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The Philosophes

During the eighteenth century, ideas of reform started in France and spread through Europe. This period is referred to as The Age of Enlightenment. The Enlightenment carried the idea that economic change and political reform were possible. People started to think that they could use their own intellect to challenge the intellectual authority of tradition and the Christian past. The people who wrote for change and reform were called the philosophes. They wrote hoping to bring reform to religion, political thought, society, government, and the economy.

Thanks to the print culture, the philosophes’ ideas were spread throughout Europe. People started to have educated conversations about these new ideas in places like coffeehouses and drinking spots. The ideas of philosophes during the Enlightenment challenged whole societies. Some of philosophes include Denis Diderot, Jean Le Rond d’Alembert, Immanuel Kant, Adam Smith, Montesquieu, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Voltaire. In the mid eighteenth century, the Encyclopedia was published. It was written under the leadership of Denis Diderot and Jean Le Rond d’Alembert.

Over one hundred French thinkers contributed to the Encyclopedia, including all of the major French philosophes. Diderot wrote on about every subject including philosophy, science, music, and art. D’Alembert divided and described the different sciences, and he analyzed the role of reason. The Encyclopedia was meant to secularize learning and to refute intellectual assumptions from the Middle Ages. It contained articles on religion, government, and philosophy. It attempted to see the natural world through science and technology, and human passions through an understanding of how individuals and societies work.

The Encyclopedia helped spread the thoughts of the Enlightenment over the continent. Immanuel Kant was an important German philosopher who coined the term the “Enlightenment. ” He said, “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage. Nonage is the inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance” (Kant). His greatest works were The Critique of Pure Reason, and The Critique of Practical Reason. “He sought to accept the rationalism of the Enlightenment and still to preserve a belief in human freedom, immortality, and the existence of God” (Kagan, 687).

Kant did not think that the human mind just reflects the world around it, but instead uses sensory experience to generate categories. He believed that human beings have a sense of moral duty or an awareness of categorical imperative. Categorical imperative would be the inner command to act in every situations as everyone else would. Adam Smith wrote on economies. He was one of the most influential philosophers, and his ideas lead to capitalism. He believed that “economic liberty was the foundation of a natural economic system” (Kagan, 603) He is usually regarded as the founder of laissez-faire economic thought and policy.

In his masterpiece, Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, he attempts to explain how a nation’s collective wealth grows. Smith identifies characteristics of a growing economy. Some of Smith’s ideas were that division of labor increases production, monopolies and regulations stifle productive labor, and that there is an infinite store of resources. Smith thought that selfish economic interests of individuals would maximize the economic well being of society. Smith also believed that social and economic development had four stages.

The four stages of human society are hunting and gathering, pastoral or herding, agriculture, and commercial. He believed that you could use the four-stage theory to understand what social and economic development a group of people was in. This made the Europeans thinks they were in the highest level of human achievement (Kagan, 604). Charles Louis de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu, was a great political philosopher. He wrote on various forms of government and what causes made them what they were and advanced or constrained their development.

He thought that one ideal form of government would be divided into three different branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. Each branch could check and balance the power of the other. The theory of separation of powers had an enormous impact on political theory and on the United States constitution. Montesquieu’s great work, the Spirit of Laws, tried to explain human laws and social institutions. He thought that there was not just one single set of political laws that could be applied to everybody.

Laws should be adapted “to the people for whom they are framed, to the nature and principle of each government, to the climate of each country, to the quality of its soil, to its situation and extent, to the principal occupation of the natives” (Montesquieu). He thought that a good government was one that let it’s law abiding citizen alone to live their lives, and he thought that in no way should government be lightly tampered with. Montesquieu ideas had a lasting effect on constitutional forms of democracies. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was one of the leading philosophers of the Enlightenment.

He was a strange genius that went against the theories of other philosophers. He even changes his views a lot, and contradicted earlier views. He questioned the “concepts of material and intellectual progress and the morality of a society in which commerce and industry were regarded as the most important human activities” (Kagan, 606). Rousseau thought that society is more important than its individual members because individuals are dependent on other people. Rousseau’s The Social Contract tried to discuss the kind of political structure that would overcome the evils of contemporary politics and society.

He said “all men are born free, but everywhere they are in chains” (Rousseau). He explains how there is a contract between the people and the leaders it chooses for itself. He saw society as a contract that people freely entered into, and where they could dismiss unacceptable governments. He wanted a society in which each person could maintain personal freedom while being a loyal member of the larger community. He wanted society to be reformed to where it was a sort of nature, because he thought the golden age of society was when man lived alone in nature.

The upper class did not welcome his proposal for radical government, so he had little impact on society during his lifetime. Voltaire was a leading philosopher in the enlightenment. He was born Francois Marie Arouet in Paris to a middle class family. He spent time in prison in France because of his writings, and he was also exile from France a few times but was allowed back. He sought religious toleration and the use of science to explain nature. “Let us crush the infamous one” was a phrase he used often to suggest intellectual, religious, and social intolerance.

Candide and A Philosophical Dictionary are among his most famous works. Candide is the story of one man’s life through tragic and a string of bad luck, but he ends up findings happiness working in a garden. Voltaire is basically saying two things, that “reality is bad, but the denial of that reality is even worse,” and that “if the world is wicked, let us at least not pretend that it is good, for that will not help us to cope with it” (Richter, 132). At the end, Candide says that “we must cultivate our garden,” which means that work not only eliminates want, boredom, and vice, but it also a creation that renews itself (Richter 138).

A Philosophical Dictionary was condemned in Paris, Geneva, and Amsterdam. Voltaire denied authorship for safety reasons. The church thought A Philosophical Dictionary encouraged people to look to reason rather than to faith. The book was a collection of articles with a wide variety of religious and philosophical subjects. The book is not antireligious, but instead it promotes a religion that is “notable for its simplicity, its stress of morality rather than dogma, and its lack of threats and violence to promote itself” (Richter, 109).

During his lifetime, Voltaire wrote over two thousand books and pamphlets, and wrote for the Encyclopedia. He was one of the first philosophers in the Enlightenment, and some of his ideas lead to the French Revolution. Denis Diderot, Jean Le Rond d’Alembert, Immanuel Kant, Adam Smith, Montesquieu, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Voltaire all helped to write about possible reform for society. They all challenged the established society. They all believed that society could be perfected a bit at a time.

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