An A-Z of the World – E. H. Gombrich on: the Enlightenment

As an aid to students, teachers and parents dealing with the challenges of home learning, we have constructed an A–Z of the World taken from E. H. Gombrich’s, A Little History of the World. Day by day, we will be sharing a bite size introduction to a historical figure, event or period – using Gombrich’s magical words – along with links to free resources, so that readers of all ages can discover more. Today, Gombrich covers the Enlightenment.


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The Enlightenment

E.H. GombrichThe widespread and terrible suffering that Europeans endured during the wretched wars of religion had made some people wonder if it was really right to judge someone by his or her religious belief. Was it not more important to be a good and honest human being? Would it not be better if people got on with one another regardless of any differences of opinion or belief that they might have?

‘Would it not be better if people got on with one another regardless of any differences of opinion or belief that they might have?’

Better if they respected one another and tolerated each other’s convictions? This was the first and most important idea that the people who thought about such things now voiced: the principle of tolerance. Only in matters of religion could there be differences of opinion. No rational person disputes the fact that two plus two makes four. Therefore reason – or sound common sense, as they also termed it – is what can and should unite all men. In the realm of reason you can use arguments to convince others of the rightness of your opinions, whereas another’s religious beliefs, being beyond rational argument, should be respected and tolerated.

And so reason became the second most important thing to these people. Reason alone could explain the appearance of nature and the workings of the universe. Reason, which is given in equal measure to all mankind the world over. Now if reason is given to all, it must follow that all people are of equal worth.

All these ideas, which came from 1700 onwards were debated in England and later in France, came to be called the Enlightenment, because the people who held them wanted to combat the darkness of superstition with the pure light of reason.

Many people today think that the Enlightenment only taught what was obvious, and that people in those days had a rather simple view of the great mysteries of nature and the world. This is true. But you must realise that what seems obvious to us wasn’t in the least so then, and that it took a great deal of courage, self-sacrifice and perseverance for people to keep on repeating them so that they seem obvious to is today. And of course you must also realise that reason cannot, and never will, give us the key to all mysteries, although it has often put us on the right track.

Discover more A-Z blogposts here.

Free Resources to Learn More about the Enlightenment

At the time of publication, these resources were free to use (some for a limited time only, during the COVID-19 pandemic).

BBC Bitesize (KS3)

Immigration in the Early Modern era 1500-1750: Changing ideas about humanity

BBC In Our Time

Four episodes

Khan Academy

Various resources

The Yale Blog

Enlightened Princesses: How They Shaped the Modern World – Joanna Marschner

This page provides access to a list of free online resources. It is not intended to endorse any particular resource.


A Little History of the World

All the descriptions in this A-Z are taken from E. H. Gombrich’s A Little History of the World.

Philip Pullman described the book as, “A brilliant piece of narrative, splendidly organised, told with an energy and confidence that are enormously attractive, and suffused with all the humanity and generosity of spirit that Gombrich’s thousands of admirers came to cherish during his long and richly productive life. It’s a wonderful surprise: irresistible, in fact.”

Discover More

The Little Histories are vivid storybook introductions for the young and old alike. Inspiring and entertaining, each short book lays out our greatest subjects in deceptively simple, engaging tones. With charming and personal insights each expert gently takes the reader from ancient times to the present through bite size chapters, ideal as bedtime reading or on the journey to work. Other Little Histories available include, Philosophy, Economics, Science, Literature, Language, Religion and Poetry. More details about the whole series can be found on the Little Histories website.

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