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Revolution to Empire

Age of Enlightenment

It is a noble and beautiful spectacle to see man raising himself, so to speak, from nothing by his own exertions; dissipating, by the light of reason, all the thick clouds in which he was by nature enveloped; mounting above himself; soaring in thought even to the celestial regions.

– Jean-Jacques Rousseau, A Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences, 1750

The eighteenth century was marked by the emergence of new ideas and philosophies that underpinned the ideals of the French Revolution: religion, superstition and irrational beliefs were being replaced by science, reason and new theories about the rights of man. Observation and experiment were revealing Nature’s secrets, and inventions were changing the shape of society and work.

Thinkers such as Voltaire (1694–1778) advocated civil rights, freedom of religion and the separation of Church and State. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) wrote of the reciprocal obligation between the government and the people, of the rights of man and equality between people, and of the benefits of public education for all children. He wrote that the true nature of humanity was fundamentally good, but that the constructs of society corrupt us. Free will, he said, endowed humankind with dignity and equality.

The American War of Independence (1775–1782) in which the American colonists, supported by the French Army, overcame British rule and created an independent Republic, provided a concrete example that the inalienable rights of man could be achieved with constitutional reform.

Exploration, both real and imagined, captured the public imagination.  Works of fiction such as Gulliver’s Travels (1726), Robinson Crusoe (1719) and the Marvellous Adventures of Baron Munchhausen (1785) examined the themes of exploration and encounters with different cultures and customs through tales of discovery of new places and people. Likewise Captain Cook's voyages and the first hot-air balloon (Montgolfier) in 1783 were inspirational.

The growth in the publication of print materials meant that ideas could be spread quickly and widely through pamphlets, magazines and newspapers as well as through books. Ideas and knowledge were no longer exclusive to the privileged classes.

Jean-Antoine HOUDON
Voltaire 1778
44.7 x 20.7 x 21.7 cm (overall)
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Felton Bequest, 1939
  • Jean-Antoine HOUDON
    Jean-Jacques Rousseau 1778
    45.6 x 21.9 x 25.0 cm (overall)
    National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
    Everard Studley Miller Bequest, 1972

Think, Investigate, Create

VCE History – Revolutions

Innovations in the Age of Enlightenment changed the face of Europe. Industrialisation took people from the land into urban centres and populations grew. Evolution in thinking affected education, religion, politics and society. 

Choose one Enlightenment figure, invention or innovation and describe their impact on society. Some suggestions are:

  • People: John Locke, Isaac Newton, Denis Diderot, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire

  • Inventions: steam engine, Spinning Jenny, telescope and microscope

  • Discoveries: circulatory system, navigation instruments
Organised religion is one way that we can know or understand the world. Epistemology is the philosophical study of how we know what we know. The Enlightenment thinkers questioned the way that we come to know the world. Find out how their ideas affected the church.

‘Has the progress of the arts and sciences corrupted or improved mankind?’

This question was posed by the Academy of Dijon and answered in an essay by philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in 1749.

Form two groups and debate the positive and negative sides of the question.

Educator's Guide