civil Rights Movement by various leaders. For instance, Martin Luther King Jr. stated in his ‘I have a Dream’ speech, “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence…this note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the ‘unalienable rights’ of ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’.” King’s reference to works that were written by many prominent Enlightenment thinkers, who were also our founding fathers, conveys a direct application of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment principles even in the twentieth century social movement. It also indicates that while the Enlightenment thinkers of the eighteenth century may not have been enlightened enough themselves given their rooted slaveholding tendencies, their intellect based reasoning and philosophy of equality sparked the self.
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