An Analysis of Opposition Movements to the Enlightenment

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The Enlightenment refers to an 18th century intellectual and social movement that spread across Western Europe and led Western civilization into an age of modernism.  The promotion of reason and equality are key characteristics that unite the many thinkers who contributed to this movement.  While the Enlightenment left a profound impact on society, not all intellectual figures in Europe accepted the tenets of the movement.  Conservatism, Liberalism, Nationalism, Socialism, and Romanticism are among the movements that emerged in opposition to Enlightenment ideals.

Before evaluating the opposition that arose to the Enlightenment, it is important to understand the characteristics that define the Enlightenment as a movement.  According to Munck (2000), Enlightenment thinkers were predominantly 18th century thinkers who were influenced by the works of John Locke, Isaac Newton, and Pierre Bayle (p. 1).  Enlightenment figures were referred to as “philosophes” and believed that society could be improved in all areas through the use of reason and education (2000, p. 2).  Many philosophes responded to religious persecution that had taken place under the French monarchy and sought to expand personal liberties, freedom of speech, and freedom of thought (2000, p. 2).  The perspectives presented by Enlightenment thinkers can further be understood by evaluating the social conditions that allowed for the Enlightenment period to flourish.

According to Hunt (2009), Enlightenment thought primarily influenced thinkers in France, Britain, and the Dutch Republic (2009, p. 552).  Global trade and the rise in slavery boosted the economies of these states, allowing for an intellectual middle class to emerge (2009, p. 552).  Further, political conditions provided philosophes with the freedoms they needed to develop their ideas.  The repressive Edict of Nantes was repealed in France in 1685, which opened up freedoms for French Protestants (2009, p. 552).  Utilizing their newly acquired freedoms, French Protestants began to criticize the entanglements between church and state that enabled persecution of religious minorities in Europe (2009, p. 552).  Pierre Bayle, a refugee living in the Dutch Republic and a French Huguenot, was a key advocate of religious tolerance (2009, p. 577).  Through Bayle’s influence, religious tolerance became one of the foundational values of the Enlightenment.  The movement held at its core that religion should play less of a role in society and that humans, rather than God, could be relied upon to make improvements in this world (2009, p. 577).  Thus, a faith in human beings to use reason to make positive advancements in society is the main feature of all Enlightenment thought.

However, not all thinkers agreed with the optimism of the Enlightenment.  Conservatism is an ideology that sharply contrasts Enlightenment sentiments regarding human nature.  As Hunt (2009) notes, British parliament member Edmund Burke was the key advocate of conservatism during the 18th century (p. 644).  Burke’s criticisms of the Enlightenment arose after he witnessed the excessive displays of violence that followed the French Revolution.  In his 1790 work Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke argued that the unwarranted faith in human reason to enact change led to the deadly results of the French Revolution (2009, p. 644).  Burke asserted that the monarchy should be recognized as a legitimate ruler because it promotes stability and continuity (2009, p. 644).  Additionally, Burke argued that gradual reforms should take place in society only after being confirmed by human experience (2009, p. 644).  Essentially, Burke argued that the fallibility of human reason made it necessary for humans to proceed with caution when attempting to make reforms to society.  This strongly contrasted with the Enlightenment claims that humans could be relied upon to make radical improvements in society.

Unlike conservatism, liberalism presented subtle contradictions with the principles of the Enlightenment.  As Hunt (2009) notes, liberals were influenced by 17th century thinker John Locke and generally supported the Enlightenment ideal of personal liberty (2009, p. 705).  Liberalism also derives its roots from the economic writings of Adam Smith, author of An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (2009, p. 593).  In Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith argues that the pursuit of self-interest can produce the best results for society and that laissez-faire capitalism will produce the best results for society (2009, p. 593).  However, the advocacy of free trade revealed the hypocrisies presented by the use of slavery to produce profits.  Critics of the Enlightenment note that many thinkers were not sufficiently concerned with the abolition of slavery, and many were permissive of the practice (2009, p. 641).  The tolerance demonstrated by many philosophes towards slavery conflicted with liberal principles of personal freedom and equality and underscored inconsistencies in Enlightenment thought.

Nationalism challenged the egalitarian notions of Enlightenment.  While Enlightenment philosophes sought to connect humanity through reason and thought, nationalists sought to connect humans through national heritage.  Nationalism emerged in Europe during the 19th century and can be defined as the identification of people by their nationality, which involves sharing a common language, culture, or religion (2009, p. 703).  The Austrian Empire was a prominent site for nationalist tendencies due to conflicts between the Germans, Magyars, and Slavs, three distinct ethnic groups who were forced to live under one state (2009, p. 703).  Further, the 1830 Polish battle against Russian rule set the precedent for nationalist resistance in Eastern Europe (2009, p. 703).  Nationalism also posed a threat to Enlightenment ideals because it resulted in violent conflicts and prejudice rather than the promotion of cooperation and tolerance.

Socialism challenged the Enlightenment principles of human freedom.  Through their advocacy of freedom, most Enlightenment thinkers valued free trade and the economic gains made by the Industrial Revolution (2009, p. 706).  Socialists believed that Enlightenment principles only benefited the middle class and sought to reorganize society so that the working class would benefit from economic improvements (2009, p. 706).  Socialists essentially sought to limit human freedom in order to obtain economic equality by utilizing economic planning in order to alleviate poverty (2009, p. 706).  Socialism received report from many successful industrialists.  In one case, Robert C. Owen, a successful industrialist, tested the viability of socialism by establishing a model socialist community in the United States (2009, p. 706).  Though his experiment was unsuccessful, Owen’s writings became very influential among socialist advocates.  Essentially, proponents of socialism expressed doubt that humans could promote positive change economically without the guiding assistance of stronger social organizations.

Finally, romanticism emerged during the late 18th century as a critique of Enlightenment.  Romantic thinkers argued that the Enlightenment’s emphasis on science and reason was undesirable because it corrupted human beings by denying them their nature (2009, p. 594).  Jean-Jacques Rousseau serves as a key embodiment of the romantic values.  In a 1749 essay, Rousseau asserted that science corrupted the morals of individuals and skewed their perception of right and wrong (2009, p. 594).  In contrast to the urban nature of the Enlightenment, Rousseau argued that humans should embrace the simplicity of rural life in order to regain their relationship with nature (2009, p. 594).  In his 1762 publication Emile, Rousseau countered the Enlightenment emphasis on a broad education by arguing that humans should only receive a narrow, practical education that prepares them to fulfill their societal obligation to others (2009, p. 594).  Further, he argued that women should only receive an education that would adequately prepare them to serve their families (2009, p. 594).  In an attempt to return to its own conception of human nature, romanticism rejects the Enlightenment ideals on education and progress through sciences. 

The 18th century Enlightenment sought to promote greater freedoms and prosperity for humans by using reason to improve all areas of society.  Enlightenment thinkers were joined by their disdain for religious suppression and believed that science, not religion, was the answer to many of society’s ills.  While the Enlightenment was an important movement in Western Europe, the mark left by its critics can also be recognized today.  Conservatism, liberalism, nationalism, socialism, and romanticism are all relevant social movements that emerged as a criticism of the ideals advocated by the Enlightenment.  While conservative and liberalism contradict one another in their assessment of the role of human freedom in society, they both criticize the approach that Enlightenment thinkers take in enacting change.  Conservatives argued that the Enlightenment brought about too much change, while liberals did not believe that Enlightenment thinkers did enough to promote equality.  Nationalism and socialism identified conflicts between people of different nationalities and different classes, undermining the Enlightenment emphasis on unity.  Finally, romanticism made the claim that Enlightenment values of reason were inherently undesirable and antithetical to human nature.  These criticisms of the Enlightenment played equally important roles in shaping the affairs of history in Western Europe.


Hunt, L., Martin, T.R., Rosenwein, B.H., Hsia, R.P., & Smith, B.G. (2009). The making of the west: Peoples and cultures, Volume II: Since 1500 (3rd ed.). Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

Munck, T. (2000). The Enlightenment: a comparative social history, 1721-1794. London: Arnold.