During the 18th century, a dramatic intellectual movement swept over Europe, particularly the nation of France. The movement set off an explosion of scholarly and literary achievement equal to any period of Western history. Generally, the Enlightenment is thought to have lasted from the early years of the 18th century to sometime before the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789. During the Enlightenment, dozens of brilliant thinkers and writers questioned some of the most basic assumptions of Western society. Political, religious, and social ideas that had been accepted for centuries were critically examined, and the consequences had a tremendous impact on Western society.
At the heart of the Enlightenment was a belief in the power of rationalism, the ability to arrive at answers to difficult and complicated questions through the power of human reason and experience. Enlightenment thinkers believed that all questions must be answered rationally, without recourse to authority or intuition. Furthermore, Enlightenment thinkers believed that every element of human society should be open to rigorous questioning, no matter how sacred others considered it. These beliefs stemmed from some of the scientific discoveries occurring at the time, such as those by Sir Isaac Newton. As a result, some of the most controversial elements of the Age of Enlightenment involved religion.
The thinkers and writers of the Enlightenment were known as philosophes. They were not philosophers in the traditional sense, but rather individuals who sought to spread the ideas of philosophy to the general public. The philosophes achieved this through the use of nearly every genre of literature; Enlightenment ideas were expressed in poetry, novels, dramas, pamphlets, and various reference works.
By far the most famous and influential of the philosophes was voltaire. From the 1720s until his death in 1778, Voltaire produced a constant stream of literature in various genres, including plays, short stories, novels, essays, and pamphlets. Through his writing, he attacked censorship of the press, religious intolerance, backward legal systems, and outdated political ideas. His hugely popular writings helped spread Enlightenment ideas throughout the literate populations of Europe and the United States. His most successful work, Can-dide, is one of the two great literary works of the Enlightenment period.
Voltaire was not alone; the Enlightenment produced a very large number of influential literary figures. Denis diderot wrote a series of works, both fiction and nonfiction, expressing Enlightenment ideas. Jean Le Rond d’alembert did fundamental new work in mathematics while pursuing philosophical studies, and Baron de montesquieu wrote the highly influential Spirit of Laws, which greatly affected 18th-century political thought.
However, not all thinkers and writers of the Age of Enlightenment were devoted to rationalism. Many people, including members of the clergy, distrusted the philosophes, because their ideas seemed to threaten the status of religion in Western society. Jean-Jacques rousseau, for instance, taught that the key to human understanding of the world was not the power of human reason, but rather involved emotion and intuition. This point of view resulted in an intense dispute between Rousseau and voltaire, which lasted throughout their lives.
Perhaps the greatest literary production of the Age of Enlightenment was the encyclopedia. Jointly edited by Diderot and d’Alembert, and featuring contributions from Voltaire and other philosophes, the Encyclopedia sought to systematize human knowledge after examining it with a thoroughly rational point of view. Government authorities sought to censor the work and prevent its publication, as well as harassing and imprisoning those who worked on it.
Despite such resistance, Enlightenment ideals spread far and wide. The intellectual flowering that took place in Scotland during the latter half of the 18th century owed a great deal to the scholarship and literature of the Enlightenment. During the American Revolution, the political ideas that motivated the American radicals were largely borrowed from the French philosophes. Finally, when the French Revolution began in 1789, the revolutionaries looked to the ideas of the Enlightenment for inspiration as they sought to topple the French monarchy and create a republic in its place.
In a larger sense, the Age of Enlightenment fundamentally altered the intellectual environment of the Western world. The modern, rational insistence on solid evidence when answering difficult questions, which is at the heart of both the modern scientific method and the Western legal system, is a legacy of Enlightenment thought. So, too, are the
Western traditions of freedom of thought and expression, which are enshrined in the political systems of nearly all Western nations.
Works of the Age of Enlightenment
Beccaria, Cesare. On Crimes and Punishments. Translated by David Young. Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett, 1997.
Buffon, Georges-Louis Leclerc. Natural History, General and Particular. Translated by William Smellie. Bristol, U.K.: Thoemmes Press, 2001.
Helvetius, Claude-Adrien. Claude-Adrien Helvetius: Philosophical Works. Bristol, U.K.: Thoemmes Press, 2000.
Holbach, Paul Henri Thiery. System of Nature, vol. 1. Translated by H. D. Robinson and edited by Denis Diderot. Manchester, U.K.: Clinamen Press, 2000.
Hume, David. Essays: Moral, Political, and Literary. Edited by Eugene F. Miller. Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 1991.
Works about the Age of Enlightenment
Gay, Peter. The Enlightenment: The Science of Freedom. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996.
Jacob, Margaret C. Living the Enlightenment: Freemasonry and Politics in Eighteenth-Century Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Porter, Roy. The Enlightenment. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001.