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
understanding 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 understanding 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 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 nature, 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 businessmen, 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.