Symbolism from the Age of Enlightenment

The Age of Enlightenment was an intellectual movement in Europe during the 17th and 18th Centuries emphasizing reason and human development. Historical moments are full of symbols and the Enlightenment has many of its own.  Enlightenment symbols include light, scientific tools, books and learning, and symbols of the American and French Revolutions.  

What Was The Age of Enlightenment?

Ignorance can be described as “being in the dark” about something.  

“Enlightenment” is finding knowledge, and fighting ignorance. The Enlightenment Era (or the Age of Reason) was an intellectual movement of European history in the 17th and 18th Centuries emphasizing reason and human development. 

You can learn more about the Enlightenment here. 

Historical Symbols 

Symbols are used to represent a range of things.  History is full of symbols that bring to mind a past time and age.  Justice Robert Jackson once discussed the power of symbolism when talking about saluting the flag.  A small portion of his words is full of history:

Symbolism is a primitive but effective way of communicating ideas. The use of an emblem or flag to symbolize some system, idea, institution, or personality is a shortcut from mind to mind. Causes and nations, political parties, lodges, and ecclesiastical groups seek to knit the loyalty of their followings to a flag or banner, a color or design.

Justice Robert Jackson

Consider the American Revolution with all of its symbolism, including redcoats, tossing tea in the harbor, Betsy Ross and her American flag, and a whole lot more.  The American Revolution was in the Age of Enlightenment.  And, the Age of Enlightenment has lots of its own symbols.  

Light and Darkness 

The Middle Ages, after the fall of the Roman Empire, was known as the “dark ages.”  It was a period of social and cultural decline.  Life seemed pretty dark, in all senses of the word.  “Darkness” includes a symbolic lack of knowledge and social improvement.  

The age of enlightenment was a renaissance, a new beginning, full of life and energy.  Humans no longer were in the dark ages.  They had “found the light.”  It’s right there in the word.

Light was creatively used by artists.  Light was studied by scientists.  An “inner light,” the thing that made us human, our conscience, was used to determine how to lead a good life.  

Scientific Tools 

The enlightenment was a time when the knowledge and discoveries of humans were celebrated. Science was celebrated as a way humans could understand the universe.  And adapt it to our benefit.  The tools of science are familiar symbols of the enlightenment.  

Two basic scientific tools that any enlightenment figure would want to have on hand would be the microscope and telescope.  The enlightenment allowed humans to see what they never saw before.  Both tiny things and far away space.  

The heliocentric model of the solar system, showing that the sun (not the earth), was at its center, was one key discovery.  A famous painting — often a good way to see what symbols were used in a particular time period — had the famous scientist Galileo displaying a telescope.


Philosophy is the “love of wisdom.”  

Philosophers were a common symbol of the enlightenment. France was the center of the Enlightenment and French philosophers were known as “philosophes.”  

Paintings of philosophers in the heat of discussion, usually looking like well-off men of leisure (women often were around too), are a familiar symbol of the Enlightenment.  

Coffeehouses were a major place philosophers hung out.  They were public places where people hung out and talked things through.  Coffeehouses are also symbols of the Enlightenment.  

Books and Learning

The discovery of the printing press in the 15th Century allowed the mass production of books. This led to a great spread of learning.  It was not quite the Wide World Web, but it allowed new knowledge and ideas to be easily spread on a mass scale.  

Books and all thing book related are therefore enlightenment symbols.  Enlightenment figures were commonly shown with a book or other writing in their hands.  Enlightenment needed ideas to be spread around.  A pen and paper are basic symbols of the spread of knowledge.  

Reading and study are also symbols of enlightenment.  People reading a book, a student deep in study, a professor teaching in a university about the latest knowledge.   

Leviathan and Thomas Hobbes 

Enlightenment writers regularly used symbolism.  The “law of nature” is not really a literal discussion of what happens in the wild.  It is a symbolic way of determining rightful conduct.

A famous symbol was Thomas Hobbes’s use of Leviathan, an ancient sea serpent (monster), to represent the great reach of the government.  Hobbes understood governmental power can be dangerous.  He argues it is a necessary and proper representation of popular will.  

Others had a more negative view of governmental power, using symbols of powers of the day (including church and state), to represent things we should be worried about.  

American and French Revolutions

The American and French Revolutions were guided by enlightenment principles.  

Each revolution had many moving parts, with many causes and complications.  Reason, however, was an important component of each. A major pamphlet promoting the American Revolution was entitled “Common Sense.”  French enlightenment principles also inspired their own revolution.

Symbols of each revolution, including the tricolor flag of the French Revolution, also are symbols of the Enlightenment.  The French Revolution, with France a center of philosophy and learning, is particularly symbolic of the enlightenment age.  


The Age of Enlightenment is a specific era in European history. 

There were other ages of enlightenment throughout history.  For instance, the Fifth Century BCE was a major period of learning in Ancient Greece, and in the midst of the Dark Ages, there was a golden age of learning in the Arab World.  Enlightenment symbols were found then too.

One last enlightenment symbol can be found on the U.S. Dollar bill.  Look on the back and you will see a strange-looking eye at the top of a pyramid.  
This is the “eye of providence” (God) looking over the new country.  The Latin words translate as “he approves our undertaking” and “a new order of things.”  I guess at least half is right.

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