Philosophy of French Enlightenment Thinkers

The Enlightenment was a turning point in the 17th and 18th century. The idea of enlightenment brought a whole new way of thinking. “The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement that brought to political and social questions the confidence in the intelligibility of natural law that Newton and other scientists had recently achieved. Following Descartes and Locke, Enlightenment thinkers believed that human beings could discern and work in concert with the laws of nature for the betterment of human life. Above all, Enlightenment thought gave people the confidence to question tradition.

Also, Enlightenment thinking was certain to challenge the very foundations of social and political order” (Nobel, 514).

Philosophers were known as French Enlightenment thinkers. Voltaire was probably one of the most famous philosophers. “Voltaire was a French writer, critic, and reformer who embodied the spirit of eighteenth-century rationalism” (Nobel, 514). Voltaire published his first major philosophical work Lettres philosophiques (Philosophical Letters,1734). In this piece, he helped to popularize Isaac Newton’s achievements in mathematics a and science.

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Voltaire portrayed Great Britain as a more rational society than France. “The British government had a more workable set of institutions, the economy was less crippled by the remnants of feudal privilege, and education was not in the hands of the church” (Nobel, 514). Voltaire was one of many French thinkers who singled out the Catholic Church as the archenemy of progressive thought. Philosophers constantly collided with the church’s negative views of human nature and resented its control over most education and its influence in political life.

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A variety of thinkers contributed to the development of Enlightenment ideas. There were differences among philosophes about major issues. “For example, though there was virtual unanimity in criticism of the Catholic Church, there was no unanimity about the existence or nature of God. Voltaire was a theist who believed in a creator of the universe, but not a specifically Christian God” (Nobel, 515).

Enlightenment philosophers also investigated the “laws” of economic life. “For example, French thinkers, known as physiocrats, proposed ending ‘artificial’ control over land in order to free productive capacity and permit the flow of crops to market” (Nobel, 517). Freeing of restrictions on manufacture and trade, as well as agriculture, was proposed by Adam Smith in his treaties.

Smith was a professor at the University of Glasgow. Scottish universities did not require specialization in subject matter and were open to ideas abroad, enabling Smith’s and others unique constitutions to Enlightenment thought. Smith was also known for “laissez-faire”economics. “Laissez-faire assumes that an economy will regulate itself, without interference by the government, without monopolies, and other economic privileges common in his day” (Nobel, 517).

“The Encyclopedia reflects the complexities and limitations of Enlightenment thought on another issue, such as the position of women. One might expect that challenging accepted knowledge and traditional power arrangements would lead to arguments for the equality of women wit men, and thus, for extending women’s rights” (Nobel, 518). Indeed, some contributors to Encyclopedia blamed women’s inequality with men not on in heart gender differences but rather on laws customs that had excluded women from education. On the other hand, “other contributors blamed women, and not society, and they argued that women’s capacities fit them only for the domestic sphere.” Both positions were represented in Enlightenment thought as a whole.

Mindfulness of lessons to be learned from the civil war in England and eager to repeat the achievements of Louis XIV. Rulers of Prussia and Russia, were encouraged in their efforts by Enlightenment ideas that stressed the need for reform in law, economy, and government. Like Voltaire, they believed that monarchs could be spokesperson for change. “The changes were uneven, however, and at times, owed as much to traditional efforts at better government as to ‘enlightened’ opinion” (Nobel, 523).

Random monarchical power might seem contrasting to Enlightenment thought. After all, the Enlightenment stressed the reasonableness of human beings and their size to notice and act in agreement with natural law. “Monarchy seemed an ideal instrument of reform to Voltaire and to many of this contemporaries” (Nobel, 528)

“The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement that brought to political and social questions the confidence in the intelligibility of natural law that Newton and other scientists had recently achieved” (Nobel, 514). Prominent thinkers, called “philosophes”, such as Voltaire criticized political systems and society of their day as not reflecting the potential of human rationality or the agreement of natural law. But Enlightenment was also a more general movement and one of its features was the growth of an informed body of public opinion the realm of government. Also, European rulers borrowed Enlightenment ideas to guide their policies. In France, although it was the center of Enlightenment, the crown failed to eliminate the privilege of nobility.

Works Cited

  • Noble, Thomas F. X. Western Civilization: beyond Boundaries. Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2011.

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Philosophy of French Enlightenment Thinkers. (2021, Sep 01). Retrieved from

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