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Essay/Term paper: The enlightenment and the role of the philosophes

Essay, term paper, research paper:  English Term Papers

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The Enlightenment and the Role of the Philosophes

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 faith.

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. Voltaire admired the freedom he found in England
and fostered the spread of English ideas on the Continent. He and his followers opposed
the intolerance of the established Christian churches of their day, as well as the European
governments that controlled and suppressed dissenting opinions. For example, the social
disease which Pangloss caught from Paquette was traced to a "very learned Franciscan" and
later to a Jesuit. Also, Candide reminisces that his passion for Cunegonde first developed
at a Mass. More conservative enlightened thinkers, concerned primarily with efficiency and
administrative order, favored the "enlightened despotism" of such monarchs as Emperor
Joseph II, Frederick II of Prussia, and Catherine II of Russia.

Enlightened political thought expressed demands for equality and justice and for the legal
changes needed to realize these goals. Set forth by Baron de Montesquieu, the changes were
more boldly urged by the contributors to the great Encyclopedie edited in Paris by Diderot
between 1747 and 1772, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Cesare Beccaria, and finally by Jeremy
Bentham, whose utilitarianism was the culmination of a long debate on happiness and the
means of achieving it.

The political writers of the Enlightenment built on and extended the rationalistic,
republican, and natural-law theories that had been evolved in the previous century as the
bases of law, social peace, and just order. As they did so, they also elaborated novel
doctrines of popular sovereignty that the 19th century would transform into a kind of
nationalism that contradicted the individualistic outlook of the philosophes. Among those
who were important in this development were historians such as Voltaire, Hume, William
Robertson, Edward Gibbon, and Giambattista Vico. Their work showed that although all
peoples shared a common human nature, each nation and every age also had distinctive
characteristics that made it unique. These paradoxes were explored by early romantics such
as Johann Georg Hamman and Johann Gottfried von Herder.

Everywhere the Enlightenment produced restless men impatient for change but frustrated by
popular ignorance and official repression. This gave the enlightened literati an interest
in popular education. They promoted educational ventures and sought in witty, amusing, and
even titillating ways to educate and awaken their contemporaries. The stories of Bernard
Le Bovier de Fontenelle or Benjamin Franklin, the widely imitated essays of Joseph Addison
and Richard Steele, and many dictionaries, handbooks, and encyclopedias produced by the
enlightened were written to popularize, simplify, and promote a more reasonable view of
life among the people of their time.

The Enlightenment came to an end in western Europe after the upheavals of the French
Revolution and the Napoleonic era (1789-1815) revealed the costs of its political program
and the lack of commitment in those whose rhetoric was often more liberal than their
actions. Nationalism undercut its cosmopolitan values and assumptions about human nature,
and the romantics attacked its belief that clear intelligible answers could be found to
every question asked by people who sought to be free and happy. The skepticism of the
philosophes was swept away in the religious revival of the 1790s and early 1800s, and the
cultural leadership of the landed aristocracy and professional men who had supported the
Enlightenment was eroded by the growth of a new wealthy educated class of businessmen,
products of the industrial revolution. Only in North and South America, where industry
came later and revolution had not led to reaction, did the Enlightenment linger into the
19th century. Its lasting heritage has been its contribution to the literature of human
freedom and some institutions in which its values have been embodied. Included in the
latter are many facets of modern government, education, and philanthropy.


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