enlightenment thinkers essay

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By: History.com Editors

Updated: February 21, 2020 | Original: December 16, 2009

Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, USAMen of Progress: group portrait of the great American inventors of the Victorian Age, 1862 (Photo by Art Images via Getty Images)

European politics, philosophy, science and communications were radically reoriented during the course of the “long 18th century” (1685-1815) as part of a movement referred to by its participants as the Age of Reason, or simply the Enlightenment. Enlightenment thinkers in Britain, in France and throughout Europe questioned traditional authority and embraced the notion that humanity could be improved through rational change. 

The Enlightenment produced numerous books, essays, inventions, scientific discoveries, laws, wars and revolutions. The American and French Revolutions were directly inspired by Enlightenment ideals and respectively marked the peak of its influence and the beginning of its decline. The Enlightenment ultimately gave way to 19th-century Romanticism.

The Early Enlightenment: 1685-1730

The Enlightenment’s important 17th-century precursors included the Englishmen Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes, the Frenchman René Descartes and the key natural philosophers of the Scientific Revolution, including Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Its roots are usually traced to 1680s England, where in the span of three years Isaac Newton published his “Principia Mathematica” (1686) and John Locke his “Essay Concerning Human Understanding” (1689)—two works that provided the scientific, mathematical and philosophical toolkit for the Enlightenment’s major advances.

Did you know? In his essay 'What Is Enlightenment?' (1784), the German philosopher Immanuel Kant summed up the era's motto in the following terms: 'Dare to know! Have courage to use your own reason!'

Locke argued that human nature was mutable and that knowledge was gained through accumulated experience rather than by accessing some sort of outside truth. Newton’s calculus and optical theories provided the powerful Enlightenment metaphors for precisely measured change and illumination.

There was no single, unified Enlightenment. Instead, it is possible to speak of the French Enlightenment, the Scottish Enlightenment and the English, German, Swiss or American Enlightenment. Individual Enlightenment thinkers often had very different approaches. Locke differed from David Hume, Jean-Jacques Rousseau from Voltaire , Thomas Jefferson from Frederick the Great . Their differences and disagreements, though, emerged out of the common Enlightenment themes of rational questioning and belief in progress through dialogue.

The High Enlightenment: 1730-1780

Centered on the dialogues and publications of the French “philosophes” (Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Buffon and Denis Diderot), the High Enlightenment might best be summed up by one historian’s summary of Voltaire’s “Philosophical Dictionary”: “a chaos of clear ideas.” Foremost among these was the notion that everything in the universe could be rationally demystified and cataloged. The signature publication of the period was Diderot’s “Encyclopédie” (1751-77), which brought together leading authors to produce an ambitious compilation of human knowledge.

It was an age of enlightened despots like Frederick the Great, who unified, rationalized and modernized Prussia in between brutal multi-year wars with Austria, and of enlightened would-be revolutionaries like Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson, whose “Declaration of Independence” (1776) framed the American Revolution in terms taken from of Locke’s essays.

It was also a time of religious (and anti-religious) innovation, as Christians sought to reposition their faith along rational lines and deists and materialists argued that the universe seemed to determine its own course without God’s intervention. Locke, along with French philosopher Pierre Bayle, began to champion the idea of the separation of Church and State. Secret societies—like the Freemasons, the Bavarian Illuminati and the Rosicrucians—flourished, offering European men (and a few women) new modes of fellowship, esoteric ritual and mutual assistance. Coffeehouses, newspapers and literary salons emerged as new venues for ideas to circulate.

The Late Enlightenment and Beyond: 1780-1815

The French Revolution of 1789 was the culmination of the High Enlightenment vision of throwing out the old authorities to remake society along rational lines, but it devolved into bloody terror that showed the limits of its own ideas and led, a decade later, to the rise of Napoleon . Still, its goal of egalitarianism attracted the admiration of the early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft (mother of “Frankenstein” author Mary Shelley) and inspired both the Haitian war of independence and the radical racial inclusivism of Paraguay’s first post-independence government.

Enlightened rationality gave way to the wildness of Romanticism, but 19th-century Liberalism and Classicism—not to mention 20th-century Modernism —all owe a heavy debt to the thinkers of the Enlightenment.

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18 Key Thinkers of the Enlightenment

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At the most visible end of the Enlightenment were a group of thinkers who consciously sought human advancement through logic, reason, and criticism. Biographical sketches of these key figures are below in alphabetical order of their surnames.

Alembert, Jean Le Rond d’ 1717 – 1783

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The illegitimate son of hostess Mme de Tencin, Alembert was named after the church on whose steps he was abandoned. His supposed father paid for an education and Alembert became famous both as a mathematician and as co-editor of the Encyclopédie , for which he authored over a thousand articles. Criticism of this—he was accused of being too anti-religious—saw him resign and devote his time to other works, including literature. He turned down employment from both Frederick II of Prussia and Catherine II of Russia .

Beccaria, Cesare 1738 - 1794

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The Italian author of On Crimes and Punishments , published in 1764, Beccaria argued for punishment to be secular, rather than based on religious judgments of sin, and for legal reforms including the end of capital punishment and judicial torture. His works proved to be hugely influential among European thinkers, not just those of the Enlightenment.

Buffon, Georges-Louis Leclerc 1707 – 1788

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The son of a highly ranked legal family, Buffon changed from legal education to science and contributed to the Enlightenment with works on natural history, in which he rejected the biblical chronology of the past in ​favor of the Earth being older and flirted with the idea that species could change. His Histoire Naturelle aimed to classify the whole natural world, including humans.

Condorcet, Jean-Antoine-Nicolas Caritat 1743 – 1794

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One of the leading thinkers of the late Enlightenment, Condorcet focused largely on science and mathematics, producing important works on probability and writing for the Encyclopédie . He worked in the French government and became a deputy of the Convention in 1792, where he promoted education and freedom for enslaved people, but died during the Terror . Work on his belief in human progress was published posthumously.

Diderot, Denis 1713 – 1784

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Originally the son of artisans, Diderot first entered the church before leaving and working as a law clerk. He achieved fame in the Enlightenment era chiefly for editing arguably the key text, his Encyclopédie , which took up over 20 years of his life. However, he wrote widely on science, philosophy, and the arts, as well as plays and fiction, but left many of his works unpublished, partly a result of being imprisoned for his early writings. Consequently, Diderot only gained his reputation as one of the titans of the Enlightenment after his death, when his work was published.

Gibbon, Edward 1737 – 1794

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Gibbon is the author of the most famous work of history in the English language, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire . It has been described as a work of “humane skepticism,” and marked Gibbon out as the greatest of the Enlightenment historians. He was also a member of the British parliament.

Herder, Johann Gottfried von 1744 – 1803

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Herder studied at Königsburg under Kant and also met Diderot and d’Alembert in Paris. Ordained in 1767, Herder met Goethe , who obtained for him the position of a court preacher. Herder wrote on German literature, arguing for its independence, and his literary criticism became a heavy influence on later Romantic thinkers.

Holbach, Paul-Henri Thiry 1723 – 1789

A successful financier, Holbach’s salon became a meeting place for Enlightenment figures like Diderot, d’Alembert, and Rousseau. He wrote for the Encyclopédie , while his personal writings attacked organized religion, finding their most famous expression in the co-written Systéme de la Nature , which brought him into conflict with Voltaire.

Hume, David 1711 – 1776

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Building his career after a nervous breakdown, Hume gained attention for his History of England and established a name for himself among Enlightenment thinkers while working at the British embassy in Paris. His ​best-known work is the full three volumes of the Treatise of Human Nature but, despite being friends with people like Diderot, the work was largely ignored by his contemporaries and only gained a posthumous reputation.

Kant, Immanuel 1724 – 1804

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A Prussian who studied at the University of Königsburg, Kant became a professor of mathematics and philosophy and later rector there. The Critique of Pure Reason , arguably his most famous work, is just one of several key Enlightenment texts which also include his era-defining essay What is Enlightenment?

Locke, John 1632 – 1704

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A key thinker of the early Enlightenment, the English Locke was educated at Oxford but read wider than his course, gaining a degree in medicine before pursuing a varied career. His Essay Concerning Human Understanding of 1690 challenged Descartes’ views and influenced later thinkers, and he helped pioneer views on toleration and produced views on government which would underpin later thinkers. Locke was forced to flee England for Holland in 1683 because of his links to plots against the king, before returning after William and Mary took the throne.

Montesquieu, Charles-Louis Secondat 1689 – 1755

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Born into a prominent legal family, Montesquieu was a lawyer and president of the Bordeaux Parlement. He first came to the attention of the Parisian literary world with his satire Persian Letters , which tackled French institutions and the “Orient,” but is best known for Esprit des Lois , or The Spirit of the Laws . Published in 1748, this was an examination of different forms of government which became one of the most widely disseminated works of the Enlightenment, especially after the church added it to their banned list in 1751.

Newton, Isaac 1642 – 1727

Although involved in alchemy and theology, it is Newton’s scientific and mathematical achievements for which he is chiefly recognized. The methodology and ideas he outlined in key works like the Principia helped forge a new model for “natural philosophy” which the thinkers of the Enlightenment tried to apply to humanity and society.

Quesnay, François 1694 – 1774

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A surgeon who eventually ended up working for the French king, Quesnay contributed articles for the ​ Encyclopédie and hosted meetings at his chambers among Diderot and others. His economic works were influential, developing a theory called Physiocracy, which held that land was the source of wealth, a situation requiring a strong monarchy to secure a free market.

Raynal, Guillaume-Thomas 1713 - 1796

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Originally a priest and personal tutor, Raynal emerged onto the intellectual scene when he published Anecdotes Littéaires in 1750. He came into contact with Diderot and wrote his most famous work, Histoire des deux Indes ( History of the East and West Indies ), a history of the colonialism of European nations. It has been called a “mouthpiece” of Enlightenment ideas and thought, although the most groundbreaking passages were written by Diderot. It proved so popular across Europe that Raynal left Paris to avoid the publicity, later being temporarily exiled from France.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques 1712 – 1778

Born in Geneva, Rousseau spent the early years of his adult life traveling in poverty, before educating himself and traveling to Paris. Increasingly turning from music to writing, Rousseau formed an association with Diderot and wrote for the ​​ Encyclopédie , before winning a prestigious award which pushed him firmly onto the Enlightenment scene. However, he fell out with Diderot and Voltaire and turned away from them in later works. On one occasion Rousseau managed to alienate the major religions, forcing him to flee France. His Du Contrat Social became a major influence during the French Revolution, and he has been called a major influence on Romanticism.

Turgot, Anne-Robert-Jacques 1727 – 1781

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Turgot was something of a rarity among leading figures in the Enlightenment, for he held high office in​ the French government. After beginning his career in the Paris Parlement, he became Intendant of Limoges, Navy Minister, and Finance Minister. He contributed articles to the Encyclopédie , chiefly on economics, and wrote further works on the subject, but found his position in government weakened by a commitment to free trade in wheat which led to high prices and riots.

Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet 1694 – 1778

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Voltaire is one of, if not the, most dominant Enlightenment figures, and his death is sometimes cited as the end of the period. The son of a lawyer and educated by Jesuits, Voltaire wrote widely and frequently on many subjects for a long time period, also maintaining correspondence. He was imprisoned early in his career for his satires and spend time exiled in England before a brief period as court historiographer to the French king. After this, he continued to travel, finally settling on the Swiss border. He is perhaps best known today for his satire Candide .

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The heart of the eighteenth century Enlightenment is the loosely organized activity of prominent French thinkers of the mid-decades of the eighteenth century, the so-called “ philosophes ”(e.g., Voltaire, D’Alembert, Diderot, Montesquieu). The philosophes constituted an informal society of men of letters who collaborated on a loosely defined project of Enlightenment exemplified by the project of the Encyclopedia (see below 1.5). However, there are noteworthy centers of Enlightenment outside of France as well. There is a renowned Scottish Enlightenment (key figures are Frances Hutcheson, Adam Smith, David Hume, Thomas Reid), a German Enlightenment ( die Aufklärung , key figures of which include Christian Wolff, Moses Mendelssohn, G.E. Lessing and Immanuel Kant), and there are also other hubs of Enlightenment and Enlightenment thinkers scattered throughout Europe and America in the eighteenth century.

What makes for the unity of such tremendously diverse thinkers under the label of “Enlightenment”? For the purposes of this entry, the Enlightenment is conceived broadly. D’Alembert, a leading figure of the French Enlightenment, characterizes his eighteenth century, in the midst of it, as “the century of philosophy par excellence ”, because of the tremendous intellectual and scientific progress of the age, but also because of the expectation of the age that philosophy (in the broad sense of the time, which includes the natural and social sciences) would dramatically improve human life. Guided by D’Alembert’s characterization of his century, the Enlightenment is conceived here as having its primary origin in the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries. The rise of the new science progressively undermines not only the ancient geocentric conception of the cosmos, but also the set of presuppositions that had served to constrain and guide philosophical inquiry in the earlier times. The dramatic success of the new science in explaining the natural world promotes philosophy from a handmaiden of theology, constrained by its purposes and methods, to an independent force with the power and authority to challenge the old and construct the new, in the realms both of theory and practice, on the basis of its own principles. Taking as the core of the Enlightenment the aspiration for intellectual progress, and the belief in the power of such progress to improve human society and individual lives, this entry includes descriptions of relevant aspects of the thought of earlier thinkers, such as Hobbes, Locke, Descartes, Bayle, Leibniz, and Spinoza, thinkers whose contributions are indispensable to understanding the eighteenth century as “the century of philosophy par excellence ”.

The Enlightenment is often associated with its political revolutions and ideals, especially the French Revolution of 1789. The energy created and expressed by the intellectual foment of Enlightenment thinkers contributes to the growing wave of social unrest in France in the eighteenth century. The social unrest comes to a head in the violent political upheaval which sweeps away the traditionally and hierarchically structured ancien régime (the monarchy, the privileges of the nobility, the political power of the Catholic Church). The French revolutionaries meant to establish in place of the ancien régime a new reason-based order instituting the Enlightenment ideals of liberty and equality. Though the Enlightenment, as a diverse intellectual and social movement, has no definite end, the devolution of the French Revolution into the Terror in the 1790s, corresponding, as it roughly does, with the end of the eighteenth century and the rise of opposed movements, such as Romanticism, can serve as a convenient marker of the end of the Enlightenment, conceived as an historical period.

For Enlightenment thinkers themselves, however, the Enlightenment is not an historical period, but a process of social, psychological or spiritual development, unbound to time or place. Immanuel Kant defines “enlightenment” in his famous contribution to debate on the question in an essay entitled “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” (1784), as humankind’s release from its self-incurred immaturity; “immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another.” Expressing convictions shared among Enlightenment thinkers of widely divergent doctrines, Kant identifies enlightenment with the process of undertaking to think for oneself, to employ and rely on one’s own intellectual capacities in determining what to believe and how to act. Enlightenment philosophers from across the geographical and temporal spectrum tend to have a great deal of confidence in humanity’s intellectual powers, both to achieve systematic knowledge of nature and to serve as an authoritative guide in practical life. This confidence is generally paired with suspicion or hostility toward other forms or carriers of authority (such as tradition, superstition, prejudice, myth and miracles), insofar as these are seen to compete with the authority of one’s own reason and experience. Enlightenment philosophy tends to stand in tension with established religion, insofar as the release from self-incurred immaturity in this age, daring to think for oneself, awakening one’s intellectual powers, generally requires opposing the role of established religion in directing thought and action. The faith of the Enlightenment – if one may call it that – is that the process of enlightenment, of becoming progressively self-directed in thought and action through the awakening of one’s intellectual powers, leads ultimately to a better, more fulfilled human existence.

This entry describes the main tendencies of Enlightenment thought in the following main sections: (1) The True: Science, Epistemology, and Metaphysics in the Enlightenment; (2) The Good: Political Theory, Ethical Theory and Religion in the Enlightenment; (3) The Beautiful: Aesthetics in the Enlightenment.

1.1 Rationalism and the Enlightenment

1.2 empiricism and the enlightenment, 1.3 skepticism in the enlightenment, 1.4 science of man and subjectivism in the enlightenment, 1.5 emerging sciences and the encyclopedia, 2.1 political theory, 2.2 ethical theory, 2.3 religion and the enlightenment, 3.1 french classicism and german rationalism, 3.2 empiricism and subjectivism, 3.3 late enlightenment aesthetics, other internet resources, related entries, 1. the true: science, epistemology and metaphysics in the enlightenment.

In this era dedicated to human progress, the advancement of the natural sciences is regarded as the main exemplification of, and fuel for, such progress. Isaac Newton’s epochal accomplishment in his Principia Mathematica (1687), which, very briefly described, consists in the comprehension of a diversity of physical phenomena – in particular the motions of heavenly bodies, together with the motions of sublunary bodies – in few relatively simple, universally applicable, mathematical laws, was a great stimulus to the intellectual activity of the eighteenth century and served as a model and inspiration for the researches of a number of Enlightenment thinkers. Newton’s system strongly encourages the Enlightenment conception of nature as an orderly domain governed by strict mathematical-dynamical laws and the conception of ourselves as capable of knowing those laws and of plumbing the secrets of nature through the exercise of our unaided faculties. – The conception of nature, and of how we know it, changes significantly with the rise of modern science. It belongs centrally to the agenda of Enlightenment philosophy to contribute to the new knowledge of nature, and to provide a metaphysical framework within which to place and interpret this new knowledge.

René Descartes’ rationalist system of philosophy is one of the pillars on which Enlightenment thought rests. Descartes (1596–1650) undertakes to establish the sciences upon a secure metaphysical foundation. The famous method of doubt Descartes employs for this purpose exemplifies (in part through exaggerating) an attitude characteristic of the Enlightenment. According to Descartes, the investigator in foundational philosophical research ought to doubt all propositions that can be doubted. The investigator determines whether a proposition is dubitable by attempting to construct a possible scenario under which it is false. In the domain of fundamental scientific (philosophical) research, no other authority but one’s own conviction is to be trusted, and not one’s own conviction either, until it is subjected to rigorous skeptical questioning. With his method, Descartes casts doubt upon the senses as authoritative source of knowledge. He finds that God and the immaterial soul are both better known, on the basis of innate ideas, than objects of the senses. Through his famous doctrine of the dualism of mind and body, that mind and body are two distinct substances, each with its own essence, the material world (allegedly) known through the senses becomes denominated as an “external” world, insofar as it is external to the ideas with which one immediately communes in one’s consciousness. Descartes’ investigation thus establishes one of the central epistemological problems, not only of the Enlightenment, but also of modernity: the problem of objectivity in our empirical knowledge. If our evidence for the truth of propositions about extra-mental material reality is always restricted to mental content, content before the mind, how can we ever be certain that the extra-mental reality is not other than we represent it as being? Descartes’ solution depends on our having secured prior and certain knowledge of God. In fact, Descartes argues that all human knowledge (not only knowledge of the material world through the senses) depends on metaphysical knowledge of God.

Despite Descartes’ grounding of all scientific knowledge in metaphysical knowledge of God, his system contributes significantly to the advance of natural science in the period. He attacks the long-standing assumptions of the scholastic-aristotelians whose intellectual dominance stood in the way of the development of the new science; he developed a conception of matter that enabled mechanical explanation of physical phenomena; and he developed some of the fundamental mathematical resources – in particular, a way to employ algebraic equations to solve geometrical problems – that enabled the physical domain to be explained with precise, simple mathematical formulae. Furthermore, his grounding of physics, and all knowledge, in a relatively simple and elegant rationalist metaphysics provides a model of a rigorous and complete secular system of knowledge. Though major Enlightenment thinkers (for example Voltaire in his Letters on the English Nation , 1734) embrace Newton’s physical system in preference to Descartes’, Newton’s system itself depends on Descartes’ earlier work, a dependence to which Newton himself attests.

Cartesian philosophy also ignites various controversies in the latter decades of the seventeenth century that provide the context of intellectual tumult out of which the Enlightenment springs. Among these controversies are the following: Are mind and body really two distinct sorts of substances, and if so, what is the nature of each, and how are they related to each other, both in the human being (which presumably “has” both a mind and a body) and in a unified world system? If matter is inert (as Descartes claims), what can be the source of motion and the nature of causality in the physical world? And of course the various epistemological problems: the problem of objectivity, the role of God in securing our knowledge, the doctrine of innate ideas, and others.

Baruch Spinoza’s systematic rationalist metaphysics, which he develops in his Ethics (1677) in part in response to problems in the Cartesian system, is also an important basis for Enlightenment thought. Spinoza develops, in contrast to Cartesian dualism, an ontological monism according to which there is only one substance, God or nature, with two attributes, corresponding to mind and body. Spinoza’s denial, on the basis of strict philosophical reasoning, of the existence of a transcendent supreme being, his identification of God with nature, gives strong impetus to the strands of atheism and naturalism that thread through Enlightenment philosophy. Spinoza’s rationalist principles also lead him to assert a strict determinism and to deny any role to final causes or teleology in explanation. (See Israel 2001.)

The rationalist metaphysics of Leibniz (1646–1716) is also foundational for the Enlightenment, particularly the German Enlightenment ( die Aufklärung ), one prominent expression of which is the Leibnizian rationalist system of Christian Wolff (1679–1754). Leibniz articulates, and places at the head of metaphysics, the great rationalist principle, the principle of sufficient reason, which states that everything that exists has a sufficient reason for its existence. This principle exemplifies the characteristic conviction of the Enlightenment that the universe is thoroughly rationally intelligible. The question arises of how this principle itself can be known or grounded. Wolff attempts to derive it from the logical principle of non-contradiction (in his First Philosophy or Ontology , 1730). Criticism of this alleged derivation gives rise to the general question of how formal principles of logic can possibly serve to ground substantive knowledge of reality. Whereas Leibniz exerts his influence through scattered writings on various topics, some of which elaborate plans for a systematic metaphysics which are never executed by Leibniz himself, Wolff exerts his influence on the German Enlightenment through his development of a rationalist system of knowledge in which he attempts to demonstrate all the propositions of science from first principles, known a priori.

Wolff’s rationalist metaphysics is characteristic of the Enlightenment by virtue of the pretensions of human reason within it, not by reason’s success in establishing its claims. Much the same could be said of the great rationalist philosophers of the seventeenth century. Through their articulation of the ideal of scientia, of a complete science of reality, composed of propositions derived demonstratively from a priori first principles, these philosophers exert great influence on the Enlightenment. But they fail, rather spectacularly, to realize this ideal. To the contrary, what they bequeath to the eighteenth century is metaphysics, in the words of Kant, as “a battlefield of endless controversies.” However, the controversies themselves – regarding the nature of God, mind, matter, substance, cause, et cetera, and the relations of each of these to the others – provide tremendous fuel to Enlightenment thought.

Despite the confidence in and enthusiasm for human reason in the Enlightenment – it is sometimes called “the Age of Reason” – the rise of empiricism, both in the practice of science and in the theory of knowledge, is characteristic of the period. The enthusiasm for reason in the Enlightenment is primarily not for the faculty of reason as an independent source of knowledge, which is embattled in the period, but rather for the human cognitive faculties generally; the Age of Reason contrasts with an age of religious faith, not with an age of sense experience. Though the great seventeenth century rationalist metaphysical systems of Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz exert tremendous influence on philosophy in the Enlightenment; moreover, and though the eighteenth-century Enlightenment has a rationalist strain (perhaps best exemplified by the system of Christian Wolff), nevertheless, that the Encyclopedia of Diderot and D’Alembert is dedicated to three empiricists (Francis Bacon, John Locke and Isaac Newton), signals the ascendency of empiricism in the period.

If the founder of the rationalist strain of the Enlightenment is Descartes, then the founder of the empiricist strain is Francis Bacon (1561–1626). Though Bacon’s work belongs to the Renaissance, the revolution he undertook to effect in the sciences inspires and influences Enlightenment thinkers. The Enlightenment, as the age in which experimental natural science matures and comes into its own, admires Bacon as “the father of experimental philosophy.” Bacon’s revolution (enacted in, among other works, The New Organon , 1620) involves conceiving the new science as (1) founded on empirical observation and experimentation; (2) arrived at through the method of induction; and (3) as ultimately aiming at, and as confirmed by, enhanced practical capacities (hence the Baconian motto, “knowledge is power”).

Of these elements of Bacon’s revolution, the point about method deserves special emphasis. Isaac Newton’s work, which stands as the great exemplar of the accomplishments of natural science for the eighteenth century, is, like Bacon’s, based on the inductive method. Whereas rationalist of the seventeenth century tend to conceive of scientific knowledge of nature as consisting in a system in which statements expressing the observable phenomena of nature are deduced from first principles, known a priori, Newton’s method begins with the observed phenomena of nature and reduces its multiplicity to unity by induction, that is, by finding mathematical laws or principles from which the observed phenomena can be derived or explained. The evident success of Newton’s “bottom-up” procedure contrasts sharply with the seemingly endless and fruitless conflicts among philosophers regarding the meaning and validity of first principles of reason, and this contrast naturally favors the rise of the Newtonian (or Baconian) method of acquiring knowledge of nature in the eighteenth century.

The tendency of natural science toward progressive independence from metaphysics in the eighteenth century is correlated with this point about method. The rise of modern science in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries proceeds through its separation from the presuppositions, doctrines and methodology of theology; natural science in the eighteenth century proceeds to separate itself from metaphysics as well. Newton proves the capacity of natural science to succeed independently of a priori, clear and certain first principles. The characteristic Enlightenment suspicion of all allegedly authoritative claims the validity of which is obscure, which is directed first of all against religious dogmas, extends to the claims of metaphysics as well. While there are significant Enlightenment thinkers who are metaphysicians – again, one thinks of Christian Wolff – the general thrust of Enlightenment thought is anti-metaphysical.

John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) is another foundational text of the Enlightenment. A main source of its influence is the epistemological rigor that it displays, which is at least implicitly anti-metaphysical. Locke undertakes in this work to examine the human understanding in order to determine the limits of human knowledge; he thereby institutes a prominent pattern of Enlightenment epistemology. Locke finds the source of all our ideas, the ideas out of which human knowledge is constructed, in the senses and argues influentially against the rationalists’ doctrine of innate ideas. Locke’s sensationalism exerts great influence in the French Enlightenment, primarily through being taken up and radicalized by the philosophe , Abbé de Condillac. In the Treatise on Sensations (1754), Condillac attempts to explain how all human knowledge arises out of sense experience. Locke’s epistemology, as developed by Condillac and others, contributes greatly to the emerging science of psychology in the period.

Locke and Descartes both pursue a method in epistemology that brings with it the epistemological problem of objectivity. Both examine our knowledge by way of examining the ideas we encounter directly in our consciousness. This method comes to be called “the way of ideas”. Though neither for Locke nor for Descartes do all of our ideas represent their objects by way of resembling them (e.g., our idea of God does not represent God by virtue of resembling God), our alleged knowledge of our environment through the senses does depend largely on ideas that allegedly resemble external material objects. The way of ideas implies the epistemological problem of how we can know that these ideas do in fact resemble their objects. How can we be sure that these objects do not appear one way before the mind and exist in another way (or not at all) in reality outside the mind? George Berkeley, an empiricist philosopher influenced by John Locke, avoids the problem by asserting the metaphysics of idealism: the (apparently material) objects of perception are nothing but ideas before the mind. However, Berkeley’s idealism is less influential in, and characteristic of, the Enlightenment, than the opposing positions of materialism and Cartesian dualism. Thomas Reid, a prominent member of the Scottish Enlightenment, attacks the way of ideas and argues that the immediate objects of our (sense) perception are the common (material) objects in our environment, not ideas in our mind. Reid mounts his defense of naïve realism as a defense of common sense over against the doctrines of the philosophers. The defense of common sense, and the related idea that the results of philosophy ought to be of use to common people, are characteristic ideas of the Enlightenment, particularly pronounced in the Scottish Enlightenment.

Skepticism enjoys a remarkably strong place in Enlightenment philosophy, given that confidence in our intellectual capacities to achieve systematic knowledge of nature is a leading characteristic of the age. This oddity is at least softened by the point that much skepticism in the Enlightenment is merely methodological, a tool meant to serve science, rather than a position embraced on its own account. The instrumental role for skepticism is exemplified prominently in Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy (1641), in which Descartes employs radical skeptical doubt to attack prejudices derived from learning and from sense experience and to search out principles known with certainty which may serve as a secure foundation for a new system of knowledge. Given the negative, critical, suspicious attitude of the Enlightenment towards doctrines traditionally regarded as well founded, it is not surprising that Enlightenment thinkers employ skeptical tropes (drawn from the ancient skeptical tradition) to attack traditional dogmas in science, metaphysics and religion.

However, skepticism is not merely a methodological tool in the hands of Enlightenment thinkers. The skeptical cast of mind is one prominent manifestation of the Enlightenment spirit. The influence of Pierre Bayle, another founding figure of the Enlightenment, testifies to this. Bayle was a French Protestant, who, like many European philosophers of his time, was forced to live and work in politically liberal and tolerant Holland in order to avoid censorship and prison. Bayle’s Historical and Critical Dictionary (1697), a strange and wonderful book, exerts great influence on the age. The form of the book is intimidating: a biographical dictionary, with long scholarly entries on obscure figures in the history of culture, interrupted by long scholarly footnotes, which are in turn interrupted by further footnotes. Rarely has a work with such intimidating scholarly pretentions exerted such radical and liberating influence in the culture. It exerts this influence through its skeptical questioning of religious, metaphysical, and scientific dogmas. Bayle’s eclecticism and his tendency to follow arguments without pre-arranging their conclusions make it difficult to categorize his thought. It is the attitude of inquiry that Bayle displays, rather than any doctrine he espouses, that mark his as distinctively Enlightenment thought. He is fearless and presumptuous in questioning all manner of dogma. His attitude of inquiry resembles both that of Descartes’ meditator and that of the person undergoing enlightenment as Kant defines it, the attitude of coming to think for oneself, of daring to know. This epistemological attitude, as manifest in distrust of authority and reliance on one’s own capacity to judge, expresses the Enlightenment values of individualism and self-determination.

This skeptical/critical attitude underlies a significant tension in the age. While it is common to conceive of the Enlightenment as supplanting the authority of tradition and religious dogma with the authority of reason, in fact the Enlightenment is characterized by a crisis of authority regarding any belief. This is perhaps best illustrated with reference to David Hume’s skepticism, as developed in Book One of A Treatise of Human Nature (1739–40) and in his later Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding (1748). While one might take Hume’s skepticism to imply that he is an outlier with respect to the Enlightenment, it is more convincing to see Hume’s skepticism as a flowering of a crisis regarding authority in belief that is internal to the Enlightenment. Hume articulates a variety of skepticisms. His “skepticism with regard to the senses” is structured by the epistemological problem bound up with the way of ideas, described above. Hume also articulates skepticism with regard to reason in an argument that is anticipated by Bayle. Hume begins this argument by noting that, though rules or principles in demonstrative sciences are certain or infallible, given the fallibility of our faculties, our applications of such rules or principles in demonstrative inferences yield conclusions that cannot be regarded as certain or infallible. On reflection, our conviction in the conclusions of demonstrative reasoning must be qualified by an assessment of the likelihood that we made a mistake in our reasoning. Thus, Hume writes, “all knowledge degenerates into probability” ( Treatise , I.iv.i). Hume argues further that, given this degeneration, for any judgment, our assessment of the likelihood that we made a mistake, and the corresponding diminution of certainty in the conclusion, is another judgment about which we ought make a further assessment, which leads to a further diminution of certainty in our original conclusion, leading “at last [to] a total extinction of belief and evidence”. Hume also famously questions the justification of inductive reasoning and causal reasoning. According to Hume’s argument, since in causal reasoning we take our past observations to serve as evidence for judgments regarding what will happen in relevantly similar circumstances in the future, causal reasoning depends on the assumption that the future course of nature will resemble the past; and there is no non-circular justification of this essential assumption. Hume concludes that we have no rational justification for our causal or inductive judgments. Hume’s skeptical arguments regarding causal reasoning are more radical than his skeptical questioning of reason as such, insofar as they call into question even experience itself as a ground for knowledge and implicitly challenge the credentials of Newtonian science itself, the very pride of the Enlightenment. The question implicitly raised by Hume’s powerful skeptical arguments is whether any epistemological authority at all can withstand critical scrutiny. The Enlightenment begins by unleashing skepticism in attacking limited, circumscribed targets, but once the skeptical genie is out of the bottle, it becomes difficult to maintain conviction in any authority. Thus, the despairing attitude that Hume famously expresses in the conclusion to Book One of the Treatise , as the consequence of his epistemological inquiry, while it clashes with the self-confident and optimistic attitude we associate with the Enlightenment, in fact reflects an essential possibility in a distinctive Enlightenment problematic regarding authority in belief.

Though Hume finds himself struggling with skepticism in the conclusion of Book One of the Treatise , the project of the work as he outlines it is not to advance a skeptical viewpoint, but to establish a science of the mind. Hume is one of many Enlightenment thinkers who aspire to be the “Newton of the mind”; he aspires to establish the basic laws that govern the elements of the human mind in its operations. Alexander Pope’s famous couplet in An Essay on Man (1733) (“Know then thyself, presume not God to scan/ The proper study of mankind is man”) expresses well the intense interest humanity gains in itself within the context of the Enlightenment, as a partial substitute for its traditional interest in God and the transcendent domain. Just as the sun replaces the earth as the center of our cosmos in Copernicus’ cosmological system, so humanity itself replaces God at the center of humanity’s consciousness in the Enlightenment. Given the Enlightenment’s passion for science, the self-directed attention naturally takes the form of the rise of the scientific study of humanity in the period.

The enthusiasm for the scientific study of humanity in the period incorporates a tension or paradox concerning the place of humanity in the cosmos, as the cosmos is re-conceived in the context of Enlightenment philosophy and science. Newton’s success early in the Enlightenment of subsuming the phenomena of nature under universal laws of motion, expressed in simple mathematical formulae, encourages the conception of nature as a very complicated machine, whose parts are material and whose motions and properties are fully accounted for by deterministic causal laws. But if our conception of nature is of an exclusively material domain governed by deterministic, mechanical laws, and if we at the same time deny the place of the supernatural in the cosmos, then how does humanity itself fit into the cosmos? On the one hand, the achievements of the natural sciences in general are the great pride of the Enlightenment, manifesting the excellence of distinctively human capacities. The pride and self-assertiveness of humanity in the Enlightenment expresses itself, among other ways, in humanity’s making the study of itself its central concern. On the other hand, the study of humanity in the Enlightenment typically yields a portrait of us that is the opposite of flattering or elevating. Instead of being represented as occupying a privileged place in nature, as made in the image of God, humanity is represented typically in the Enlightenment as a fully natural creature, devoid of free will, of an immortal soul, and of a non-natural faculty of intelligence or reason. The very title of J.O. de La Mettrie’s Man a Machine (1748), for example, seems designed to deflate humanity’s self-conception, and in this respect it is characteristic of the Enlightenment “science of man”. It is true of a number of works of the Enlightenment, perhaps especially works in the more radical French Enlightenment – notable here are Helvétius’s Of the Spirit (1758) and Baron d’Holbach’s System of Nature (1770) – that they at once express the remarkable self-assertiveness of humanity characteristic of the Enlightenment in their scientific aspirations while at the same time painting a portrait of humanity that dramatically deflates its traditional self-image as occupying a privileged position in nature.

The methodology of epistemology in the period reflects a similar tension. Given the epistemological role of Descartes’ famous “ cogito, ergo sum ” in his system of knowledge, one might see Descartes’ epistemology as already marking the transition from an epistemology privileging knowledge of God to one that privileges self-knowledge instead. However, in Descartes’ epistemology, it remains true that knowledge of God serves as the necessary foundation for all human knowledge. Hume’s Treatise displays such a re-orientation less ambiguously. As noted, Hume means his work to comprise a science of the mind or of man. In the Introduction, Hume describes the science of man as effectively a foundation for all the sciences since all sciences “lie under the cognizance of men, and are judged of by their powers and faculties.” In other words, since all science is human knowledge, scientific knowledge of humanity is the foundation of the sciences. Hume’s placing the science of man at the foundation of all the sciences both exemplifies the privilege afforded to “mankind’s study of man” within the Enlightenment and provides an interpretation of it. But Hume’s methodological privileging of humanity in the system of sciences contrasts sharply with what he says in the body of his science about humanity. In Hume’s science of man, reason as a faculty of knowledge is skeptically attacked and marginalized; reason is attributed to other animals as well; belief is shown to be grounded in custom and habit; and free will is denied. So, even as knowledge of humanity supplants knowledge of God as the keystone of the system of knowledge, the scientific perspective on humanity starkly challenges humankind’s self-conception as occupying a privileged position in the order of nature.

Immanuel Kant explicitly enacts a revolution in epistemology modeled on the Copernican in astronomy. As characteristic of Enlightenment epistemology, Kant, in his Critique of Pure Reason (1781, second edition 1787) undertakes both to determine the limits of our knowledge, and at the same time to provide a foundation of scientific knowledge of nature, and he attempts to do this by examining our human faculties of knowledge critically. Even as he draws strict limits to rational knowledge, he attempts to defend reason as a faculty of knowledge, as playing a necessary role in natural science, in the face of skeptical challenges that reason faces in the period. According to Kant, scientific knowledge of nature is not merely knowledge of what in fact happens in nature, but knowledge of the causal laws of nature according to which what in fact happens must happen. But how is knowledge of necessary causal connection in nature possible? Hume’s investigation of the idea of cause had made clear that we cannot know causal necessity through experience; experience teaches us at most what in fact happens, not what must happen. In addition, Kant’s own earlier critique of principles of rationalism had convinced him that the principles of (“general”) logic also cannot justify knowledge of real necessary connections (in nature); the formal principle of non-contradiction can ground at best the deduction of one proposition from another, but not the claim that one property or event must follow from another in the course of nature. The generalized epistemological problem Kant addresses in the Critique of Pure Reason is: how is science possible (including natural science, mathematics, metaphysics), given that all such knowledge must be (or include) knowledge of real, substantive (not merely logical or formal) necessities. Put in the terms Kant defines, the problem is: how is synthetic, a priori knowledge possible?

According to Kant’s Copernican Revolution in epistemology addressed to this problem, objects must conform themselves to human knowledge rather than knowledge to objects. Certain cognitive forms lie ready in the human mind – prominent examples are the pure concepts of substance and cause and the forms of intuition, space and time; given sensible representations must conform themselves to these forms in order for human experience (as empirical knowledge of nature) to be possible at all. We can acquire scientific knowledge of nature because we constitute it a priori according to certain cognitive forms; for example, we can know nature as a causally ordered domain because we originally synthesize a priori the given manifold of sensibility according to the category of causality, which has its source in the human mind.

Kant saves rational knowledge of nature by limiting rational knowledge to nature. According to Kant’s argument, we can have rational knowledge only of the domain of possible experience, not of supersensible objects such as God and the soul. Moreover Kant’s solution brings with it a kind of idealism: given the mind’s role in constituting objects of experience, we know objects only as appearances , only as they appear according to our faculties, not as they are in themselves. This is the subjectivism of Kant’s epistemology. Kant’s epistemology exemplifies Enlightenment thought by replacing the theocentric conception of knowledge of the rationalist tradition with an anthropocentric conception.

However, Kant means his system to make room for humanity’s practical and religious aspirations toward the transcendent as well. According to Kant’s idealism, the realm of nature is limited to a realm of appearances, and we can intelligibly think supersensible objects such as God, freedom and the soul, though we cannot know them. Through the postulation of a realm of unknowable noumena (things in themselves) over against the realm of nature as a realm of appearances, Kant manages to make place for practical concepts that are central to our understanding of ourselves even while grounding our scientific knowledge of nature as a domain governed by deterministic causal laws. Though Kant’s idealism is highly controversial from its initial publication, a main point in its favor, according to Kant himself, is that it reconciles, in a single coherent tension, the main tension between the Enlightenment’s conception of nature, as ordered according to deterministic causal laws, and the Enlightenment’s conception of ourselves, as morally free, as having dignity, and as perfectible.

The commitment to careful observation and description of phenomena as the starting point of science, and then the success at explaining and accounting for observed phenomena through the method of induction, naturally leads to the development of new sciences for new domains in the Enlightenment. Many of the human and social sciences have their origins in the eighteenth century (e.g., history, anthropology, aesthetics, psychology, economics, even sociology), though most are only formally established as autonomous disciplines later. The emergence of new sciences is aided by the development of new scientific tools, such as models for probabilistic reasoning, a kind of reasoning that gains new respect and application in the period. Despite the multiplication of sciences in the period, the ideal remains to comprehend the diversity of our scientific knowledge as a unified system of science; however, this ideal of unity is generally taken as regulative, as an ideal to emerge in the ever-receding end-state of science, rather than as enforced from the beginning by regimenting science under a priori principles.

As exemplifying these and other tendencies of the Enlightenment, one work deserves special mention: the Encyclopedia , edited by Denis Diderot and Jean La Rond d’Alembert. The Encyclopedia (subtitled: “ systematic dictionary of the sciences, arts and crafts ”) was published in 28 volumes (17 of text, 11 of plates) over 21 years (1751–1772), and consists of over 70,000 articles, contributed by over 140 contributors, among them many of the luminaries of the French Enlightenment. The work aims to provide a compendium of existing human knowledge to be transmitted to subsequent generations, a transmission intended to contribute to the progress and dissemination of human knowledge and to a positive transformation of human society. The orientation of the Encyclopedia is decidedly secular and implicitly anti-authoritarian. Accordingly, the French state of the ancien régime censors the project, and it is completed only through the persistence of Diderot. The collaborative nature of the project, especially in the context of state opposition, contributes significantly to the formation of a shared sense of purpose among the wide variety of intellectuals who belong to the French Enlightenment. The knowledge contained in the Encyclopedia is self-consciously social both in its production – insofar as it is immediately the product of what the title page calls “a society of men of letters” – and in its address – insofar as it is primarily meant as an instrument for the education and improvement of society. It is a striking feature of the Encyclopedia , and one by virtue of which it exemplifies the Baconian conception of science characteristic of the period, that its entries cover the whole range and scope of knowledge, from the most abstract theoretical to the most practical, mechanical and technical.

2. The Good: Political Theory, Ethical Theory and Religion in the Enlightenment

The Enlightenment is most identified with its political accomplishments. The era is marked by three political revolutions, which together lay the basis for modern, republican, constitutional democracies: The English Revolution (1688), the American Revolution (1775–83), and the French Revolution (1789–99). The success at explaining and understanding the natural world encourages the Enlightenment project of re-making the social/political world, in accord with the models we allegedly find in our reason. Enlightenment philosophers find that the existing social and political orders do not withstand critical scrutiny. Existing political and social authority is shrouded in religious myth and mystery and founded on obscure traditions. The criticism of existing institutions is supplemented with the positive work of constructing in theory the model of institutions as they ought to be. We owe to this period the basic model of government founded upon the consent of the governed; the articulation of the political ideals of freedom and equality and the theory of their institutional realization; the articulation of a list of basic individual human rights to be respected and realized by any legitimate political system; the articulation and promotion of toleration of religious diversity as a virtue to be respected in a well ordered society; the conception of the basic political powers as organized in a system of checks and balances; and other now-familiar features of western democracies. However, for all the enduring accomplishments of Enlightenment political philosophy, it is not clear that human reason proves powerful enough to put a concrete, positive authoritative ideal in place of the objects of its criticism. As in the epistemological domain, reason shows its power more convincingly in criticizing authorities than in establishing them. Here too the question of the limits of reason is one of the main philosophical legacies of the period. These limits are arguably vividly illustrated by the course of the French Revolution. The explicit ideals of the French Revolution are the Enlightenment ideals of individual freedom and equality; but, as the revolutionaries attempt to devise rational, secular institutions to put in place of those they have violently overthrown, eventually they have recourse to violence and terror in order to control and govern the people. The devolution of the French Revolution into the Reign of Terror is perceived by many as proving the emptiness and hypocrisy of Enlightenment reason, and is one of the main factors which account for the end of the Enlightenment as an historical period.

The political revolutions of the Enlightenment, especially the French and the American, were informed and guided to a significant extent by prior political philosophy in the period. Though Thomas Hobbes, in his Leviathan (1651), defends the absolute power of the political sovereign, and is to that extent opposed to the revolutionaries and reformers in England, this work is a founding work of Enlightenment political theory. Hobbes’ work originates the modern social contract theory, which incorporates Enlightenment conceptions of the relation of the individual to the state. According to the general social contract model, political authority is grounded in an agreement (often understood as ideal, rather than real) among individuals, each of whom aims in this agreement to advance his rational self-interest by establishing a common political authority over all. Thus, according to the general contract model (though this is more clear in later contract theorists such as Locke and Rousseau than in Hobbes himself), political authority is grounded not in conquest, natural or divinely instituted hierarchy, or in obscure myths and traditions, but rather in the rational consent of the governed. In initiating this model, Hobbes takes a naturalistic, scientific approach to the question of how political society ought to be organized (against the background of a clear-eyed, unsentimental conception of human nature), and thus decisively influences the Enlightenment process of secularization and rationalization in political and social philosophy.

Baruch Spinoza also greatly contributes to the development of Enlightenment political philosophy in its early years. The metaphysical doctrines of the Ethics (1677) lay the groundwork for his influence on the age. Spinoza’s arguments against Cartesian dualism and in favor of substance monism, the claim in particular that there can only be one substance, God or nature, was taken to have radical implications in the domains of politics, ethics and religion throughout the period. Spinoza’s employment of philosophical reason leads to the denial of the existence of a transcendent, creator, providential, law-giving God; this establishes the opposition between the teachings of philosophy, on the one hand, and the traditional orienting practical beliefs (moral, religious, political) of the people, on the other hand, an opposition that is one important aspect of the culture of the Enlightenment. In his main political work, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1677), Spinoza, building on his rationalist naturalism, opposes superstition, argues for toleration and the subordination of religion to the state, and pronounces in favor of qualified democracy. Liberalism is perhaps the most characteristic political philosophy of the Enlightenment, and Spinoza, in this text primarily, is one of its originators.

However, John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government (1690) is the classical source of modern liberal political theory. In his First Treatise of Government , Locke attacks Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha (1680), which epitomizes the sort of political theory the Enlightenment opposes. Filmer defends the right of kings to exercise absolute authority over their subjects on the basis of the claim that they inherit the authority God vested in Adam at creation. Though Locke’s assertion of the natural freedom and equality of human beings in the Second Treatise is starkly and explicitly opposed to Filmer’s view, it is striking that the cosmology underlying Locke’s assertions is closer to Filmer’s than to Spinoza’s. According to Locke, in order to understand the nature and source of legitimate political authority, we have to understand our relations in the state of nature. Drawing upon the natural law tradition, Locke argues that it is evident to our natural reason that we are all absolutely subject to our Lord and Creator, but that, in relation to each other, we exist naturally in a state of equality “wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another” ( Second Treatise , §4). We also exist naturally in a condition of freedom, insofar as we may do with ourselves and our possessions as we please, within the constraints of the fundamental law of nature. The law of nature “teaches all mankind … that, being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions” (§6). That we are governed in our natural condition by such a substantive moral law, legislated by God and known to us through our natural reason, implies that the state of nature is not Hobbes’ war of all against all. However, since there is lacking any human authority over all to judge of disputes and enforce the law, it is a condition marred by “inconveniencies”, in which possession of natural freedom, equality and possessions is insecure. According to Locke, we rationally quit this natural condition by contracting together to set over ourselves a political authority, charged with promulgating and enforcing a single, clear set of laws, for the sake of guaranteeing our natural rights, liberties and possessions. The civil, political law, founded ultimately upon the consent of the governed, does not cancel the natural law, according to Locke, but merely serves to draw that law closer. “[T]he law of nature stands as an eternal rule to all men” (§135). Consequently, when established political power violates that law, the people are justified in overthrowing it. Locke’s argument for the right to revolt against a government that opposes the purposes for which legitimate government is taken by some to justify the political revolution in the context of which he writes (the English revolution) and, almost a hundred years later, by others to justify the American revolution as well.

Though Locke’s liberalism has been tremendously influential, his political theory is founded on doctrines of natural law and religion that are not nearly as evident as Locke assumes. Locke’s reliance on the natural law tradition is typical of Enlightenment political and moral theory. According to the natural law tradition, as the Enlightenment makes use of it, we can know through the use of our unaided reason that we all – all human beings, universally – stand in particular moral relations to each other. The claim that we can apprehend through our unaided reason a universal moral order exactly because moral qualities and relations (in particular human freedom and equality) belong to the nature of things, is attractive in the Enlightenment for obvious reasons. However, as noted above, the scientific apprehension of nature in the period does not support, and in fact opposes, the claim that the alleged moral qualities and relations (or, indeed, that any moral qualities and relations) are natural . According to a common Enlightenment assumption, as humankind clarifies the laws of nature through the advance of natural science and philosophy, the true moral and political order will be revealed with it. This view is expressed explicitly by the philosophe Marquis de Condorcet, in his Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind (published posthumously in 1795 and which, perhaps better than any other work, lays out the paradigmatically Enlightenment view of history of the human race as a continual progress to perfection). But, in fact, advance in knowledge of the laws of nature in the science of the period does not help with discernment of a natural political or moral order. This asserted relationship between natural scientific knowledge and the political and moral order is under great stress already in the Enlightenment. With respect to Lockean liberalism, though his assertion of the moral and political claims (natural freedom, equality, et cetera) continues to have considerable force for us, the grounding of these claims in a religious cosmology does not. The question of how to ground our claims to natural freedom and equality is one of the main philosophical legacies of the Enlightenment.

The rise and development of liberalism in Enlightenment political thought has many relations with the rise of the mercantile class (the bourgeoisie) and the development of what comes to be called “civil society”, the society characterized by work and trade in pursuit of private property. Locke’s Second Treatise contributes greatly to the project of articulating a political philosophy to serve the interests and values of this ascending class. Locke claims that the end or purpose of political society is the preservation and protection of property (though he defines property broadly to include not only external property but life and liberties as well). According to Locke’s famous account, persons acquire rightful ownership in external things that are originally given to us all by God as a common inheritance, independently of the state and prior to its involvement, insofar as we “mix our labor with them”. The civil freedom that Locke defines, as something protected by the force of political laws, comes increasingly to be interpreted as the freedom to trade, to exchange without the interference of governmental regulation. Within the context of the Enlightenment, economic freedom is a salient interpretation of the individual freedom highly valued in the period. Adam Smith, a prominent member of the Scottish Enlightenment, describes in his An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776) some of the laws of civil society, as a sphere distinct from political society as such, and thus contributes significantly to the founding of political economy (later called merely “economics”). His is one of many voices in the Enlightenment advocating for free trade and for minimal government regulation of markets. The trading house floor, in which people of various nationalities, languages, cultures, religions come together and trade, each in pursuit of his own self-interest, but, through this pursuit, supplying the wants of their respective nations and increasing its wealth, represents for some Enlightenment thinkers the benign, peaceful, universal rational order that they wish to see replace the violent, confessional strife that characterized the then-recent past of Europe.

However, the liberal conception of the government as properly protecting economic freedom of citizens and private property comes into conflict in the Enlightenment with the value of democracy. James Madison confronts this tension in the context of arguing for the adoption of the U.S. Constitution (in his Federalist #10). Madison argues that popular government (pure democracy) is subject to the evil of factions; in a pure democracy, a majority bound together by a private interest, relative to the whole, has the capacity to impose its particular will on the whole. The example most on Madison’s mind is that those without property (the many) may seek to bring about governmental re-distribution of the property of the propertied class (the few), perhaps in the name of that other Enlightenment ideal, equality. If, as in Locke’s theory, the government’s protection of an individual’s freedom is encompassed within the general end of protecting a person’s property, then, as Madison argues, the proper form of the government cannot be pure democracy, and the will of the people must be officially determined in some other way than by directly polling the people.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s political theory, as presented in his On the Social Contract (1762), presents a contrast to the Lockean liberal model. Though commitment to the political ideals of freedom and equality constitutes a common ground for Enlightenment political philosophy, it is not clear not only how these values have a home in nature as Enlightenment science re-conceives it, but also how concretely to interpret each of these ideals and how properly to balance them against each other. Contrary to Madison, Rousseau argues that direct (pure) democracy is the only form of government in which human freedom can be realized. Human freedom, according to Rousseau’s interpretation, is possible only through governance according to what he calls “the general will,” which is the will of the body politic, formed through the original contract, concretely determined in an assembly in which all citizens participate. Rousseau’s account intends to avert the evils of factions by structural elements of the original contract. The contract consists in the self-alienation by each associate of all rights and possessions to the body politic. Because each alienates all, each is an equal member of the body politic, and the terms and conditions are the same for all. The emergence of factions is avoided insofar as the good of each citizen is, and is understood to be, equally (because wholly) dependent on the general will. Legislation supports this identification with the general will by preserving the original equality established in the contract, prominently through maintaining a measure of economic equality. Rousseau’s account of the ideal relation of the individual citizen to the state differs from Locke’s; in Rousseau’s account, the individual must be actively engaged in political life in order to maintain the identification of his supremely authoritative will with the general will, whereas in Locke the emphasis is on the limits of governmental authority with respect to the expressions of the individual will. Though Locke’s liberal model is more representative of the Enlightenment in general, Rousseau’s political theory, which in some respects presents a revived classical model modified within the context of Enlightenment values, in effect poses many of the enduring questions regarding the meaning and interpretation of political freedom and equality within the modern state.

Both Madison and Rousseau, like most political thinkers of the period, are influenced by Baron de Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws (1748), which is one of the founding texts of modern political theory. Though Montesquieu’s treatise belongs to the tradition of liberalism in political theory, given his scientific approach to social, legal and political systems, his influence extends beyond this tradition. Montesquieu argues that the system of legislation for a people varies appropriately with the particular circumstances of the people. He provides specific analysis of how climate, fertility of the soil, population size, et cetera, affect legislation. He famously distinguishes three main forms of governments: republics (which can either be democratic or aristocratic), monarchies and despotisms. He describes leading characteristics of each. His argument that functional democracies require the population to possess civic virtue in high measure, a virtue that consists in valuing public good above private interest, influences later Enlightenment theorists, including both Rousseau and Madison. He describes the threat of factions to which Madison and Rousseau respond in different (indeed opposite) ways. He provides the basic structure and justification for the balance of political powers that Madison later incorporates into the U.S. Constitution.

It is striking how unenlightened many of the Enlightenment’s celebrated thinkers are concerning issues of race and of gender (regarding race, see Race and Enlightenment: A Reader , edited by Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze). For all the public concern with the allegedly universal “rights of man” in the Enlightenment, the rights of women and of non-white people are generally overlooked in the period. (Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) is a noteworthy exception.) When Enlightenment thinkers do turn their attention to the social standing of women or of non-white people, they tend to spout unreasoned prejudice. Moreover, while the philosophies of the Enlightenment generally aspire or pretend to universal truth, unattached to particular time, place or culture, Enlightenment writings are rife with rank ethno- and Eurocentrism, often explicit.

In the face of such tensions within the Enlightenment, one response is to affirm the power of the Enlightenment to improve humanity and society long beyond the end of the eighteenth century, indeed, down to the present day and into the future. This response embraces the Enlightenment and interprets more recent emancipation movements and achievement of recognition of the rights and dignity of traditionally oppressed and marginalized groups as expressions of Enlightenment ideals and aspirations. Critics of the Enlightenment respond differently to such tensions. Critics see them as symptoms of disorder, ideology, perversity, futility or falsehood that afflict the very core of the Enlightenment itself. (See James Schmidt’s “What Enlightenment Project?” for discussion of critics of the Enlightenment.) Famously, Adorno and Horkheimer interpret Nazi death camps as the result of “the dialectic of the Enlightenment”, as what historically becomes of the supremacy of instrumental reason asserted in the Enlightenment. As another example, we may point to some post-modern feminists, who argue, in opposition to the liberal feminists who embrace broadly Enlightenment ideals and conceptions, that the essentialism and universalism associated with Enlightenment ideals are both false and intrinsically hostile to the aspirations to self-realization of women and of other traditionally oppressed groups. (See Strickland and the essays in Akkerman and Stuurman.) This entry is not the place to delineate strains of opposition to the Enlightenment, but it is worth noting that post-Enlightenment social and political struggles to achieve equality or recognition for traditionally marginalized or oppressed groups are sometimes self-consciously grounded in the Enlightenment and sometimes marked by explicit opposition to the Enlightenment’s conceptions or presuppositions.

Many of the leading issues and positions of contemporary philosophical ethics take shape within the Enlightenment. Prior to the Enlightenment in the West, ethical reflection begins from and orients itself around religious doctrines concerning God and the afterlife. The highest good of humanity, and, accordingly, the content and grounding of moral duties, are conceived in immediately religious terms. During the Enlightenment, this changes, certainly within philosophy, but to some significant degree, within the population of western society at large. As the processes of industrialization, urbanization, and dissemination of education advance in this period, happiness in this life, rather than union with God in the next, becomes the highest end for more and more people. Also, the violent religious wars that bloody Europe in the early modern period motivate the development of secular, this-worldly ethics, insofar as they indicate the failure of religious doctrines concerning God and the afterlife to establish a stable foundation for ethics. In the Enlightenment, philosophical thinkers confront the problem of developing ethical systems on a secular, broadly naturalistic basis for the first time since the rise of Christianity eclipsed the great classical ethical systems. However, the changes in our understanding of nature and cosmology, effected by modern natural science, make recourse to the systems of Plato and Aristotle problematic. The Platonic identification of the good with the real and the Aristotelian teleological understanding of natural things are both difficult to square with the Enlightenment conception of nature. The general philosophical problem emerges in the Enlightenment of how to understand the source and grounding of ethical duties, and how to conceive the highest good for human beings, within a secular, broadly naturalistic context, and within the context of a transformed understanding of the natural world.

In ethical thought, as in political theory, Hobbes’ thought is an important provocation in the Enlightenment. Hobbes understands what is good, as the end of human action, to be “whatsoever is the object of any man’s appetite or desire,” and evil to be “the object of his hate, and aversion,” “there being nothing simply and absolutely so; nor any common rule of good and evil, to be taken from the nature of the objects themselves” ( Leviathan , chapter 6). Hobbes’ conception of human beings as fundamentally motivated by their perception of what is in their own best interest implies the challenge, important for Enlightenment moral philosophy, to construct moral duties of justice and benevolence out of such limited materials. The basis of human action that Hobbes posits is immediately intelligible and even shared with other animals to some extent; a set of moral duties constructed on this basis would also be intelligible, de-mystified, and fit within the larger scheme of nature. Bernard Mandeville is sometimes grouped with Hobbes in the Enlightenment, especially by critics of them both, because he too, in his popular Fable of the Bees; or, Private Vices, Public Benefits (1714), sees people as fundamentally motivated by their perceived self-interest, and then undertakes to tell a story about how moral virtue, which involves conquering one’s own appetite and serving the interests of others, can be understood to arise on this basis.

Samuel Clarke, an influential rationalist British thinker early in the Enlightenment, undertakes to show in his Discourse concerning the Unchangeable Obligations of Natural Religion (1706), against Hobbes, that the absolute difference between moral good and moral evil lies in the immediately discernible nature of things, independently of any compacts or positive legislation by God or human beings. Clarke writes that “in men’s dealing … one with another, it is undeniably more fit, absolutely and in the nature of the thing itself, that all men should endeavor to promote the universal good and welfare of all; than that all men should be continually contriving the ruin and destruction of all”. Likewise for the rest of what morality enjoins upon us. According to Clarke, that some actions (those we call morally good or required) are “fit to be done” and others not fit is grounded upon the immediately evident relations in which things stand to each other in nature, just as “the proportions of lines or numbers” are evident to the rational perception of a reasonable being. Similarly, Christian Wolff’s rationalist practical philosophy also grounds moral duties in an objective rational order. However, the objective quality on which moral requirements are grounded for Wolff is not the “fitness” of things to be done but rather their perfection. Wolff counts as a founder of the Aufklärung in part because of his attempted derivation of ethical duties from an order of perfection in things, discernable through reason, independently of divine commands.

Rationalist ethics so conceived faces the following obstacles in the Enlightenment. First, as implied above, it becomes increasingly implausible that the objective, mind-independent order is really as rationalist ethicists claim it to be. Second, even if the objective realm were ordered as the rationalist claims, it remains unclear how this order gives rise (on its own, as it were) to obligations binding on our wills. David Hume famously exposes the fallacy of deriving a prescriptive statement (that one ought to perform some action) from a description of how things stand in relation to each other in nature. Prima facie, there is a gap between the rationalist’s objective order and a set of prescriptions binding on our wills; if a supreme legislator must be re-introduced in order to make the conformity of our actions to that objective order binding on our wills, then the alleged existence of the objective moral order does not do the work the account asks of it in the first place.

Alongside the rationalist strand of ethical philosophy in the Enlightenment, there is also a very significant empiricist strand. Empirical accounts of moral virtue in the period are distinguished, both by grounding moral virtue on an empirical study of human nature, and by grounding cognition of moral duties and moral motivation in human sensibility, rather than in reason. The Third Earl of Shaftesbury, author of the influential work Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1711), is a founding figure of the empiricist strand. Shaftesbury, like Clarke, is provoked by Hobbes’ egoism to provide a non-egoistic account of moral virtue. Shaftesbury conceives the core notion of the goodness of things teleologically: something is good if it contributes to the well-being or furtherance of the system of which it is a part. Individual animals are members of species, and therefore they are good as such insofar as they contribute to the well-being of the species of which they are a part. Thus, the good of things, including human beings, for Shaftesbury as for Clarke, is an objective quality that is knowable through reason. However, though we can know what is good through reason, Shaftesbury maintains that reason alone is not sufficient to motivate human action. Shaftesbury articulates the structure of a distinctively human moral sensibility. Moral sensibility depends on the faculty of reflection. When we reflect on first-order passions such as gratitude, kindness and pity, we find ourselves approving or liking them and disapproving or disliking their opposites. By virtue of our receptivity to such feelings, we are capable of virtue and have a sense of right and wrong. In this way, Shaftesbury defines the moral sense that plays a significant role in the theories of subsequent Enlightenment thinkers such as Francis Hutcheson and David Hume.

In the rationalist tradition, the conflict within the breast of the person between the requirements of morality and self-interest is canonically a conflict between the person’s reason and her passions. Shaftesbury’s identification of a moral sentiment in the nature of humanity renders this a conflict within sensibility itself, a conflict between different sentiments, between a self-interested sentiment and an unegoistic sentiment. Though both Shaftesbury and Hutcheson, no less than Clarke, oppose Hobbes’s egoism, it is nonetheless true that the doctrine of moral sensibility softens moral demands, so to speak. Doing what is morally right or morally good is intrinsically bound up with a distinctive kind of pleasure on their accounts. It is significant that both Shaftesbury and Hutcheson, the two founders of modern moral sense theory, articulate their ethical theory in conjunction with an aesthetic theory. Arguably the pleasure we feel in the apprehension of something beautiful is disinterested pleasure . Our susceptibility to aesthetic pleasure can be taken to reveal that we apprehend and respond to objective (or, anyway, universal) values, not only or necessarily on the basis of reason, but through our natural sensibility instead. Thus, aesthetics, as Shaftesbury and Hutcheson independently develop an account of it, gives encouragement to their doctrines of moral sensibility. But an account of moral virtue, unlike aesthetics, requires an account of moral motivation . As noted above, both Shaftesbury and Hutcheson want to do justice to the idea that proper moral motivation is not the pursuit of pleasure, even disinterested pleasure, but rather an immediate response to the perception of moral value. The problem of giving a satisfying account of moral motivation is a difficult one for empiricist moral philosophers in the Enlightenment.

While for Shaftesbury, at the beginning of the moral sense tradition, moral sense tracks a mind-independent order of value, David Hume, motivated in part by a more radical empiricism, is happy to let the objective order go. We have no access through reason to an independent order of value which moral sense would track. For Hume, morality is founded completely on our sentiments. Hume is often regarded as the main originator of so-called “ethical subjectivism”, according to which moral judgments or evaluations (regarding actions or character) do not make claims about independent facts but merely express the subject’s feelings or attitudes with respect to actions or character. Such subjectivism is relieved of the difficult task of explaining how the objective order of values belongs to the natural world as it is being reconceived by natural science in the period; however, it faces the challenge of explaining how error and disagreement in moral judgments and evaluations are possible. Hume’s account of the standards of moral judgment follows that of Hutcheson in relying centrally on the “natural” responses of an ideal observer or spectator.

Hume’s ethics is exemplary of philosophical ethics in the Enlightenment by virtue of its belonging to the attempt to provide a new, empirically grounded science of human nature, free of theological presuppositions. As noted above, the attempts by the members of the French Enlightenment to present a new understanding of human nature are strongly influenced by Locke’s “sensationalism”, which, radicalized by Condillac, amounts to the attempt to base all contents and faculties of the human mind on the senses. Typically, the French philosophes draw more radical or iconoclastic implications from the new “science of man” than English or Scottish Enlightenment figures. Claude-Adrien Helvétius (1715–1771) is typical here. In De l’ésprit (1758), Helvétius follows the Lockean sensationalism of Condillac and pairs it with the claim that human beings are motivated in their actions only by the natural desire to maximize their own pleasure and minimize their pain. De l’ésprit , though widely read, gives rise to strong negative reactions in the time, both by political and religious authorities (the Sorbonne, the Pope and the Parlement of Paris all condemn the book) and by prominent fellow philosophes , in great part because Helvétius’s psychology seems to critics to render moral imperatives and values without basis, despite his best attempts to derive them. Helvétius attempts to ground the moral equality of all human beings by portraying all human beings, whatever their standing in the social hierarchy, whatever their special talents and gifts, as equally products of the nature we share plus the variable influences of education and social environment. But, to critics, Helvétius’s account portrays all human beings as equal only by virtue of portraying all as equally worthless (insofar as the claim to equality is grounded on all being equally determined by external factors). However, Helvétius’s ideas, in De l’ésprit as well as in its posthumously published sequel De l’homme (1772), exert a great deal of influence, especially his case for the role of pleasure and pain in human motivation and the role of education and social incentives in shaping individuals into contributors to the social good. Helvétius is sometimes regarded as the father of modern utilitarianism through his articulation of the greatest happiness principle and through his influence on Bentham.

Helvétius is typical in the respect that he is radical in the revisions he proposes, not in common moral judgments or customs of the time, but rather regarding the philosophical grounding of those judgments and customs. But there are some philosophers in the Enlightenment who are radical in the revisions they propose regarding the content of ethical judgments themselves. The Marquis de Sade is merely the most notorious example, among a set of Enlightenment figures (including also the Marquis de Argens and Diderot himself in some of his writings) who, within the context of the new naturalism and its emphasis on the pursuit of pleasure, celebrate the avid pursuit of sexual pleasure and explicitly challenge the sexual mores, as well as the wider morality, of their time. The more or less fictionalized, philosophically self-conscious “libertine” is one significant expression of Enlightenment ethical thought.

If the French Enlightenment tends to advance this-worldly happiness as the highest good for human beings more insistently than the Enlightenment elsewhere, then Rousseau’s voice is, in this as in other respects, a discordant voice in that context. Rousseau advances the cultivation and realization of human freedom as the highest end for human beings and thereby gives expression to another side of Enlightenment ethics. As Rousseau describes it, the capacity for individual self-determination puts us in a problematic relation to our natural desires and inclinations and to the realm of nature generally, insofar as that realm is constituted by mechanistic causation. Though Rousseau places a great deal of emphasis on human freedom, and makes significant contributions to our understanding of ourselves as free, he does not address very seriously the problem of the place of human freedom in the cosmos as it is conceived within the context of Enlightenment naturalism.

However, Rousseau’s writings help Kant to the articulation of a practical philosophy that addresses many of the tensions in the Enlightenment. Kant follows Rousseau, and disagrees with empiricism in ethics in the period, in emphasizing human freedom, rather than human happiness, as the central orienting concept of practical philosophy. Though Kant presents the moral principle as a principle of practical reason, his ethics also disagrees significantly with rationalist ethics in the period. According to Kant, rationalists such as Wolff, insofar as they take moral prescriptions to follow from an end given to the will (in Wolff’s case, the end of perfection), do not understand us as autonomous in our moral activity. Through interpreting the faculty of the will itself as practical reason, Kant understands the moral principle as internally legislated, thus as not only compatible with freedom, but as equivalent to the principle of a free will, as a principle of autonomy. As noted above, rationalists in ethics in the period are challenged to explain how the objective moral order which reason in us allegedly discerns gives rise to valid prescriptions binding on our wills (the gap between is and ought ). For Kant, the moral order is not independent of our will, but rather represents the formal constraints of willing as such. Kant’s account thus both avoids the is-ought gap and interprets moral willing as expressive of our freedom.

Moreover, by virtue of his interpretation of the moral principle as the principle of pure practical reason, Kant is able to redeem the ordinary sense of moral requirements as over-riding, as potentially opposed to the claims of one’s happiness, and thus as different in kind from the deliverances of prudential reasoning. This ordinary sense of moral requirements is not easily accommodated within the context of Enlightenment empiricism and naturalism. Kant’s stark dichotomy between a person’s practical reason and her sensible nature is strongly criticized, both by the subsequent Romantic generation and in the contemporary context; but this dichotomy is bound up with an important benefit of Kant’s view – much promoted by Kant himself – within the context of the Enlightenment. Elaborated in the context of Kant’s idealism as a contrast between the “realm of freedom” and the “realm of nature”, the dichotomy enables Kant’s proposed solution to the conflict between freedom and nature that besets Enlightenment thought. As noted above, Kant argues that the application of the causal principle is restricted to the realm of nature, thus making room for freedom, compatibly with the causal determination of natural events required by scientific knowledge. Additionally, Kant attempts to show that morality “leads ineluctably to” religious belief (in the supersensible objects of God and of the immortal soul) while being essentially not founded on religious belief, thus again vindicating the ordinary understanding of morality while still furthering Enlightenment values and commitments.

Though the Enlightenment is sometimes represented as the enemy of religion, it is more accurate to see it as critically directed against various (arguably contingent) features of religion, such as superstition, enthusiasm, fanaticism and supernaturalism. Indeed the effort to discern and advocate for a religion purified of such features – a “rational” or “natural” religion – is more typical of the Enlightenment than opposition to religion as such. Even Voltaire, who is perhaps the most persistent, powerful, vocal Enlightenment critic of religion, directs his polemic mostly against the Catholic Church in France – “ l’infâme ” in his famous sign-off in his letters, “ Écrasez l’infâme ” (“Crush the infamous”) refers to the Church, not to religion as such. However, controversy regarding the truth-value or reasonableness of religious belief in general, Christian belief in particular, and controversy regarding the proper place of religion in society, occupies a particularly central place in the Enlightenment. It’s as if the terrible, violent confessional strife in the early modern period in Europe, the bloody drawn-out wars between the Christian sects, was removed to the intellectual arena in the Enlightenment and became a set of more general philosophical controversies.

Alongside the rise of the new science, the rise of Protestantism in western Christianity also plays an important role in generating the Enlightenment. The original Protestants assert a sort of individual liberty with respect to questions of faith against the paternalistic authority of the Church. The “liberty of conscience”, so important to Enlightenment thinkers in general, and asserted against all manner of paternalistic authorities (including Protestant), descends from this Protestant assertion. The original Protestant assertion initiates a crisis of authority regarding religious belief, a crisis of authority that, expanded and generalized and even, to some extent, secularized, becomes a central characteristic of the Enlightenment spirit. The original Protestant assertion against the Catholic Church bases itself upon the authority of scripture. However, in the Enlightenment, the authority of scripture is strongly challenged, especially when taken literally. Developing natural science renders acceptance of a literal version of the Bible increasingly untenable. But authors such as Spinoza (in his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus ) present ways of interpreting scripture according to its spirit, rather than its letter, in order to preserve its authority and truth, thus contributing to the Enlightenment controversy of whether some rationally purified version of the religion handed down in the culture belongs to the true philosophical representation of the world or not; and, if so, what its content is.

It is convenient to discuss religion in the Enlightenment by presenting four characteristic forms of Enlightenment religion in turn: deism, religion of the heart, fideism and atheism.

Deism . Deism is the form of religion most associated with the Enlightenment. According to deism, we can know by the natural light of reason that the universe is created and governed by a supreme intelligence; however, although this supreme being has a plan for creation from the beginning, the being does not interfere with creation; the deist typically rejects miracles and reliance on special revelation as a source of religious doctrine and belief, in favor of the natural light of reason. Thus, a deist typically rejects the divinity of Christ, as repugnant to reason; the deist typically demotes the figure of Jesus from agent of miraculous redemption to extraordinary moral teacher. Deism is the form of religion fitted to the new discoveries in natural science, according to which the cosmos displays an intricate machine-like order; the deists suppose that the supposition of God is necessary as the source or author of this order. Though not a deist himself, Isaac Newton provides fuel for deism with his argument in his Opticks (1704) that we must infer from the order and beauty in the world to the existence of an intelligent supreme being as the cause of this order and beauty. Samuel Clarke, perhaps the most important proponent and popularizer of Newtonian philosophy in the early eighteenth century, supplies some of the more developed arguments for the position that the correct exercise of unaided human reason leads inevitably to the well-grounded belief in God. He argues that the Newtonian physical system implies the existence of a transcendent cause, the creator God. In his first set of Boyle lectures, A Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God (1705), Clarke presents the metaphysical or “argument a priori ” for God’s existence. This argument concludes from the rationalist principle that whatever exists must have a sufficient reason or cause of its existence to the existence of a transcendent, necessary being who stands as the cause of the chain of natural causes and effects. Clarke also supports the empirical argument from design, the argument that concludes from the evidence of order in nature to the existence of an intelligent author of that order. In his second set of Boyle lectures, A Discourse Concerning the Unchangeable Obligations of Natural Religion (1706), Clarke argues as well that the moral order revealed to us by our natural reason requires the existence of a divine legislator and an afterlife, in which the supreme being rewards virtue and punishes vice. In his Boyle lectures, Clarke argues directly against the deist philosophy and maintains that what he regards as the one true religion, Christianity, is known as such on the basis of miracles and special revelation; still, Clarke’s arguments on the topic of natural religion are some of the best and most widely-known arguments in the period for the general deist position that natural philosophy in a broad sense grounds central doctrines of a universal religion.

Enlightenment deism first arises in England. In On the Reasonableness of Christianity (1695), Locke aims to establish the compatibility of reason and the teachings of Christianity. Though Locke himself is (like Newton, like Clarke) not a deist, the major English deists who follow (John Toland, Christianity Not Mysterious [1696]); Anthony Collins, A Discourse of Freethinking [1713]; Matthew Tindal, Christianity as Old as Creation [1730]) are influenced by Locke’s work. Voltaire carries deism across the channel to France and advocates for it there over his long literary career. Toward the end-stage, the farcical stage, of the French Revolution, Robespierre institutes a form of deism, the so-called “Cult of the Supreme Being”, as the official religion of the French state. Deism plays a role in the founding of the American republic as well. Many of the founding fathers (Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, Paine) author statements or tracts that are sympathetic to deism; and their deistic sympathies influence the place given (or not given) to religion in the new American state that they found.

Religion of the Heart . Opposition to deism derives sometimes from the perception of it as coldly rationalistic. The God of the deists, arrived at through a priori or empirical argument and referred to as the Prime Mover or Original Architect, is often perceived as distant and unconcerned with the daily struggles of human existence, and thus as not answering the human needs from which religion springs in the first place. Some important thinkers of the Enlightenment – notably Shaftesbury and Rousseau – present religion as founded on natural human sentiments, rather than on the operations of the intellect. Rousseau has his Savoyard Vicar declare, in his Profession of Faith in Emile (1762), that the idea of worshiping a beneficent deity arose in him initially as he reflected on his own situation in nature and his “heart began to glow with a sense of gratitude towards the author of our being”. The Savoyard Vicar continues: “I adore the supreme power, and melt into tenderness at his goodness. I have no need to be taught artificial forms of worship; the dictates of nature are sufficient. Is it not a natural consequence of self-love to honor those who protect us, and to love such as do us good?” This “natural” religion – opposed to the “artificial” religions enforced in the institutions – is often classed as a form of deism. But it deserves separate mention, because of its grounding in natural human sentiments, rather than in reason or in metaphysical or natural scientific problems of cosmology.

Fideism . Deism or natural religion of various sorts tends to rely on the claim that reason or human experience supports the hypothesis that there is a supreme being who created or authored the world. In one of the most important philosophical texts on natural religion to appear during the Enlightenment, David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (published posthumously in 1779), this supposition is criticized relentlessly, incisively and in detail. Naturally, the critical, questioning attitude characteristic of the Enlightenment in general is directed against the arguments on which natural religion is based. In Part Nine of the Dialogues, Samuel Clarke’s “argument a priori” (as defended by the character Demea) is dispatched fairly quickly, but with a battery of arguments. But Hume is mainly concerned in the Dialogues with the other major pillar of natural religion in the Enlightenment, the “empirical” argument, the teleological argument or the argument from design. Cleanthes, the character who advances the design argument in the dialogue, proceeds from the rule for empirical reasoning that like effects prove like causes. He reasons that, given the resemblance between nature, which displays in many respects a “curious adaptation of means to ends”, and a man-made machine, we must infer the cause of nature to be an intelligence like ours, though greater in proportion as nature surpasses in perfection the products of human intelligence. Philo, the skeptical voice in the Dialogues , presses Cleanthes’ argument on many fronts. He points out that the argument is only as strong as the similarity between nature or parts of nature and man-made machines, and further, that a close scrutiny reveals that analogy to be weak. Moreover, according to the principle of the argument, the stronger the evidence for an author (or authors) of nature, the more like us that author (or authors) should be taken to be. Consequently, according to Philo, the argument does not support the conclusion that God exists, taking God to be unitary, infinite, perfect, et cetera. Also, although the existence of evil and disorder in nature may serve actually to strengthen the case for the argument, given the disorder in human creations as well, the notion that God authors evil and disorder is disturbing. If one denies that there is disorder and evil in nature, however implausibly, the effect is to emphasize again the dissimilarity between nature and human products and thus weaken the central basis of the argument. With these and other considerations, Philo puts the proponent of the empirical argument in a difficult dialectical position. But Cleanthes is not moved. He holds the inference from the phenomenon of the curious adaptation of means to ends in nature to the existence of an intelligent and beneficent author to be so natural as to be impervious to the philosophical cavils raised by Philo. And, in the ambiguous conclusion of the work, Philo seems to agree. Though Hume himself seems to have been an atheist, one natural way to take the upshot of his Dialogues is that religious belief is so “natural” to us that rational criticism cannot unseat it. The ambiguous upshot of the work can be taken to be the impotence of rational criticism in the face of religious belief, rather than the illegitimacy of religious belief in the face of rational criticism. This tends toward fideism, the view according to which religious faith maintains its truth over against philosophical reasoning, which opposes but cannot defeat it. Fideism is most often associated with thinkers whose beliefs run contrary to the trends of the Enlightenment (Blaise Pascal, Johann-Georg Hamann, Søren Kierkegaard), but the skeptical strain in the Enlightenment, from Pierre Bayle through David Hume, expresses itself not only in atheism, but also in fideism.

Atheism . Atheism is more present in the French Enlightenment than elsewhere. In the writings of Denis Diderot, atheism is partly supported by an expansive, dynamic conception of nature. According to the viewpoint developed by Diderot, we ought to search for the principles of natural order within natural processes themselves, not in a supernatural being. Even if we don’t yet know the internal principles for the ordering and development of natural forms, the appeal to a transcendent author of such things is reminiscent, to Diderot’s ear, of the appeal to Aristotelian “substantial forms” that was expressly rejected at the beginning of modern science as explaining nothing. The appeal to a transcendent author does not extend our understanding, but merely marks and fixes the limits of it. Atheism (combined with materialism) in the French Enlightenment is perhaps most identified with the Baron d’Holbach, whose System of Nature (1770) generated a great deal of controversy at the time for urging the case for atheism explicitly and emphatically. D’Holbach’s system of nature is strongly influenced by Diderot’s writings, though it displays less subtlety and dialectical sophistication. Though most Enlightenment thinkers hold that morality requires religion, in the sense that morality requires belief in a transcendent law-giver and in an after-life, d’Holbach (influenced in this respect by Spinoza, among others) makes the case for an ethical naturalism, an ethics that is free of any reference to a supernatural grounding or aspiration. Like Helvétius before him, d’Holbach presents an ethics in which virtue consists in enlightened self-interest. The metaphysical background of the ethics he presents is deterministic materialism. The Prussian enlightened despot, Frederick the Great, famously criticizes d’Holbach’s book for exemplifying the incoherence that troubles the Enlightenment generally: while d’Holbach provides passionate moral critiques of existing religious and social and political institutions and practices, his own materialist, determinist conception of nature allows no place for moral “oughts” and prescriptions and values.

3. The Beautiful: Aesthetics in the Enlightenment

Modern systematic philosophical aesthetics not only first emerges in the context of the Enlightenment, but also flowers brilliantly there. As Ernst Cassirer notes, the eighteenth century not only thinks of itself as the “century of philosophy”, but also as “the age of criticism,” where criticism is centrally (though not only) art and literary criticism (Cassirer 1932, 255). Philosophical aesthetics flourishes in the period because of its strong affinities with the tendencies of the age. Alexander Baumgarten, the German philosopher in the school of Christian Wolff, founds systematic aesthetics in the period, in part through giving it its name. “Aesthetics” is derived from the Greek word for “senses”, because for Baumgarten a science of the beautiful would be a science of the sensible, a science of sensible cognition. The Enlightenment in general re-discovers the value of the senses, not only in cognition, but in human lives in general, and so, given the intimate connection between beauty and human sensibility, the Enlightenment is naturally particularly interested in aesthetics. Also, the Enlightenment includes a general recovery and affirmation of the value of pleasure in human lives, against the tradition of Christian asceticism, and the flourishing of the arts, of the criticism of the arts and of the philosophical theorizing about beauty, promotes and is promoted by this recovery and affirmation. The Enlightenment also enthusiastically embraces the discovery and disclosure of rational order in nature, as manifest most clearly in the development of the new science. It seems to many theorists in the Enlightenment that the faculty of taste, the faculty by which we discern beauty, reveals to us some part of this order, a distinctive harmony, unities amidst variety. Thus, in the phenomenon of aesthetic pleasure, human sensibility discloses to us rational order, thus binding together two enthusiasms of the Enlightenment.

In the early Enlightenment, especially in France, the emphasis is upon the discernment of an objective rational order, rather than upon the subject’s sensual aesthetic pleasure. Though Descartes’ philosophical system does not include a theory of taste or of beauty, his mathematical model of the physical universe inspires the aesthetics of French classicism. French classicism begins from the classical maxim that the beautiful is the true. Nicolas Boileau writes in his influential didactic poem, The Art of Poetry (1674), in which he lays down rules for good versification within different genres, that “Nothing is beautiful but the true, the true alone is lovable.” In the period the true is conceived of as an objective rational order. According to the classical conception of art that dominates in the period, art imitates nature, though not nature as given in disordered experience, but the ideal nature, the ideal in which we can discern and enjoy “unity in multiplicity.” In French classicism, aesthetics is very much under the influence of, and indeed modeled on, systematic, rigorous theoretical science of nature. Just as in Descartes’ model of science, where knowledge of all particulars depends on prior knowledge of the principle from which the particulars are deduced, so also in the aesthetics of French classicism, the demand is for systematization under a single, universal principle. The subjection of artistic phenomena to universal rules and principles is expressed, for example, in the title of Charles Batteaux’s main work, The Fine Arts Reduced to a Single Principle (1746), as well as in Boileau’s rules for good versification.

In Germany in the eighteenth century, Christian Wolff’s systematic rationalist metaphysics forms the basis for much of the reflection on aesthetics, though sometimes as a set of doctrines to be argued against. Wolff affirms the classical dictum that beauty is truth; beauty is truth perceived through the feeling of pleasure. Wolff understands beauty to consist in the perfection in things, which he understands in turn to consist in a harmony or order of a manifold. We judge something beautiful through a feeling of pleasure when we sense in it this harmony or perfection. Beauty is, for Wolff, the sensitive cognition of perfection. Thus, for Wolff, beauty corresponds to objective features of the world, but judgments of beauty are relative to us also, insofar as they are based on the human faculty of sensibility.

Though philosophical rationalism forms the basis of aesthetics in the early Enlightenment in France and Germany, thinkers in the empiricist tradition in England and Scotland introduce many of the salient themes of Enlightenment aesthetics. In particular, with the rise of empiricism and subjectivism in this domain, attention shifts to the ground and nature of the subject’s experience of beauty, the subject’s aesthetic response. Lord Shaftesbury, though not himself an empiricist or subjectivist in aesthetics, makes significant contributions to this development. Shaftesbury re-iterates the classical equation, “all beauty is truth,” but the truth that beauty is for Shaftesbury is not an objective rational order that could also be known conceptually. Though beauty is, for Shaftesbury, a kind of harmony that is independent of the human mind, under the influence of Plotinus, he understands the human being’s immediate intuition of the beautiful as a kind of participation in the original harmony. Shaftesbury focuses attention on the nature of the subject’s response to beauty, as elevating the person, also morally. He maintains that aesthetic response consists in a disinterested unegoistic pleasure; the discovery of this capacity for disinterested pleasure in harmony shows the way for the development of his ethics that has a similar grounding. And, in fact, in seeing aesthetic response as elevating oneself above self-interested pursuits, through cultivating one’s receptivity to disinterested pleasure, Shaftesbury ties tightly together aesthetics and ethics, morality and beauty, and in that respect also contributes to a trend of the period. Also, in placing the emphasis on the subject’s response to beauty, rather than on the objective characteristics of the beautiful, Shaftesbury makes aesthetics belong to the general Enlightenment interest in human nature. Thinkers of the period find in our receptivity to beauty a key both to understanding both distinctively human nature and its perfection.

Francis Hutcheson follows Shaftesbury in his emphasis on the subject’s aesthetic response, on the distinctive sort of pleasure that the beautiful elicits in us. Partly because the Neo-Platonic influence, so pronounced in Shaftesbury’s aesthetics, is washed out of Hutcheson’s, to be replaced by a more thorough-going empiricism, Hutcheson understands this distinctive aesthetic pleasure as more akin to a secondary quality. Thus, Hutcheson’s aesthetic work raises the prominent question whether “beauty” refers to something objective at all or whether beauty is “nothing more” than a human idea or experience. As in the domain of Enlightenment ethics, so with Enlightenment aesthetics too, the step from Shaftesbury to Hutcheson marks a step toward subjectivism. Hutcheson writes in one of his Two Treatises , his Inquiry Concerning Beauty, Order, Harmony, Design (1725) that “the word ‘beauty’ is taken for the idea raised in us , and a sense of beauty for our power of receiving this idea ” (Section I, Article IX). However, though Hutcheson understands beauty to be an idea in us, he takes this idea to be “excited” or “occasioned” in us by distinctive objective qualities, in particular by objects that display “ uniformity amidst variety ” (ibid., Section II, Article III). In the very title of Hutcheson’s work above, we see the importance of the classical ideas of (rational) order and harmony in Hutcheson’s aesthetic theory, even as he sets the tenor for much Enlightenment discussion of aesthetics through placing the emphasis on the subjective idea and aesthetic response.

David Hume’s famous essay on “the standard of taste” raises and addresses the epistemological problem raised by subjectivism in aesthetics. If beauty is an idea in us, rather than a feature of objects independent of us, then how do we understand the possibility of correctness and incorrectness – how do we understand the possibility of standards of judgment – in this domain? The problem is posed more clearly for Hume because he intensifies Hutcheson’s subjectivism. He writes in the Treatise that “pleasure and pain….are not only necessary attendants of beauty and deformity, but constitute their very essence” ( Treatise , Book II, part I, section viii). But if a judgment of taste is based on, or expresses, subjective sentiments, how can it be incorrect? In his response to this question, Hume accounts for the expectation of agreement in judgments of taste by appealing to the fact that we share a common human nature, and he accounts for ‘objectivity’ or expertise in judgments of taste, within the context of his subjectivism, by appealing to the normative responses of well-placed observers. Both of these points (the commonality of human nature and the securing of ‘objectivity’ in judgments based on sentiments by appeal to the normative responses of appropriately placed observers) are typical of the period more generally, and especially of the strong empiricist strain in the Enlightenment. Hume develops the empiricist line in aesthetics to the point where little remains of the classical emphasis on the order or harmony or truth that is, according to the French classicists, apprehended and appreciated in our aesthetic responses to the beautiful, and thus, according to the classicists, the ground of aesthetic responses.

Immanuel Kant faces squarely the problem of the normativity of judgments of taste. Influenced by Hutcheson and the British empiricist tradition in general, Kant understands judgments of taste to be founded on a distinctive sort of feeling, a disinterested pleasure. In taking judgments of taste to be subjective (they are founded on the subject’s feeling of pleasure) and non-cognitive (such judgments do not subsume representations under concepts and thus do not ascribe properties to objects), Kant breaks with the German rationalist school. However Kant continues to maintain that judgments of beauty are like cognitive judgments in making a legitimate claim to universal agreement – in contrast to judgments of the agreeable. The question is how to vindicate the legitimacy of this demand. Kant argues that the distinctive pleasure underlying judgments of taste is the experience of the harmony of the faculties of the imagination and the understanding, a harmony that arises through their “free play” in the process of cognizing objects on the basis of given sensible intuition. The harmony is “free” in an experience of beauty in the sense that it is not forced by rules of the understanding, as is the agreement among the faculties in acts of cognition. The order and harmony that we experience in the face of the beautiful is subjective, according to Kant; but it is at the same time universal and normative, by virtue of its relation to the conditions of human cognition.

The emphasis Kant places on the role of the activity of the imagination in aesthetic pleasure and discernment typifies a trend in Enlightenment thought. Whereas early in the Enlightenment, in French classicism, and to some extent in Christian Wolff and other figures of German rationalism, the emphasis is on the more-or-less static rational order and proportion and on rigid universal rules or laws of reason, the trend during the development of Enlightenment aesthetics is toward emphasis on the play of the imagination and its fecundity in generating associations.

Denis Diderot is an important and influential author on aesthetics. He wrote the entry “On the Origin and Nature of the Beautiful” for the Encyclopedia (1752). Like Lessing in Germany, Diderot not only philosophized about art and beauty, but also wrote plays and influential art criticism. Diderot is strongly influenced in his writings on aesthetics by the empiricism in England and Scotland, but his writing is not limited to that standpoint. Diderot repeats the classical dictum that art should imitate nature, but, whereas, for French classicists, the nature that art should imitate is ideal nature – a static, universal rational order – for Diderot, nature is dynamic and productive. For Diderot, the nature the artist ought to imitate is the real nature we experience, warts and all (as it were). The particularism and realism of Diderot’s aesthetics is based on a critique of the standpoint of French classicism (see Cassirer 1935, p. 295f.). This critique exposes the artistic rules represented by French classicists as universal rules of reason as nothing more than conventions marking what is considered proper within a certain tradition. In other words, the prescriptions within the French classical tradition are artificial , not natural , and constitute fetters to artistic genius. Diderot takes liberation from such fetters to come from turning to the task of observing and imitating actual nature . Diderot’s emphasis on the primeval productive power and abundance of nature in his aesthetic writings contributes to the trend toward focus on artistic creation and expression (as opposed to artistic appreciation and discernment) that is a characteristic of the late Enlightenment and the transition to Romanticism.

Lessing’s aesthetic writings play an important role in elevating the aesthetic category of expressiveness. In his famous Laocoön: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry (1766), Lessing argues, by comparing the famous Greek statue with the representation of Laocoön’s suffering in Virgil’s poetry, that the aims of poetry and of the visual arts are not identical; he argues that the aim of poetry is not beauty, but expression. In elevating the aesthetic category of expressiveness, Lessing challenges the notion that all art is imitation of nature. His argument also challenges the notion that all the various arts can be deduced from a single principle. Lessing’s argument in Laocoön supports the contrary thesis that the distinct arts have distinct aims and methods, and that each should be understood on its own terms, not in terms of an abstract general principle from which all arts are to be deduced. For some, especially for critics of the Enlightenment, in this point Lessing is already beyond the Enlightenment. Certainly it is true that the emphasis on the individual or particular, over against the universal, which one finds in other late Enlightenment thinkers, is in tension with Enlightenment tenets. Herder (following Hamann to some extent) argues that each individual art object has to be understood in its own terms, as a totality complete unto itself. With Herder’s stark emphasis on individuality in aesthetics, over against universality, the supplanting of the Enlightenment with Romanticism and Historicism is well advanced. But, according to the point of view taken in this entry, the conception of the Enlightenment according to which it is distinguished by its prioritization of the order of abstract, universal laws and principles, over against concrete particulars and the differences amongst them, is too narrow; it fails to account for much of the characteristic richness in the thought of the period. Indeed aesthetics itself, as a discipline, which, as noted, is founded in the Enlightenment by the German rationalist, Alexander Baumgarten, owes its existence to the tendency in the Enlightenment to search for and discover distinct laws for distinct kinds of phenomena (as opposed to insisting that all phenomena be made intelligible through the same set of general laws and principles). Baumgarten founds aesthetics as a ‘science’ through the attempt to establish the sensible domain as cognizable in a way different from that which prevails in metaphysics. Aesthetics in Germany in the eighteenth century, from Wolff to Herder, both typifies many of the trends of the Enlightenment and marks the field where the Enlightenment yields to competing worldviews.

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How to cite this entry . Preview the PDF version of this entry at the Friends of the SEP Society . Look up topics and thinkers related to this entry at the Internet Philosophy Ontology Project (InPhO). Enhanced bibliography for this entry at PhilPapers , with links to its database.
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aesthetics: British, in the 18th century | aesthetics: French, in the 18th century | aesthetics: German, in the 18th century | Bacon, Francis | Bayle, Pierre | Burke, Edmund | Clarke, Samuel | Collins, Anthony | Condillac, Étienne Bonnot de | Condorcet, Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas de Caritat, Marquis de: in the history of feminism | cosmopolitanism | Descartes, René | emotion: 17th and 18th century theories of | ethics: natural law tradition | German Philosophy: in the 18th century, prior to Kant | Holbach, Paul-Henri Thiry (Baron) d’ | Hume, David | Kant, Immanuel | Kant, Immanuel: aesthetics and teleology | Locke, John | Mendelssohn, Moses | Montesquieu, Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de | Newton, Isaac | Reid, Thomas | Scottish Philosophy: in the 18th Century | Shaftesbury, Lord [Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of] | toleration | Vico, Giambattista | Voltaire | Wolff, Christian


Mark Alznauer, Margaret Atherton, Kyla Ebels-Duggan, Alan Nelson, Julius Sensat and Rachel Zuckert provided helpful comments on an earlier draft, which lead to substantial revisions.

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Late Modern Philosophy

3.4: enlightenment philosophy and thought.

In 1784, a Prussian philosopher named Immanuel Kant published a short essay entitled  What is Enlightenment?  He was responding to nearly a century of philosophical, scientific, and technical advances in Central and Western Europe that, he felt, had culminated in his own lifetime in a more enlightened and just age. According to Kant, Enlightenment was all about the courage to think for one’s self, to question the accepted notions of any field of human knowledge rather than relying on a belief imposed by an outside authority. Likewise, he wrote, ideas were now exchanged between thinkers in a network of learning that itself provided a kind of intellectual momentum. Kant’s point was that, more than ever before, thinkers of various kinds were breaking new ground not only in using the scientific method to discover new things about the physical world, but in applying rational inquiry toward improving human life and the organization of human society. While Kant’s essay probably overstated the Utopian qualities of the thought of his era, he was right that it did correspond to a major shift in how educated Europeans thought about the world and the human place in it.

Following Kant, historians refer to the intellectual movement of the eighteenth century as the Enlightenment. Historians now tend to reject the idea that the Enlightenment was a single, self-conscious movement of thinkers, but they still (usually) accept that there were indeed innovative new themes of thought running through much of the philosophical, literary, and technical writing of the period. Likewise, new forms of media and new forums of discussion came of age in the eighteenth century, creating a larger and better-informed public than ever before in European history.

The Enlightenment was a movement that lasted about one hundred years, neatly corresponding to most of the eighteenth century; convenient dates for it are from the  Glorious Revolution  in Britain to the beginning of the  French Revolution : 1688 – 1789. The central concern of the Enlightenment was applying rational thought to almost every aspect of human existence: not just science, but philosophy, morality, and society. Along with those philosophical themes, central to the Enlightenment was the emergence of new forms of media and new ways in which people exchanged information, along with new “sensibilities” regarding what was proper and desirable in social conduct and politics.

We owe to the Enlightenment fundamental modern beliefs. Enlightenment thinkers embraced the idea that scientific progress was limitless. They argued that all citizens should be equal before the law. They claimed that the best forms of government were those with rational laws oriented to serve the public interest. In a major break from the past, they increasingly claimed that there was a real, physical universe that could be understood using the methods of science, in contrast to the false, made-up universe of “magic” suitable only for myths and storytelling. In short, Enlightenment thinkers proposed ideas that were novel at the time, but were eventually accepted by almost everyone in Europe (and many other places, not least the inhabitants of the colonies of the Americas).

The Enlightenment also introduced themes of thought that undermined traditional religious beliefs, at least in the long run. Perhaps the major theme of Enlightenment thought that ran contrary to almost every form of religious practice at the time was the rejection of “superstitions,” things that simply could not happen according to science (such a virgin giving birth to a child, or wine turning into blood during Communion). Most Enlightenment thinkers argued that the “real” natural universe was governed by natural laws, all watched over by a benevolent but completely remote “supreme being” – this was essentially the same as the Deism that had emerged from the Scientific Revolution. While few Enlightenment thinkers were outright atheists, almost all of them decried many church practices and what they perceived as the ignorance and injustice behind church (especially Catholic) laws.

The Enlightenment was also against “tyranny,” which meant the arbitrary rule of a monarch indifferent to the welfare of his or her subjects. Almost no Enlightenment thinkers openly rejected monarchy as a form of government – indeed, some Enlightenment thinkers befriended powerful kings and queens – but they roundly condemned cruelty and selfishness among individual monarchs. The perfect state was, in the eyes of most Enlightenment thinkers, one with an “enlightened” monarch at its head, presiding over a set of reasonable laws. Many Enlightenment thinkers thus looked to Great Britain, since 1689 ruled by a monarch who agreed to its written constitution and worked closely with an elected parliament, as the best extant model of enlightened rule.

Behind both the scientific worldview and the rejection of tyranny was a focus on the human mind’s capacity for reason. Reason is the mental faculty that takes sensory data and orders it into thoughts and ideas. The basic argument that underwrote the thought of the Enlightenment is that reason is universal and inherent to humans, and that if society could strip away the pernicious patterns of tradition, superstition, and ignorance, humankind would arrive naturally at a harmonious society. Thus, almost all of the major thinkers of the Enlightenment tried to get to the bottom of just that task: what is standing in the way of reason, and how can humanity become more reasonable?

One of the major causes of the Enlightenment was the  Scientific Revolution . It cannot be overstated how important the work of scientists was to the thinkers of the Enlightenment, because works like Newton’s  Mathematical Principles  demonstrated the existence of eternal, immutable laws of nature (ones that may or may not have anything to do with God) that were completely rational and understandable by humans. Indeed, in many ways the Enlightenment begins with Newton’s publication of the  Principles  in 1687.

Having thus established that the universe was rational, one of the major themes of the Enlightenment was the search for equally immutable and equally rational laws that applied to everything else in nature, most importantly  human  nature. How do humans learn? How might government be designed to ensure the most felicitous environment for learning and prosperity? If humans are capable of reason, why do they deviate from reasonable behavior so frequently?

Among the other causes of the Enlightenment, perhaps the most important was the significant growth of the urban literate classes, most notably what was called in France the  bourgeoisie : the mercantile middle class. Ever since the Renaissance era, elites increasingly acquired at least basic literacy, but by the eighteenth century even artisans and petty merchants in the cities of Central and Western Europe sent their children (especially boys) to schools for at least a few years. There was a real reading public by the eighteenth century that eagerly embraced the new ideas of the Enlightenment and provided a book market for both the official, copyrighted works of Enlightenment philosophy and pirated, illegal ones. That same reading public also eagerly embraced the quintessential new form of fiction of the eighteenth century: the novel, with the reading of novels becoming a major leisure activity of the period.

Thus, the Enlightenment thought took place in the midst of what historians call the “growth of the public sphere.” Newspapers, periodicals, and cheap books became very common during the eighteenth century, which in turn helped the ongoing growth of literacy rates. Simultaneously, there was a full-scale shift away from the sacred languages to the vernaculars (i.e. from Latin to English, Spanish, French, etc.)., which in turn helped to start the spread of the modern state-sponsored vernaculars as spoken languages in regions far from royal capitals. For the first time, large numbers of people acquired at least a basic knowledge of the official language of their state rather than using only their local dialect. Those official languages allowed the transmission of ideas across entire kingdoms. For example, by the time the French Revolution began in the late 1780s, an entire generation of men and women was capable of expressing shared ideas about justice and politics in the official French tongue.

There were various social forums and spaces in which groups of self-styled “enlightened” men and women gathered to discuss the new ideas of the movement. The most significant of these were coffee houses in England and  salons  in France and Central Europe. Coffee houses, unlike their present-day analogs, charged an entry fee but then provided unlimited coffee to their patrons. Those patrons were from various social classes, and would gather together to discuss the latest ideas and read the periodicals provided by the coffee house (all while becoming increasingly caffeinated). Salons, which were common in the major cities of France and Germany, were more aristocratic gatherings in which major philosophers themselves would often read from their latest works, with the assembled group then engaging in debate and discussion. Salons were noteworthy for being led by women in most cases; aristocratic, educated women were thought to be the best moderators of learned discussion by most Enlightenment thinkers, men and women alike.

Mme Geoffrin's salon, with well-dressed Frenchmen gathered in an ornate reading room, with Geoffrin herself presiding.

One of the best-known salons, run by Marie Thérèse Rodet Geoffrin, seated on the right. All of the men pictured are their actual likeness. Two are of particular note: seated under the marble bust is Jean le Rond D’Alembert, noted below, and the bust is of Voltaire (also described below), whose work is being read to the gathering in the picture.

Outside of the gatherings at coffee houses and salons, the ideas and themes of the Enlightenment reached much of the reading public through the easy availability of cheap print, and it is also clear that even regular artisans were conversant in many Enlightenment ideas (to cite a single example, one French glassworker, Jacques-Louis Menetra, left a memoir in which he demonstrated his own command of the ideas of the period and even claimed to have chatted over drinks with the great Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau). The major thinkers of the Enlightenment considered themselves to be part of a “republic of letters,” similar to the “republic of science” that played such a role in the Scientific Revolution. They wrote voluminous correspondence and often sent one another unpublished manuscripts. Thus, from the thinkers themselves participating in the republic of letters down to artisans trading pirated copies of enlightenment works, the new ideas of the period permeated much of European society.

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10.2: Enlightenment Thinkers

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Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes, an English philosopher and scientist, was one of the key figures in the political debates of the Enlightenment period. He introduced a social contract theory based on the relation between the absolute sovereign and the civil society.


  • Describe Thomas Hobbes’ beliefs on the relationship between government and the people


  • Thomas Hobbes, an English philosopher and scientist, was one of the key figures in the political debates of the Enlightenment period. Despite advocating the idea of absolutism of the sovereign, he developed some of the fundamentals of European liberal thought.
  • Hobbes was the first modern philosopher to articulate a detailed social contract theory that appeared in his 1651 work   Leviathan . In it, Hobbes set out his doctrine of the foundation of states and legitimate governments and creating an objective science of morality.
  • Hobbes argued that in order to avoid chaos, which he associated with the state of nature, people accede to a social contract and establish a civil society.
  • One of the most influential tensions in Hobbes’ argument is a relation between the absolute sovereign and the society. According to Hobbes, society is a population beneath a sovereign authority, to whom all individuals in that society cede some rights for the sake of protection. Any power exercised by this authority cannot be resisted because the protector’s sovereign power derives from individuals’ surrendering their own sovereign power for protection.
  • Hobbes also included a discussion of natural rights in his moral and political philosophy. While he recognized the inalienable rights of the human,  he argued that if humans wished to live peacefully, they had to give up most of their natural rights and create moral obligations, in order to establish political and civil society.
  • natural rights : The rights that are not dependent on the laws, customs, or beliefs of any particular culture or government, and are therefore universal and inalienable (i.e., rights that cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws).
  • English Civil War : A series of armed conflicts and political machinations between Parliamentarians (“Roundheads”) and Royalists (“Cavaliers”) over, principally, the manner of England’s government. The first (1642-1646) and second (1648-1649) conflicts pitted the supporters of King Charles I against the supporters of the Long Parliament, while the third (1649-1651) saw fighting between supporters of King Charles II and supporters of the Rump Parliament.
  • social contract theory : A theory or a model that typically posits that individuals have consented, either explicitly or tacitly, to surrender some of their freedoms and submit to the authority of the ruler or magistrate (or to the decision of a majority), in exchange for protection of their remaining rights.
  • Leviathan : A book written by Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and published in 1651. The work concerns the structure of society and legitimate government, and is regarded as one of the earliest and most influential examples of social contract theory. It argues for a social contract and rule by an absolute sovereign.

Background: The Age of Enlightenment

The Enlightenment was a philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe in the 18th century. It included a range of ideas centered on reason as the primary source of authority and legitimacy, and came to advance ideals, such as liberty, progress, tolerance, fraternity, constitutional government, and separation of church and state. The Enlightenment has also been hailed as the foundation of modern western political and intellectual culture. It brought political modernization to the west by introducing democratic values and institutions and the creation of modern, liberal democracies. Thomas Hobbes, an English philosopher and scientist, was one of the key figures in the political debates of the period. Despite advocating the idea of absolutism of the sovereign, Hobbes developed some of the fundamentals of European liberal thought: the right of the individual; the natural equality of all men; the artificial character of the political order (which led to the later distinction between civil society and the state); the view that all legitimate political power must be “representative” and based on the consent of the people; and a liberal interpretation of law that leaves people free to do whatever the law does not explicitly forbid.

Leviathan: Social Contract

Hobbes was the first modern philosopher to articulate a detailed social contract theory that appeared in his 1651 work  Leviathan . In it, Hobbes set out his doctrine of the foundation of states and legitimate governments and creating an objective science of morality. As  Leviathan  was written during the English Civil War, much of the book is occupied with demonstrating the necessity of a strong central authority to avoid the evil of discord and civil war.

Beginning from a mechanistic understanding of human beings and the passions, Hobbes postulates what life would be like without government, a condition which he calls the state of nature. In that state, each person would have a right, or license, to everything in the world. This, Hobbes argues, would lead to a “war of all against all.” In such a state, people fear death and lack both the things necessary to commodious living and the hope of being able to toil to obtain them. So, in order to avoid it, people accede to a social contract and establish a civil society. According to Hobbes, society is a population beneath a sovereign authority, to whom all individuals in that society cede some rights for the sake of protection. Any power exercised by this authority cannot be resisted because the protector’s sovereign power derives from individuals’ surrendering their own sovereign power for protection. The individuals are thereby the authors of all decisions made by the sovereign. There is no doctrine of separation of powers in Hobbes’s discussion. According to Hobbes, the sovereign must control civil, military, judicial, and ecclesiastical powers.


Hobbes was one of the founders of modern political philosophy and political science. He also contributed to a diverse array of other fields, including history, geometry, the physics of gases, theology, ethics, and general philosophy.

Natural Rights

Hobbes also included a discussion of natural rights in his moral and political philosophy. His’ conception of natural rights extended from his conception of man in a “state of nature.” He argued that the essential natural (human) right was “to use his own power, as he will himself, for the preservation of his own Nature; that is to say, of his own Life (…).” Hobbes sharply distinguished this natural “liberty” from natural “laws.” In his natural state, man’s life consisted entirely of liberties and not at all of laws, which leads to the world of chaos created by unlimited rights. Consequently, if humans wish to live peacefully, they must give up most of their natural rights and create moral obligations in order to establish political and civil society.

Hobbes objected to the attempt to derive rights from ” natural law,” arguing that law (“lex”) and right (“jus”) though often confused, signify opposites, with law referring to obligations, while rights refer to the absence of obligations. Since by our (human) nature, we seek to maximize our well being, rights are prior to law, natural or institutional, and people will not follow the laws of nature without first being subjected to a sovereign power, without which all ideas of right and wrong are meaningless. This marked an important departure from medieval natural law theories which gave precedence to obligations over rights.

John Locke, an English philosopher and physician, is regarded as one of the most influential Enlightenment thinkers, whose work greatly contributed to the development of the notions of social contract and natural rights.

  • Explain Locke’s conception of the social contract
  • John Locke was an English philosopher and physician, widely regarded as one of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers, and commonly known as the “Father of Liberalism.” His writings were immensely influential for the development of social contract  theory.
  • Two Treatises of Government , Locke’s most important work on political theory, is divided into the First Treatise and the Second Treatise. The First Treatise is focused on the refutation of Sir Robert Filmer, in particular his Patriarcha, which argued that civil society was founded on a divinely sanctioned patriarchalism. The Second Treatise outlines a theory of civil society.
  • Locke’s political theory was founded on social contract theory. He believed that human nature is characterized by reason and tolerance, but he assumed that the sole right to defend in the state of nature was not enough, so people established a civil society to resolve conflicts in a civil way with help from government in a state of society.
  • Locke’s conception of natural rights is captured in his best known statement that individuals have a right to  protect their “life, health, liberty, or possessions” and in his belief that the natural right to property is derived from labor.
  • The debate continues among scholars over the disparities between Locke’s philosophical arguments and his personal involvement in the slave trade and slavery in North American colonies, and over whether his writings provide, in fact, justification of slavery.
  • Rye House Plot : A 1683 plan to assassinate King Charles II of England and his brother (and heir to the throne) James, Duke of York. Historians vary in their assessment of the degree to which details of the conspiracy were finalized.
  • empiricism : A theory that states that knowledge comes only or primarily from sensory experience. It is a fundamental part of the scientific method that all hypotheses and theories must be tested against observations of the natural world, rather than resting solely on a priori reasoning, intuition, or revelation.
  • Two Treatises of Government : A work of political philosophy published anonymously in 1689 by John Locke. The first section attacks patriarchalism in the form of sentence-by-sentence refutation of Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha, while the second outlines Locke’s ideas for a more civilized society based on natural rights and contract theory.
  • social contract theory : A theory or a model that typically posits that individuals have consented, either explicitly or tacitly, to surrender some of their freedoms and submit to the authority of the ruler or magistrate (or to the decision of a majority), in exchange for protection of their remaining rights.

John Locke: Introduction

John Locke was an English philosopher and physician, widely regarded as one of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers and commonly known as the “Father of Liberalism.” Considered one of the first of the British empiricists, he is equally important to social contract theory. His work greatly affected the development of epistemology and political philosophy. His writings influenced Voltaire and Rousseau, many Scottish enlightenment thinkers, as well as the American revolutionaries. His contributions to classical republicanism and liberal theory are reflected in the United States Declaration of Independence.

Locke was born in 1632 in Wrington, Somerset, about 12 miles from Bristol, and grew up in the nearby town of Pensford. In 1647, he was sent to the prestigious Westminster School in London, and after completing studies there, he was admitted to Christ Church, Oxford in 1652. Although a capable student, Locke was irritated by the undergraduate curriculum of the time. He found the works of modern philosophers, such as René Descartes, more interesting than the classical material taught at the university. Through a friend, Locke was introduced to medicine and the experimental philosophy being pursued at other universities and in the Royal Society, of which he eventually became a member. In 1667, he moved to London to serve as a personal physician, and to resume his medical studies. He also served as Secretary of the Board of Trade and Plantations and Secretary to the Lords Proprietor of Carolina, which helped to shape his ideas on international trade and economics. Locke fled to the Netherlands in 1683, under strong suspicion of involvement in the Rye House Plot, although there is little evidence to suggest that he was directly involved in the scheme. In the Netherlands, he had time to return to his writing, although the bulk of Locke’s publishing took place upon his return from exile in 1688. He died in 1704. Locke never married nor had children.


Locke’s theory of mind has been as influential as his political theory, and is often cited as the origin of modern conceptions of identity and the self. Locke was the first to define the self through a continuity of  consciousness . He postulated that, at birth, the mind was a blank slate or  tabula rasa . Contrary to Cartesian philosophy based on pre-existing concepts, he maintained that we are born without innate ideas, and that knowledge is instead determined only by experience derived from sense perceptions.

Two Treatises of Government

Two Treatises   of Government , Locke’s most important and influential work on political theory, was first published anonymously in 1689. It is divided into the  First Treatise  and the  Second Treatise . The  First Treatise  is focused on the refutation of Sir Robert Filmer, in particular his  Patriarcha , which argued that civil society was founded on a divinely sanctioned patriarchalism. Locke proceeds through Filmer’s arguments, contesting his proofs from Scripture and ridiculing them as senseless, until concluding that no government can be justified by an appeal to the divine right of kings. The  Second Treatise  outlines a theory of civil society. Locke begins by describing the state of nature, a picture much more stable than Thomas Hobbes’ state of “war of every man against every man,” and argues that all men are created equal in the state of nature by God. He goes on to explain the hypothetical rise of property and civilization, in the process explaining that the only legitimate governments are those that have the consent of the people. Therefore, any government that rules without the consent of the people can, in theory, be overthrown.

Locke’s political theory was founded on social contract theory. Unlike Hobbes, Locke believed that human nature is characterized by reason and tolerance. Similarly to Hobbes, he assumed that the sole right to defend in the state of nature was not enough, so people established a civil society to resolve conflicts in a civil way with help from government in a state of society. However, Locke never refers to Hobbes by name and may instead have been responding to other writers of the day. He also advocated governmental separation of powers, and believed that revolution is not only a right but an obligation in some circumstances. These ideas would come to have profound influence on the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. However, Locke did not demand a republic. Rather, he believed a legitimate contract could easily exist between citizens and a monarchy, an oligarchy, or in some mixed form.

Locke’s conception of natural rights is captured in his best known statement that individuals have a right to  protect their “life, health, liberty, or possessions” and in his belief that the natural right to property is derived from labor. He defines the state of nature as a condition, in which humans are rational and follow natural law, and in which all men are born equal with the right to life, liberty and property. However, when one citizen breaks the Law of Nature, both the transgressor and the victim enter into a state of war, from which it is virtually impossible to break free. Therefore, Locke argued that individuals enter into civil society to protect their natural rights via an “unbiased judge” or common authority, such as courts.

Constitution of Carolina and Views on Slavery

Locke’s writings have often been tied to liberalism, democracy, and the foundation of the United States as the first modern democratic republic. However, historians also note that Locke was a major investor in the English slave-trade through the Royal African Company. In addition, he participated in drafting the  Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina , which established a feudal aristocracy and gave a master absolute power over his slaves. Because of his opposition to aristocracy and slavery in his major writings, some historians accuse Locke of hypocrisy and racism, and point out that his idea of liberty is reserved to Europeans or even the European capitalist class only. The debate continues among scholars over the disparities between Locke’s philosophical arguments and his personal involvement in the slave trade and slavery in North American colonies, and over whether his writings provide, in fact, justification of slavery.

Baron de Montesquieu

Montesquieu was a French political philosopher of the Enlightenment period, whose articulation of the theory of separation of powers is implemented in many constitutions throughout the world.

  • Describe Montesquieu’s solution for keeping power from falling into the hands of any one individual
  • Montesquieu was a French lawyer, man of letters, and one of the most influential political philosophers of the Age of Enlightenment. His political theory work, particularly the idea of separation of powers, shaped the modern democratic government.
  • The Spirit of the Laws  is a treatise on political theory that was first published anonymously by Montesquieu in 1748. Montesquieu covered many topics, including the law, social life, and the study of anthropology, and provided more than 3,000 commendations.
  • In this political treatise, Montesquieu pleaded in favor of a constitutional system of government and the separation of powers, the ending of slavery, the preservation of civil liberties and the law, and the idea that political institutions should reflect the social and geographical aspects of each community.
  • Montesquieu defines three main political systems: republican, monarchical, and despotic. As he defines them, republican political systems vary depending on how broadly they extend citizenship rights.
  • Another major theme in  The Spirit of Laws  concerns political liberty and the best means of preserving it. Establishing political liberty requires two things: the separation of the powers of government, and the appropriate framing of civil and criminal laws so as to ensure personal security.
  • Montesquieu argues that the executive, legislative, and judicial functions of government (the so-called tripartite system) should be assigned to different bodies, so that attempts by one branch of government to infringe on political liberty might be restrained by the other branches (checks and balances). He also argues against slavery and for the freedom of thought, speech, and assembly.
  • Index Librorum Prohibitorum : A list of publications deemed heretical, anti-clerical, or lascivious, and therefore banned by the Catholic Church.
  • Glorious Revolution : The overthrow of King James II of England (James VII of Scotland and James II of Ireland) by a union of English Parliamentarians with the Dutch stadtholder William III of Orange-Nassau (William of Orange). William’s successful invasion of England with a Dutch fleet and army led to his ascending of the English throne as William III of England jointly with his wife Mary II of England, in conjunction with the documentation of the Bill of Rights 1689.
  • separation of powers : A model for the governance of a state (or who controls the state), first proposed in ancient Greece and developed and modernized by the French political philosopher Montesquieu. Under this model, the state is divided into branches, each with separate and independent powers and areas of responsibility so that the powers of one branch are not in conflict with the powers associated with the other branches. The typical division of branches is legislature, executive, and judiciary.
  • The Spirit of the Laws : A treatise on political theory first published anonymously by Montesquieu in 1748. In it, Montesquieu pleaded in favor of a constitutional system of government and the separation of powers, the ending of slavery, the preservation of civil liberties and the law, and the idea that political institutions ought to reflect the social and geographical aspects of each community.

Introduction: Montesquieu

Baron de Montesquieu, usually referred to as simply Montesquieu, was a French lawyer, man of letters, and one of the most influential political philosophers of the Age of Enlightenment. He was born in France in 1689. After losing both parents at an early age, he became a ward of his uncle, the Baron de Montesquieu. He became a counselor of the Bordeaux Parliament in 1714. A year later, he married Jeanne de Lartigue, a Protestant, who bore him three children. Montesquieu’s early life occurred at a time of significant governmental change. England had declared itself a constitutional monarchy in the wake of its Glorious Revolution (1688-89), and had joined with Scotland in the Union of 1707 to form the Kingdom of Great Britain. In France, the long-reigning Louis XIV died in 1715, and was succeeded by five year-old Louis XV. These national transformations had a great impact on Montesquieu, who would refer to them repeatedly in his work. Montesquieu withdrew from the practice of law to devote himself to study and writing.

Besides writing works on society and politics, Montesquieu traveled for a number of years through Europe, including Austria and Hungary, spending a year in Italy and 18 months in England, where he became a freemason before resettling in France. He was troubled by poor eyesight and was completely blind by the time he died from a high fever in 1755.


The Spirit of Laws

The Spirit of the Laws  is a treatise on political theory first published anonymously by Montesquieu in 1748. The book was originally published anonymously partly because Montesquieu’s works were subject to censorship, but its influence outside France grew with rapid translation into other languages. In 1750, Thomas Nugent published the first English translation. In 1751, the Catholic Church added it to its  Index Librorum Prohibitorum  (list of prohibited books). Yet Montesquieu’s political treatise had an enormous influence on the work of many others, most notably the founding fathers of the United States Constitution, and Alexis de Tocqueville, who applied Montesquieu’s methods to a study of American society in  Democracy in America .

Montesquieu spent around 21 years researching and writing  The Spirit of the Laws , covering many things, including the law, social life, and the study of anthropology, and providing more than 3,000 commendations. In this political treatise, Montesquieu pleaded in favor of a constitutional system of government and the separation of powers, the ending of slavery, the preservation of civil liberties and the law, and the idea that political institutions should reflect the social and geographical aspects of each community.

Montesquieu defines three main political systems: republican, monarchical, and despotic. As he defines them, republican political systems vary depending on how broadly they extend citizenship rights—those that extend citizenship relatively broadly are termed democratic republics, while those that restrict citizenship more narrowly are termed aristocratic republics. The distinction between monarchy and despotism hinges on whether or not a fixed set of laws exists that can restrain the authority of the ruler. If so, the regime counts as a monarchy. If not, it counts as despotism.

A second major theme in  The Spirit of Laws  concerns political liberty and the best means of preserving it. Montesquieu’s political liberty is what we might call today personal security, especially insofar as this is provided for through a system of dependable and moderate laws. He distinguishes this view of liberty from two other, misleading views of political liberty. The first is the view that liberty consists in collective self-government (i.e., that liberty and democracy are the same). The second is the view that liberty consists of being able to do whatever one wants without constraint. Political liberty is not possible in a despotic political system, but it is possible, though not guaranteed, in republics and monarchies. Generally speaking, establishing political liberty requires two things: the separation of the powers of government, and the appropriate framing of civil and criminal laws so as to ensure personal security.

Separation of Powers and Appropriate Laws

Building on and revising a discussion in John Locke’s  Second Treatise of Government , Montesquieu argues that the executive, legislative, and judicial functions of government (the so-called tripartite system) should be assigned to different bodies, so that attempts by one branch of government to infringe on political liberty might be restrained by the other branches (checks and balances). Montesquieu based this model on the Constitution of the Roman Republic and the British constitutional system. He took the view that the Roman Republic had powers separated so that no one could usurp complete power. In the British constitutional system, Montesquieu discerned a separation of powers among the monarch, Parliament, and the courts of law. He also notes that liberty cannot be secure where there is no separation of powers, even in a republic. Montesquieu also intends what modern legal scholars might call the rights to “robust procedural due process,” including the right to a fair trial, the presumption of innocence, and the proportionality in the severity of punishment. Pursuant to this requirement to frame civil and criminal laws appropriately to ensure political liberty, Montesquieu also argues against slavery and for the freedom of thought, speech, and assembly.

Voltaire was a French Enlightenment writer, historian, and philosopher, who attacked the Catholic Church and advocated freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and separation of church and state.

  • Discuss Voltaire’s thoughts on the masses and government
  • Voltaire was a French Enlightenment writer, historian, and philosopher famous for his wit, his attacks on the established Catholic Church, and his advocacy of freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and separation of church and state.
  • Voltaire’s political and philosophical views can be found in nearly all of his prose writings. Most of his prose was written as polemics, with the goal of conveying radical political and philosophical messages.
  • Voltaire’s works frequently contain the word “l’infâme” and the expression “écrasez l’infâme,” or “crush the infamous.” The phrase refers to abuses of the people by royalty and the clergy,  and the superstition and intolerance that the clergy bred within the people. His two most famous works elaborating the concept are  The Treatise on Tolerance  and  The Philosophical Dictionary .
  • Voltaire had an enormous influence on the development of historiography through his demonstration of fresh new ways to look at the past. His best-known works are  The Age of Louis XIV  and T he Essay on the Customs and the Spirit of the Nations.
  • In his criticism of the French society and existing social structures, Voltaire hardly spared anyone. He perceived the French bourgeoisie to be too small and ineffective, the aristocracy to be parasitic and corrupt, the commoners as ignorant and superstitious, and the church as a static and oppressive force.
  • Voltaire distrusted democracy, which he saw as propagating the idiocy of the masses. He long thought only an enlightened monarch could bring about change, and that it was in the king’s rational interest to improve the education and welfare of his subjects.
  • deism : A theological/philosophical position that combines the rejection of revelation and authority as a source of religious knowledge, with the conclusion that reason and observation of the natural world are sufficient to determine the existence of a single creator of the universe.
  • The Philosophical Dictionary : An encyclopedic dictionary published by Voltaire in 1764. The alphabetically arranged articles often criticize the Roman Catholic Church and other institutions. It represents the culmination of Voltaire’s views on Christianity, God, morality, and other subjects.
  • The Treatise on Tolerance : A work by French philosopher Voltaire, published in 1763, in which he calls for tolerance between religions, and targets religious fanaticism, especially that of the Jesuits (under whom Voltaire received his early education), indicting all superstitions surrounding religions.
  • Ancien Régime : The monarchic-aristocratic, social, and political system established in the Kingdom of France from approximately the 15th century until the latter part of the 18th century (“early modern France”), under the late Valois and Bourbon Dynasties. The term is occasionally used to refer to the similar feudal social and political order of the time elsewhere in Europe.

Introduction: Voltaire

François-Marie Arouet, known by his literary pseudonym Voltaire, was a French Enlightenment writer, historian, and philosopher famous for his wit, his attacks on the established Catholic Church, and his advocacy of freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and separation of church and state.

He was born in Paris in 1694 and educated by the Jesuits at the Collège Louis-le-Grand (1704-1711). By the time he left school, Voltaire had decided he wanted to be a writer, against the wishes of his father, who wanted him to become a lawyer. Under his father’s pressure, he studied law but he continued to write, producing essays and historical studies. In 1713, his father obtained a job for him as a secretary to a French ambassador in the Netherlands, but Voltaire was forced to return to France after a scandalous affair. From early on, he had trouble with the authorities over his critiques of the government. These activities were to result in two imprisonments and a temporary exile to England. One satirical verse, in which Voltaire accused Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, of incest with his own daughter, led to an eleven-month imprisonment in the Bastille (after which he adopted the name Voltaire). He mainly argued for religious tolerance and freedom of thought. He campaigned to eradicate priestly and aristocratic-monarchical authority, and supported a constitutional monarchy that protects people’s rights.


Voltaire was a versatile writer, producing works in almost every literary form, including plays, poems, novels, essays, and historical and scientific works. He wrote more than 20,000 letters and more than 2,000 books and pamphlets. He was an outspoken advocate of several liberties, despite the risk this placed him in under the strict censorship laws of the time. As a satirical polemicist, he frequently made use of his works to criticize intolerance, religious dogma, and the French institutions of his day.

Political and Philosophical Views

Voltaire’s political and philosophical views can be found in nearly all of his prose writings, even in what would be typically categorized as fiction. Most of his prose, including such genres as romance, drama, or satire, was written as polemics with the goal of conveying radical political and philosophical messages. His works, especially private letters, frequently contain the word  “l’infâme”  and the expression  “écrasez l’infâme,”  or “crush the infamous.” The phrase refers to abuses of the people by royalty and the clergy that Voltaire saw around him, and the superstition and intolerance that the clergy bred within the people. Voltaire’s first major philosophical work in his battle against  “l’infâme”  was  The Treatise on Tolerance  (1763), in which he calls for tolerance between religions and targets religious fanaticism, especially that of the Jesuits, indicting all superstitions surrounding religions. The book was quickly banned. Only a year later, he published  The Philosophical Dictionary — an encyclopedic dictionary with alphabetically arranged articles that criticize the Roman Catholic Church and other institutions. In it, Voltaire is concerned with the injustices of the Catholic Church, which he sees as intolerant and fanatical. At the same time, he espouses deism, tolerance, and freedom of the press.  The Dictionary  was Voltaire’s lifelong project, modified and expanded with each edition. It represents the culmination of his views on Christianity, God, morality, and other subjects.

Voltaire as Historian

Voltaire had an enormous influence on the development of historiography through his demonstration of fresh new ways to look at the past. His best-known historiography works are  The Age of Louis XIV  (1751) and  The Essay on the Customs and the Spirit of the Nations  (1756). Voltaire broke from the tradition of narrating diplomatic and military events, and emphasized customs, social history, and achievements in the arts and sciences.  The   Essay  traced the progress of world civilization in a universal context, thereby rejecting both nationalism and the traditional Christian frame of reference. Voltaire was also the first scholar to make a serious attempt to write the history of the world, eliminating theological frameworks and emphasizing economics, culture, and political history. He treated Europe as a whole, rather than a collection of nations. He was the first to emphasize the debt of medieval culture to Middle Eastern civilization, and consistently exposed the intolerance and frauds of the church over the ages.

Views on the Society

In his criticism of the French society and existing social structures, Voltaire hardly spared anyone. He perceived the French bourgeoisie to be too small and ineffective, the aristocracy to be parasitic and corrupt, the commoners as ignorant and superstitious, and the church as a static and oppressive force useful only on occasion as a counterbalance to the rapacity of kings, although all too often, even more rapacious itself. Voltaire distrusted democracy, which he saw as propagating the idiocy of the masses. He long thought only an enlightened monarch could bring about change, given the social structures of the time and the extremely high rates of illiteracy, and that it was in the king’s rational interest to improve the education and welfare of his subjects. But his disappointments and disillusions with Frederick the Great changed his philosophy and soon gave birth to one of his most enduring works, his novella  Candide, or Optimism  (1759), which ends with a new conclusion: “It is up to us to cultivate our garden.”

He is remembered and honored in France as a courageous polemicist who indefatigably fought for civil rights (as the right to a fair trial and freedom of religion), and who denounced the hypocrisies and injustices of the  Ancien Régime . The  Ancien Régime  involved an unfair balance of power and taxes between the three Estates: clergy and nobles on one side, the commoners and middle class, who were burdened with most of the taxes, on the other.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a Francophone Genevan philosopher and writer, whose conceptualization of social contract, the theory of natural human, and works on education greatly influenced the political, philosophical, and social western tradition.

  • Identify the components of Rousseau’s philosophy, particularly the idea of the General Will
  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a Francophone Genevan philosopher, writer, and composer. His political philosophy influenced the Enlightenment  in France and across Europe. It was also important to the French Revolution and the overall development of modern political and educational thought.
  • In common with other philosophers of the day, Rousseau looked to a hypothetical state of nature as a normative guide. In  The Discourse on the Origins of Inequality Among Men , he maintained that the stage of human development associated with what he called “savages” was the best or optimal in human development.
  • In his  Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences , Rousseau argued, in opposition to the dominant stand of Enlightenment thinkers, that the arts and sciences corrupt human morality.
  • The Social Contract   outlines the basis for a legitimate political order within a framework of classical republicanism. Published in 1762, it became one of the most influential works of political philosophy in the western tradition.
  • Rousseau’s philosophy of education concerns itself with developing the students’ character and moral sense, so that they may learn to practice self-mastery and remain virtuous even in the unnatural and imperfect society in which they will have to live.
  • Rousseau was a believer in the moral superiority of the patriarchal family on the antique Roman model. To him, ideal woman is educated to be governed by her husband, while ideal man is educated to be self-governing.
  • “noble savage” : A literary stock character who embodies the concept of an idealized indigene, outsider, or “other” who has not been “corrupted” by civilization, and therefore symbolizes humanity’s innate goodness. In English, the phrase first appeared in the 17th century in John Dryden’s heroic play The Conquest of Granada (1672).
  • The Discourse on the Origins of Inequality Among Men : A work by philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau that first exposes his conception of a human state of nature and of human perfectibility, an early idea of progress. In it, Rousseau explains how, according to him, people may have established civil society, which leads him to present private property as the original source and basis of all inequality.
  • state of nature : A concept used in moral and political philosophy, religion, social contract theories, and international law to denote the hypothetical conditions of what the lives of people might have been like before societies came into existence. In some versions of social contract theory, there are no rights in the state of nature, only freedoms, and it is the contract that creates rights and obligations. In other versions the opposite occurs— the contract imposes restrictions upon individuals that curtail their natural rights.
  • Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences : A 1750 treatise by  Jean-Jacques Rousseau, which argued that the arts and sciences corrupt human morality. It was Rousseau’s first expression of his influential views about nature vs. society, to which he would dedicate most of his intellectual life.
  • The Social Contract : A 1762 treatise by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in which he theorized the best way to establish a political community in the face of the problems of commercial society. The work helped inspire political reforms and revolutions in Europe. It argued against the idea that monarchs were divinely empowered to legislate. Rousseau asserts that only the people, who are sovereign, have that all-powerful right.
  • general will : A philosophical and political concept, developed and popularized in the 18th century, that denoted  the will of the people as a whole. It served to designate the common interest embodied in legal tradition, as distinct from, and transcending, people’s private and particular interests at any particular time.

Introduction: Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a Francophone Genevan philosopher, writer, and composer. His political philosophy influenced the Enlightenment in France and across Europe. It was also important to the French Revolution and the overall development of modern political and educational thought.

Rousseau was born in 1712 in Geneva, which was at the time a city-state and a Protestant associate of the Swiss Confederacy. His mother died several days after he was born, and after his father remarried a few years later, Jean-Jacques was left with his maternal uncle, who packed him away, along with his own son, to board for two years with a Calvinist minister in a hamlet outside Geneva. Here, the boys picked up the elements of mathematics and drawing. After his father and uncle had more or less disowned him, the teenage Rousseau supported himself for a time as a servant, secretary, and tutor, wandering in Italy and France. He had been an indifferent student, but during his 20s, which were marked by long bouts of hypochondria, he applied himself to the study of philosophy, mathematics, and music. Rousseau spent his adulthood holding numerous administrative positions and moving across Europe, often to escape a controversy caused by his radical writings. His relationships with various women had important impacts on his life choices (e.g., temporary conversion to Catholicism) and inspired many of his writings. His decision to place his five children (born from a long-term domestic partnership with Thérèse Levasseur) in a shelter for abandoned children was widely criticized by his contemporaries and generations to come, particularly in light of his progressive works on education. Rousseau died in 1778.


Jean-Jacques Rousseau, portrait by Maurice Quentin de La Tour, c. 1753:  During the period of the French Revolution, Rousseau was the most popular of the philosophers among members of the Jacobin Club. Rousseau was interred as a national hero in the Panthéon in Paris, in 1794, 16 years after his death

The Theory of Natural Human

In common with other philosophers of the day, Rousseau looked to a hypothetical state of nature as a normative guide. Contrary to Thomas Hobbes’ views, Rousseau holds that “uncorrupted morals” prevail in the “state of nature.” In  The Discourse on the Origins of Inequality Among Men  (1754), Rousseau maintained that man in a state of nature had been a solitary, ape-like creature, who was not  méchant  (bad), as Hobbes had maintained, but (like some other animals) had an “innate repugnance to see others of his kind suffer.” He asserted that the stage of human development associated with what he called “savages” was the best or optimal in human development, between the less-than-optimal extreme of brute animals on the one hand, and the extreme of decadent civilization on the other. Espousing the belief that all degenerates in men’s hands, Rousseau taught that men would be free, wise, and good in the state of nature, and that instinct and emotion, when not distorted by the unnatural limitations of civilization, are nature’s voices and instructions to the good life. Rousseau’s “noble savage” stands in direct opposition to the man of culture (however, while Rousseau discusses the concept, he never uses the phrase that appears in other authors’ writings of the period). In his  Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences  (1750), Rousseau argued, in opposition to the dominant stand of Enlightenment thinkers, that the arts and sciences corrupt human morality.

The Social Contract

The Social Contract  outlines the basis for a legitimate political order within a framework of classical republicanism. Published in 1762, it became one of the most influential works of political philosophy in the western tradition. Rousseau claimed that the state of nature was a primitive condition without law or morality, which human beings left for the benefits and necessity of cooperation. As society developed, division of labor and private property required the human race to adopt institutions of law. According to Rousseau, by joining together into civil society through the social contract, and abandoning their claims of natural right, individuals can both preserve themselves and remain free. This is because submission to the authority of the general will of the people as a whole guarantees individuals against being subordinated to the wills of others, and also ensures that they obey themselves because they are, collectively, the authors of the law. The idea of general will denoted  the will of the people as a whole. It served to designate the common interest embodied in legal tradition, as distinct from, and transcending, people’s private and particular interests at any particular time.

Although Rousseau argues that sovereignty (or the power to make the laws) should be in the hands of the people, he also makes a sharp distinction between the sovereign and the government. He posits that the political aspects of a society should be divided into two parts. First, there must be a sovereign consisting of the whole population, women included, that represents the general will and is the legislative power within the state. The second division is that of the government, being distinct from the sovereign. This division is necessary because the sovereign cannot deal with particular matters like applications of the law. Doing so would undermine its generality, and therefore damage its legitimacy. Thus, government must remain a separate institution from the sovereign body. When the government exceeds the boundaries set in place by the people, it is the mission of the people to abolish such government, and begin anew.

Education Theory

Rousseau’s philosophy of education, elaborated in his 1762 treatise  Emile, or On Education,  concerns itself with developing the students’ character and moral sense, so that they may learn to practice self-mastery and remain virtuous even in the unnatural and imperfect society in which they will have to live. The hypothetical boy, Émile, is to be raised in the countryside, which, Rousseau believes, is a more natural and healthy environment than the city, under the guardianship of a tutor, who will guide him through various learning experiences arranged by the tutor. Rousseau felt that children learn right and wrong through experiencing the consequences of their acts, rather than through physical punishment. The tutor will make sure that no harm results to Émile through his learning experiences. Rousseau became an early advocate of developmentally appropriate education.

Although many of Rousseau’s ideas foreshadowed modern ones in many ways, in one way they do not; Rousseau was a believer in the moral superiority of the patriarchal family on the antique Roman model. Sophie, the young woman Émile is destined to marry, as a representative of ideal womanhood, is educated to be governed by her husband, while Émile, as representative of the ideal man, is educated to be self-governing. This is an essential feature of Rousseau’s educational and political philosophy, and particularly important to the distinction between private, personal relations and the public world of political relations. The private sphere as Rousseau imagines it depends on the subordination of women, in order for both it and the public political sphere (upon which it depends) to function as Rousseau imagines it could and should. Rousseau anticipated the modern idea of the bourgeois nuclear family, with the mother at home taking responsibility for the household, childcare, and early education.

Marquis de Condorcet

Although Marquis de Condorcet’s ideas are considered to embody the ideals of the Age of Enlightenment, his support of liberal economy, free and equal public instruction, constitutionalism, and equal rights for women and people of all races distinguish him from most of his contemporaries.

  • Compare and contrast the Marquis de Condorcet’s thoughts on popular rule with the other Enlightenment thinkers
  • Marquis de Condorcet, was a French philosopher, mathematician, and early political scientist. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he advocated a liberal economy, free and equal public instruction, constitutionalism, and equal rights for women and people of all races.
  • He launched a career as a mathematician, soon reaching international fame. However, his political ideas, particularly that of radical democracy and opposition to slavery, were criticized heavily in the English-speaking world.
  • Condorcet took a leading role when the French Revolution swept France in 1789. He hoped for a rationalist reconstruction of society, and championed many liberal causes, including women’s suffrage.
  • Condorcet’s  Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Spirit  is perhaps the most influential formulation of the Idea of Progress ever written. It narrates the history of civilization as one of progress in the sciences, and shows the intimate connection between scientific progress and the development of human rights and justice.
  • According to Condorcet, for republicanism to exist the nation needed enlightened citizens, and education needed democracy to become truly public. In order to educate citizens, he proposed a system of free public education.
  • rationalism : In epistemology, the view that regards reason as the chief source and test of knowledge, or any view appealing to reason as a source of knowledge or justification. More formally, it is defined as a methodology, or a theory, in which the criterion of the truth is not a result of experience but of intellect and deduction.
  • Idea of Progress : In intellectual history, the idea that advances in technology, science, and social organization can produce an improvement in the human condition. That is, people can become better, in terms of quality of life (social progress), through economic development (modernization), and the application of science and technology (scientific progress). The assumption is that the process will happen once people apply their reason and skills, for it is not divinely foreordained.

Marquis de Condorcet: The Radical of the Enlightenment

Nicolas de Condorcet, known also as Marquis de Condorcet, was a French philosopher, mathematician, and early political scientist. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he advocated a liberal economy, free and equal public instruction, constitutionalism, and equal rights for women and people of all races. Although his ideas and writings are considered to embody the ideals of the Age of Enlightenment and rationalism, they were much more radical that those of most of his contemporaries, even those who were also seen as radicals.

Condorcet was born in 1743 and raised by a devoutly religious mother. He was educated at the Jesuit College in Reims and at the  Collège de Navarre  in Paris, where he quickly showed his intellectual ability and gained his first public distinctions in mathematics. From 1765 to 1774, he focused on science. In 1765, he published his first work on mathematics, launching his career as a mathematician. In 1769, he was elected to the French Royal Academy of Sciences. Condorcet worked with Leonhard Euler and Benjamin Franklin. He soon became an honorary member of many foreign academies and philosophic societies, but his political ideas, particularly that of radical democracy, were criticized heavily in the English-speaking world, most notably by John Adams. In 1781, Condorcet wrote a pamphlet,  Reflections on Negro Slavery , in which he denounced slavery.


Condorcet’s political views, including suffrage of women, opposition of slavery, equal rights regardless of race, or free public education, were unique even in the context of many radical ideas proposed during the Enlightenment period, He was also one of the first to systematically apply mathematics in the social sciences.

Role in the French Revolution

Condorcet took a leading role when the French Revolution swept France in 1789. He hoped for a rationalist reconstruction of society, and championed many liberal causes. In 1792, he presented a project for the reformation of the education system, aiming to create a hierarchical structure, under the authority of experts who would work as the guardians of the Enlightenment and who, independent of power, would be the guarantors of public liberties. The project was judged to be contrary to the republican and egalitarian virtues. Condorcet also advocated women’s suffrage for the new government, publishing “For the Admission to the Rights of Citizenship For Women” in 1790. This view went much further than the views of other major Enlightenment thinkers, including the champions of women’s rights. Even Mary Wollstonecraft, a British writer and philosopher who attacked gender oppression, pressed for equal educational opportunities, and demanded “justice” and “rights to humanity” for all ,  did not go as far as to demand equal political rights for women.

At the time of the Trial of Louis XVI, Condorcet, who opposed the death penalty but still supported the trial itself, spoke out against the execution of the King during the public vote at the Convention. He proposed to send the king to the galleys. Changing forces and shifts in power among different revolutionary groups eventually positioned largely independent Condorcet in the role of the critic of predominant ideas. His political opponents branded him a traitor, and in 1793, a warrant was issued for Condorcet’s arrest. After a period of hiding, he was captured and in 1794 he mysteriously died in prison.

The Idea of Progress

Condorcet’s  Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Spirit  (1795) was perhaps the most influential formulation of the Idea of Progress ever written. It narrates the history of civilization as one of progress in the sciences, shows the intimate connection between scientific progress and the development of human rights and justice, and outlines the features of a future rational society entirely shaped by scientific knowledge. It also made the notion of progress a central concern of Enlightenment thought. Condorcet argued that expanding knowledge in the natural and social sciences would lead to an ever more just world of individual freedom, material affluence, and moral compassion. He believed that through the use of our senses and communication with others, knowledge could be compared and contrasted as a way of analyzing our systems of belief and understanding. None of Condorcet’s writings refer to a belief in a religion or a god who intervenes in human affairs. Instead, he frequently wrote of his faith in humanity itself and its ability to progress with the help of philosophers. He envisioned man as continually progressing toward a perfectly utopian society. However, he stressed that for this to be a possibility, man must unify regardless of race, religion, culture, or gender.

Education and Rights

According to Condorcet, for republicanism to exist the nation needed enlightened citizens, and education needed democracy to become truly public. Democracy implied free citizens and ignorance was the source of servitude. Citizens had to be provided with the necessary knowledge to exercise their freedom and understand the rights and laws that guaranteed their enjoyment. Although education could not eliminate disparities in talent, all citizens, including women, had the right to free education. In opposition to those who relied on revolutionary enthusiasm to form the new citizens, Condorcet maintained that revolution was not made to last, and that revolutionary institutions were not intended to prolong the revolutionary experience but to establish political rules and legal mechanisms that would insure future changes without revolution. In a democratic city there would be no Bastille to be seized. Public education would form free and responsible citizens, not revolutionaries.

Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft was an English writer, philosopher, and advocate of women’s rights, whose focus on women’s rights, and particularly women’s access to education, distinguished her from most of male Enlightenment thinkers.

  • Summarize the ways in which Wollstonecraft’s philosophy differed from the other Enlightenment thinkers
  • Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) was an English writer, philosopher, and advocate of women’s rights. She was the major female voice of the Enlightenment. Until the late 20th century, however, Wollstonecraft’s life, received more attention than her writing.
  • The majority of Wollstonecraft’s early works focus on education. She advocates educating children into the emerging middle-class ethos: self-discipline, honesty, frugality, and social contentment. She also advocates the education of women, a controversial topic at the time and one which she would return to throughout her career.
  • In response to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), which was a defense of constitutional monarchy, aristocracy, and the Church of England, Wollstonecraft’s  A Vindication of the Rights of Men  (1790) attacks aristocracy and advocates republicanism.
  • A Vindic ation of the Rights of Woman  (1792) is one of the earliest works of feminist philosophy. In it, Wollstonecraft argues that women ought to have an education commensurate with their position in society, and claims that women are essential to the nation because they educate its children and because they could be “companions” to their husbands, rather than just wives.
  • Scholars of feminism still debate to what extent Wollstonecraft was, indeed, a feminist; while she does call for equality between the sexes in particular areas of life, such as morality, she does not explicitly state that men and women are equal.
  • Wollstonecraft addresses her writings to the middle class, and represents a class bias by her condescending treatment of the poor.
  • A Vindication of the Rights of Men : A 1790 political pamphlet written by the 18th-century British feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, which attacks aristocracy and advocates republicanism. It was the first response in a pamphlet war sparked by the publication of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), a defense of constitutional monarchy, aristocracy, and the Church of England.
  • Reflections on the Revolution in France : A political pamphlet written by the Irish statesman Edmund Burke and published in 1790. One of the best-known intellectual attacks against the French Revolution, it is a defining tract of modern conservatism as well as an important contribution to international theory.
  • A Vindication of the Rights of Woman : A 1792 work by the 18th-century British feminist Mary Wollstonecraft that is one of the earliest works of feminist philosophy. In it, Wollstonecraft argues that women should have an education commensurate with their position in society, claiming that women are essential to the nation because they educate its children and because they could be “companions” to their husbands, rather than just wives.

Woman’s Voice at the Age of Enlightenment

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) was an English writer, philosopher, and advocate of women’s rights. During her brief career, she wrote novels, treatises, a travel narrative, a history of the French Revolution, a conduct book, and a children’s book. Until the late 20th century, Wollstonecraft’s life, which encompassed an illegitimate child, passionate love affairs, and suicide attempts, received more attention than her writing. After two ill-fated affairs, with Henry Fuseli and Gilbert Imlay (by whom she had a daughter, Fanny Imlay), Wollstonecraft married the philosopher William Godwin, one of the forefathers of the anarchist movement. She died at the age of 38, eleven days after giving birth to her second daughter, leaving behind several unfinished manuscripts. The second daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, became an accomplished writer herself as Mary Shelley, the author of  Frankenstein .

After Wollstonecraft’s death, her widower published a memoir (1798) of her life, revealing her unorthodox lifestyle, which inadvertently destroyed her reputation for almost a century. However, with the emergence of the feminist movement at the turn of the twentieth century, Wollstonecraft’s advocacy of women’s equality and critiques of conventional femininity became increasingly important. Today, Wollstonecraft is regarded as one of the founding feminist philosophers, and feminists often cite both her life and work as important influences.


Despite the controversial topic, the  Rights of Woman  received favorable reviews and was a great success. It was almost immediately released in a second edition in 1792, several American editions appeared, and it was translated into French. It was only the later revelations of her personal life that resulted in negative views towards Wollstonecraft, which persisted for over a century.

The majority of Wollstonecraft’s early works focus on education. She assembled an anthology of literary extracts “for the improvement of young women” entitled  The Female Reader . In both her conduct book  Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787) a nd her children’s book  Original Stories from Real Life  (1788), Wollstonecraft advocates educating children into the emerging middle-class ethos of self-discipline, honesty, frugality, and social contentment. Both books also emphasize the importance of teaching children to reason, revealing Wollstonecraft’s intellectual debt to the important 17th-century educational philosopher John Locke. Both texts also advocate the education of women, a controversial topic at the time, and one which she would return to throughout her career. Wollstonecraft argues that well-educated women will be good wives and mothers, and ultimately contribute positively to the nation.

A Vindication of the Rights of Man

Published in response to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), which was a defense of constitutional monarchy, aristocracy, and the Church of England, and an attack on Wollstonecraft’s friend, Richard Price, Wollstonecraft’s  A Vindication of the Rights of Man  (1790) attacks aristocracy and advocates republicanism. Wollstonecraft attacked not only monarchy and hereditary privilege, but also the gendered language that Burke used to defend and elevate it. Burke associated the beautiful with weakness and femininity, and the sublime with strength and masculinity. Wollstonecraft turns these definitions against him, arguing that his theatrical approach turn Burke’s readers—the citizens—into weak women who are swayed by show. In her first unabashedly feminist critique, Wollstonecraft indicts Burke’s defense of an unequal society founded on the passivity of women.

In her arguments for republican virtue, Wollstonecraft invokes an emerging middle-class ethos in opposition to what she views as the vice-ridden aristocratic code of manners. Influenced by Enlightenment thinkers, she believed in progress, and derides Burke for relying on tradition and custom. She argues for rationality, pointing out that Burke’s system would lead to the continuation of slavery, simply because it had been an ancestral tradition.

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman  (1792) is one of the earliest works of feminist philosophy. In it, Wollstonecraft argues that women ought to have an education commensurate with their position in society, and then proceeds to redefine that position, claiming that women are essential to the nation because they educate its children and because they could be “companions” to their husbands rather than just wives. Instead of viewing women as ornaments to society or property to be traded in marriage, Wollstonecraft maintains that they are human beings deserving of the same fundamental rights as men. Large sections of the  Rights of Woman  respond vitriolically to the writers, who wanted to deny women an education.

While Wollstonecraft does call for equality between the sexes in particular areas of life, such as morality, she does not explicitly state that men and women are equal. She claims that men and women are equal in the eyes of God. However, such statements of equality stand in contrast to her statements respecting the superiority of masculine strength and valor. Her ambiguous position regarding the equality of the sexes have since made it difficult to classify Wollstonecraft as a modern feminist. Her focus on the rights of women does distinguish Wollstonecraft from most of her male Enlightenment counterparts. However, some of them, most notably Marquis de Condorcet, expressed a much more explicit position on the equality of men and women. Already in 1790, Condorcet advocated women’s suffrage.

Wollstonecraft addresses her text to the middle class, which she describes as the “most natural state,” and in many ways the  Rights of Woman  is inflected by a bourgeois view of the world. It encourages modesty and industry in its readers and attacks the uselessness of the aristocracy. But Wollstonecraft is not necessarily a friend to the poor. For example, in her national plan for education, she suggests that, after the age of nine, the poor, except for those who are brilliant, should be separated from the rich and taught in another school.

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The Age of Enlightenment: Overview and Analysis Essay

The Enlightenment is the broad term applied to the intellectual developments of the eighteenth century, as articulated by a relatively small number of thinkers and writers primarily in Western Europe. The Age of Enlightenment centered on France and two of the major philosophers who contributed to this age of Enlightenment were Voltaire and Montesquieu. The others were Diderot, Rousseau, Hume, and Kant. Voltaire and Montesquieu were confident that the reforms they suggested were both reasonable and practically feasible (Kagan et al, chapter 18). The concept of deism, for example, allowed thinkers to accept new rationalism without having to deny the existence of God in an outright manner. Voltaire and Montesquieu opposed and rejected the views of the Roman Church which they believed was irrational and oppressive (Fitzpatrick, 83). But these philosophes sought religious toleration concerning all European faiths. The philosophes also affected the areas of justice, economics, and political thought.

The philosophes believed that by obeying rational laws society and human relationships could be improved. This belief was the foundation stone for the subject called ‘social science’. During the Age of Enlightenment, Beccaria proposed reforms in the areas of criminal justice and punishment. In the realm of Economics, Adam Smith’s works questioned the trade practices of the time and laid the foundation for the Industrial Revolution. His 1776 Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations is commonly described as the founding document for laissez-faire (hands-off) economic policy. This work was instrumental in raising a debate over economic progress versus individual well-being in Western society. Many French economic reformers advocated agricultural reform. In the realm of politics, the government was the focus of a lot of investigation and criticism. Enlightenment thinkers did not stop with mere criticism of corruption in the government and church. Montesquieu provided the outline of a system that would create a new balance in governing the state. Montesquieu admired the British constitution and the concept of the aristocracy. He tried to incorporate it in his presentation of the ideal government. Rousseau was a radical, who believed society was more important than the individual because only within a properly functioning society could an individual life a moral life. Overall, many philosophes were fundamentally monarchists, though of course, they believed monarchies should be reformed.

Many revolutionary ideas of the Enlightenment reached Eastern Europe in the form of “Enlightened Absolutism.” The rulers of Prussia, Austria, and Russia tried to follow certain Enlightenment principles. But these rulers could not accept the philosophes’ rejection of war as irrational. Frederick II (the Great) of Prussia, Maria Theresa and her son Joseph II of Austria, and Catherine II (the Great) of Russia implemented some Enlightenment measures but did not create any change to their existing political and social frameworks. Ultimately, the Prussian, Austrian, and Russian empires rejected the Enlightenment ideals towards the end of the century (Kagan et al, chapter 18).

The Age of Enlightenment in England took place through coffeehouses and the newly flourishing press. In Germany, the universities became centers of the Enlightenment. Italian representatives of the age included Cesare Beccaria and Giambattista Vico. From America, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin exerted vast international influence (Columbia Encyclopedia, 15622).

Voltaire’s satire, Candide was the most influential work of the period and reflected the philosophe’s concerns and general attitudes. The major works that influenced the Age of Enlightenment were the Newtonian worldview, Locke’s psychology, Britain’s wealth and stability, French reform, and the emerging print culture in Europe. The Encyclopedia compiled by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert and completed in 1772 contained the views of most of France’s leading philosophes on various subjects. The Encyclopedia helped in spreading Enlightenment ideas throughout Europe.

There were many weak points in the philosophes as well. The four-stage theory of social development proved detrimental to the relationships between the West and other cultures. The philosophes failed to address reforms to help women and had a strong tendency to equate “human” with “male” (Kagan et al, chapter 18). Many philosophes including the radical Rousseau held traditional ideas about gender roles and believed that women were physiologically inferior to men and that women should be restricted only within the domestic sphere. However, late in the 18th century, Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women placed women’s rights within the Enlightenment agenda (Johnston, page 1).


Kagan, Donald; Ozment, Steven and Turner, M. Frank (1979). The Western Heritage, Eighth Edition. Prentice Hall, Inc. New Jersey.

Johnston, Ian (2000). Lecture on Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman .

The Columbia Encyclopedia (2004). Enlightenment. Sixth Edition. Columbia University Press. New York.

Fitzpatrick, Martin; Jones, Peter; Knellwolf, Christa; Mccalman, Iain (2004). The Enlightenment World. Routledge Publishers. New York.

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IvyPanda. (2021, September 9). The Age of Enlightenment: Overview and Analysis. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-age-of-enlightenment-overview-and-analysis/

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IvyPanda . (2021) 'The Age of Enlightenment: Overview and Analysis'. 9 September.

IvyPanda . 2021. "The Age of Enlightenment: Overview and Analysis." September 9, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-age-of-enlightenment-overview-and-analysis/.

1. IvyPanda . "The Age of Enlightenment: Overview and Analysis." September 9, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-age-of-enlightenment-overview-and-analysis/.

IvyPanda . "The Age of Enlightenment: Overview and Analysis." September 9, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-age-of-enlightenment-overview-and-analysis/.

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Social Sci LibreTexts

1.3: Enlightenment Thinkers and Democratic Government

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Standard 1.3: Enlightenment Thinkers and Democratic Government

Explain the influence of Enlightenment thinkers on the American Revolution and the framework of American government. (Massachusetts Curriculum Framework for History and Social Studies) [8.T1.3]

FOCUS QUESTION: How did the Enlightenment Contribute to the Growth of Democratic Principles of Government?

Photograph of the Enlightenment Room of the British Museum, showing walls lined with bookshelves and an Egyptian statue on a pedestal at the center of the room.

The Enlightenment (or Age of Reason) is the term used to define the outpouring of philosophical, scientific, and political knowledge in Europe at the beginning of the 18 th century. European civilization had already experienced the Renaissance (1300-1600) and the Scientific Revolution (1550-1700). The Enlightenment further transformed intellectual and political life based on the application of science to dramatically alter traditional beliefs and practices.

Explore our resourcesforhistoryteachers wiki page to learn more about the Main Ideas of Enlightenment Thinkers .

Enlightenment thinkers believed that rational reasoning could apply to all forms of human activity. Their writing can be "broadly understood to stand for the claim that all individuals have the right to share their own ends for themselves rather than let others do it for them" (Pagden, 2013, p. x). Politically, they asked what was the proper relationship of the citizen to the monarch or the state. They held that society existed as a contract between individuals and some larger political entity. They advanced the idea of freedom and equality before the law. Enlightenment ideas about how governments should be organized and function influenced both the American and French Revolutions.

The Enlightenment is commonly associated with men whose writing and thinking combined philosophy, politics, economics and science, notably John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Adam Smith, Immanuel Kant, Isaac Newton and Thomas Jefferson. Women too, though often downplayed or ignored in the textbooks and curriculum frameworks, contributed change-producing ideas and actions, including Mary Wollstonecraft, Olympe de Gouges , Mary Astell, Caroline Herschel , Emile du Chatelet, and Maria Sybilla Merian.

Explore our resourcesforhistoryteachers wiki page to learn more about The Enlightenment, Principles of Democratic Government and Women's Political Empowerment .

How did the Enlightenment's optimistic faith in the discovery and application of natural law to human life inspire revolution and reform throughout the world? As the National Center for History in Schools (1992) noted: "The first great upheavals to be marked - though surely not 'caused' - by Enlightenment thought were the American and French revolutions, and they opened the modern era of world history" (p. 262). The modules in this topic explore the catalysts for revolutionary change through the writings and actions of men and women philosophers, scientists, and change-makers.

Modules for this Standard Include:

  • INVESTIGATE: Locke, Montesquieu, and Rousseau and Their Influence on Government
  • UNCOVER: Mary Wollstonecraft, Olympe de Gouges, and the Rights of Women
  • MEDIA LITERACY CONNECTIONS: 21st Century Women STEM Innovators

1.3.1 INVESTIGATE: Locke, Montesquieu, and Rousseau and Their Influence on Government

The American Revolution and the subsequent framework of American government were heavily influenced by John Locke, Baron de Montesquieu, and Jean Jacques Rousseau - three Enlightenment philosophers who "developed theories of government in which some or even all the people would govern" (Constitutional Rights Foundation, 2019, para. 10 ). Each rejected in one way or another the views of Thomas Hobbes, who believed government must be led by an all-powerful king.

The Constitutional Rights Foundation has characterized Locke as a "reluctant" democrat because he favored a representative government, Montesquieu a "balanced" democrat who favored a combination of a king checked by a legislative body, and Rousseau an "extreme" democrat because he believed everyone should vote. Each influenced the founding and development of United States government. You can learn more about these philosophers and their philosophies at these resourcesforhistoryteachers wiki pages: Political, Economic and Intellectual Influences on the American Revolution and Main Ideas of Men and Women Enlightenment Thinkers . John Locke

John Locke (1632-1704) was a political theorist who is remembered as the father of modern republican government . He believed a state could only be legitimate if it received the consent of the governed through a social contract. In Locke's view, social contract theory protected the natural rights of life, liberty, and property. If this did not happen, he argued, the people had a right to rebel. His ideas about the consent of the governed and the right to rebellion would later influence the supporters of the American Revolution and the framers of the U.S. Constitution.

"Portrait of John Locke," 17th-century oil painting by Geoffrey Keller

Locke supported England's constitutional monarchy and promoted democratic governments with a system of checks and balances. Thomas Jefferson's famous quote from the Declaration of Independence was based on Lockean philosophy: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness."

In Locke's view, all men—literally men and not women—had the political rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of private property. He also believed that human beings, because of divine will, are by nature inherently good and can make their own reasonable decisions if left alone by the government.

John Locke wrote Two Treatises on Civil Government (1690). Watch this video summarizing and highlighting his main ideas. Baron de Montesquieu

Baron de Montesquieu (1689-1755) is perhaps best known for his belief in the separation of governmental powers. Inspired by England's Glorious Revolution and Constitutional Monarchy, Montesquieu believed that in an ideal state there are two types of governmental authority:

  • the sovereign (King/President) and
  • the administrative powers (bureaucracy).

In Montesquieu's view, there are also three administrative powers within a state, each providing a check and balance on the others:

  • the legislature (Parliament/Congress),
  • the executive (king/head of state),
  • the judiciary (court system).

The purpose behind this system of checks and balances was to prevent a single individual or group of people from having full control of the state. Ironically, while Montesquieu was inspired by Britain's Constitutional monarchy, England during the time period did not practice separation of governmental powers. Indeed, until the late 1800s, the British Monarchy effectively ruled the nation with the help of the House of Lords and the House of Commons. To this day, England still does not have an official written constitution.

The idea of a constitutional government with three separate branches of the state would later become essential in the writing of the American constitution. To get any official new legislation passed into law, the U.S. President must always work together with Congress. This is a legacy of Montesquieu's political philosophy in practice today. Jean Jacques Rousseau

Jean Jacques Rousseau believed that human beings are basically good by nature, but historical events have corrupted them and the present state of civil society. Although "he did not go to school for a single day and was essentially self-taught, his writings included a political theory that deeply influenced the American Founding Fathers and the French Revolutionaries..." (Damrosch, 2005, p. 1).

Bronze statue of Rousseau in a park in Geneva, Switzerland.

In Rousseau's ideal world, people would live in small communal farming communities and make decisions democratically. His 1762 work The Social Contract begins with the famous line, "Man was born free, but everywhere he is in chains" (para. 2).

Rousseau believed that people could regain their lost freedom by creating a society where citizens choose to obey laws they themselves created, giving up some personal self gains in exchange for a wider common good. He advocated for direct democracy where everyone’s votes determine what happens politically.

To read more, explore an interactive transcript for the "Introduction to Rousseau: The Social Contract" video using VidReader, a tool that creates interactive transcripts for YouTube videos.

Suggested Learning Activities

  • Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan, Chapters 13-14 (1651)
  • John Locke: Two Treatises of Government
  • Baron de Montesquieu: The Spirit of the Laws (1748)
  • Jean Jacques Rousseau: Social Contract
  • Thomas Jefferson: The Declaration of Independence (1776)
  • Thomas Paine: Common Sense (1776) and The American Crisis (1776 - 1783)
  • Olympe de Gouges: The Declaration of the Rights of Women and Female Citizen (1791)
  • Mary Wollstonecraft: A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792)
  • Mary Astell: A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (1694)
  • Margaret Cavendish: The Atomic Poems (1653)
  • Emile du Chatelet: Institutions Physiques (1741)
  • An Enlightenment Salon by Robert Davidson, Whitman-Hanson Regional High School
  • A social contract is an agreement made between a government and its people, or in this case, between students and a teacher.
  • Through class discussion and individual writing, develop a social contract for your classroom and publish it on Google Classroom or some other learning management system.
  • Based on your experiences so far, what is the role of your civics teacher?
  • In your opinion, do you think the rules in your class are fair or unfair? Why do you say this?
  • In your opinion, do you think the activities the teacher assigns actually helps you learn? Why do you say this?
  • On a scale of 1-5, how much would you say your understanding of civics has increased (1 being not at all, 5 being you know much more now than you did before the class)?
  • What is AT LEAST one way in which the teacher could make your civics education experience more effective for you as a learner (rules, information, assignment types, organization, structure, etc.)?

Online Resources about Enlightenment Philosophers

  • Political Theory - Thomas Hobbes , a video describing how the views of Hobbes were influenced by the conflict occurring in England.
  • Introduction to John Locke, a short video on Locke's Two Treatises of Government .
  • The Political Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke , University of Tennessee, Chattanooga. Hobbes advocated an absolute monarchy, which was present in most of Europe at the time, as the best form of government
  • John Locke Mini-Lesson , iCivics
  • Women from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment
  • The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen by Marquis de Lafayette with Thomas Jefferson (1789)
  • Women of the Enlightenment slideshow explains how different philosophers, like Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Diderot, viewed women

1.3.2 UNCOVER: Mary Wollstonecraft, Olympe de Gouges, and the Rights of Women mary wollstonecraft.

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) was a writer and advocate for women's rights. She believed that women should be given greater education because of their importance in raising children and being not just wives but partners or "companions" with their husbands. Her personal life, which included an illegitimate child, love affairs, and suicide attempts, was considered scandalous at the time. She died at age 38. Her daughter was Mary Shelley, author of the novel Frankenstein .

Drawing of Mary Wollstonecraft, modeled after a painting by John Opie.

Mary Wollstonecraft believed that women should have the same rights as men (including life and liberty). In A Vindication of the Rights of Man (1790), she opposed monarchy and aristocracy. In 1792, she published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman , in which she asked:

"How many women thus waste life away the prey of discontent, who might have practised as physicians, regulated a farm, managed a shop, and stood erect, supported by their own industry, instead of hanging their heads surcharged with the dew of sensibility, that consumes the beauty to which it at first gave lustre" (p. 157).

Wollstonecraft also urged establishment of a national education system with mixed gender schools; such education would give women the right to earn their own living (British Library Book/Manuscript Annotation). Olympe de Gouges

Olympe de Gouges (1748-1793) was a French writer and activist for women's rights during the French Revolution. She was the author of The Declaration of the Rights of Women and Female Citizen (1791), a powerful call for gender equality and political change. She was subsequently beheaded during the Reign of Terror, the only woman executed for her political writing during that time. She wrote, "A woman has the right to be guillotined; she should also have the right to debate" (quoted in "The Writer’s Almanac," November 3, 2019).

A collection of overlapping screenshots of Wikipedia articles on women writers and activists, created for the Women in Red movement meant to address the gender bias in current Wikipedia content.

Olympe de Gouges' activism contrasted dramatically with the traditional gender roles women were expected to play in European society. Although women did not have many rights and privileges, de Gouges used ideas from the Enlightenment to advocate for greater rights for women and enslaved Black people.

  • A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Mary Wollstonecraft (1792)
  • The Declaration of the Rights of Women and Female Citizen , Olympe de Gouges (1791)
  • Design trading cards for important women change-makers in history
  • Based on a scientist trading card project by Jaye C. Gardiner

Online Resources for Mary Wollstonecraft, Olympe de Gouges and Rights of Women

  • View a Brief Illustrated Video Biography of Mary Wollstonecraft
  • Take a Quiz on Mary Wollstonecraft's "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman"
  • A brief biography, Olympe de Gouges , is online from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • Olympe de Gouge historical biography page on resourcesforhistoryteachers
  • The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen
  • The Declaration of Independence

1.3.3 ENGAGE: Who Were History's Important Women Change-Makers in Math, Science, and Politics?

Ada Lovelace was the daughter of poet Lord Byron and Anne Isabelle Milbanke. She is considered the first computer programmer.

Portrait of Ada Lovelace by Alfred Edward Chalon, 1838

Ada Lovelace did not conform to traditional gender roles and expectations, focusing on mathematics and coding in a time when women were not taught math. She became a correspondent to mathematician Charles Babbage who was in the process of creating the plans for the Difference Machine, the world's first calculator. She created notes on the machine and its step sequences, and those notes became the first computer "code." Learn more at Ada Lovelace, Mathematician and First Computer Programmer .

Katherine Johnson was a mathematician and physicist at NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) who was one of the African American women whose math and science work were essential to the success of early United States space exploration, including the 1962 flight when John Glenn became the first American man to orbit the Earth. Her work in STEM was the basis for the book Hidden Figures (Shetterly, 2016) and its 2017 movie adaptation.

Photograph of Katherine Johnson at work at NASA, 1966

Katherine Johnson was a pioneer in civil rights as well. She was one of the first Black students to integrate graduate schools in West Virginia; the third African American to earn a doctoral degree in mathematics; and a Presidential Medal of Honor recipient.

Sisters in Innovation: 20 Women Inventors You Should Know from The Mighty Girl website provides an engaging historical overview from Jeanne Villepreux-Power and Margaret E. Knight to modern-day scientists and innovators. Check out as well Ignite Her Curiosity: 60 Children's Books to Inspire Science-Loving Girls from the same website.

There is historical background for women in math and science at the wiki page Women of the Scientific Revolution .

Media Literacy Connections: 21st Century Women STEM Innovators

Women, whose work in philosophy, science, and politics is often neglected or marginalized in history textbooks and curriculum framework, made change-producing discoveries and advances during the Enlightenment and in every era since. However, still in today's digital age, the most well-known figures are men: Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, and Mark Zuckerberg.

In the following activities, you will explore the accomplishments of 21st century women innovators in the media and think about how to encourage more girls to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM):

  • Activity 1: Finding Women in STEM in the Media
  • Activity 2: Increasing Participation of Women in STEM
  • Activity 3: Analyze the Portrayal of Women in Science and Politics, Then and Now
  • Have the accomplishments of women such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Katherine Johnson been intentionally excluded or just omitted from textbooks and curriculum frameworks?
  • Why is it important to recognize the contributions of women in math, science, and politics?
  • Beatrix Potter - author and natural scientist
  • Caroline Herschel - an astronomer who, with her brother, discovered the planet Uranus
  • Ada Lovelace - mathematician and first computer programmer
  • Mary Anning - fossil finder and paleontologist
  • Marie Curie - scientist and two-time Nobel Prize recipient
  • Here is a Women Trailblazers March Madness Game with additional women change-makers to feature in a March Madness Tournament.
  • Grace Hopper , computer pioneer
  • Rachel Carson , environmental activist
  • Jane Goodall , primatologist and anthropologist
  • Rosalind Franklin , molecular biologist
  • Hedy Lamarr , Hollywood actress and inventor
  • Shirley Chisholm , African American presidential candidate
  • Create a poster or infographic using online resources such as Canva or another creator app or software, OR draw by hand a poster or infographic, that briefly and succinctly explains to students HOW to create or improve a wiki page for an unknown woman scientist, inventor or change-maker.
  • Begin viewing and stop at 0:09 where you see the first question about inventors. Write as many responses as you can in 60 seconds.
  • Resume viewing and stop at 0:24 when you see the second question about women inventors. Write as many responses you can in 60 seconds.
  • What surprised you about the lists? Did you have difficulty listing women inventors? Why is this often the case for not only students, but adults as well?

Online Resources for Women Trailblazers

  • Historian Margaret Rossiter’s efforts to showcase women in science ( Women Scientists Were Written Out of History. It’s Margaret Rossiter’s Lifelong Mission to Fix That ).
  • Rossiter has identified what she calls the Matilda Effect , a pattern where male scientists and "masculine" topics are frequently seen as demonstrating higher scientific quality than those associated with women in science or related fields.

Standard 1.3 Conclusion

This standard's INVESTIGATE examined the work of John Locke , including his "Two Treatises of Government" (1690) and social contract theory, as well as Montesquieu’s formulation of checks and balances to prevent a single individual or group of people from having full control of the state. UNCOVER focused on the French feminist Olympe De Gouges, who in 1791 published the Declaration of the Rights of Women and Female Citizen, a stirring call for the equality of women during the French Revolution. ENGAGE asked what women in history and current society were important trailblazers, innovators, and change-makers in math, science, and politics.

enlightenment thinkers essay

Background Essay: The Enlightenment and Social Contract Theory

A portrait of John Locke, an Enlightenment Thinker who believed that humans were rational beings

Guiding Questions: What were the major ideas of the Enlightenment? How did the Enlightenment influence the United States’ Founding?

  • I can explain the historical context for the emergence of the Enlightenment.
  • I can explain the major ideas of Enlightenment thinkers Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
  • I can compare the influence of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau on the Founders of the United States.

Essential Vocabulary

Directions: As you read the essay, highlight or underline key ideas in the text. Take notes about the main ideas of the essay in the right column.

During the 1500s and 1600s, the Scientific Revolution greatly expanded human understanding of the material world and the frontiers of human knowledge through use of the scientific method and experiments. The Enlightenment , or age of reason, followed in the 1600s and focused on examining human nature and its characteristics, such as forms of government. The Enlightenment ushered in an era of greater questioning of traditional truths and authorities and played an important role in helping shape the American Founders’ thinking.

Many Enlightenment thinkers, including Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, developed ideas about human nature by reflecting on the nature and condition of humans before the existence of government and civil society —the groups of citizens and organizations that make up society and work for the common concerns in a community. Each thinker considered what humans are like in their natural state and explained why they formed organized communities. The philosophers agreed that to do so, humans must make a social contract , or an agreement to live together under certain rules for the common good. However, Enlightenment thinkers disagreed on nearly all of the details.

Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679)

Image of Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes wrote his famous book Leviathan (1658) within the context of the English Civil War , a civil war fought between supporters of the monarchy of Charles I and supporters of Parliament from 1642 to 1651. He believed that human nature was essentially corrupt. He thought that people were naturally ruled by their passions, self-interest, and a desire for power. Without laws or government authority, humans threaten each other’s rights and lives. All are equally endangered. Hobbes argued that this state of nature was a “war of all against all.” Since no one was safe in the state of nature, it was reasonable for humans to form a social contract with each other to create a government. Hobbes’s social contract philosophy represents a break from the ancient and medieval belief that humanity was naturally social. The older view was that social and political institutions arose naturally, not from a contract between individuals.

In the social contract, individuals agreed to form a political society based on certain conditions, including that the people surrendered many of their rights to a sovereign leader—one with legitimate authority—to protect their lives. The sovereign was given the power to enforce the contract. The sovereign was not subject to the contract. The sovereign ruled with unlimited power and had the right to make war and peace, enact taxes, raise an army, prevent negative speech, and punish lawbreakers severely. There was no separation of powers to limit the sovereign’s power. Hobbes thus supported an absolute monarchy , a form of government under which the monarch holds all political power.

According to Hobbes, the main goal of the social contract was to prevent a return to the state of nature and provide order, safety, and security through a strong government. There was no right of rebellion, and subjects had a duty to obey the sovereign’s will. The Founders read Hobbes, but few agreed with his conclusions about absolute power.

John Locke (1632–1704)

Image of John Locke

John Locke was influenced by the outcome of the Glorious Revolution , a revolution in which England overthrew its king, James II, and replaced him with a new monarch with fewer absolute powers. He wrote Second Treatise of Government (1690), in which he developed very different conclusions about human nature than Hobbes. Locke believed that in a state of nature, humans were rational beings and equal in their natural rights to life, liberty, and property, which could not be taken away by anyone without their consent. People also enjoyed perfect freedom restricted only by the moral code of natural law , a system of justice that applies to all humans, and could not violate one another’s rights.

Locke believed individuals claimed ownership of property when they improved it through their labor. They had a right to that property, and it could not be taken away from them without their consent. Even though humans were generally good, occasional disputes occurred over property rights. Therefore, humans agreed to form a social contract with each other to create a civil government and society to settle these disputes. The purpose of the government was to protect the individual rights of the sovereign people and to promote the common good. The powers of government were therefore limited to these activities, rather than extending to providing goods and services for citizens. In addition, the existence of natural rights is itself a limit on government, as the individual has rights that government itself must respect. Government power was further restricted by a separation of powers between the branches of government. Locke consistently defended limited government, in contrast to Hobbes’s absolutism, or unlimited governmental power.

According to Locke, the people are the final check on tyrannical , or oppressive, government. If a government acted tyrannically and violated rights, the people had the right to rebel. They could alter or abolish the government but only after a long history of abuses. The people would then agree to a new social contract to create a new form of government that was better able to protect their rights.

Locke’s influence on the natural rights philosophy and principle of self-government in the Declaration of Independence is unmistakable.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778)

Image of Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a French Enlightenment thinker who lived and wrote after Hobbes and Locke. He focused on social contract theory, most notably in his book The Social Contract (1762). Rousseau developed views about human nature and government that were radically different from those of Hobbes and Locke.

Rousseau opened his book with the provocative phrase “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” What he meant by this is that humans are naturally good and even perfectible in a state of nature. They are innately, or naturally, good, virtuous, equal, and free.

Rousseau further argued that the institutions of society (family, church, education, government, and civil groups) actually corrupted and enslaved individuals rather than teaching them civic virtues. The creation and ownership of private property created inequalities, and wealth created vanity and corruption. Rousseau believed that society robbed humans of their natural freedom. His view of the social contract and government was based upon this view of human nature and society.

Rousseau believed that all individuals surrendered their rights and property to the community. Since humans were rational and perfectible beings, they would all agree on good laws. This collective consensus (meaning all agree, rather than just a majority) was called the “General Will” and was the only source of law.

In Rousseau’s view, all citizens were legislators and participated in government. If the country became too large and needed representatives, these officials were required to consult the General Will in making laws rather than their own judgments. Since the people were free, reasonable, and equal, there was no need for a separation of powers among three branches or a division of power of any kind.

Rousseau’s ideas influenced the French Revolution and were found in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789. This document, which sought to list the rights of the citizens of France, stated that sovereignty was found in the collective will of the nation. In the American Declaration of Independence, sovereignty is found in the people. Rousseau’s influence on the Founders was limited.

In Conclusion

The different strains of Enlightenment thought helped shape the political philosophy of the modern world. The American republic was most heavily influenced by the Enlightenment ideas of John Locke, along with classical thought, Protestant Christianity, English tradition, and colonial experience. Part of the genius of the Founding generation was in their combination of these various intellectual streams, taking the best of each tradition and building a “new order for the ages.”

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Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

American enlightenment thought.

Although there is no consensus about the exact span of time that corresponds to the American Enlightenment, it is safe to say that it occurred during the eighteenth century among thinkers in British North America and the early United States and was inspired by the ideas of the British and French Enlightenments.  Based on the metaphor of bringing light to the Dark Age, the Age of the Enlightenment ( Siècle des lumières in French and Aufklärung in German) shifted allegiances away from absolute authority, whether religious or political, to more skeptical and optimistic attitudes about human nature, religion and politics.  In the American context, thinkers such as Thomas Paine, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin invented and adopted revolutionary ideas about scientific rationality, religious toleration and experimental political organization—ideas that would have far-reaching effects on the development of the fledgling nation.  Some coupled science and religion in the notion of deism; others asserted the natural rights of man in the anti-authoritarian doctrine of liberalism; and still others touted the importance of cultivating virtue, enlightened leadership and community in early forms of republican thinking. At least six ideas came to punctuate American Enlightenment thinking: deism, liberalism, republicanism, conservatism, toleration and scientific progress. Many of these were shared with European Enlightenment thinkers, but in some instances took a uniquely American form.

Table of Contents

  • Moderate and Radical
  • Democracy and the Social Contract
  • Republicanism
  • Conservatism
  • Scientific Progress
  • Contemporary Work
  • References and Further Reading

1. Enlightenment Age Thinking

The pre- and post-revolutionary era in American history generated propitious conditions for Enlightenment thought to thrive on an order comparable to that witnessed in the European Enlightenments.   In the pre-revolutionary years, Americans reacted to the misrule of King George III, the unfairness of Parliament (“taxation without representation”) and exploitative treatment at the hands of a colonial power: the English Empire.  The Englishman-cum-revolutionary Thomas Paine wrote the famous pamphlet The Rights of Man , decrying the abuses of the North American colonies by their English masters.  In the post-revolutionary years, a whole generation of American thinkers would found a new system of government on liberal and republican principles, articulating their enduring ideas in documents such as the Declaration of Independence , the Federalist Papers and the United States Constitution .

Although distinctive features arose in the eighteenth-century American context, much of the American Enlightenment was continuous with parallel experiences in British and French society.  Four themes recur in both European and American Enlightenment texts: modernization, skepticism, reason and liberty. Modernization means that beliefs and institutions based on absolute moral, religious and political authority (such as the divine right of kings and the Ancien Régime ) will become increasingly eclipsed by those based on science, rationality and religious pluralism.  Many Enlightenment thinkers—especially the French philosophes , such as Voltaire, Rousseau and Diderot—subscribed to some form of skepticism, doubting appeals to miraculous, transcendent and supernatural forces that potentially limit the scope of individual choice and reason.  Reason that is universally shared and definitive of the human nature also became a dominant theme in Enlightenment thinkers’ writings, particularly Immanuel Kant’s “What is Enlightenment?” and his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals .  The fourth theme, liberty and rights assumed a central place in theories of political association, specifically as limits state authority originating prior to the advent of states (that is, in a state of nature) and manifesting in social contracts , especially in John Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government and Thomas Jefferson’s drafts of the Declaration of Independence .

a. Moderate and Radical

Besides identifying dominant themes running throughout the Enlightenment period, some historians, such as Henry May and Jonathan Israel, understand Enlightenment thought as divisible into two broad categories, each reflecting the content and intensity of ideas prevalent at the time.  The moderate Enlightenment signifies commitments to economic liberalism, religious toleration and constitutional politics.   In contrast to its moderate incarnation, the radical Enlightenment conceives enlightened thought through the prism of revolutionary rhetoric and classical Republicanism.  Some commentators argue that the British Enlightenment (especially figures such as James Hutton, Adam Ferguson and Adam Smith) was essentially moderate, while the French (represented by Denis Diderot, Claude Adrien Helvétius and François Marie Arouet) was decidedly more radical.  Influenced as it was by the British and French, American Enlightenment thought integrates both moderate and radical elements.

b. Chronology

American Enlightenment thought can also be appreciated chronologically, or in terms of three temporal stages in the development of Enlightenment Age thinking.  The early stage stretches from the time of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 to 1750, when members of Europe’s middle class began to break free from the monarchical and aristocratic regimes—whether through scientific discovery, social and political change or emigration outside of Europe, including America.  The middle stage extends from 1751 to just a few years after the start of the American Revolution in 1779. It is characterized by an exploding fascination with science, religious revivalism and experimental forms of government, especially in the United States.  The late stage begins in 1780 and ends with the rise of Napoléon Bonaparte, as the French Revolution comes to a close in 1815—a period in which the European Enlightenment was in decline, while the American Enlightenment reclaimed and institutionalized many of its seminal ideas.  However, American Enlightenment thinkers were not always of a single mind with their European counterparts.  For instance, several American Enlightenment thinkers—particularly James Madison and John Adams, though not Benjamin Franklin—judged the French philosophes to be morally degenerate intellectuals of the era.

c. Democracy and the Social Contract

Many European and American Enlightenment figures were critical of democracy.  Skepticism about the value of democratic institutions was likely a legacy of Plato’s belief that democracy led to tyranny and Aristotle’s view that democracy was the best of the worst forms of government.  John Adams and James Madison perpetuated the elitist and anti-democratic idea that to invest too much political power in the hands of uneducated and property-less people was to put society at constant risk of social and political upheaval.  Although several of America’s Enlightenment thinkers condemned democracy, others were more receptive to the idea of popular rule as expressed in European social contract theories.  Thomas Jefferson was strongly influenced by John Locke’s social contract theory , while Thomas Paine found inspiration in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s.  In the Two Treatises on Government (1689 and 1690), Locke argued against the divine right of kings and in favor of government grounded on the consent of the governed; so long as people would have agreed to hand over some of their liberties enjoyed in a pre-political society or state of nature in exchange for the protection of basic rights to life, liberty and property.  However, if the state reneged on the social contract by failing to protect those natural rights, then the people had a right to revolt and form a new government. Perhaps more of a democrat than Locke, Rousseau insisted in The Social Contract (1762) that citizens have a right of self-government, choosing the rules by which they live and the judges who shall enforce those rules. If the relationship between the will of the state and the will of the people (the “general will”) is to be democratic, it should be mediated by as few institutions as possible.

2. Six Key Ideas

At least six ideas came to punctuate American Enlightenment thinking: deism, liberalism, republicanism, conservatism, toleration and scientific progress. Many of these were shared with European Enlightenment thinkers, but in some instances took a uniquely American form.

European Enlightenment thinkers conceived tradition, custom and prejudice ( Vorurteil ) as barriers to gaining true knowledge of the universal laws of nature.  The solution was deism or understanding God’s existence as divorced from holy books, divine providence, revealed religion, prophecy and miracles; instead basing religious belief on reason and observation of the natural world. Deists appreciated God as a reasonable Deity.  A reasonable God endowed humans with rationality in order that they might discover the moral instructions of the universe in the natural law.  God created the universal laws that govern nature, and afterwards humans realize God’s will through sound judgment and wise action.  Deists were typically (though not always) Protestants, sharing a disdain for the religious dogmatism and blind obedience to tradition exemplified by the Catholic Church.  Rather than fight members of the Catholic faith with violence and intolerance, most deists resorted to the use of tamer weapons such as humor and mockery.

Both moderate and radical American Enlightenment thinkers, such as James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams and George Washington, were deists.   Some struggled with the tensions between Calvinist orthodoxy and deist beliefs, while other subscribed to the populist version of deism advanced by Thomas Paine in The Age of Reason .  Franklin was remembered for stating in the Constitutional Convention that “the longer I live, the more convincing proof I see of this truth—that God governs in the affairs of men.”  In what would become known as the Jefferson Bible (originally The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth ), Jefferson chronicles the life and times of Jesus Christ from a deist perspective, eliminating all mention of miracles or divine intervention.  God for deists such as Jefferson never loomed large in humans’ day-to-day life beyond offering a moral or humanistic outlook and the resource of reason to discover the content of God’s laws.  Despite the near absence of God in human life, American deists did not deny His existence, largely because the majority of the populace still remained strongly religious, traditionally pious and supportive of the good works (for example monasteries, religious schools and community service) that the clergy did.

b. Liberalism

Another idea central to American Enlightenment thinking is liberalism, that is, the notion that humans have natural rights and that government authority is not absolute, but based on the will and consent of the governed.  Rather than a radical or revolutionary doctrine, liberalism was rooted in the commercial harmony and tolerant Protestantism embraced by merchants in Northern Europe, particularly Holland and England.  Liberals favored the interests of the middle class over those of the high-born aristocracy, an outlook of tolerant pluralism that did not discriminate between consumers or citizens based on their race or creed, a legal system devoted to the protection of private property rights, and an ethos of strong individualism over the passive collectivism associated with feudal arrangements. Liberals also preferred rational argumentation and free exchange of ideas to the uncritical of religious doctrine or governmental mandates.  In this way, liberal thinking was anti-authoritarian.  Although later liberalism became associated with grassroots democracy and a sharp separation of the public and private domains, early liberalism favored a parliamentarian form of government that protected liberty of expression and movement, the right to petition the government, separation of church and state and the confluence of public and private interests in philanthropic and entrepreneurial endeavors.

The claim that private individuals have fundamental God-given rights, such as to property, life, liberty and to pursue their conception of  good, begins with the English philosopher John Locke, but also finds expression in Thomas Jefferson’s drafting of the Declaration of Independence .  The U.S. Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution, guarantees a schedule of individual rights based on the liberal ideal.  During the constitutional convention, James Madison responded to the anti-Federalists’ demand for a bill of rights as a condition of ratification by reviewing over two-hundred proposals and distilling them into an initial list of twelve suggested amendments to the Constitution, covering the rights of free speech, religious liberty, right to bear arms and habeas corpus , among others.  While ten of those suggested were ratified in 1791, one missing amendment (stopping laws created  by Congress to increase its members’ salaries from taking effect until the next legislative term) would have to wait until 1992 to be ratified as the Twenty-seventh Amendment.  Madison’s concern that the Bill of Rights should apply not only to the federal government would eventually be accommodated with the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment (especially its due process clause) in 1868 and a series of Supreme Court cases throughout the twentieth-century interpreting each of the ten amendments as “incorporated” and thus protecting citizens against state governments as well.

c. Republicanism

Classical republicanism is a commitment to the notion that a nation ought to be ruled as a republic, in which selection of the state’s highest public official is determined by a general election, rather than through a claim to hereditary right.  Republican values include civic patriotism, virtuous citizenship and property-based personality.  Developed during late antiquity and early renaissance, classic republicanism differed from early liberalism insofar as rights were not thought to be granted by God in a pre-social state of nature, but were the products of living in political society.  On the classical republican view of liberty, citizens exercise freedom within the context of existing social relations, historical associations and traditional communities, not as autonomous individuals set apart from their social and political ties.  In this way, liberty for the classical republican is positively defined by the political society instead of negatively defined in terms of the pre-social individual’s natural rights.

While prefigured by the European Enlightenment, the American Enlightenment also promoted the idea that a nation should be governed as a republic, whereby the state’s head is popularly elected, not appointed through a hereditary blood-line.  As North American colonists became increasingly convinced that British rule was corrupt and inimical to republican values, they joined militias and eventually formed the American Continental Army under George Washington’s command.   The Jeffersonian ideal of the yeoman farmer, which had its roots in the similar Roman ideal, represented the eighteenth-century American as both a hard-working agrarian and as a citizen-soldier devoted to the republic.  When elected to the highest office of the land, George Washington famously demurred when offered a royal title, preferring instead the more republican title of President.  Though scholarly debate persists over the relative importance of liberalism and republicanism during the American Revolution and Founding (see Recent Work section), the view that republican ideas were a formative influence on American Enlightenment thinking has gained widespread acceptance.

d. Conservatism

Though the Enlightenment is more often associated with liberalism and republicanism, an undeniable strain of conservatism emerged in the last stage of the Enlightenment, mainly as a reaction to the excesses of the French Revolution.  In 1790 Edmund Burkeanticipated the dissipation of order and decency in French society following the revolution (often referred to as “the Terror”) in his Reflections on the Revolution in France .  Though it is argued that Burkean conservatism was a reaction to the Enlightenment (or anti-Enlightenment), conservatives were also operating within the framework of Enlightenment ideas.  Some Enlightenment claims about human nature are turned back upon themselves and shown to break down when applied more generally to human culture.  For instance, Enlightenment faith in universal declarations of human rights do more harm than good when they contravene the conventions and traditions of specific nations, regions and localities. Similar to the classical republicans, Burke believed that human personality was the product of living in a political society, not a set of natural rights that predetermined our social and political relations. Conservatives attacked the notion of a social contract (prominent in the work of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau) as a mythical construction that overlooked the plurality of groups and perspectives in society, a fact which made brokering compromises inevitable and universal consent impossible.  Burke only insisted on a tempered version, not a wholesale rejection of Enlightenment values.

Conservatism featured strongly in American Enlightenment thinking.  While Burke was critical of the French Revolution, he supported the American Revolution for disposing of English colonial misrule while creatively readapting British traditions and institutions to the American temperament.  American Enlightenment thinkers such as James Madison and John Adams held views that echoed and in some cases anticipated Burkean conservatism, leading them to criticize the rise of revolutionary France and the popular pro-French Jacobin clubs during and after the French Revolution.  In the forty-ninth Federalist Paper, James Madison deployed a conservative argument against frequent appeals to democratic publics on constitutional questions because they threatened to undermine political stability and substitute popular passion for the “enlightened reason” of elected representatives. Madison’s conservative view was opposed to Jefferson’s liberal view that a constitutional convention should be convened every twenty years, for “[t]he earth belongs to the living generation,” and so each new generation should be empowered to reconsider its constitutional norms.

e. Toleration

Toleration or tolerant pluralism was also a major theme in American Enlightenment thought.  Tolerance of difference developed in parallel with the early liberalism prevalent among Northern Europe’s merchant class.  It reflected their belief that hatred or fear of other races and creeds interfered with economic trade, extinguished freedom of thought and expression, eroded the basis for friendship among nations and led to persecution and war. Tiring of religious wars (particularly as the 16 th century French wars of religion and the 17 th century Thirty Years War), European Enlightenment thinkers imagined an age in which enlightened reason not religious dogmatism governed relations between diverse peoples with loyalties to different faiths. The Protestant Reformation and the Treaty of Westphalia significantly weakened the Catholic Papacy, empowered secular political institutions and provided the conditions for independent nation-states to flourish.

American thinkers inherited this principle of tolerant pluralism from their European Enlightenment forebearers.  Inspired by the Scottish Enlightenment thinkers John Knox and George Buchanan, American Calvinists created open, friendly and tolerant institutions such as the secular public school and democratically organized religion (which became the Presbyterian Church).   Many American Enlightenment thinkers, including Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, read and agreed with John Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration .  In it, Locke argued that government is ill-equipped to judge the rightness or wrongness of opposing religious doctrines, faith could not be coerced and if attempted the result would be greater religious and political discord.   So, civil government ought to protect liberty of conscience, the right to worship as one chooses (or not to worship at all) and refrain from establishing an official state-sanctioned church.  For America’s founders, the fledgling nation was to be a land where persons of every faith or no faith could settle and thrive peacefully and cooperatively without fear of persecution by government or fellow citizens.  Ben Franklin’s belief that religion was an aid to cultivating virtue led him to donate funds to every church in Philadelphia.  Defending freedom of conscience, James Madison would write that “[c]onscience is the most sacred of all property.”  In 1777, Thomas Jefferson drafted a religious liberty bill for Virginia to disestablish the government-sponsored Anglican Church—often referred to as “the precursor to the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment”—which eventually passed with James Madison’s help.

f. Scientific Progress

The Enlightenment enthusiasm for scientific discovery was directly related to the growth of deism and skepticism about received religious doctrine.  Deists engaged in scientific inquiry not only to satisfy their intellectual curiosity, but to respond to a divine calling to expose God’s natural laws.  Advances in scientific knowledge—whether the rejection of the geocentric model of the universe because of Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo’s work or the discovery of natural laws such as Newton’s mathematical explanation of gravity—removed the need for a constantly intervening God.  With the release of Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia in 1660, faith in scientific progress took institutional form in the Royal Society of England, the Académie des Sciences in France and later the Academy of Sciences in Germany.  In pre-revolutionary America, scientists or natural philosophers belonged to the Royal Society until 1768, when Benjamin Franklin helped create and then served as the first president of the American Philosophical Society.  Franklin became one of the most famous American scientists during the Enlightenment period because of his many practical inventions and his theoretical work on the properties of electricity.

3. Four American Enlightenment Thinkers

What follows are brief accounts of how four significant thinkers contributed to the eighteenth-century American Enlightenment: Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and John Adams.

a. Franklin

Benjamin Franklin, the author, printer, scientist and statesman who led America through a tumultuous period of colonial politics, a revolutionary war and its momentous, though no less precarious, founding as a nation.  In his Autobiography , he extolled the virtues of thrift, industry and money-making (or acquisitiveness).  For Franklin, the self-interested pursuit of material wealth is only virtuous when it coincides with the promotion of the public good through philanthropy and voluntarism—what is often called “enlightened self-interest.”  He believed that reason, free trade and a cosmopolitan spirit serve as faithful guides for nation-states to cultivate peaceful relations. Within nation-states, Franklin thought that “independent entrepreneurs make good citizens” because they pursue “attainable goals” and are “capable of living a useful and dignified life.” In his autobiography, Franklin claims that the way to “moral perfection” is to cultivate thirteen virtues (temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility) as well as a healthy dose of “cheerful prudence.”  Franklin favored voluntary associations over governmental institutions as mechanisms to channel citizens’ extreme individualism and isolated pursuit of private ends into productive social outlets.  Not only did Franklin advise his fellow citizens to create and join these associations, but he also founded and participated in many himself.  Franklin was a staunch defender of federalism, a critic of narrow parochialism, a visionary leader in world politics and a strong advocate of religious liberty.

b. Jefferson

A Virginian statesman, scientist and diplomat, Jefferson is probably best known for drafting the Declaration of Independence .  Agreeing with Benjamin Franklin, he substituted “pursuit of happiness” for “property” in Locke’s schedule of natural rights, so that liberty to pursue the widest possible human ends would be accommodated.  Jefferson also exercised immense influence over the creation of the United States’ Constitution through his extended correspondence with James Madison during the 1787 Constitutional Convention (since Jefferson was absent, serving as a diplomat in Paris).  Just as Jefferson saw the Declaration as a test of the colonists’ will to revolt and separate from Britain, he also saw the Convention in Philadelphia, almost eleven years later, as a grand experiment in creating a new constitutional order.  Panel four of the Jefferson Memorial records how Thomas Jefferson viewed constitutions: “I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times.”  Jefferson’s words capture the spirit of organic constitutionalism, the idea that constitutions are living documents that transform over time in pace with popular thought, imagination and opinion.

Heralded as the “Father of the Constitution,” James Madison was, besides one of the most influential architects of the U.S. Constitution, a man of letters, a politician, a scientist and a diplomat who left an enduring legacy on American philosophical thought.  As a tireless advocate for the ratification of the Constitution, Madison advanced his most groundbreaking ideas in his jointly authoring The Federalist Papers with John Jay and Alexander Hamilton.  Indeed, two of his most enduring ideas—the large republic thesis and the argument for separation-of-powers and checks-and-balances—are contained there.  In the tenth Federalist paper, Madison explains the problem of factions, namely, that the development of groups with shared interests (advocates or interest groups) is inevitable and dangerous to republican government.  If we try to vanquish factions, then we will in turn destroy the liberty upon which their existence and activities are founded. Baron d’ Montesquieu, the seventeenth-century French philosopher, believed that the only way to have a functioning republic, one that was sufficiently democratic, was for it to be small, both in population and land mass (on the order of Ancient Athens or Sparta).  He then argues that a large and diverse republic will stop the formation of a majority faction; if small groups cannot communicate over long distances and coordinate effectively, the threat will be negated and liberty will be preserved (“you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens”).  When factions formed inside the government, a clever institutional design of checks and balances (first John Adams’s idea, where each branch would have a hand in the others’ domain) would avert excessive harm, so that “ambition must be made to counteract ambition” and, consequently, government will effectively “control itself.”

John Adams was also a founder, statesman, diplomat and eventual President who contributed to American Enlightenment thought.  Among his political writings, three stand out: Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law (1776), A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, Against the Attack of M. Turgot (1787-8), and Discourses on Davila (1791).  In the Dissertation , Adams faults Great Britain for deciding to introduce canon and feudal law, “the two greatest systems of tyranny,” to the North American colonies. Once introduced, elections ceased in the North American colonies, British subjects felt enslaved and revolution became inevitable.   In the Defense , Adams offers an uncompromising defense of republicanism.  He disputes Turgot’s apology for unified and centralized government, arguing that insurance against consolidated state power and support for individual liberty require separating government powers between branches and installing careful checks and balances.  Nevertheless, a strong executive branch is needed to defend the people against “aristocrats” who will attempt to deprive liberty from the mass of people.  Revealing the Enlightenment theme of conservatism, Adams criticized the notion of unrestricted popular rule or pure democracy in the Discourses .  Since humans are always desirous of increasing their personal power and reputation, all the while making invidious comparisons, government must be designed to constrain the effects of these passionate tendencies.  Adams writes: “Consider that government is intended to set bounds to passions which nature has not limited; and to assist reason, conscience, justice, and truth in controlling interests which, without it, would be as unjust as uncontrollable.”

4. Contemporary Work

Invocations of universal freedom draw their inspiration from Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke, Immanuel Kant, and Thomas Jefferson, but come into conflict with contemporary liberal appeals to multiculturalism and pluralism.  Each of these Enlightenment thinkers sought to ground the legitimacy of the state on a theory of rational-moral political order reflecting universal truths about human nature—for instance, that humans are carriers of inalienable rights (Locke), autonomous agents (Kant), or fundamentally equal creations (Jefferson).  However, many contemporary liberals—for instance, Graeme Garrard, John Gray and Richard Rorty—fault Enlightenment liberalism for its failure to acknowledge and accommodate the differences among citizens’ incompatible and equally reasonable religious, moral and philosophical doctrines, especially in multicultural societies.  According to these critics, Enlightenment liberalism, rather than offering a neutral framework, discloses a full-blooded doctrine that competes with alternative views of truth, the good life, and human nature.  This pluralist critique of Enlightenment liberalism’s universalism makes it difficult to harmonize the American Founders’ appeal to universal human rights with their insistence on religious tolerance.  However, as previously noted, evidence of Burkean conservatism offers an alternative to the strong universalism that these recent commentators criticize in American Enlightenment thought.

What in recent times has been characterized as the ‘Enlightenment project’ is the general idea that human rationality can and should be made to serve ethical and humanistic ends.  If human societies are to achieve genuine moral progress, parochialism, dogma and prejudice ought to give way to science and reason in efforts to solve pressing problems. The American Enlightenment project signifies how America has taken a leading role in promoting Enlightenment ideals during that period of human history commonly referred to as ‘modernity.’  Still, there is no consensus about the exact legacy of American Enlightenment thinkers—for instance, whether republican or liberal ideas are predominant.  Until the publication of J. G. A. Pocock’s The Machiavellian Moment (1975), most scholars agreed that liberal (especially Lockean) ideas were more dominant than republican ones.  Pockock’s work initiated a sea change towards what is now the widely accepted view that liberal and republican ideas had relatively equal sway during the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, both in America and Europe.  Gordon Wood and Bernard Bailyn contend that republicanism was dominant and liberalism recessive in American Enlightenment thought.  Isaac Kramnick still defends the orthodox position that American Enlightenment thinking was exclusively Lockean and liberal, thus explaining the strongly individualistic character of modern American culture.

5. References and Further Reading

  • Bailyn, Bernard. The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution . Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1967.
  • Ferguson, Robert A. The American Enlightenment . Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997.
  • Hampson, Norman. The Enlightenment: An Evaluation of its Assumptions . London: Penguin, 1968.
  • Himmelfarb, Gertrude. The Roads to Modernity: The British, French and American Enlightenments . London: Vintage, 2008.
  • Israel, Jonathan. A Resolution of the Mind—Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy . Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009.
  • Kramnick, Isaac. Age of Ideology: Political Thought, 1750 to the Present . New York: Prentice Hall, 1979.
  • May, Henry F. The Enlightenment in America . Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978.
  • O’Brien, Conor Cruise. The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution, 1785-1800 . London: Pimlico, 1998.
  • O’Hara, Kieron. The Enlightenment: A Beginner’s Guide . Oxford: OneWorld, 2010.
  • Pockock, John G. A. The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the American Republican Tradition . Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975.
  • Wilson, Ellen J. and Peter H. Reill. Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment . New York: Book Builders Inc., 2004.
  • Wood, Gordon. The Creation of the American Republic . Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969.

Author Information

Shane J. Ralston Email: [email protected] Pennsylvania State University U. S. A.

An encyclopedia of philosophy articles written by professional philosophers.

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Enlightenment, Revolution, and Nationalism


KEY IDEA:  ENLIGHTENMENT, REVOLUTION, AND NATIONALISM: The Enlightenment called into question traditional beliefs and inspired widespread political, economic, and social change. This intellectual movement was used to challenge political authorities in Europe and colonial rule in the Americas. These ideals inspired political and social movements.

CONCEPTUAL UNDERSTANDING:  Enlightenment thinkers developed political philosophies based on natural laws, which included the concepts of social contract, consent of the governed, and the rights of citizens.

CONTENT SPECIFICATION:  Students will examine at least three Enlightenment thinkers, including John Locke, Baron de Montesquieu, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and key ideas from their written works

CONCEPTUAL UNDERSTANDING:  Individuals used Enlightenment ideals to challenge traditional beliefs and secure people’s rights in reform movements, such as women’s rights and abolition; some leaders may be considered enlightened despots.

CONTENT SPECIFICATION:  Students will explore the influence of Enlightenment ideals on issues of gender and abolition by examining the ideas of individuals such as Mary Wollstonecraft and William Wilberforce.

CONCEPT SPECIFICATION:  Students will examine enlightened despots including Catherine the Great.

CONCEPTUAL UNDERSTANDING:  Individuals and groups drew upon principles of the Enlightenment to spread rebellions and call for revolutions in France and the Americas.

CONTENT SPECIFICATION:  Students will examine evidence related to the preconditions of the French Revolution and the course of the revolution, noting the roles of Olympe de Gouges, Maximilien Robespierre, and Napoleon Bonaparte.

CONTENT SPECIFICATION:  Students will examine the evidence related to the impacts of the French Revolution on resistance and revolutionary movements, noting the roles of Toussaint L’Ouverture and Simon Bolivar.

CONCEPTUAL UNDERSTANDING:  Cultural identity and nationalism inspired political movements that attempted to unify people into new nation-states and posed challenges to multinational states.

CONCEPT SPECIFICATION:  Students will investigate the role of cultural identity and nationalism in the unification of Italy and Germany and in the dissolution of the Ottoman and Austrian Empires.

The Enlightenment called into question traditional beliefs and inspired widespread political, economic, and social change. This intellectual movement was used to challenge political authorities in Europe and colonial rule in the Americas. These ideals inspired political and social movements.

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Latin American Revolutions and Nationalism: SQ 12. What is nationalism? What impact can it have?

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Latin American Revolutions and Nationalism: Haitian Revolution

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Defending enlightenment reasoning in an age of ‘alternative facts’.

Ian Shapiro with “Uncommon Sense” book cover

Ian Shapiro

Yale political scientist Ian Shapiro admires Tom Paine, the English-born American revolutionary whose 1776 pamphlet “Common Sense” galvanized support for independence from Great Britain, whose “American Crisis” letters sustained the American forces through the darkest days of the Revolutionary War, and whose “Rights of Man” remains an inspiring manifesto for the downtrodden.

“ At some of the darkest times in both American and British history, Paine put his shoulder to the wheel and never gave up on the possibility of making Enlightenment thinking useful in politics,” said Shapiro, Sterling Professor of Political Science and Global Affairs in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences and at the Yale Jackson School of Global Affairs. “His life and writings remind us that reasoned thinking and compelling arguments can be efficacious in politics even in eras like ours, when the path forward is murky at best.”

Shapiro’s latest book, “ Uncommon Sense ” (Yale University Press) — the title is an homage to Paine — defends the core Enlightenment commitments to reason and science, arguing that they offer the best available resources to resist political domination and improve the human condition. In recent decades, these commitments have come under sustained assault from both the Postmodern Left and the Authoritarian Right.

Shapiro maintains that these attacks are dangerously misguided.

In a recent conversation with Yale News, Shapiro discussed how efforts to abandon the Enlightenment project have contributed to the bleak state of contemporary politics. He argues that embracing the pursuit of knowledge through the methods of reason and science is vital to restoring confidence in democratic institutions and sustaining them into the future. 

The interview has been edited and condensed.

The book’s opening section examines philosophical critiques of the Enlightenment project from thinkers who represent both the ideological right and the left. What do those critiques get wrong?

Ian Shapiro: The chapters in part one support the contention that, while critics who say the Enlightenment was unrealistically ambitious were persuasive in some ways, they overreached. The critics are convincing that the Enlightenment’s champions were misguided to believe that we will ever identify universal principles of justice and neutral outcomes in politics. But I argue that to junk the whole Enlightenment project because of this overreaching is to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The commitments to reason and science survive the Enlightenment’s failures. If we abandon them, not only do we land in a philosophically unappealing place, we supply intellectual ballast to the people who talk about fake news and alternative facts and politicians who declare their own reality. It’s a strategy that underwrites today’s baleful politics — however unwittingly.

The book also features chapters based on papers you’ve written about democracy and the philosophical underpinnings of contemporary politics. How do critiques of the Enlightenment project influence the rise of populism, the decline of effective political parties, and other features of our current political situation?

Shapiro: In those chapters, I show how rejecting Enlightenment commitments has played out, producing ill-considered efforts at political reform. At best, they are irrelevant and often they make things worse by weakening political parties and undermining democratic institutions more broadly. This makes effective governance harder, which, in turn, compounds voter alienation and helps legitimate authoritarians who attack democratic politics as hopelessly muddled and inept.

In this world, it’s hard not to be reminded of the 1930s, another era in which weak and fragmented parties and parliaments became ever-more dysfunctional, making it easier for fascists and other vanguardists to seize power.

You also focus on sources of hope. What’s the bright side? 

Shapiro: The chapters comprising parts one and two present a pretty gloomy picture, so I thought it appropriate to share some reasons to be hopeful that we can improve things. The penultimate chapter explores the ways in which Isiah Berlin’s pessimistic assessment of the prospects for human freedom during the Cold War were exaggerated, even if he was right to remind us that insecure people can easily be mobilized by authoritarian figures. The answer is to pursue policies that address the sources of their insecurity.

The last chapter is adapted from a paper I originally wrote with [political scientist] James Read about the transition to democracy in South Africa. When I left South Africa in 1972, I and everyone I knew thought it obvious that apartheid was doomed, but nobody believed that there was going to be a peaceful transition to a democratic order. We thought, instead, that there would be a draconian authoritarian crackdown, a civil war, or both. Those things didn’t happen. It’s a good illustration that life sometimes has more imagination than we do.

Consider people who came of age in the West during the late 1940s. They had grown up during the two most devastating wars in human history, the collapse of democracies, and the rise of communism and fascism. If anyone had said to them in 1945 that the Western world was about to embark on six historically unprecedented decades of stable democracy, economic growth, and social improvement, they would have been laughed out of the room. In 1985, the great majority of South Africans would have been just as incredulous of anyone who had predicted what in fact happened: a peaceful transition to a democratic order.

Even when things look exceedingly bleak, there can be reasons to be hopeful that reasoned argument can prevail in politics — opening paths to a better future. One of Paine’s most enduring lessons is that no matter how bad things are, it never makes sense to abandon hope in the possibility of a better future or to give up working toward it.

Disdain for expertise has affected discussions about responses to the pandemic, climate change, and many other important issues. How did this distrust of expertise emerge?

Shapiro: One of the most damaging results of the assaults on reason and science has been the declining legitimacy of expertise. Obviously, experts aren’t always right. We shouldn’t expect them to be. At least since John Stuart Mill, it’s been conventional for scientists always to think that the current state of knowledge is fallible and at least partly wrong. But the answer isn’t to embrace soothsayers or indulge people who claim to have their own truth. The answer lies in improving scientific knowledge by understanding the reasons for past failures and pursuing new research in search of better answers.

Max Weber famously said that a difference between a scientist and an artist is that an artist can aspire to paint a perfect painting that will stand for all time, whereas even the best scientists know that their work is going to be superseded by future generations. If you can’t live with that, he said, you don’t belong in science. That’s spot on.

We must all recognize that we’re contributing to a work in progress that is in perpetual need of improvement. Engaging in that process is critical to enhancing our understanding. For example, we know more about the conditions for stable and effective democracy today than was known 50 years ago, and a great deal more than was known when the founders wrote the Federalist Papers. That progress came through reasoned analysis in the light of evolving experience and research. That knowledge is important.

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The Black Box of Race

In a circumscribed universe, Black Americans have ceaselessly reinvented themselves.

A collage with the American flag and important Black figures

M y daughter Maggie gave birth to Ellie, my granddaughter, by C‑section on a Saturday afternoon in November of 2014. That evening, my son‑in‑law, Aaron, came over for a warm hug and a celebratory shot of bourbon. I listened to Aaron’s play‑by‑play of the events, and after a decent pause, I asked the question that I had wanted to ask all along:

“Did you check the box?”

Without missing a beat, my good son‑in‑law responded, “Yes, sir. I did.”

“Very good,” I responded, as I poured a second shot.

Aaron, a young white man, had checked the “Black” box on the form that Americans are required to complete at the time of the birth of a child.

Now, my daughter’s father’s admixture—in other words, mine—is 50 percent sub‑Saharan African and 50 percent European, according to DNA tests. My son‑in‑law is 100 percent European. Because Maggie is 75 percent European, Ellie will test about 87.5 percent European when she spits in the test tube.

Eleanor Margaret Gates‑Hatley, who looks like an adorable little white girl, will live her life as a “Black” person, because her father and mother checked the “Black” box. That choice will define so very many of Ellie’s encounters with the world—from how her college application is read to how her physician assesses her risks for certain medical conditions. And she will be destined, throughout her life, to face the challenge of “proving” that she is “Black,” simply because her self‑styled “race man” grandfather ardently—and perhaps foolishly—wished for her racial self to be socially constructed that way.

Read: How did we get here?

Such is the absurdity of the history of race and racial designations in the United States, stemming from “the law of hypodescent,” the proverbial “one‑drop rule.” Perhaps Eleanor will choose to dance the dance of racial indeterminacy, moving effortlessly back and forth across the color line. Or maybe she will claim a social identity that reflects her European ancestry. Or maybe she will keep a photograph of her grandfather in her pocketbook and delight in refuting—or affirming, as the case may be—the laughable, tragic arbitrariness of the social construction of race in America. The most important thing is that this be her choice.

T he “black box” has become a powerful symbol for me. In the event of a plane crash, of course, the black box is what survives—a record of the truth amid disastrous circumstances. The black box is something you can’t see inside—it has inputs and outputs, but its internal workings are not comprehendible. Above all it is a metaphor for the circumscribed universe within which people of African descent have been forced to construct a new identity on this side of the Atlantic.

The Yale legal scholar Stephen L. Carter defined his own box in this way:

To be black and an intellectual in America is to live in a box. So, I live in a box, not of my own making, and on the box is a label, not of my own choosing. Most of those who have not met me, and many of those who have, see the box and read the label and imagine they have seen me.

In Carter’s usage, the black box is a place of identity confinement through predefinition, akin to the late literary critic Barbara Johnson’s definition of a stereotype as “an already read text.” The Black face enters the room, and at a glimpse, the viewer knows all that they need to know about the person wearing the mask of Blackness. Good luck, Carter is suggesting, shedding any of those connotations.

The book cover

And yet a great portion of the history of African Americans consists of the marvelous and ingenious means by which they have navigated their way in and out of the box in which they’ve been confined.

Perhaps the first black box was the definition of Africa as “the Dark Continent,” a metaphor for the color of its inhabitants’ skin as well as for their supposed benightedness. This metaphor was used to justify the second, even crueler black box, within which people of African descent found themselves placed by Europeans—the dreadful transatlantic slave trade, responsible for perhaps the largest forced migration in human history. It was the repository of all the racist stereotypes employed to justify the enslavement of a continent of human beings and then, subsequent to the abolition of slavery, to justify the rollback of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow segregation.

The author Henry Box Brown literalized this trope by escaping from slavery in 1849 by being shipped from Richmond to Philadelphia in a box measuring three feet, one inch long; two feet, six inches high; and two feet wide. The box was labeled this side up to keep Brown upright, but the instruction was often ignored, meaning Brown spent hours of his trip upside down, drinking water from a beef bladder and breathing through three drilled holes.

B ut the black box was also, somehow, a place of creativity, a universe of culture mysteriously and inexplicably produced, and often unintelligible to those outside it. Frederick Douglass recognized this when he mused about the “Sorrow Songs”—spirituals composed by enslaved men and women. “They would make the dense old woods, for miles around, reverberate with their wild songs, revealing at once the highest joy and the deepest sadness.” These songs were composed in code, music set “to words which to many would seem unmeaning jargon, but which, nevertheless, were full of meaning to themselves.” Douglass himself confessed he did not understand: “They told a tale of woe which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension.”

In 1884, this magazine published a long article called “ The Negro Problem, ” by the Harvard professor Nathaniel Southgate Shaler, a paleontologist and geologist as well as a strong proponent of scientific racism and eugenics. Shaler’s white-supremacist discourse fell squarely into the school of thought imposed on the Black community that was used well into the 20th century to justify the eradication of rights gained by African Americans during Reconstruction. Thirteen years later, also in this magazine, W. E. B. Du Bois wrote, “Being a problem is a strange experience.” His essay, “ Strivings of the Negro People ” (which he would revise slightly for his 1903 book, The Souls of Black Folk ), described the “Negro Problem” label as a kind of black box:

The ‘shades of the prison-house’ closed round about us all: walls strait and stubborn to the whitest, but relentlessly narrow, tall, and unscalable to sons of night who must plod darkly against the stone, or steadily, half hopelessly watch the streak of blue above.

(The writers of these two Atlantic essays knew each other: Shaler was Du Bois’s professor at Harvard. Perhaps paradoxically, Du Bois expressed gratitude to Shaler for defending his presence in class against the protests of a southern student.)

It was to free himself and the race from the bounds of this box that Du Bois and many others wrote and spoke so prolifically, addressing the subject again and again. For Ralph Ellison, in Invisible Man , the black box is both a boxing ring in which two blindfolded Black boys are forced to beat each other senseless and also the hole in which Ellison’s protagonist hides from a world that seeks to impose upon him its masks of identity, where he types the manuscript that we eventually are surprised to learn we are reading over his shoulder.

But being doomed to fight against racism could also be a trap. As Du Bois’s fellow Harvard graduate and sometime ideological foe, the philosopher Alain Locke, put it , even “the thinking Negro” inside a black box forged “in the mind of America” is forced “to see himself in the distorted perspective of a social problem. His shadow, so to speak, has been more real to him than his personality.”

More recently, Terrance Hayes’s poem “The Blue Seuss” explores the metaphor of the black box. It begins:

Blacks in one box Blacks in two box Blacks on Blacks stacked in boxes stacked on boxes Blacks in boxes stacked on shores Blacks in boxes stacked on boats in darkness Blacks in boxes do not float Blacks in boxes count their losses

Blacks in voting booths are Blacks in boxes Blacks beside Blacks in rows of houses are Blacks in boxes too

A s a professor , I try to teach my students about how Black people have sought to escape from this box. But even more important, I endeavor to expose them to the long tradition of Black discourse, and the often disregarded fact that Black people have been arguing with one another about what it means to be Black since they began to publish their thoughts and feelings in the latter quarter of the 18th century.

When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had the audacity to insert himself into the morality of American involvement in the Vietnam War, for example, even—or especially—several of his fellow leaders of the civil-rights movement told him that he was out of bounds, demanding that he redirect his concerns to issues relevant to those doomed to dwell within the black box, advice that the good reverend boldly ignored.

The moral is that there never has been one way to be Black; that African Americans are as varied and as complex in their political and religious beliefs as any other group. And they have voiced those internal differences with great fervor and passion, stunning eloquence, and vehemence, often even subjecting those Black thinkers with whom they disagree to the nastiest and pettiest ad hominem attacks.

These debates within and about the African American tradition have for too long been opaque to most Americans, in the same way that the songs of his enslaved sisters and brothers remained opaque to Frederick Douglass. Too often, we talk about “the Black community” as if it were a village composed of a unitary group, one with shared experiences and unified views. Reflecting on what binds Black Americans together and on what distinguishes individuals and subcultures within that tradition has never been more crucial than at this contested and polarized moment, with its focus on identity and identity politics, and Americans’ lazy predisposition to think of every group as monolithic.

But the tradition of Black thought is most correctly described as a series of contentions, many of them fiery ones. And fire, as the greatest Black intellectuals have always known, can generate light as well as heat.

The “right” answer about how to escape the black box has never been formulated, precisely because there never has been, and never will be, one right answer to that haunting question.

Consider this paradox: The very concept of “race” is the child of racism. “Blackness” was an arbitrary category invented by Europeans and Americans in the Enlightenment to justify the horror show of Black subjugation. The human beings who suddenly became “Black” were then forced to play a complex game of “representation” to claim some space in the world, and that vexed process evolved into a rich legacy of self‑definition within this diverse community composed of every type of person living on the planet Earth—some 50 million of them in this country alone—connected by their relationship to this proverbial black box, a metaphysical construct invented to justify an economic order in which their selfhood could be objectified, their subjectivity robbed, and their labor stolen.

T hey created this legacy of self-definition, in no small part, by using the master’s tool: writing.

During the Enlightenment, Black authors such as Ignatius Sancho, John Marrant, and Olaudah Equiano managed to forge successful careers against all the odds. Others were less fortunate. Despite her unprecedented fame, the poet Phillis Wheatley died in obscurity and poverty in 1784. Jacobus Capitein, a formerly enslaved man from the Gold Coast, defended his doctoral dissertation (which argued that the Bible did not oppose slavery) at the University of Leiden in 1742. He returned home, founded a school, and, after falling from Dutch grace, was buried in an unmarked grave. We can begin to understand how he was seen by his contemporaries through the words a fellow student at Leiden inscribed in the foreword to Capitein’s dissertation: “See this Moor, his skin is black, but white his soul … He will bring faith, hope and love to the Africans, so they will, whitened, honour the Lamb.”

The small, elite group of Black intellectuals wrote very few words about the matter of their “Blackness” in a world still wrestling with who and what they were, and what the relation between “Blackness” and “whiteness” could possibly be in European economies defined by the trade in Black human beings. No matter how brilliant an individual of color might be, no matter how much fame, respect, or financial success he might achieve, he was standing on a trap door.

Thus was the fate of Angelo Soliman.

Soliman was born around 1721, likely in what is now Nigeria. According to the scholars Iris Wigger and Spencer Hadley, he was stolen from his family as a child and forced into slavery in Italy, where he became the property of the imperial governor of Sicily, Count Lobkowitz. When the count died, Soliman became a servant to a prince in Vienna, dressed in exotic styles as a so‑called court Moor. The prince dismissed Soliman when, without permission, he married an aristocratic widow. Nevertheless, Soliman’s stature only increased, and his black box began to crack open.

From the November 2023 issue: Black success, white backlash

He continued to move in aristocratic circles, rejoined the royal court as an educator under the prince’s successor, and joined a Masonic lodge that counted Mozart and Haydn among its members. Soliman became the grand master of this lodge and gave its rituals a more scholarly bent, so much so that he is still celebrated in Masonic lore as Angelus Solimanus, the “Father of Pure Masonic Thought.” He spoke multiple languages. He may well have been the most prominent Black person in Europe at the time.

In death none of this mattered. Soliman died on November 21, 1796. Despite the pleas of his daughter, Josephine, Soliman would not receive a proper Christian burial. Instead, his body fell into the hands of the director of the Royal Natural History Collection, Abbé Simon Eberlé, who had hatched his heinous plan while Soliman was still alive, petitioning the government for the “cession of the corpse.” What followed was horrific.

As Wigger and Hadley write, Eberlé “ordered a death mask to be created before Soliman’s skin was removed and prepared for exhibition with a stuffing compound. The so created figure was then dressed up as a ‘savage’ in a loin cloth, with an ostrich feather crown and glass beads, and presented to the public in the midst of taxidermised exotic animals.”

In the ultimate humiliation, Soliman was placed on display at the museum, a debased artifact trapped behind glass. As late as 1806, this perverse specter of European primitivism and anti‑Black racism was still proudly on display—a literal realization of permanent suspension in a black box. Eventually it was moved to a warehouse, which burned in the October Revolution of 1848.

The quest for culture and individual identity in the face of such history is an argument without end. Like all truly great arguments, it is a story of ceaseless creativity and reinvention, without which any attempt to understand America is not just incomplete but absurd.

This essay is adapted from the forthcoming book The Black Box: Writing the Race .

enlightenment thinkers essay

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