Political Thinkers of the Enlightenment

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  • 0:01 Enlightened
  • 0:53 Early Enlightened Thinkers
  • 2:35 Other Enlightened Thinkers
  • 4:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the ideas of major political thinkers who lived and wrote during the Enlightenment in Europe. Then, you can test your understanding with a brief quiz.


I wish that whenever I had a great idea, there was actually a light bulb that appeared over my head. I always picture philosophers this way, with little light bulbs flashing over their heads. This is especially true of one series of philosophers who had so many great ideas that the light bulbs must have been constantly shining. Maybe that's why they called themselves 'enlightened.'

The Enlightenment was a philosophical movement from roughly 1650 to roughly 1780 that stressed reason and individualism over the values of tradition. This period was defined by a prominent intellectual culture, supported by the spread of printing technology. The thinkers of the Enlightenment gathered in coffee houses and other public places to debate and discuss their theories about government, science, and morality.

Early Enlightened Thinkers

One of the first major political thinkers of the Enlightenment was René Descartes, a French philosopher in the 17th century. Like many enlightened thinkers, he was an accomplished mathematician and scientist, relying on scientific experiments to produce accurate data about the world. In philosophy, Descartes helped establish the idea of rationalism, which is the idea that truths are found through logic and intellectual reasoning.

Descartes laid several foundational principles through his books Discourse on the Method and Principles of Philosophy, but perhaps his most famous is this: 'I think, therefore I am.' This is one of the founding principles of Western philosophy that means, in essence, that the ability to question our existence proves that both thought and existence are real. Existence is the most basic truth, upon which all other truths can be built.

Another major thinker of the time was John Locke, an English philosopher of the 17th century. Locke was much more focused on political philosophy, especially the nature of the relationship between the government and the people. Locke examined the social contract, an Enlightenment theory that individuals create government by agreeing to give up some freedoms in exchange for the protection of other freedoms.

Locke argued that people were born inherently equal and independent, but that they formed society in order to create impartial governments that could resolve conflicts in a civil, non-biased way. To Locke, the government existed to protect the rights of the people, and the government was only legitimate because the people trusted it to protect their freedoms.

Other Enlightened Thinkers

In the 18th century, the French philosopher Francois-Marie Arouet rose to prominence under the pen name Voltaire. Voltaire became one of the most versatile writers of his day, composing works of history, fiction, poetry, and satire. He used his pen to advocate for the individual rights that enlightened thinkers promoted. Most notably, these included the freedom of religion and freedom of speech.

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