The Enlightenment is a name given by historians to an intellectual movement that was predominant in the Western world during the 18th century. Strongly influenced by the rise of modern science and by the aftermath of the long religious conflict that followed the Reformation, the thinkers of the Enlightenment (called philosophes in France) were committed to secular views based on reason or human understanding only, which they hoped would provide a basis for beneficial changes affecting every area of life and thought.
The more extreme and radical philosophes-Denis Diderot, Claude Adrien Helvetius, Baron d’Holbach, the Marquis de Condorcet, and Julien Offroy de La Mettrie (1709-51)–advocated a philosophical rationalism deriving its methods from science and natural philosophy that would replace religion as the means of knowing nature and destiny of humanity; these men were materialists, pantheists, or atheists. Other enlightened thinkers, such as Pierre Bayle, Voltaire, David Hume, Jean Le Rond D’alembert, and Immanuel Kant, opposed fanaticism, but were either agnostic or left room for some kind of religious faith.
All of the philosophes saw themselves as continuing the work of the great 17th century pioneers-Francis Bacon, Galileo, Descartes, Leibnitz, Isaac Newton, and John Locke-who had developed fruitful methods of rational and empirical inquiry and had demonstrated the possibility of a world remade by the application of knowledge for human benefit. The philosophes believed that science could reveal nature as it truly is and show how it could be controlled and manipulated. This belief provided an incentive to extend scientific methods into every field of inquiry, thus laying the groundwork for the development of the modern social sciences.
The enlightened understanding of human nature was one that emphasized the right to self-expression and human fulfillment, the right to think freely and express one’s views publicly without censorship or fear of repression. Voltaire admired the freedom he found in England and fostered the spread of English ideas on the Continent. He and his followers opposed the intolerance of the established Christian churches of their day, as well as the European governments that controlled and suppressed dissenting opinions.
For example, the social disease which Pangloss caught from Paquette was traced to a “very learned Franciscan” and later to a Jesuit. Also, Candide reminisces that his passion for Cunegonde first developed at a Mass. More conservative enlightened thinkers, concerned primarily with efficiency and administrative order, favored the “enlightened despotism” of such monarchs as Emperor Joseph II, Frederick II of Prussia, and Catherine II of Russia. Enlightened political thought expressed demands for equality and justice and for the legal changes needed to realize these goals.
Set forth by Baron de Montesquieu, the changes were more boldly urged by the contributors to the great Encyclopedie edited in Paris by Diderot between 1747 and 1772, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Cesare Beccaria, and finally by Jeremy Bentham, whose utilitarianism was the culmination of a long debate on happiness and the means of achieving it. The political writers of the Enlightenment built on and extended the rationalistic, republican, and natural-law theories that had been evolved in the previous century as the bases of law, social peace, and just order.
As they did so, they also elaborated novel doctrines of popular sovereignty that the 19th century would transform into a kind of nationalism that contradicted the individualistic outlook of the philosophes. Among those who were important in this development were historians such as Voltaire, Hume, William Robertson, Edward Gibbon, and Giambattista Vico. Their work showed that although all peoples shared a common human nature, each nation and every age also had distinctive characteristics that made it unique.
These paradoxes were explored by early romantics such as Johann Georg Hamman and Johann Gottfried von Herder. Everywhere the Enlightenment produced restless men impatient for change but frustrated by popular ignorance and official repression. This gave the enlightened literati an interest in popular education. They promoted educational ventures and sought in witty, amusing, and even titillating ways to educate and awaken their contemporaries.
The stories of Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle or Benjamin Franklin, the widely imitated essays of Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, and many dictionaries, handbooks, and encyclopedias produced by the enlightened were written to popularize, simplify, and promote a more reasonable view of life among the people of their time. The Enlightenment came to an end in western Europe after the upheavals of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era (1789-1815) revealed the costs of its political program and the lack of commitment in those whose rhetoric was often more liberal than their actions.
Nationalism undercut its cosmopolitan values and assumptions about human nature, and the romantics attacked its belief that clear intelligible answers could be found to every question asked by people who sought to be free and happy. The skepticism of the philosophes was swept away in the religious revival of the 1790s and early 1800s, and the cultural leadership of the landed aristocracy and professional men who had supported the Enlightenment was eroded by the growth of a new wealthy educated class of businessmen, products of the industrial revolution.
Only in North and South America, where industry came later and revolution had not led to reaction, did the Enlightenment linger into the 19th century. Its lasting heritage has been its contribution to the literature of human freedom and some institutions in which its values have been embodied. Included in the latter are many facets of modern government, education, and philanthropy.