The Enlightenment

Modern World Civilization

 Spring 2009

The Role of Reason

•      The Enlightenment stressed that Reason could cure mankind of all past injustices.

•      In such a new world a perfect society was almost insured.

•      Through reason man could discover the Natural Laws that regulated society.

•      Once that is done man can reach Progress that would guarantee human betterment.

The Intellectuals and the Enlightenment

•      The intellectuals who adopted this position were called Philosophes.

•      Not all of them were French.

•      Few were Philosophers in the strict sense of the term.

•      The philosophes were social critics, publicists, political scientists, economists, and social reformers.

The Age of Optimism

•      This was the work of Alexander Pope who believed that it was the best of all possible worlds.

•      Not everyone agreed.

•      Once such person was Voltaire.

•      Voltaire did this in a satire called Candide.

•      While others agreed with Voltaire, for the most part, the age was overly optimistic.

Concerns of the Philosophes

•      They attacked laws, institutions, and practices.

•      Everything that they considered to be unreasonable or unnatural.

•      The Philosophes believed that the people had the capability to make the changes that would make life better.

•      Their view of the future was bright.

A Practical Example

•      The American Revolution was a model.

•      Particularly The Declaration of Independence.

•      The Declaration stressed “The Pursuit of Happiness” was a fundamental human right.

•      Which was on par with “Life and Liberty.”

•      The view people could possibly obtain them was revolutionary.

•      This was a clear departure from the Middle Ages.


Early Background to the Enlightenment

•      The key players in this were Descartes, Bacon, Locke, and Newton.

•      Of these men, Descartes at first is important.

•      He sought to find a universal mathematical formula that would explain everything.

Descartes Methodological Principles

•      Systematic Doubt.

•      Logical analysis.

•      Strict progression of synthesis.

•      Careful review of procedures.

•      And Conclusion.

•      He wanted to use mathematics as a language of universal precision.

The World of Isaac Newton (1642-1727)

•      Newton is important for his work in:

•      Optics

•      Light

•      Gravity

•      and Mathematics

•      But more important was he work on the Social Order of the Universe

Newton’s Important Work

•      Newton’s Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy was published in Latin in 1687.

•      He should the whole universe worked according to fixed laws.

•      Those laws were Natural Laws.

•      He saw the world as a great mechanical work of God.

•      Soon people thought this was better than Revelation.

John Locke (1632-1704)

•       He wrote a treatise on the defense of England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688.

•       This was called Two Treatises of Government in 1690.

•       In the Second Treatise he noted men are free, equal, and independent.

•       People submit to government because they find it convenient.

•       Not because of a divine right of the monarchy.

•       People make a compact or contract with the government to be governed.

 Locke Challenges Tradition

•      He denied that people submit to authority from birth.

•      In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690).

•      Locke believed that the newborn mind was tabula Rasa, a blank slate.

•      In other words, environment and reason were more important than heredity and faith.

The Result of Locke’s Work

•      Locke paved the way for a critical examination of the Old Regime.

•      Consequently the men of the enlightenment grasped for what they called “The Newtonian World Machine.”

The Dark Side: A Question of Hobbes

•       Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) had a different view.

•       He believed that man was driven to government by the fear of extinction.

•       He supports absolute monarchy.

•       His main work was the Leviathan (1651).

The New Thinking Supports  the Philosophes

•      Technological advances were supported by the public faith in natural law and progress.

•      The Philosophes cheered each and every new advance in scientific research.

Advances in Biology

•      A key player was Linnaeus (1707-78).

•      He demonstrated the natural laws in family relationships.

•      He classified every known plant and animal and classified them by species.

•      He placed species in a genus and then into a class.

Work in Chemistry

•      Two important figures were Joseph Black (1728-88) and Lavoisier (1743-94).

•      Lavoisier studied gasses and introduced the term oxygen.

•      Lavoisier also discovered that water is composed of both hydrogen and oxygen.

•      Lavoisier believed that all substances were composed of a relatively small number of basic elements.

•      That number was 23.


•      One important person was Laplace (1749-1827).

•      He was called “The Newton of France.”

•      He worked on celestial mechanics and explained the movement of the solar system in as a series of mathematical formulas and theorems.


•       An significant American was Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790).

•       He demonstrated that lightening and electricity were one and the same.

•       His experiment with a kite in a thunderstorm drew worldwide attention.

•       He even visited Versailles.

 The Impact on the Philosophes

•      Almost everybody in the 18th Century who thought they were somebody tried an experiment.

•      Voltaire was serious about Chemistry.

•      Montesquieu studied Physics.

•      Many European countries had a Royal Society to promote knowledge.

•      Soon this fanned out into the countryside.

The Internationalization of Knowledge

•      The scholars or philosophes paid little attention with national borders.

•      Even in wartime they corresponded with each other.

•      In other words, it was business as usual.

The Cosmopolitan World of the Eighteenth
Century Thinkers

•      The roots of the movement were found in France and England.

•      Soon it spread to Scotland, Germany, Italy, Spain, and even the New World.

•      But more importantly, it demonstrated French domination of the cultural scene.

Thomas Jefferson on France

The Importance of Speaking French

What Made France So Important?

•      French was the mode of communication.

•      The Salons of Paris help spread the ideas of the Enlightenment.

•      The Encyclopedie served as a tool to spread the ideas of the movement.

•      French was the language of diplomacy too.

The Encyclopedie

•      It was edited by Denis Diderot (1713-84).

•      First published in 1751.

•      Included articles by Montesquieu, Rouseau, Voltaire, Turgot, Candorcet, and Quesnay.

•      Not everyone liked it, including Louis XV, the Printers, and the Church.

•      Louis XV’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour managed to get it in print.