Age of Enlightenment

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Age of Enlightenment: The Enlightenment

Enlightenment Essays 1, 2

In many respects, the homeland of The Enlightenment philosophes was France. It was there that the political philosopher and jurist Charles de Montesquieu, one of the earliest representatives of the movement, had begun publishing various satirical works against existing institutions, as well as his monumental study of political institutions, The Spirit of Laws (1748; trans. 1750). It was in Paris that Denis Diderot, the author of numerous philosophical tracts, began the publication of the Encyclopédie (1751-1772). This work, on which numerous philosophes collaborated, was intended both as a compendium of all knowledge and as a polemical weapon, presenting the positions of the Enlightenment and attacking its opponents. The single most influential and representative of the French writers was undoubtedly Voltaire. Beginning his career as a playwright and poet, he is best known today for his prolific pamphlets, essays, satires, and short novels, in which he popularized the science and philosophy of his age, and for his immense correspondence with writers and monarchs throughout Europe. Far more original were the works of Jean Jacques Rousseau, whose Social Contract (1762; trans. 1797), Émile (1762; trans. 1763), and Confessions (1782; trans. 1783) were to have a profound influence on later political and educational theory and were to serve as an impulse to 19th-century romanticism. The Enlightenment was also a profoundly cosmopolitan and antinationalistic movement with representatives in numerous other countries. Kant in Germany, David Hume in England, Cesare Beccaria in Italy, and Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson in the American colonies all maintained close contacts with the French philosophes but were important contributors to the movement in their own right.

During the first half of the 18th century, the leaders of the Enlightenment waged an uphill struggle against considerable odds. Several were imprisoned for their writings, and most were hampered by government censorship and attacks by the church. In many respects, however, the later decades of the century marked a triumph of the movement in Europe and America. By the 1770s, second-generation philosophes were receiving government pensions and taking control of established intellectual academies. The enormous increase in the publication of newspapers and books ensured a wide diffusion of their ideas. Scientific experiments and philosophical writing became fashionable among wide groups in society, including members of the nobility and the clergy. A number of European monarchs also adopted certain of the ideas or at least the vocabulary of the Enlightenment. Voltaire and other philosophes, who relished the concept of a philosopher-king enlightening the people from above, eagerly welcomed the emergence of the so-called enlightened despots, of whom Frederick II of Prussia, Catherine II of Russia, and Joseph II of Austria were the most celebrated examples. In retrospect, however, it appears that most of these monarchs used the movement in large part for propaganda purposes and were far more despotic than enlightened.

During the later 18th century certain changes in emphasis emerged in Enlightenment thought. Under the influence of Rousseau, sentiment and emotion became as respectable as reason. In the 1770s writers broadened their field of criticism to include political and economic issues. Of seminal importance in this regard was the experience of the American Revolution. In the eyes of Europeans, the Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War signaled that, for the first time, some individuals were going beyond the mere discussion of enlightened ideas and were actually putting them into practice. The American Revolution probably encouraged attacks and criticisms against existing European regimes.

The Age of Enlightenment is usually said to have ended with the French Revolution of 1789. Indeed, some see the social and political ferment of this period as being responsible for the Revolution. While embodying many of the ideals of the philosophes, the Revolution in its more violent stages (1792-94) served to discredit these ideals temporarily in the eyes of many European contemporaries. Yet the Enlightenment left a lasting heritage for the 19th and 20th centuries. It marked a key stage in the decline of the church and the growth of modern secularism. It served as the model for political and economic liberalism and for humanitarian reform throughout the 19th-century Western world. It was the watershed for the pervasive belief in the possibility and the necessity of progress that survived, if only in attenuated form, into the 20th century. end

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