10 Key Figures of The Enlightenment | History Hit

10 Key Figures of The Enlightenment

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You may be wondering, what was the ‘Enlightenment’ and when did the ‘Age of Enlightenment’ occur?

Put simply, the Enlightenment was a period in history, occuring roughly between the late-16th and 18th century, that completely transformed western culture. The ‘Age of Reason’, as it became known, saw long-established monarchies, religious institutions, social systems and hierachies challenged from below and a philosophical search for human improvement.

Ideas of liberty, reason and religious tolerance traversed Europe, creating social upheaval, revolution and change. At the foundation of this transformation lay the ideas and practises of a few incredibly influential figures, who would each in their own way truly change the world and the way in which people viewed it.

Here is a list of 10 of these Key Figures of the Enlightenment.

1. Francis Bacon (1561–1626)

Portrait by Paul van Somer I, 1617. Image credit: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Sir Francis Bacon was an eminent philosopher, statesman and scientist. While he did not personally make any major scientific discoveries, he became known for laying down the practical methods of scientific investigation based on observation and reason as a means of reaching a logical conclusion.

Entirely innovative at the time, Bacon championed a new scientific method that involved gathering data and analyzing it by performing experiments to observe nature’s truths in an organized way. Through this approach, science could be utilized as a tool to better humankind by expanding common knowledge of the world.

2. Rene Descartes (1596–1650)

Best known for the saying ‘Cogito ergo sum’ (I think therefore I am), Descartes was a French philosopher and mathematician who revolutionised philosophy, algebra and geometry. Like many philosphers of the enlightened era, Descartes didn’t like to believe anything without examining why he believed it.

Known as the ‘Method of Cartesian Doubt’, Descartes claimed that one should never simply accept anything as true if there was even the slightest possibility that it wasn’t. In this respect he was heavily influenced by Francis Bacon and developed his own deductive approach, using maths and logic, to solving and understanding life’s many mysteries.

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3. John Locke (1632–1704)

Locke was one of the most influential philosophers of the Enlightenment, who focused specifically 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.

Locke’s writing influenced many philosphers such as Voltaire, Rousseau, Kant and Thomas Paine who would later inspire the revolutions of the late-18th century. This was because his work was based fundamentally on the theory of rights – the belief that men are free and equal by nature, against claims that God had made all people naturally subject to a monarch.

Locke’s most important contribution to the Enlightenment was his belief that the human mind was a blank slate (a “tabula rasa”), which developed based on experience. In order to develop and become enlightened humans needed to view themselves as ignoramuses, void of any inherent knowledge, obligation or servitude. Accepting one’s ignorance was the first step to self-improvement, and every man had a right to do so.

4. Frederick the Great (1712–1786)

Portrait by Johann Georg Ziesenis, c. 1763. Image credit: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

While most monarchs feared the Enlightenment, as it challenged their authority and divine right to rule, Frederick the Great of Prussia truly 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 – even if this meant encouraging individualistic thinking further scrutiny of long-established institutions.

Having said this, Frederick the Great was, simultaneously, an extremely aggressive military leader who transformed Prussia from a small backwater state into 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)

Benjamin Franklin was a prolific American thinker, writer, inventor and founding father who constantly sailed back and forth between the American colonies and the Old World. He was inspired by the ideals of the European Enlightenment and helped transport these ideas and concepts over to the New World.

He played an integral part in forming the new government of the United States of America and had a major hand in writing the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution that would form the bedrock of the newly-formed nation.

7. Denis Diderot (1713–1784)

Diderot, by Louis-Michel van Loo, 1767. Image credit: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Diderot became famous for writing one of the most important documents of the Enlightenment – the Encyclopedie, which was intended to pull together as much knowledge across all subjects and genres as possible. He was a prolific writer, although many of his works went unpublished until his death.

8. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778)

A radical thinker who believed in unshackling people from the confines of society, his polemic work entitled The Social Contract envisaged a world of direct democracy in which all citizens could have direct influence on the running of the state.

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His work would inspire the leaders of the French Revolution, who used Rousseau as the philosophical backbone of the new republic. Sadly the revolution and republic born out of it turned out to be somewhat more brutal and ugly than Rousseau would have envisioned.

9. Thomas Paine (1737–1809)

The English-born writer and philosopher Thomas Paine became one of the founding fathers of the American Revolution. His pamphlet, Common Sense, published in 1776, encouraged American colonists to rise up against the English. It became hugely popular within the colonies, and those who were inspired by Paine’s writing soon followed his advice and challenged English authority.

Paine was also enthralled by the French Revolution. 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 did not agree that the execution of Louis XVI was neccessary.

10. David Hume (1711-1776)

David Hume by Allan Ramsay, 1754. Image credit: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

One of the best known philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment, Hume was sceptical on a range of philosophical subjects. He attacked several theories supposedly explaining the existence of God, such as the Teleological Argument, otherwise known as the “argument from design”. 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 would function best through the existence of a strong and influential monarchy.

Luke Tomes