12.4 The Enlightenment

During the Scientific Revolution of the 1500s and 1600s, European scholars made advances in physics, chemistry, biology, and medicine. Like ancient scholars, the thinkers of the Scientific Revolution relied on reason, but they also developed a new “scientific method” to test their theories and observations. Using mathematics and the scientific method, they discovered a series of laws that governed the physical universe.

Illustration of a man holding a prism refracting light into a rainbow, at a desk with books and a telescope, with an apple tree and planets orbiting the sun in the background.

Sir Isaac Newton was a key figure in the Scientific Revolution. Among his many discoveries was gravity.


  • Describe how science led to the Enlightenment.
  • Explain the political philosophies of Hobbes, Locke, Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Rousseau.
  • Summarize the economic ideas of the physiocrats and Adam Smith.
  • Describe how Enlightenment ideas spread and influenced the arts.
  • Understand the role of enlightened despots.

Key Terms

  • natural law
  • Thomas Hobbes
  • John Locke
  • social contract
  • natural rights
  • philosophe
  • Montesquieu
  • Voltaire
  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau
  • laissez faire
  • Adam Smith
  • free market
  • free enterprise system
  • censorship
  • salon
  • baroque
  • rococo
  • enlightened despot
  • Joseph II

Scientific Revolution Leads to the Enlightenment

The Scientific Revolution, in turn, helped spark the Enlightenment in which thinkers emphasized the use of reason to uncover “natural” laws that governed human life. During the Enlightenment of the 1600s and 1700s, thinkers developed new ideas about government and basic human rights.

While scientists and mathematicians developed laws about natural phenomena like the law of gravity, European thinkers searched for similar laws that governed human life. Like scientists, they emphasized the power of reason, rather than religious beliefs. During the 1600s and 1700s, these thinkers developed new ideas about natural laws—unchanging principles, discovered through reason, that govern all human conduct.

Using the methods of the Scientific Revolution, European thinkers and reformers set out to study human behavior and solve the problems of society. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant used the word enlightenment to describe this new approach. During the Enlightenment, also called the Age of Reason, philosophers emphasized the power of human reason to uncover general laws of nature that shape all of human experience.

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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments