Enlightenment: Ideas, Philosophers & Impact

During the Age of Reason, intellectuals gathered around salons to discuss many ideas that would revolutionize the modern states.
During the Age of Reason, intellectuals gathered around salons to discuss many ideas that would revolutionize the modern states. © CS Media.

The Age of Enlightenment, also called the Age of Reason, was an intellectual movement in 18th century Europe. It arose at a time when the bourgeoisie was amassing considerable economic power, but became dissatisfied with the privileges awarded to the nobility and to the Catholic Church. Thus, many people began to question the principles that underpinned the modern European state. The Enlightenment first appeared in France, and it would later spread all over Europe. This movement soon revolutionized European politics, economy and society, and it would inspire revolutions in all continents of the world.

Origins of the Enlightenment

Since the 14th century, Europe had transitioned from Feudalism to the modern states. The modern state, also called the Ancien Régime (old regime), was a political framework that concentrated power in the hands of kings and queens, granted privileges to the nobility and to the clergy (members of the Church), and left the masses without access to politics.

The problem was that, while Feudalism discouraged trade, the economy of modern states incentivized it, for commerce was seen as crucial to develop a country. The merchant class was on the rise, but it was considered a part of the “third social estate” (the masses). So it grew discontented with certain privileges that were accessible only to clergymen and noblemen:

  • The clergymen did not pay taxes to the government, had a monopoly over education, and had significant influence over politics. For example, all books that circulated had to be approved by the Church, and it was not unusual for bishops and the Pope to meddle in political affairs.
  • The noblemen also did not pay taxes and controlled not only politics but many government jobs as well. They advised the king and, representing him, they ruled over their lands and over its inhabitants.

The bourgeoisie had helped kings take power away from feudal lords, but saw monarchs neglect some of their wishes even when they were building up a fortune. In the 18th century, that would result in the emergence of a set of ideas that challenged the modern state in its core.

Ideas of the Enlightenment

The Enlightenment was not systematic, nor unified, nor coherent. Rather than being a doctrine, it was merely a convergence of ideas in the context of a struggle pitting the bourgeoisie against the nobility and the clergy. According to the historian Eric Hobsbawm, it was a revolutionary ideology that aimed to free all men, instead of just middle-class men. Its revolutionary appeal came from the fact that it was opposed to modern states, but monarchs would never willingly let go of their power. In other words, monarchies would have to be changed by force.

These were the main ideas that gained prominence during the Age of Reason:

  • In terms of politics, philosophers criticized Absolutism and proposed Contratualism: While monarchs usually had absolute power over their subjects, some scholars wanted to change that. They proposed implementing Constitutions based on the Separation of Powers, to keep the monarchs’ powers in check. Some even suggested extending the right to vote to all people (universal suffrage), and not only noblemen.
  • In terms of economics, philosophers criticized Mercantilism and proposed Free Trade: Mercantilism was based upon heavy government intervention in the economy, so as to favor the national economy (Protectionism). Free Trade, on the other hand, was all about defending individual rights and prerogatives. Many economists believed that goods and services should flow freely and that the governments should not intervene in the markets.
  • In terms of social hierarchy, philosophers criticized the “estate system” and proposed equality before the law: Given that the bourgeoisie was accumulating economic power, it seemed unfair to negate privileges to traders just because they happened to be born in non-noble families. Thus many thinkers advocated for the end of birthright privileges and for meritocracy — assigning eventual privileges by merit rather than by birth.
  • In terms of religion, philosophers criticized Theocentricism and proposed Secularism: While the modern state was heavily influenced by the Catholic Church, scholars believed that religion had no place in government affairs. For example, Jews and Muslims were often forced to convert to Catholicism, and that impinged upon their rights. The government had to treat all religions equally, and Reason was above Faith — including in culture and education, where the dominance of the Church began to be contested.

Philosophers of the Enlightenment

  • John Locke (1632–1704): Often known as the “Father of Liberalism”, Locke was an English philosopher and physician. His ideas about the mind and consciousness laid the foundation for empiricism and he emphasized the importance of experience in the acquisition of knowledge. Locke’s political philosophy advocated for the protection of individual rights and the concept of government as a trustee of the people with the consent of the governed being paramount.
  • Voltaire (1694–1778): A French writer, historian, and philosopher, he was known for his wit, criticism of Christianity, advocacy of freedom of speech, and separation of church and state. He was a prolific writer, producing works in almost every literary form, including plays, poems, novels, essays, and historical and scientific works.
  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778): A Genevan philosopher, Rousseau’s political philosophy influenced the progress of the Enlightenment throughout Europe, as well as aspects of the French Revolution and the development of modern political, economic, and educational thought. He argued for the importance of individual freedom and autonomy, but also emphasized the concept of the “general will” and the need for a social contract as the basis of a legitimate political order.
  • Montesquieu (1689–1755): Montesquieu was a French judge, man of letters, and political philosopher. He is famous for his articulation of the theory of separation of powers, which is implemented in many constitutions throughout the world. He also wrote extensively about the idea of the rule of law and the importance of judicial independence.
  • Immanuel Kant (1724–1804): A central figure in modern philosophy, Kant sought to reconcile rationalism and empiricism. His work “Critique of Pure Reason” is considered one of the most significant works in the history of philosophy. Kant introduced the concept of categories of understanding and asserted that morality is grounded in autonomy and the categorical imperative.
  • David Hume (1711–1776): A Scottish philosopher, historian, economist, and essayist known especially for his philosophical empiricism and skepticism. Hume argued against the existence of innate ideas, positing that all human knowledge is founded solely in experience.
  • François Quesnay (1694–1774) and Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot (1727–1781): They were part of a French group of economists called Physiocrats, who believed that God controlled the economy and that the government should not intervene in the markets. For them, the only sources of wealth were agriculture, fishing and mining. Trade, on the other hand, did not create wealth but rather merely reallocated it.
  • Adam Smith (1723–1790): A Scottish economist and philosopher, Smith is best known for “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations”. He is considered the father of Classical Liberalism — a theory that posits that people are self-interested and their preferences are able to regulate the market without God’s or the government’s intervention. This mechanism came to be known as the “invisible hand of the markets”.
  • Denis Diderot (1713–1784): A French philosopher, art critic, and writer, Diderot was a prominent figure during the Enlightenment and is best known for serving as co-founder and chief editor of the Encyclopédie, which sought to summarize all the world’s knowledge and spread the ideas of the Enlightenment across Europe.
  • Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729–1781): A writer, philosopher, dramatist, publicist, and art critic, Lessing is considered an important figure of the German Enlightenment. He advocated for religious tolerance and freedom of thought, and his plays and theoretical writings substantially influenced the development of German literature.
  • Cesare Beccaria (1738–1794): An Italian criminologist, jurist, philosopher, and politician, Beccaria is renowned for his treatise “On Crimes and Punishments”, which condemned torture and the death penalty and was a founding work in the field of criminology.

Enlightened Absolutism

In the late 18th century, facing opposition by the philosophers of the Enlightenment, certain monarchs decided to implement some of their ideas. Thus emerged Enlightened Absolutism, also known as Enlightened Despotism or Benevolent Despotism. Enlightened monarchs sought to integrate progressive reforms and rational governance, while preserving their own sovereign power.

They typically promoted legal reforms, expanded education, and advocated for tolerance in religious matters. These monarchs also aimed to enact policies that would lead to the betterment of society, through the promotion of the arts, sciences, and the economy. The underlying belief was that the monarch, armed with reason and enlightened principles, could govern for the welfare of their subjects better than through the systems of the past.

Several European rulers exemplified the principles of Enlightened Absolutism:

  • Frederick II of Prussia (Frederick the Great) (1740–1786): He introduced significant civil reforms, fostered education and religious tolerance, and centralized the Prussian bureaucracy. However, he maintained a strong autocratic rule and expanded Prussian territories through military means.
  • Catherine II of Russia (Catherine the Great) (1762–1796): While retaining autocratic power, she implemented extensive legal and educational reforms, supported the arts, and corresponded with many Enlightenment figures. However, her attempts to modernize Russia often conflicted with entrenched nobility interests and did not substantially alter the institution of serfdom.
  • Joseph II of Austria (1765–1790): He was perhaps the most radical of the enlightened despots, abolishing serfdom, eliminating the death penalty, and promoting religious equality among his subjects. His reforms, however, faced significant resistance and were partly revoked after his death.

The era of Enlightened Absolutism demonstrated an interesting paradox: the use of absolute power in an attempt to reform society according to the principles of liberty and individual rights. This paradox would eventually set the stage for the revolutionary upheavals that marked the end of the 18th century.

Revolutionary impact of the Enlightenment

The ideas that gained prominence during the Age of Reason would inspire a series of liberal revolutions that would sweep across the globe. This was a period where the notion of divine-right monarchy was increasingly seen as an anachronism, and the principles of democracy and republicanism began to take root in the political consciousness of Europe and the Americas.

The French Revolution (1789-1799), in particular, was deeply influenced by Enlightenment principles. Philosophers such as Rousseau and Montesquieu had envisioned a society where individuals were free from the oppressive structures of the Ancien Régime. The revolutionary slogan “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” echoed the Enlightenment’s call for liberty, equality, and brotherhood. Within the context of the revolution, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789 was imbued with this spirit, enshrining human rights as universal and inalienable.

The American Revolution (1775-1783) also drew heavily from the Enlightenment. Figures such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin adopted its ideas in the drafting of the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. For example, the principles of natural rights, social contract, and government by consent that were championed by John Locke, among others, found clear expression in the founding documents of the United States.

Leaders like Simón Bolívar and José de San Martín were inspired by Enlightenment ideals to challenge colonial rule and seek Latin American independence. The critique of absolutism dovetailed with the aspirations of colonies seeking self-determination. This led to a wave of successful independence movements across the continent in the early 19th century.

The Enlightenment remains a pivotal era that reshaped the landscape of political and social thought. The revolutions that bore its imprint marked a decisive turn from the old order, setting the stage for the modern democratic state and significantly transforming the political map of the world.




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