The term can more narrowly refer to the intellectual movement of The Enlightenment, which advocated reason as the primary basis of authority. Developed in France, Britain and Germany, it influenced the whole of Europe including Russia and Scandinavia. The era is marked politically by governmental consolidation, nation creation, greater rights for the common people, and a diminuation of the influence of authoritarian institutions such as the nobilities role and power.
Many of the United States' Founding Fathers were also heavily influenced by Enlightenment-era ideas, particularly in the religious sphere (deism) and, in parallel with liberalism (which had a major influence on its Bill of Rights, in parallel with the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen), and socialism in the political sphere.
Typically, The Enlightenment is said to end around the year 1800 and the beginning of the Napoleonic Wars (1804–15). However, some historians argue that the revolution of knowledge commenced by Newton, and in a climate of increasing disaffection with repressive rule, Enlightenment thinkers believed that systematic thinking might be applied to all areas of human activity, carried into the governmental sphere in their explorations of the individual, society and the state. Its leaders believed they could lead their states to progress after a long period of tradition, irrationality, superstition, and tyranny which they imputed to the Middle Ages. The movement helped create the intellectual framework for the American and French Revolutions, Poland's Constitution of May 3, 1791, the Latin American independence movement, the Greek national independence movement and the later Balkan independence movements against the Ottoman Empire, and led to the rise of classical liberalism, democracy, and capitalism.
The Enlightenment Period receives modern attention as a central model for many movements in the modern period. Another important movement in 18th century philosophy, closely related to it, focused on belief and piety. Some of its proponents, such as George Berkeley, attempted to demonstrate rationally the existence of a supreme being. Piety and belief in this period were integral to the exploration of natural philosophy and ethics, in addition to political theories of the age. However, prominent Enlightenment philosophers such as Thomas Paine, Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and David Hume questioned and attacked the existing institutions of both Church and State. The 19th century also saw a continued rise of empiricist ideas and their application to political economy, government and sciences such as physics, chemistry and biology.
The boundaries of the Enlightenment cover much of the seventeenth century as well, though others term the previous era the "Age of Reason." For the present purposes, these two eras are split; however, it is acceptable to think of them joined as one long period.
Europe had been ravaged by religious wars; when peace in the political situation had been restored, after the Peace of Westphalia and the English Civil War, an intellectual upheaval overturned the accepted belief that mysticism and revelation are the primary sources of knowledge and wisdom—which was blamed for fomenting political instability. Instead (according to those that split the two periods), the Age of Reason sought to establish axiomatic philosophy and absolutism as foundations for knowledge and stability. Epistemology, in the writings of Michel de Montaigne and René Descartes, was based on extreme skepticism and inquiry into the nature of "knowledge."