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The Enlightenment Thinkers & Their Ideas

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  • 0:08 The Age of Enlightenment
  • 0:45 Background
  • 2:24 Enlightenment Thinkers
  • 7:07 Impact
  • 7:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we discuss the varied and diverse 18th-century intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment. In addition to exploring its background and nature, we highlight several of the era's chief philosophers and their ideas.

The Age of Enlightenment

What is the Enlightenment? This question has produced numerous and varied answers in the nearly two and a half centuries since the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, first posed it in 1784. According to Kant, the Age of Enlightenment, which lasted from roughly the late 17th century up to the beginning of the 19th century, was humanity's growth into intellectual maturity. Kant and others claimed that, through scientific inquiry and an emphasis on reasoned discussion, mankind was finally able to think for itself rather than appealing to the authority of the Church, Greek philosophers, or other sources of supposedly revealed truths.

Background to the Age of Enlightenment

This 'maturity,' as Kant termed it, fostered the growth of all sorts of radical ideas. Very few scientific and artistic disciplines were left untouched by the Enlightenment thinkers and their new ideas. Politics, philosophy, epistemology, art, industry, the sciences - all were affected by the ideas from this movement. The Enlightenment was propagated largely by several developments during late medieval and early modern Europe.

Many of the ideas and philosophical theories that gained popularity during the Enlightenment emerged from attempts to answer the philosophical questions posed by the scientific achievement and discovery of the previous century. Several primary Church teachings about the nature of the universe and man's place in it were fundamentally questioned by discoveries from this period. These included the Copernican model of the universe, Newtonian physics, and religious deism. These ideas used together viewed the universe as being governed by natural, measurable laws. This wasn't exactly in line with the Church's ideas concerning existence.

The previous century's emphasis on reason created a philosophical basis upon which many Enlightenment thinkers built. A lot of 17th-century philosophers, like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, preferred to start from scratch, basing their philosophies upon personal, observable phenomena rather than accepting the authority of another source. Skepticism of accepted knowledge was taken to its theoretical limit by the French philosopher René Descartes when he went so far as to question his very existence (you know: the guy who said 'I think, therefore I am'). The reliance on one's own logic and reasoning has led some historians to call these preceding, 17th-century philosophical developments the 'Age of Reason.'

Enlightenment Thinkers: John Locke and Isaac Newton

Two thinkers whose contributions to the period have been briefly mentioned were John Locke and Isaac Newton. Locke's political philosophy and Newton's scientific achievements in the late 17th and early 18th centuries were pivotal developments that allowed for the growth of the Enlightenment. Locke's political philosophy stemmed from his central belief that humanity was innately good and industrious. He believed that if given the proper tools and power, humans would form a society which would be good for all and improve the community's well-being. As such, societies could be trusted to decide which form of government was right and just. If a society was ruled unfairly or arbitrarily by an inept monarch, the people were justified in rebelling against the king or queen. Locke's ideas were a complete 180 in how monarchies were viewed: the king still held the power, but that power originated in society, and the monarch only held that power by the consent of those he ruled. This important distinction became known as social contract theory, and many 18th-century writers based their political philosophy on this idea.

While Locke laid the foundation for a lot of 18th-century political philosophy, Isaac Newton's theories of gravitation did the same for modern science. These ideas were featured in the Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy published in 1687. This forever changed science and showed that the universe was governed by natural, quantifiable laws. From Newton's laws the philosophers understood that the universe was rational, comprehensible and ordered. These were ideas that fit well into deism - that is, the belief that God created the universe but does not take an active hand in its events.

Enlightenment Thinkers: Diderot and d'Alembert

These new beliefs and the new learning and research they spawned flourished throughout the Enlightenment. Two Frenchmen, Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d'Alembert are primarily responsible for the spread. They undertook an enormous project attempting to document industrial innovation, discoveries in natural science, and all knowledge in general. This project resulted in a wildly successful book, the Encyclopédie, first published in the 1750s.

The Encyclopédie not only attempted to gather as much knowledge about the world as possible, but also tried to organize knowledge into working groups that corresponded to human abilities. For example, Diderot claimed memory was the chief human ability used in the discipline of history, while man's imagination was reserved for poetry.

The Encyclopédie was incredibly successful largely due to its instructional usefulness (one of Diderot's main objectives was to make mechanical industry understandable to any literate person) and the enormous number of etchings and diagrams that accompanied the explanations.

Enlightenment Thinkers: Montesquieu

The understanding of the natural world fostered by Diderot and d'Alembert was equaled in the political sphere by the work of Charles-Louis de Secondat, the Baron de Montesquieu. Montesquieu's 1748 work, The Spirit of Laws sought not only to recognize and explain the existing laws and governments of Western Europe, but also understand the very basis for law's existence.

Montesquieu's abhorrence of despotism and governmental corruption caused him to create the philosophical justification for a common feature of modern Western government: the separation of powers and the checks and balances system. These were meant to keep one branch of government from getting more powerful than another.

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