Historians Essay, Research Paper

The Enlightenment and the Role of the Philosophes

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 understanding only, which they


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


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


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 faith.

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 understanding of human nature was one that emphasized the right to


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


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”


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


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


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


as Johann Georg Hamman and Johann Gottfried von Herder.

Everywhere the Enlightenment produced restless men impatient for change but frustrated


popular ignorance and official repression. This gave the enlightened literati an interest

in popular education. They promoted educational ventures and sought in witty, amusing,


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 program

and the lack of commitment in those whose rhetoric was often more liberal than their

actions. Nationalism undercut its cosmopolitan values and assumptions about human


and the romantics attacked its belief that clear intelligible answers could be found to

every question asked by people who sought to be free and happy. The skepticism of the

philosophes was swept away in the religious revival of the 1790s and early 1800s, and the

cultural leadership of the landed aristocracy and professional men who had supported the

Enlightenment was eroded by the growth of a new wealthy educated class of


products of the industrial revolution. Only in North and South America, where industry

came later and revolution had not led to reaction, did the Enlightenment linger into the

19th century. Its lasting heritage has been its contribution to the literature of human

freedom and some institutions in which its values have been embodied. Included in the

latter are many facets of modern government, education, and philanthropy.

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