Skip to main content

Thinkers of the Enlightenment

College history instructor Ronna Pennington has a Master of Liberal Arts in History and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Non-fiction.

Renaissance leads to the Enlightenment

The Renaissance led nicely into the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment because of its reintroduction of ancient texts. By drawing the likes of Aristotle and Plato back into the fashion of knowledge, people of the time were inspired by those ancient ideas that spurred creative research and philosophy. Very few of these researchers set out to question Christianity, but that did become a side effect of the Enlightenment. If Copernicus’ theory of heliocentrism (theory that the sun is the center of our universe) sent the Renaissance church into a tizzy, imagine what problems the works of philosophers like Bacon, Descartes, and Voltaire caused.

Sir Francis Bacon

thinkers-of-the-enlightenment

Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon was a proponent of the scientific method. He believed the biggest delay in scientific discoveries came from researchers trying to stick within the confines of religion. He said people should not depend on ancient knowledge, and that we should learn instead through our own observation. But that didn’t mean seeing something once and accepting it as a new truth. Bacon believed in observing nature to determine its patterns, which is a process of observation instead of just making basic assumptions after seeing something once. From this kind of observation, Bacon believed people would discover new facts that were not based on myths, legends, or ancient (and unproved) beliefs – and inductive reasoning was born.

Rene Descartes

thinkers-of-the-enlightenment

Rene Descartes

Rene Descartes (pronounced: day-CART) favored the application of reason to problems, teaching that if reason can solve math problems, it can solve other problems, too. In his approach to science, he believed in finding a truth then deducing additional truths from it. One example would be an equation like, “If a+b=c, then c-b must equal a.” By encouraging people to deduce truth from truth, Descartes earned the recognition as “Father of Modern Philosophy.”

No matter which approach scientists took, they were showing a new interest in science and the fact that they did not have to rely on ancient theories; they could observe or deduce their own. This new mentality forms the base of the Age of Enlightenment.

Hobbes & Locke

thinkers-of-the-enlightenment

Hobbes & Locke

Political theory also played a role in the foundation of the Age of Enlightenment. John Locke and Thomas Hobbes are two political philosophers that had a large role in the development of many fledgling young governments, including the colonies that will eventually break out to fight for their independence in what is now the United States. Despite being contemporaries, Hobbes and Locke had very different ideas about government that started with their basic opinions of people in general. Hobbes believed people were inherently selfish. Locke had a more positive view of humankind, that people naturally wanted to help other people. Hobbes called for an end to the connection between church and state, which in his time was between the monarchy and the Church. This is the basis of the US’ separation of church and state mindset established by the Founding Fathers. Locke believed that individuals had the right to life, liberty and property, some of those words you’ll recognize from the Pre-Amble to the US Constitution. You can see the difference between the two is as stark as pitting Elmo against Oscar the Grouch. Ultimately, the concept that draws Hobbes and Locke together is their belief that the government should ensure peace and order for its citizens.

Scroll to Continue

Voltaire

thinkers-of-the-enlightenment

Voltaire

French author Voltaire also helped perpetuate change in the Age of Enlightenment. His writings pondered elements of society such as religion and equality, which posed the ideas of potential change. His satire often left him in trouble, which led to exile. His first exile was for three years. He spent 1726-1729 in England after offending a nobleman. Much like an extended time out does for a child, the exile experience gave him more to write about and time to think about things that were new for the era, like freedom of speech and freedom of religion and civil rights. Like many learned men of his era, he did not believe in democracy, though. Democracy would mean that everyone got a vote, or a say in the government. He believed the educated should make decisions for everyone.

Voltaire’s biggest accomplishment was his 1764 publication of a philosophical dictionary. He published it anonymously at first to avoid potential legal trouble for himself since many instances questioned the authority of the Catholic church.

In terms of religion. Voltaire was a deist. Deists basically believe in a creator of all things, but that the creator then is hands-off and no longer plays a role in the day-to-day operations of the world.

Montesquieu

thinkers-of-the-enlightenment

Montesquieu

Two other Enlightenment philosophers of importance were Montesquieu and Rousseau, both of France. Montesquieu believed that the study of political and social behavior had to consider socio-economic concerns; it could not be a simple abstract study. Why? Because our social situation, which often depends on our situation and the region in which we live, impacts our behavior. For this contribution, he is recognized as important to the development of modern sociology.

Rosseau

thinkers-of-the-enlightenment

Wollstonecraft

thinkers-of-the-enlightenment

Rousseau & Wollstonecraft

Rosseau promoted the ideals of a true democracy – one vote, one voice. However, that democracy did not apply to women, In keeping with the theory of the1700s, women were seen as irrational creatures. He believed women were to be a helper to men, to be pleasing and subservient. Mary Wollstonecraft wrote critiques of Rosseau’s theories in “Vindication of the Rights of Women.” She explained that, like slaves, women were not learned simply because they had never been afforded the opportunity to be educated.

Related Articles