Any mention of the Enlightenment conjures the same cast of characters: Adam Smith, Voltaire, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, and the rest. But while these figures were hugely influential, their popularity can obscure many equally important men and women whose convictions radically changed the world.
Here are 5 of the most important Enlightenment figures who don’t get nearly enough attention.
1. Madame de Staël
‘There are three great powers struggling against Napoleon for the soul of Europe: England, Russia, and Madame de Staël’
claimed a contemporary.
Women are often excluded from histories of the Enlightenment. But despite the social prejudices and obstacles of her time, Madame de Staël managed to exert great influence over some of the most important moments of the age.
She was present at the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Estates General of 1789. Her ‘salon’ was one of the most important talking-shops in France, hosting some of the finest minds whose ideas were reshaping society.
She published treatises on the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Baron de Montesquieu, wrote wildly successful novels which are still in print today, and realised faster than most of her generation that Napoleon Bonaparte was an autocrat in waiting.
She journeyed across Europe, from the Habsburg Empire to Russia. She met twice with Tsar Alexander I, with whom she discussed the theories of Machiavelli.
After her death in 1817, Lord Byron wrote that Madame de Staël was
‘sometimes right and often wrong about Italy and England – but almost always true in delineating the heart’
2. Alexander von Humboldt
Explorer, naturalist, philosopher, botanist, geographer: Alexander von Humboldt was truly a polymath.
From human-induced climate change to the theory that the universe is a single interconnected entity, he proposed many new ideas for the first time. He resurrected the word ‘cosmos’ from Ancient Greek, spotted that South America and Africa were once joined together, and published influential works on topics as diverse as zoology and astronomy.
A huge array of scientists and philosophers claimed to have been inspired by him, including Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, and John Muir. Darwin made frequent references to von Humboldt in his seminal Voyage on the Beagle.
The 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, published in 1910-11, crowned von Humboldt as the father of this enlightened mutual endeavour:
‘Thus that scientific conspiracy of nations which is one of the noblest fruits of modern civilisation was by his [von Humboldt’s] exertions first successfully organised’
3. Baron de Montesquieu
Montesquieu isn’t exactly obscure, but given his status as the most quoted author in the writings of America’s founding fathers, neither does he get enough attention.
A nobleman from the south of France, Montesquieu visited England for the first time in 1729, and the country’s political genius was to have a lasting impact on his writings.
Montesquieu synthesised a lifetime’s thinking in De l’esprit des lois (usually translated as The Spirit of the Laws), published anonymously in 1748. Three years later, it was inducted into the Catholic Church’s list of prohibited texts which did nothing to prevent the book’s vast impact.
Montesquieu’s passionate arguments for the constitutional separation of powers influenced Catherine the Great, Alexis de Tocqueville, and the Founding Fathers. Later, his arguments to end slavery were influential in the eventual outlawing of slaves in the 19th century.
The Spirit of the Laws is also credited for helping to lay the groundwork for sociology, which would coalesce into its own discipline by the end of the 1800s.
4. John Witherspoon
The Scottish Enlightenment, starring David Hume and Adam Smith, is well-known. It was as a homage to these groundbreaking thinkers that Edinburgh was dubbed ‘the Athens of the North’. Many of them are well remembered, but not John Witherspoon.
A staunch Protestant, Witherspoon wrote three popular works of theology. But he was also a republican.
After fighting for the cause of republican government (and being imprisoned for it), Witherspoon eventually became one of the signatories of America’s Declaration of Independence.
But he also had a more practical impact. Witherspoon was appointed president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). Under his influence, Princeton evolved from being a college to train clergymen into one of the leading institutions for educating political thinkers.
Witherspoon’s Princeton produced many students who had a hugely important role in shaping America’s development, including James Madison (who served as the United States’ 4th President), three judges of the Supreme Court, and 28 U.S. senators.
Historian Douglass Adair credited Witherspoon with shaping James Madison’s political ideology:
‘The syllabus of Witherspoon’s lectures . . . explains the conversion of the young Virginian [Madison] to the philosophy of the Enlightenment’
5. Mary Wollstonecraft
Despite being chiefly remembered for her Vindication of the Rights of Women, Mary Wollstonecraft achieved so much more.
From an early age, she demonstrated clear-thinking, courage and strength of character. As an adult, she lived her principles in an age when it was dangerous to do so.
Wollstonecraft was profoundly frustrated by the limited options available to poor women at the time. In 1786, she abandoned her life of a governess and decided that she would make a living from her writing. It was a decision that made Wollstonecraft one of the most significant figures of her era.
She learned French and German, translating numerous radical texts. She held long debates with important thinkers like Thomas Paine and Jacob Priestley. When the Duke of Talleyrand, France’s foreign minister, visited London in 1792, it was Wollstonecraft who demanded that girls in Jacobin France be given the same education as boys.
Publishing novels, children’s books, and philosophical treatises, her later marriage to the radical William Godwin also gave her a radical daughter – Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein.