Besides, there were many more people such as Bentham, Adam Smith, and the draughtsmen of American constitutional liberties, Jefferson, Adams, and Hamilton who have significantly influenced the ethos of an age and helping to create the character of the modern Western civilization. The men of Enlightenment shared a general commitment to criticizing the injustices and exposing inefficiencies of the ruling powers. They endeavored to emancipate mankind through knowledge, education and science, from the chains of ignorance and error, superstition, theological dogma, and the clutches of the clergy.
Many of these thinkers, such as Condorcet and Rousseau of France or Hume and Smith of Great Britain, put forth the idea that people had rights and that governments should work to secure and protect the right of individuals. The vanguard of Enlightenment instilled a new mood of hope for a better future, issuing a call to practical action for creating greater prosperity, fairer laws, milder government, religious tolerance, intellectual freedom, expert administration, and importantly, heightened individual self-awareness.
Enlightenment can be viewed as being principally an elite movement, led by a small band of thinkers, but these people had a reservoir of supporters and sympathizers on whose services and loyalty they could rely. In fact, many of the proponents of Enlightenment were not philosophers in the proper sense of the word, they were more like popularizers and propagandists campaigning to spread light and win converts. The enormous increase in the publication of newspapers and books ensured a wide diffusion of the ideas of these thinkers.
Scientific experiments and philosophical writing became fashionable among wide groups in society. The norm of objectively tested, applicable and universally valid knowledge became a chief characteristic of Western Civilization, in a way so as to make belief and dogma a difficult matter. Further, with the emergence of scientific method in Europe, the world and its events could be studied, analyzed and evaluated by an observing scientist detached from the experiment he is conducting.
Such objectivity lies at the basis of shaping some fundamental characteristics of the Western civilization that have to do with progress: improving, changing, and increasing productivity. Along with the scientific method and a belief in progress emerged the notions of individual liberty and human dignity. Inherent in the ideal of progress is equity, seen as the convergence of standards of equality of opportunities ” or social justice. This idea of equality has nurtured all modern utopias ” from the liberal, centered on political equality, to the socialist, concerned with socio-economic equality.
Idealism and utopian thinking has also been another key characteristic of the modern Western civilization. Although the nineteenth century saw the heyday of political philosophers, the foundational basis for individual liberty and constitutional government was already present in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The assertion of individualism also resulted in the birth of Protestantism. Protestantism grew out of Renaissance, and as a rebellion against the authority of Church in Catholic religion.
It was a passionate expression of the belief that all human beings are equal before God, and there is no need of any intermediary authority of the Pope or the Church to mediate between an individual and God. The authority of the Catholic Church was on the one side undermined by the new scientific and liberal thinking that is spreading across the countries of Europe, and on the other hand was challenged by Protestant movement that sought to obviate the need of the Churchs authority. Both these trends created greater awareness among people, instigated the spirit of individual initiative and enterprise.
Such an emphasis on individuality is once again unprecedented phenomenon in the history of any other civilization of the world. The common people always existed as part of the herd, and never as individuals in their own right. This is the case even in the modern Western society today, to a significant extent. However, since the times of Renaissance and Reformation, there was more emphasis placed on the freedom and responsibility of an individual human being in shaping his or her own life and in contributing to the society.
This focus on the individual as a creator of his or her own destiny gave rise to Protestant ethic in the Puritan America. The Protestant ethic would eventually lead to the spread of capitalism in the age of Industrial Revolution. The emphasis on the rights and duties of the individual would pave for popular democratic governments in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Today, capitalism and democracy are seen as two most important characteristic features of Western society. However, both of them have the groundwork clearly laid out by and during the time of Enlightenment.