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18th Century European Enlightenment


The Enlightenment is a name given by historians to an 
intellectual movement that was predominant in the Western world during 
the 18th century. Strongly influenced by the rise of modern science 
and by the aftermath of the long religious conflict that followed
the Reformation, the thinkers of the Enlightenment (called philosophes 
in France) were committed to secular views based on reason or human 
understanding only, which they hoped would provide a basis for 
beneficial changes affecting every area of life and thought.

 The more extreme and radical philosophes--Denis Diderot, Claude 
Adrien Helvetius, Baron d'Holbach, the Marquis de Condorcet, and 
Julien Offroy de La Mettrie (1709-51)--advocated a philosophical 
rationalism deriving its methods from science and natural philosophy 
that would replace religion as the means of knowing nature and destiny 
of humanity; these men were materialists, pantheists, or atheists. 
Other enlightened thinkers, such as Pierre Bayle, Voltaire, David 
Hume, Jean Le Rond D'alembert, and Immanuel Kant, opposed fanaticism, 
but were either agnostic or left room for some kind of religious 

 All of the philosophes saw themselves as continuing the work of 
the great 17th century pioneers--Francis Bacon, Galileo, Descartes, 
Leibnitz, Isaac Newton, and John Locke--who had developed fruitful 
methods of rational and empirical inquiry and had demonstrated the
possibility of a world remade by the application of knowledge for 
human benefit. The philosophes believed that science could reveal 
nature as it truly is and show how it could be controlled and 
manipulated. This belief provided an incentive to extend scientific
methods into every field of inquiry, thus laying the groundwork for 
the development of the modern social sciences.

 The enlightened understanding of human nature was one that 
emphasized the right to self-expression and human fulfillment, the 
right to think freely and express one's views publicly without 
censorship or fear of repression. Voltaire admired the freedom he 
found in England and fostered the spread of English ideas on the 
Continent. He and his followers opposed the intolerance of the 
established Christian churches of their day, as well as the European
governments that controlled and suppressed dissenting opinions. For 
example, the social disease which Pangloss caught from Paquette was 
traced to a "very learned Franciscan" and later to a Jesuit. Also, 
Candide reminisces that his passion for Cunegonde first developed
at a Mass. More conservative enlightened thinkers, concerned 
primarily with efficiency and administrative order, favored the 
"enlightened despotism" of such monarchs as Emperor Joseph II, 
Frederick II of Prussia, and Catherine II of Russia.

 Enlightened political thought expressed demands for equality and 
justice and for the legal changes needed to realize these goals. Set 
forth by Baron de Montesquieu, the changes were more boldly urged by 
the contributors to the great Encyclopedie edited in Paris by Diderot
between 1747 and 1772, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Cesare Beccaria, and 
finally by Jeremy Bentham, whose utilitarianism was the culmination of 
a long debate on happiness and the means of achieving it.

 The political writers of the Enlightenment built on and extended 
the rationalistic, republican, and natural-law theories that had been 
evolved in the previous century as the bases of law, social peace, and 
just order. As they did so, they also elaborated novel doctrines of 
popular sovereignty that the 19th century would transform into a kind 
of nationalism that contradicted the individualistic outlook of the 
philosophes. Among those who were important in this development were 
historians such as Voltaire, Hume, William Robertson, Edward Gibbon, 
and Giambattista Vico. Their work showed that although all peoples 
shared a common human nature, each nation and every age also had 
distinctive characteristics that made it unique. These paradoxes were 
explored by early romantics such as Johann Georg Hamman and Johann 
Gottfried von Herder.

 Everywhere the Enlightenment produced restless men impatient for 
change but frustrated by popular ignorance and official repression. 
This gave the enlightened literati an interest in popular education. 
They promoted educational ventures and sought in witty, amusing, and
even titillating ways to educate and awaken their contemporaries. The 
stories of Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle or Benjamin Franklin, the 
widely imitated essays of Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, and many 
dictionaries, handbooks, and encyclopedias produced by the enlightened 
were written to popularize, simplify, and promote a more reasonable 
view of life among the people of their time.

 The Enlightenment came to an end in western Europe after the 
upheavals of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era (1789-1815) 
revealed the costs of its political program and the lack of commitment 
in those whose rhetoric was often more liberal than their actions. 
Nationalism undercut its cosmopolitan values and assumptions about 
human nature, and the romantics attacked its belief that clear 
intelligible answers could be found to every question asked by people 
who sought to be free and happy. The skepticism of the philosophes 

was swept away in the religious revival of the 1790s and early 1800s, 
and the cultural leadership of the landed aristocracy and professional 
men who had supported the Enlightenment was eroded by the growth of a 
new wealthy educated class of businessmen, products of the industrial 
revolution. Only in North and South America, where industry came 
later and revolution had not led to reaction, did the Enlightenment 
linger into the 19th century. Its lasting heritage has been its 
contribution to the literature of human freedom and some institutions 
in which its values have been embodied. Included in the latter are 
many facets of modern government, education, and philanthropy.



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