Francis Bacon (1561–1626)
An English philosopher and statesman who developed the inductive method or Baconian method of scientific investigation, which stresses observation and reasoning as a means for coming to general conclusions. Bacon’s work influenced René Descartes.
René Descartes (1596–1650)A French philosopher and scientist who revolutionized algebra and geometry and made the famous philosophical statement “I think, therefore I am.” Descartes developed a deductiveapproach to philosophy using math and logic that still remains a standard for problem solving.
Denis Diderot (1713–1784)A French scholar who was the primary editor of theEncyclopédie, a massive thirty-five-volume compilation of human knowledge in the arts and sciences, along with commentary from a number of Enlightenment thinkers. TheEncyclopédie became a prominent symbol of the Enlightenment and helped spread the movement throughout Europe.
Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790)
American thinker, diplomat, and inventor who traveled frequently between the American colonies and Europe during the Enlightenment and facilitated an exchange of ideas between them. Franklin exerted profound influence on the formation of the new government of the United States, with a hand in both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.
Olympe de Gouges (1748–1793)A French feminist and reformer in the waning years of the Enlightenment who articulated the rights of women with herDeclaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen(1791).
Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679)A philosopher and political theorist whose 1651 treatiseLeviathan effectively kicked off the English Enlightenment. The controversial Leviathan detailed Hobbes’s theory that all humans are inherently self-driven and evil and that the best form of government is thus a single, all-powerful monarch to keep everything in order.
Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826)American thinker and politician who penned the Declaration of Independence (1776), which was inspired directly by Enlightenment thought.
John Locke (1632–1704)An English political theorist who focused on the structure of governments. Locke believed that men are all rational and capable people but must compromise some of their beliefs in the interest of forming a government for the people. In his famous Two Treatises of Government (1690), he championed the idea of a representative government that would best serve all constituents.
Baron de Montesquieu (1689–1755)The foremost French political thinker of the Enlightenment, whose most influential book, The Spirit of Laws, expanded John Locke’s political study and incorporated the ideas of a division of state and separation of powers. Montesquieu’s work also ventured into sociology: he spent a considerable amount of time researching various cultures and their climates, ultimately deducing that climate is a major factor in determining the type of government a given country should have.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)A genius Austrian composer who began his career as a child prodigy and authored some of the most renowned operas and symphonies in history. Mozart’s music has never been surpassed in its blend of technique and emotional breadth, and his musical genius places him in a category with a select few other composers.
Sir Isaac Newton (1642–1727)An English scholar and mathematician regarded as the father of physical science. Newton’s discoveries anchored the Scientific Revolution and set the stage for everything that followed in mathematics and physics. He shared credit for the creation ofcalculus, and his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematicaintroduced the world to gravity and fundamental laws of motion.
Thomas Paine (1737–1809)English-American political writer whose pamphlet Common Sense (1776) argued that the British colonies in America should rebel against the Crown. Paine’s work had profound influence on public sentiment during the American Revolution, which had begun just months earlier.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778)An eclectic Swiss-French thinker who brought his own approach to the Enlightenment, believing that man was at his best when unshackled by the conventions of society. Rousseau’s epic The Social Contract (1762) conceived of a system of direct democracy in which all citizens contribute to an overarching “general will” that serves everyone at once. Later in his life, Rousseau released Confessions (1789), which brought a previously unheard-of degree of personal disclosure to the genre of autobiography. The frank personal revelations and emotional discussions were a major cause for the shift toward Romanticism.
Adam Smith (1723–1790)An influential Scottish economist who objected to the stifling mercantilism systems that were in place during the late eighteenth century. In response, Smith wrote the seminal Wealth of Nations (1776), a dissertation criticizing mercantilism and describing the many merits of a free trade system.
Voltaire (1694–1778)A French writer and the primary satirist of the Enlightenment, who criticized religion and leading philosophies of the time. Voltaire’s numerous plays and essays frequently advocated freedom from the ploys of religion, while Candide (1759), the most notable of his works, conveyed his criticisms of optimism and superstition into a neat package.
Deism- A system of faith to which many of the French philosophers and other Enlightenment thinkers subscribed. Deists believed in an all-powerful God but viewed him as a “cosmic watchmaker” who created the universe and set it in autonomous motion and then never again tampered with it. Deists also shunned organized religion, especially Church doctrines about eternal damnation and a “natural” hierarchy of existence.
Enlightened Absolutism- A trend in European governments during the later part of the Enlightenment, in which a number of absolute monarchs adopted Enlightenment-inspired reforms yet retained a firm grip on power. Frederick the Great of Prussia, Maria-Theresa andJoseph II of Austria, Charles III of Spain, and Catherine the Great of Russia are often counted among these “enlightened despots.”
French Revolution -A revolution in France that overthrew the monarchy and is often cited as the end of the Enlightenment. The French Revolution began in 1789 when King Louis XVI convened the legislature in an attempt to solve France’s monumental financial woes. Instead, the massive middle class revolted and set up its own government. Although this new government was effective for a few years, internal dissent grew and power switched hands repeatedly, until France plunged into the brutally violent Reign of Terror of 1793–1794.Critics saw this violence as a direct result of Enlightenment thought and as evidence that the masses were not fit to govern themselves.
Glorious Revolution- The name given to the bloodless coup d’état in England in 1688, which saw the Catholic monarch, King James II, removed from the throne and replaced by the Protestants William and Mary. The new monarchs not only changed the religious course of England and the idea of divine right but also allowed the additional personal liberties necessary for the Enlightenment to truly flourish.
Individualism -One of the cornerstones of the Enlightenment, a philosophy stressing the recognition of every person as a valuable individual with inalienable, inborn rights.
Mercantilism-The economic belief that a favorable balance of trade—that is, more exports than imports—would yield more gold and silver, and thus overall wealth and power, for a country. Governments tended to monitor and meddle with their mercantilist systems closely, which Scottish economist Adam Smith denounced as bad economic practice in his Wealth of Nations.
Philosophes-The general term for those academics and intellectuals who became the leading voices of the French Enlightenment during the eighteenth century. Notable philosophes included Voltaire, the Baron de Montesquieu, and Denis Diderot.
Rationalism- Arguably the foundation of the Enlightenment, the belief that, by using the power of reason, humans could arrive at truth and improve human life.
Relativism-Another fundamental philosophy of the Enlightenment, which declared that different ideas, cultures, and beliefs had equal merit. Relativism developed in reaction to the age of exploration, which increased European exposure to a variety of peoples and cultures across the world.
Romanticism- A movement that surfaced near the end of the Enlightenment that placed emphasis on innate emotions and instincts rather than reason, as well as on the virtues of existing in a natural state. Writers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe both contributed greatly to the development of Romanticism.
Salons- Gathering places for wealthy, intellectually minded elites during the years during and prior to the Enlightenment. The salons typically held weekly meetings where upper-class citizens gathered to discuss the political and social theories of the day.
Separation of Power- A political idea, developed by John Locke and the Baron de Montesquieu, that power in government should be divided into separate branches—typically legislative, judicial, and executive—in order to ensure that no one branch of a governing body can gain too much authority.
Social Contract- An idea in political philosophy, generally associated with John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, stating that a government and its subjects enter into an implicit contract when that government takes power. In exchange for ceding some freedoms to the government and its established laws, the subjects expect and demand mutual protection. The government’s authority, meanwhile, lies only in the consent of the governed.