Standard WHI.33.........................................................................................................................Standard WHI.35

Describe the concept of Enlightenment in European history and describe the accomplishments of major Enlightenment thinkers, including Diderot, Kant, Locke, Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Voltaire.

The Weimar Courtyard of the Muses (1860)
The Weimar Courtyard of the Muses (1860)

Topics on the Page

Women of the Enlightenment
Other Major Thinkers
  • Denis Diderot
  • John Locke
  • Baron de Montesquieu
  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau
  • Voltaire

The British Museum's Enlightenment Room
The British Museum's Enlightenment Room

Focus Question: What was the Enlightenment and what were the main ideas of the major Enlightenment thinkers?

Age of Enlightenment (17th and 18th Centuries)

Screen Shot 2018-01-03 at 2.30.48 PM.pngSee AP World History Key Concept 5.3


The Enlightenment set forth the belief that "human reason could be used to combat ignorance, superstition, and tyranny and to build a better world."
  • Enlightenment thinkers believed that systematic thinking could apply to all forms of human activity.
    • Enlightenment issues began to be explored in the question of what the proper relationship of the citizen to the monarch or the state should be.
    • The idea that society was a contract between individual and some larger entity became a key concept in thinking about government and society.

"The Enlightenment's optimistic faith in the discovery and application of natural law to human life--as in the works of Hobbes and Locke, Montesquieu and Rousseau--was the inspire reforms and revolutions in many corners of the world. . . .The first great upheavals to be marked--though surely not "caused"--by Enlightenment thought were the American and French revolutions, and they opened the modern era of world history" (Lessons from History, National Center for History in the Schools, 1992, p. 262).

The Enlightenment was an era based upon rational reasoning and the questioning of traditional societal beliefs. This intellectual revolution included applying reason to the sciences, philosophy, arts, religion and politics of Old Europe.

  • This video is a great introduction to the Enlightenment and introduces students to the works of different philosophers like Kant, Locke, Diderot, Montesquieu, and Voltaire. This video also shows how influential their ideas have been throughout time, such as how the system of checks and balances and the separation of powers were Montesquieu's ideas. This video also emphasizes how Enlightenment ideas led to the French and American Revolutions (12).
  • The Enlightenment

game_icon.svg.pngThis game, Match the Memory, lets students match philosophers with their philosophies through a matching card game (13).

multicultural.pngAfrican Americans During the Enlightenment

Female_Rose.pngWomen in the Enlightenment

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797)

Mary Wollstonecraft.  hotograph from 1850 to 1870.
Mary Wollstonecraft. hotograph from 1850 to 1870.

primary_sources.PNGMary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Women
Multimedia.pngClick here for a video biography of Mary Wollstonecraft through drawings.

Click here for a Quiz on Mary Wollstonecraft's "A Vindication of the Rights of Women"

Screen Shot 2016-02-13 at 11.47.54 AM.pngThis slideshow on "Women of the Enlightenment" was created by a history teacher and explains how different philosophers, like Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Diderot viewed women.
  • Montesquieu supported equality for women but did want to uphold the traditional family dynamic.
    • Rousseau believed women were inferior to men and should be deprived of political rights, but did recognize the importance of motherhood.
      • Diderot also believed motherhood was the most important occupation for women and published very few articles written by women in his "Encyclopedie."
  • This slideshow also talks about how the Enlightenment led to feminism and the establishment of salons as places where men and women could discuss issues during a time where women were denied education (11).

"Romantic Outlaws": About the Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley

Other Major Enlightenment Thinkers

Denis Diderot (1713-1784)

Denis Diderot, 1767 by Louis-Michel van Loo
Denis Diderot, 1767 by Louis-Michel van Loo

Was the editor-in-chief of the famous Encyclopedie.

This book was the world's first version of the modern encyclopedia.

Diderot's writings threatened the power of the aristocracy of France because he support freedom of religion, freedom of thought, and the value of science and industry.

He believed a democratic doctrine for the common people of a nation should to be the main concern of the nation's government.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

Immanuel Kant
Immanuel Kant

Kant called his way of thinking a "Copernican Revolution in Philosophy" and argued that people can find answers to philosophical problems through examining their own mental faculties, instead of through metaphysical speculation.

Kant also stated that the mind shapes people's perceptions of reality based on their own experiences. Kant also believed that morality depended on one's intent behind an action, and not the consequence of the action (9).
  • The Critique of Pure Reason has often been cited as the most significant volume of metaphysics and epistemology in modern philosophy. Kant argued that our understanding of the external world has derived from personal experience and prior knowledge. He believed that moral law is a principle of reason.
  • In Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch, Kant listed several conditions that he thought necessary for ending wars and creating a lasting peace.

John Locke (1632-1704)

John Locke

Was a social contract political theorist. Locke is remembered by some historians as the father of classical liberalism and modern republican government.

He argued a state could only be legitimate if it received the consent of the governed through a social contract.

This social contract theory protected the natural rights of life, liberty, and property. If this did not happen, he argued that the people had a right to rebel. Locke supported England's constitutional monarchy and promoted democratic governments with a system of checks and balances.

His ideas would later influence the American Revolution and the framers of the U.S. Constitution.

Thomas Jefferson's most famous quote from the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness" was based on Lockean philosophy.

Locke believed all men, literally men and not women, had the political rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of private property. He also believed that human beings, because of divine will are by nature inherently good and can make their own reasonable decisions if left alone by the government.

primary_sources.PNG Excerpts from Two Treatises of Government (1690).

external image Red_apple.jpgFor more, see John Locke: A Teacher's Guide by Felipe Cortez at the Center for History Teaching and Learning, University of Texas El Paso.

Baron de Montesquieu (1689-1755)

Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquie
Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquie

Best known for his belief in the separation of governmental powers.

Inspired by England's Glorious Revolution and Constitutional Monarchy, Montesquieu believed that in an ideal state there are two types of governmental authority:
  • the sovereign (King/President) and
  • the administrative powers (bureaucracy).

There are three administrative powers within a state,
  • the legislature (parliament/congress),
  • the executive (king/head of state),
  • and judiciary (court system).
    • The purpose behind this system of checks and balances is to prevent a single individual or group of people from having full control of the state.

Ironically while Montesquieu was inspired by Britain's Constitutional monarchy, England during the time period did not practice separation of governmental powers.
  • Up until the late 1800s, the British Monarchy effectively ruled the nation with the help of the House of Lords and the House of Commons.
  • England to this day still does not have an official constitution.
    • While Montesquieu might have misinterpreted how the British government ran it's country, the idea of having a constitutional government with three separate branches of the state would later become essential in the writing of the American constitution.
    • To get any official new legislation passed into law, the United States President must always work together with Congress. This is the legacy of Montesquieu's political philosophy in practice today.

primary_sources.PNGSelections from The Spirit of the Laws (1748)

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)

Jean-Jaques Rousseau

His political ideas influenced the French Revolution, the development of socialist theory, and the growth of nationalism. He wrote Confessions which influenced modern autobiography.

Rousseau made the distinct division between society and human nature. He believed man was good by nature, but is corrupted by society.

Rousseau argued that progress in the arts and sciences led to the corruption of morality and virtue. He wrote "The Discourse on the Origin of Inequality," arguing that people are inherently good by human nature, but that historical events have corrupted them and led to the present state of civil society.

He believed in an ideal world human beings would be living in small communal farming communities.

Rousseau wrote "Emile" on the philosophy of education and "The Social Contract," which shows that his writing was very diverse. In his "Discourse on Political Economy," Rousseau advised states to, "follow the general will in every action, ensure that every particular will is in accordance with the general will, and public needs must be satisfied" (10).

primary_sources.PNGRousseau's most important work is The Social Contract, which makes clear the basis of political order.

Voltaire (1694-1778)

Voltaire at his desk. Engraving by Baquoy, ca. 1795
Voltaire at his desk. Engraving by Baquoy, ca. 1795

  • Best known for his defense of civil liberties including freedom of religion and a right to fair trial.
    • Voltaire distrusted democratic governments and had a strong personal hatred for traditional European religions, like Christianity and Judaism.
  • Voltaire was a deist who believed that the existence of God could be based on rational thinking, instead of clerical beliefs.
    • He also believed that only an enlightened despot could bring about effective social change in European states. Voltaire hated slavery, but at the same time believed in scientific racism.
    • In his writings, Voltaire often denounced the injustices of the France's ancien regime which unfairly favored society's corrupt elite. Voltaire's ideas would later influence the leaders of the French Revolution and Napoleonic France.
Multimedia.pngHis most famous book is Candide, a darkly comic political novel in which he exposes the corruption he sees in society.

primary_sources.PNG Voltaire's controversial Letters on the English 1778

Click here for a teacher's video explanation of the Enlightenment thinkers, could be beneficial in a flipped classroom.

game_icon.svg.pngHere is a Trivia Quiz for kids about the Enlightenment!

external image Test_hq3x.pngSample Teacher Test Question (from New York State Teacher Test Study Guide)

Which of the following best describes the central aim of 18th century Enlightenment intellectuals?
A. to create a synthesis of traditional religious thought and the findings of modern science
B. to demonstrate the philosophical limitations of secular humanism
C. to establish a society in which government met the needs of all citizens
D. to expose current assumptions and institutions to the tests of reason and experience

Correct Answer is D
"a major aim of 18th century Enlightenment intellectuals was to use the scientific method to study and improve society. By subjecting all aspects of social and political life to the test of reason and experience, they believed they could create a more humane and rational world." ( New York State Teacher Test Study Guide).

Works Cited:
[1] Denis Diderot.
[2] Voltaire.
[3] Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
[4] Montisquieu.
[5] John Locke.
[6] Immanuel Kant.