The Enlightenment Essay Research Paper Main Themes

The Enlightenment Essay, Research Paper

Main Themes: The Enlightenment

1. The Enlightenment had its origins in the scientific and intellectual revolutions of the 17c.

2. Enlightenment thinkers felt that change and reason were both possible and desireable for the

sake of human liberty.

3. Enlightenment philosophes provided a major source of ideas that could be used to undermine

existing social and political structures.

I. The Major Themes of the Era:

A. rationalism –* logical reasoning based on facts.

B. cosmology –* new world view based on Newtonian physics –* analysis of natural phenomena as


C. secularism –* application of scientific theories to religion and society.

D. scientific method –* experimentation; observation; hypothesis.

E. utilitarianism (Bentham) –* laws created for the common good and not for special interests.

The greatest good for the greatest number.

F. optimism & self-confidence –* anything is possible (a reversal of medieval thinking).

G. tolerance –* a greater acceptance of different societies and cultures.

H. freedom –* a mind as well as a society free to think, free from prejudice.

I. mass education.

J. legal / penal reforms –* Beccaria, Bentham.

K. constitutionalism.

L. cosmopolitanism.

II. The Philosophes:

A. Not really philosophers, but men who sought to apply reason and common sense to nearly all the major

institutions and mores of the day.

B. They attacked Christianity for its rejection of science, otherworldliness, and belief in man’s depravity


C. Their major sources:

LOCKE –* man’s nature is changeable and can be improved by his environment.

NEWTON –* empirical experience and the rationality of the natural world.

BRITAIN –* exemplified a society in which enlightened reason served the common good.

D. France became the center for Enlightenment since its decadent absolutism and political and religious

censorship seemed to prove the need for reform.

E. Paris salons.

F. Diderot’s Encyclopedie.

G. physiocrats:

FRANCOIS QUESNAY –* land is the only source of wealth, and agriculture increases that wealth;

therefore, the mercantilists were wrong to put so much importance on the

accumulation of money.

ADAM SMITH –* Wealth of Nations –* he challenged mercantilist doctrine as selfish and unnatural;

the interdependence among nations; “Father of Modern Capitalism”.

H. Montesquieu –* The Spirit of the Laws

– admired the British government.

– separation of powers in the government.

– checks and balances.

I. Rousseau –* The Social Contract

– “Father of Romanticism”.

– he differed from the other pholosophes, esp. Locke:

– law is the expression of the “General Will.”

– rejected science and reason; go with your feelings (inner conscience).

– “Man is born free, but is everywhere in chains!”

J. Voltaire — Candide

– champion of individual rights.

– “I do not agree with a word you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it!”

– leading advocate of Enlightened Despotism.

III. Enlightened Despotism:

A. Prussia:

– Frederick I (1714-1740) — the “Seargent” King.

– Frederick II (1740-1786)

B. Habsburg Austria:

– Maria Theresa (1740-1780) –* Pragmatic Sanctions.

– Joseph II (1765-1790) –* considered to be the only true “enlightened” despot.

C. Russia:

– Peter the Great (1682-1725) –* Westernization (”Windows to the West”).

– Catherine the Great (1762-1796) –* rigorous foreign policy; partitions of Poland.

IV. Results of Enlightenment Thought:

A. contributing factor in the American and French Revolutions.

B. Enlightenment thinking reflected in the U. S. Declaration of Independence.

C. Enlightened Despots.

D. European thought became centered on the belief in reason, science, individual rights, and the

progress of civilization.

E. New evangelical religious movements –* Pietists, Methodists.


philosophesphysiocratsutilitarianismcosmopolitanismsalonlaissez-faireImmanuel KantJohn WesleyMethodismPietismGeneral Will”Philosopher-King”

The Enlightenment

The Age of Reason

18th century intellectual movement based on reason caused by the scientific revolution

Questioned the physical universe

Centered in Paris -the modern Athens

Believed in natural laws – very secular


a) Absolutism

b) Established Church

Very important to American Revolution

Enlightened Thought

1) Natural science should be used to understand all aspects of life

a) Nothing was to be accepted on faith

b) Caused conflict with the church

2) Scientific laws were capable of discovering human and natural laws

3) Humans could create better societies and people


Philosophe (Fr. Philosopher) but not only a French movement

Critics of absolutism did not face death for their beliefs like in other countries

French was the lingua franca -international

language of educated

Critics of the Old

Regime and


Developed new ideas about God, human nature, good and evil, and cause and effect relationships

Humans were basically good, but corrupted by society

Ideas were established by Marquis de Condercet in Progress of the Human Mind


Bernard de Fontenelle popularized science and made it easy to understand Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds

Fontenelle brought science and religion into conflict (Catholics and Protestants scientists believed their work exhalted God)

John Locke

English thinker,

rejected Descartes

Tabula Rasa theory

all ideas were from experience

Govt. social contract

Life, liberty, property

People are the power

Constitutional monarchy and defended the Revolution


Baron de Montesquieu

French attorney

Different political theories for different times

Established separation of powers

Wrote The Persian Letters which criticized European customs

Wrote The Spirit of the Laws (1748) showed that governments were shaped by history.

A strong upper class was necessary to prevent abuses: despotism could be avoided if power was shared: but he was not a democrat

Admired the English system

Greatly influenced Franklin


French, Fran?ois Marie Arouet.

Imprisoned in the Bastille for being critical of the king

Moved to England

Madame du Ch?telet

Had an affair with his niece


Enlightened Despotism – best government was a good monarch

He continually challenged the Church

Deism – God was a clockmaker who built the universe and then let it work. rejected fundamental doctrines of Christianity

Most philosophes hated religious toleration

Died a millionaire because of shrewd business investments

He was a reformer not a revolutionary

The Encyclopedia

Edited by

d’Alembert and


Collection of

enlightened knowledge

Initially banned by the government

Not every article was original but the overall effect was revolutionary

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Swiss, brilliant but neurotic

People are good

Natural education Emile

Social Contract based on two concepts: the general will and popular sovereignty

“All men are born free . . .”

Law and Order

Critics of the old legal system

Denounced torture and capital punishment

Rehabilitation of criminal

Economic Thought

Critical of mercantilism

Govt. has three duties:

a) defense against invasion

b) maintain civil order

c) sponsor public works

Did not call for harsher laws and more police to protect economic interests

Believed in the “invisible hand” of free competition

Francois Quesnay

In France the Physiocrats advocated laissez-faire economics.

Quesnay, advisor to Louis XV denounced mercantilism and stressed the importance of gold and silver

Insisted that land was the only source of wealth

Should be one tax on wealth derived from the land

Adam Smith


Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776)

Production comes from the workers

Laissez-faire economics


According to Peter Gay there were 3 periods of the Enlightenment roughly :

a) dominated by Montesquieu and Voltaire

before 1750 – set the tone of the movement

b) Franklin, Hume, Rousseau

mid-century fused anticlericalism and scientific speculation into a modern world view

c) Holbach and Beccaria

politics, social reform, legal reform, metaphysics

Criticism progressed by criticizing itself

Enlightenment centered on about twenty big names – but many more followers

Roughly 1689 (Montesquieu born) to 1789 (Holbach died)

First half were deists who focused on natural law; second half were atheist focused on utility

Timid political ideas were forced aside by more radical ideas

Although mostly Parisian the thinkers were characterized by anglomania


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