Enlightenment Thinkers

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The Enlightenment

  • What is the Enlightenment?
  • What caused the Enlightenment?

English Thinkers



Thomas Hobbes

–Wrote Leviathan

–People are naturally cruel, greedy, and selfish

–If not strictly controlled, they would rob and oppress one another

–Life in the “State of Nature” would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short

–To escape – people enter into a Social Contract: an agreement by which they give up the state of nature for an organized society

–Only a powerful government could ensure an orderly society


John Locke

–People were moral and reasonable

Natural Rights – rights that belong to all humans from birth – life liberty and property

Two Treatises on Government – people formed governments to protect their natural rights

–Best government had limited power and was accepted by all citizens

–A government has an obligation to those it governs / if a government fails its people have a right to overthrow it

–Influenced the Glorious Revolution of 1688

–Education is key to society’s advancement

»Each person is born a “Tabula Rasa” or blank slate


Baron de Montesquieu

The Spirit of Laws

–Admired limited monarchy

–Dividing the functions and powers of government among 3 branches: Legislative, Executive, Judicial

–He thought that each branch could serve the other


French Thinkers

  • Philosophes – applied scientific methods to better understand and improve society – lovers of wisdom

Francis Marie Arouet – Voltaire


–“My trade is to say what I think”

–Exposed abuses of his day

»Targeted corrupt officials

»Wrote about inequality, injustice, and religious prejustice

»Outspoken attacks offended government and Catholic Church

–Voltaire imprisoned and forced into exile

–His books were censored and burned

–But he continued to protect freedom of speech

–Advocated Enlightened Despotism

–He was a Deist – religion that saw God as the “clockmaker” he made the world but does not intervene in it.


Denis Diderot

–Purpose was to change the general way of thinking

–25 years to produce 28 volume encyclopedia

–purpose was to change the general way of thinking – by explaining the new thinking on government, philosophy, and religion

–Included Montesquieu and Voltaire articles

–Denounced slavery

–Praised freedom of expression and education for all

–French government said the Encyclopedia was an attack on public morals

–20,000 copies printed

–Helped shaped French public opinion in the mid 1700’s

–Translated into other languages – helped spread Enlightenment ideas



–People in their rural state were good but corrupted by evils of society, especially unequal distribution of property

–Some control was necessary but should be minimal, but by a freely elected government

–“general will” best conscience of the people

–Individual subordinate the community

–“The Social Contract”

“Man born free, everywhere he is in chains.” The chains of society


Marquis de Beccaria

–“On Crimes and Punishment”

–Reason and equality before the law

–Punishment should be based on harm done to society

–Opposed to torture

–Influenced the Despots:

»Fredrick the Great abolished torture

»Catherine the great restricted the use of torture

»Joseph II abolished the use of torture and capital punishment


Women During the Enlightenment

  • Women did not have the natural rights of men
  • Rights limited to the home and family
  • By mid 1700’s women protesting this view
  • Mary Wollstonecraft (British Female Critic) – argued that women had been excluded from the social contract

–Woman’s first duty is to be a good mother

1792 – “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” – called for same sex education



  • Physiocrats – economic reforms

–Looked for natural laws to define a rational economic system

–Laissez faire – allowing business to operate with little or no government interference

–Real wealth came from making land more productive

–Agriculture, mining and logging produced new wealth

–Supported free trade and opposed mercantilism

  • Francis Quesnay – leader of the Physiocrats

Economics 2

  • Adam Smith – The Wealth of Nations

–Argued free market, the natural forces of supply and demand should be allowed to operate and regulate business

–Showed how manufacturing, trade, wages and profits were all linked to supply and demand. (The invisible hand)

Market place better without government regulation


The American "Philosophes"

  • John Adams
  • Ben Franklin (1706-1790)
  • Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826

Enlightenment Ideas Spread--> Achieving a Just Society

–People began to challenge the old ways

–People saw the need for reform to achieve a just society

–During the Middle Ages, people accepted a society based on Divine Right and a heavenly reward for life’s suffering

–In the Age of Reason, such ideas seemed unscientific and unnatural

–A just society should ensure material, well-being, social justice, and happiness in this world



–Government and church authorities felt they had a sacred duty to defend the old order.

–The old order has been set up by God

–They banned books, burned books, and imprisoned some writers

–Some publishers had their work published under fake name

–Some published their ideas in fiction



–The new literature, arts, science and philosophy were regular topics of discussion in the salons

–Informal social gatherings at which writers, artists, philosophers, and other exchanged ideas

–Originated in the 1600’s when a group of noblewomen in Paris began inviting a few friends to their homes for poetry readings

–Only the most witty, intelligent and well read people were invited to the salons

–By 1700’s some middle class women began holding salons

“Women Ruled Then”


Enlightened Despotism

  • Enlightened Despots – a ruler who used their power to bring about political and social change

–Philosophes tried to convince European rulers to adopt their ideas

–If they could enlighten ruling classes. They thought they could bring about reform

–Some monarchs did accept enlightenment ideas

–They became enlightened despots – Absolute rulers who used their power to bring about political and social change


Frederick the Great

–Exerted tight control over his subjects, BUT saw himself as the first “servant of the state,” with a duty to work for the common good.

–Frederick lured Voltaire to come to Berlin and help develop a Prussian academy of science

–Not fighting wars – had swamps drain and forced peasants to grow new crops such as the potato

–Had seeds and tools distributed to peasants who had suffered on Prussia’s wars

–He tolerated religious differences, welcoming victims of religious persecution

–Fredericks’s reforms directed mainly at making the Prussian government more efficient

–Recognized the civil service and simplified laws

–Rationalized bureaucracy also meant a stronger monarchy


Catherine the Great

–Exchanged letters with Voltaire and Diderot

–“Voltaire – someone who fought the united enemies of humankind, superstition, fanaticism, ignorance, trickery.”

–Made limited reforms in law and govt’

–Granted nobles a charter of rights

–Spoke out against serfdom

–Restricted the use of torture

–Education for boys and girls

–Limited religious toleration

»Jews were given civil equality

–Catherine intended to give up NO power

–Catherine’s contribution to Russia was not reform, but an expanded empire


Joseph II

–Most radical enlightened despot

–Son of Maria Theresa

–Joseph traveled in disguise to learn the problems of his subjects

–Because of these efforts, nicknamed “peasant emperor”

–Joseph continued Maria Theresa’s reforms

–Chose talented middle class officials rather than nobles to head depts.

–Imposed a range of political and legal reforms

–Granted toleration to protestants and Jews in Catholic Empire

–Ended censorship and attempted to bring the catholic church under royal control

–Sold the property of many monasteries and convents which he saw as unproductive and used the proceeds to build hospitals

–Abolished serfdom


Effects of the Enlightenment

  • Constitutional Government & Enlightened Despotism
  • New economics
  • Will cause the American, French and Latin American Revolutions
  • New Ideas:

–Relationship between government and society

–Women’s rights

–Social justice

–Violence and torture

–Basic liberties


Growth of Constitutional Government

  • Growth of Constitutional Government

–New Political institutions: political parties, the cabinet, and the office of the prime minister

  • Political Parties

–Tories – landed aristocrats sought to preserve older traditions, dominant Anglican church

–Whigs – backed the policies of the Glorious Revolution, backed urban business interests, supported religious toleration and favored parliament

  • PP represented exclusive social circles
  • After the last Stuart king died – nearest relative German George Hanover

–Spoke no English, him and George II had a handful of parliamentary advisors that we will call a cabinet

  • Prime Minister – First Robert Walpole

Growth of Constitutional Government 2

  • Politics and Society

–Peace and Prosperity

–Gov’t was an oligarchy – a government in which the ruling power belongs to a few people. Right to vote limited to a few male property owners and votes were bought

  • George III Reasserts Power

–Set out to make the crown powerful again

–Started to give seats in parliament to his friends

–Passed legislation that American colonists would pay for the Seven Years war

–Triggered American Revolution and French Revolution


The American Revolution

  • What were the causes to the American Revolution?
  • How did the Enlightenment influence the Revolution?

–Thomas Paine

  • What were the effects of the American Revolution?
  • What thinkers and their ideas are present in the Declaration of Independence and later, the US Constitution?

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