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Changing social mores marked the beginning of the Enlightenment, as individualism, relativism, and rationalism gained widespread adherence in the wake of the Scientific Revolution, the Age of Exploration, the weakening of traditional religion, and the decline of monarchical rule. All of these trends served to prepare Europe for the Enlightenment period.

The earliest signs of the coming Enlightenment rose up in the early seventeenth century in the form of John Comenius and Hugo Grotius, each of whom lived during the Thirty Years War in Germany. Their efforts to grapple with the horrors of war and the motivation for humankind to perpetrate those horrors set the stage for further exploration of the underlying currents of human interaction. Some of the earliest thinkers to extend this study were Thomas Hobbes and John Locke of Britain, each of whom took a drastically different view of the rationale for, and best type of, government.

However, the French Enlightenment outshone the advances in all other countries. In France, a growing middle class increasingly demanded intellectual stimulation, which was readily given by the French philosophes, led by Voltaire. The philosophes, though varying in style and subject matter, generally emphasized the power of reason, and sought to discover the natural laws governing human society. One of the most prominent symbols of the Enlightenment, the Encyclopedie, was produced in France by Denis Diderot, and sought to summarize all of human knowledge systematically.

However, even within the French Enlightenment, change in philosophical thought could be observed during the latter eighteenth century. Jean Jacques Rousseau, perhaps the most influential French philosophe, bridged the gap between the empiricism of the Enlightenment and the romanticism which would rise up in the nineteenth century. His work focused more on the emotional side of human life, and set the stage for the European...