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Describe the concept of Enlightenment in European history and describe the accomplishments of major Enlightenment thinkers, including Diderot, Kant, Locke, Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Voltaire.
See Historical Biography Page on
Olympe de Gouges
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)
AP World History Key Concept 5.3
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).
was an era based upon scientific rational and questioning the teachings of the Catholic Church.
Key Enlightenment ideals included freedom and equality.
These ideas would be transcribed into governmental reforms included during the American War for Independence and the overthrow of absolute monarch King Louis XVI during the French Revolution. The Declaration of Independence (1776), The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (1789) , and The Declaration of the Rights of Women and Female Citizen (1791) are all based on the ideology of the Enlightenment.
Textbook chapter on
Enlightenment and Revolution, 1550-1789
has comprehensive maps, biographies of key intellectuals, ideology, and review questions.
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).
Match the Memory
, lets students match philosophers with their philosophies through a matching card game (13).
African Americans During the Enlightenment
Women in the Enlightenment
Mary Wollstonecraft. hotograph from 1850 to 1870.
A Vindication of the Rights of Women
for a video biography of Mary Wollstonecraft through drawings.
for a Quiz on Mary Wollstonecraft's "A Vindication of the Rights of Women"
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
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).
Portrait of Denis Diderot, 1767 by Louis-Michel van Loo
Was the editor-in-chief of the famous
It threatened the aristocracy of France because it took for granted 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.
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.
Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch,
Kant listed several conditions that he thought necessary for ending wars and creating a lasting peace.
Was a social contract theorist. He argued a government 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 also promoted governmental checks and balances. These ideas influenced many American forefathers, notably Thomas Jefferson, and thereby influenced the Constitution of the United States and the Declaration of Independence. Locke stated that countries should seek a balance of trade.
Two Treatises of Government
For 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
Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquie
Well known for the separation of powers which has been used in may constitutions. He was largely responsible for the popularization of the terms feudalism. Montesquieu saw two types of governmental power existing: the sovereign and the administrative. The administrative powers were the legislative, the executive, and judiciary; similar to the United States. These should be separate but dependent upon each other so that the one doesn’t have more power than the other.
The Spirit of the Laws
His political ideas influenced the French Revolution, the development of socialist theory, and the growth of nationalism. He wrote
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. 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).
Rousseau's most important work is
The Social Contract
, which makes clear the basis of political order.
Voltaire at his desk with a pen in his hand. Engraving by Baquoy, ca. 1795
Known for his defense of civil liberties including freedom of religion and a right to fair trial. Voltaire distrusted democracy. He believed only an enlightened absolutist or a philosopher could bring change. He believed monarchy to be the key to progress and change. He fought for civil rights and denounced the injustices of the
which was an unfair balance of power and taxes between the first and second states.
His most famous book is
a darkly comic political novel in which he exposes the corruption he sees in society.
Letters on the English
for a teacher's video explanation of the Enlightenment thinkers, could be beneficial in a flipped classroom.
is a Trivia Quiz for kids about the Enlightenment!
Sample 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).
 Denis Diderot.
 Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
 John Locke.
 Immanuel Kant.
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