10 Men Who Changed the World: Heroes of the Enlightenment

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The Enlightenment was the moment at which Europe and the world grew up a bit. They put aside some of the old institutions and embraced an age of science and reason. Here are some of the people who made that possible.

1. Francis Bacon (1561–1626)


Bacon was an eminent philosopher and statesman and scientist. Although he did make any major scientific discoveries, he did lay down the methods of scientific investigation based on observation and reason as a means of reaching conclusion.

2. Rene Descartes (1596–1650)

Best known for the saying ‘Cogito ergo sum’ (I think therefore I am), Descartes was a philosopher and mathematician who revolutionised algebra and geometry. He was heavily influenced by Francis Bacon and developed a deductive approach using maths and logic that remains in use to this day.

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3. John Locke (1632–1704)

Locke was a writer ad philosopher who focused on how systems of governments could be formed. In his Two Treatises of Government he heralded the idea of a representative government that would best serve all the people.

4. Frederick the Great (1712–1786)

A statue of Frederick the Great who tried to put Enlightenment thinking into practice.
A statue of Frederick the Great who tried to put Enlightenment thinking into practice.

While most monarchs feared the Enlightenment, Frederick the Great embraced it. He supported artists and writers such as Voltaire, and believed that a monarch’s first duty was to promote the benefit of his people. At the same time he was an aggressive military leader and transformed Prussia from a small backwater state to a major European power house.

5. Voltaire (1694–1778)

During his life Voltaire was a superstar of the Enlightenment. He was famous for his wit as well as his attacks on the Church and advocacy of freedom of religion, expression and the separation of Church and State. He was a brilliant writer and produced works in just about every genre including a very early science fiction story called Micromegas, in which ambassadors arrived from another planet to witness the folly of mankind.

This was enough to make him a marked man in France and he spent much of his time abroad, especially in England, where he found an environment which positively embraced free thinking. He also attracted the attention of Frederick the Great who offered protection and a regular income, although they did fall out later in life.

6. Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790)

The Enlightenment was a major influence on Benjamin Franklin and the leaders of the American War of Independence.

Franklin was a prolific American thinker, writer and inventor who was constantly trekking back and forth between the colonies and the Old World. He was inspired by the ideals of the European Enlightenment and helped to bring these over to the New World. He was integral in forming the new government of the USA and had a hand in writing the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

7. Denis Diderot (1713–1784)

Diderot would be famous for writing one of the key documents of the Enlightenment – the Encyclopedie, which was intended to pull together as much learning about the sciences, arts and crafts as possible. He was a prolific writer, although many of his works went unpublished until his death.

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8. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778)

A radical thinker who believed in unshackling people from the confines of society, his polemic work the Social Contract envisaged a world of direct democracy in which all citizens could have direct influence on the running of the state. His work would inspire the leaders of the French Revolution, who used Rousseau as the philosophical backbone of the new republic. Sadly the republic turned out to be somewhat more brutal and ugly than Rousseau would have intended.

9. Thomas Paine (1737–1809)

Thomas Paine - a key figure in both the America and French Revolutions.
Thomas Paine – a key figure in both the America and French Revolutions.

An English writer and philosopher Thomas Paine became known as one of the founding fathers of the American Revolution. His pamphlet, Common Sense, published in 1776, stated that the American colonists should rise up against the English. It was an instant hit with the colonies, which did just that.

He was also enthralled by the French Revolution and in his major work, The Rights of Man, he railed against absolutist monarchy. He was granted honorary French citizenship and had a role in the National Convention. He voted for the Republic, but was against the execution of Louis.

10. David Hume (1711-1776)

One of the best known philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment, Hume was sceptical on a range of philosophical subjects – for instance epistemology and the philosophy of religion. His determination of morality was the immediate forerunner to the classic utilitarian views of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.

His moral outlook was much more conservative than subsequent political radicals. He believed for instance that the British governments are best run through a strong monarchy.

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