18th Century European Enlightenment

The Enlightenment is a name given by historians to an

intellectual movement that was predominant in the Western world during

the 18th century. Strongly influenced by the rise of modern science

and by the aftermath of the long religious conflict that followed

the Reformation, the thinkers of the Enlightenment (called philosophes

in France) were committed to secular views based on reason or human

underezding only, which they hoped would provide a basis for

beneficial changes affecting every area of life and thought.

The more extreme and radical philosophes--Denis Diderot, Claude

Adrien Helvetius, Baron d'Holbach, the Marquis de Condorcet, and

Julien Offroy de La Mettrie (1709-51)--advocated a philosophical

rationalism deriving its methods from science and natural philosophy

that would replace religion as the means of knowing nature and destiny

of humanity; these men were materialists, pantheists, or atheists.

Other enlightened thinkers, such as Pierre Bayle, Voltaire, David

Hume, Jean Le Rond D'alembert, and Immanuel Kant, opposed fanaticism,

but were either agnostic or left room for some kind of religious


All of the philosophes saw themselves as continuing the work of

the great 17th century pioneers--Francis Bacon, Galileo, Descartes,

Leibnitz, Isaac Newton, and John Locke--who had developed fruitful

methods of rational and empirical inquiry and had demonstrated the

possibility of a world remade by the application of knowledge for

human benefit. The philosophes believed that science could reveal

nature as it truly is and show how it could be controlled and

manipulated. This belief provided an incentive to extend scientific

methods into every field of inquiry, thus laying the groundwork for

the development of the modern social sciences.

The enlightened underezding of human nature was one that

emphasized the right to self-expression and human fulfillment, the

right to think freely and express one's views publicly without

censorship or fear of repression. Voltaire admired the freedom he

found in England and fostered the spread of English ideas on the

Continent. He and his followers opposed the intolerance of the

established Christian churches of their day, as well as the European

governments that controlled and suppressed dissenting opinions. For

example, the social disease which Pangloss caught from Paquette was

traced to a "very learned Franciscan" and later to a Jesuit. Also,

Candide reminisces that his passion for Cunegonde first developed

at a Mass. More conservative enlightened thinkers, concerned

primarily with efficiency and administrative order, favored the

"enlightened despotism" of such monarchs as Emperor Joseph II,

Frederick II of Prussia, and Catherine II of Russia.

Enlightened political thought expressed demands for equality and

justice and for the legal changes needed to realize these goals. Set

forth by Baron de Montesquieu, the changes were more boldly urged by

the contributors to the great Encyclopedie edited in Paris by Diderot

between 1747 and 1772, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Cesare Beccaria, and

finally by Jeremy Bentham, whose utilitarianism was the culmination of

a long debate on happiness and the means of achieving it.

The political writers of the Enlightenment built on and extended

the rationalistic, republican, and natural-law theories that had been

evolved in the previous century as the bases of law, social peace, and

just order. As they did so, they also elaborated novel doctrines of

popular sovereignty that the 19th century would transform into a kind

of nationalism that contradicted the individualistic outlook of the

philosophes. Among those who were important in this development were

historians such as Voltaire, Hume, William Robertson, Edward Gibbon,

and Giambattista Vico. Their work showed that although all peoples

shared a common human nature, each nation and every age also had

distinctive characteristics that made it unique. These paradoxes were

explored by early romantics such as Johann Georg Hamman and Johann

Gottfried von Herder.

Everywhere the Enlightenment produced restless men impatient for

change but frustrated by popular ignorance and official repression.

This gave the enlightened literati an interest in popular education.

They promoted educational ventures and sought in witty, amusing, and

even titillating ways to educate and awaken their contemporaries. The

stories of Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle or Benjamin Franklin, the

widely imitated essays of Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, and many

dictionaries, handbooks, and encyclopedias produced by the enlightened

were written to popularize, simplify, and promote a more reasonable

view of life among the people of their time.

The Enlightenment came to an end in western Europe after the

upheavals of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era (1789-1815)

revealed the costs of its political