18th Century European Enlightenment.

Essay by JQDoe November 2005

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The Enlightenment is a name given by historians to an

intellectual movement that was predominant in the Western world during

the 18th century. Strongly influenced by the rise of modern science

and by the aftermath of the long religious conflict that followed

the Reformation, the thinkers of the Enlightenment (called philosophes

in France) were committed to secular views based on reason or human

understanding only, which they hoped would provide a basis for

beneficial changes affecting every area of life and thought.

The more extreme and radical philosophes--Denis Diderot, Claude

Adrien Helvetius, Baron d'Holbach, the Marquis de Condorcet, and

Julien Offroy de La Mettrie (1709-51)--advocated a philosophical

rationalism deriving its methods from science and natural philosophy

that would replace religion as the means of knowing nature and destiny

of humanity; these men were materialists, pantheists, or atheists.

Other enlightened thinkers, such as Pierre Bayle, Voltaire, David

Hume, Jean Le Rond D'alembert, and Immanuel Kant, opposed fanaticism,

but were either agnostic or left room for some kind of religious


All of the philosophes saw themselves as continuing the work of

the great 17th century pioneers--Francis Bacon, Galileo, Descartes,

Leibnitz, Isaac Newton, and John Locke--who had developed fruitful

methods of rational and empirical inquiry and had demonstrated the

possibility of a world remade by the application of knowledge for

human benefit. The philosophes believed that science could reveal

nature as it truly is and show how it could be controlled and

manipulated. This belief provided an incentive to extend scientific

methods into every field of inquiry, thus laying the groundwork for

the development of the modern social sciences.

The enlightened understanding of human nature was one that

emphasized the right to self-expression and human fulfillment, the

right to think freely and express one's views publicly without

censorship or fear of repression.