11 The Enlightenment

The Enlightenment

The Enlightenment, a philosophical movement that dominated in Europe during the 18th century, was centered around the idea that reason is the primary source of authority and legitimacy, and advocated such ideals as liberty, progress, tolerance, fraternity, constitutional government, and separation of church and state.

The Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Enlightenment, was a philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe in the 18th century. It was centered around the idea that reason is the primary source of authority and legitimacy, and it advocated such ideals as liberty, progress, tolerance, fraternity, constitutional government, and separation of church and state. The Enlightenment was marked by an emphasis on the scientific method along with increased questioning of religious orthodoxy. The ideas of the Enlightenment undermined the authority of the monarchy and the church, and paved the way for the political revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries.

The ideas of the Enlightenment played a major role in inspiring the French Revolution, which began in 1789 and emphasized the rights of the common people, as opposed to the exclusive rights of the elites. However, historians of race, gender, and class note that Enlightenment ideals were not originally envisioned as universal in the today’s sense of the word. Although they did eventually inspire the struggle for rights of people of color, women, or the working masses, most Enlightenment thinkers did not advocate equality for all, regardless of race, gender, or class, but rather insisted that rights and freedoms were not hereditary. This perspective directly attacked the traditionally exclusive position of the European aristocracy, but was still largely limited to expanding the political and individual rights of white males of particular social standing.


In the mid-18th century, Europe witnessed an explosion of philosophic and scientific activity that challenged traditional doctrines and dogmas. The philosophic movement was led by Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who argued for a society based upon reason rather than faith and Catholic doctrine, for a new civil order based on natural law, and for science based on experiments and observation. The political philosopher Montesquieu introduced the idea of a separation of powers in a government, a concept which was enthusiastically adopted by the authors of the United States Constitution. While the philosophers of the French Enlightenment were not revolutionaries, and many were members of the nobility, their ideas played an important part in undermining the legitimacy of the Old Regime and shaping the French Revolution.

There were two distinct lines of Enlightenment thought: the radical enlightenment, inspired by the philosophy of Spinoza, advocating democracy, individual liberty, freedom of expression, and eradication of religious authority. A second, more moderate variety, supported by René Descartes, John Locke, Christian Wolff, Isaac Newton and others, sought accommodation between reform and the traditional systems of power and faith.

Much of what is incorporated in the scientific method (the nature of knowledge, evidence, experience, and causation), and some modern attitudes towards the relationship between science and religion, were developed by David Hume and Adam Smith. Hume became a major figure in the skeptical philosophical and empiricist traditions of philosophy. Immanuel Kant tried to reconcile rationalism and religious belief, individual freedom and political authority, as well as map out a view of the public sphere through private and public reason. Kant’s work continued to shape German thought, and indeed all of European philosophy, well into the 20th century. Mary Wollstonecraft was one of England’s earliest feminist philosophers. She argued for a society based on reason, and that women, as well as men, should be treated as rational beings.

Encyclopedie's frontspiece, engraving
Encyclopedie’s frontspiece, engraving by Benoit Louis Prevost

“If there is something you know, communicate it. If there is something you don’t know, search for it.” An engraving from the 1772 edition of the Encyclopédie. Truth, in the top center, is surrounded by light and unveiled by the figures to the right, Philosophy and Reason.


While the Enlightenment cannot be pigeonholed into a specific doctrine or set of dogmas, science came to play a leading role in Enlightenment discourse and thought. Many Enlightenment writers and thinkers had backgrounds in the sciences, and associated scientific advancement with the overthrow of religion and traditional authority in favor of the development of free speech and thought. Broadly speaking, Enlightenment science greatly valued empiricism and rational thought, and was embedded with the Enlightenment ideal of advancement and progress. As with most Enlightenment views, the benefits of science were not seen universally.

Modern Western Government

The Enlightenment has long been hailed as the foundation of modern western political and intellectual culture. It brought political modernization to the west, in terms of focusing on democratic values and institutions, and the creation of modern, liberal democracies.

The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes ushered in a new debate on government with his work Leviathan in 1651. Hobbes also developed some of the fundamentals of European liberal thought: the right of the individual; the natural equality of all men, the artificial character of the political order (which led to the later distinction between civil society and the state), the view that all legitimate political power must be “representative” and based on the consent of the people, and a liberal interpretation of law which leaves people free to do whatever the law does not explicitly forbid.

John Locke and Rousseau also developed social contract theories. While differing in details, Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau agreed that a social contract, in which the government’s authority lies in the consent of the governed, is necessary for man to live in civil society. Locke is particularly known for his statement that individuals have a right to “Life, Liberty and Property,” and his belief that the natural right to property is derived from labor. His theory of natural rights has influenced many political documents, including the United States Declaration of Independence and the French National Constituent Assembly’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Though much of Enlightenment’s political thought was dominated by social contract theorists, some Scottish philosophers, most notably David Hume and Adam Ferguson, criticized this camp. Theirs was the assumption that governments derived from a ruler’s authority and force (Hume) and polities grew out of social development rather than social contract (Ferguson).


Enlightenment era religious commentary was a response to the preceding century of religious conflict in Europe. Enlightenment thinkers sought to curtail the political power of organized religion, and thereby prevent another age of intolerant religious war. A number of novel ideas developed, including Deism (belief in God the Creator, with no reference to the Bible or any other source) and atheism. The latter was much discussed but there were few proponents. Many, like Voltaire, held that without belief in a God who punishes evil, the moral order of society was undermined.

The radical Enlightenment promoted the concept of separating church and state, an idea often credited to Locke. According to Locke’s principle of the social contract, the government lacked authority in the realm of individual conscience, as this was something rational people could not cede to the government for it or others to control. For Locke, this created a natural right in the liberty of conscience, which he said must therefore remain protected from any government authority. These views on religious tolerance and the importance of individual conscience, along with the social contract, became particularly influential in the American colonies and the drafting of the United States Constitution.

painting of Mary Wollstonecraft
Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie, National Portrait Gallery, London

While the philosophy of the Enlightenment was dominated by men, the question of women’s rights appeared as one of the most controversial ideas. Mary Wollstonecraft, one of few female thinkers of the time, was an English writer, philosopher, and advocate of women’s rights. She is best known for A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), in which she argues that women are not naturally inferior to men, but appear to be only because they lack education. She suggests that both men and women should be treated as rational beings and imagines a social order founded on reason.

Question to Consider: What is the role of women in the Enlightenment? How does that role compare to the role of women in other periods, like the Athenians in the Age of Pericles?



Rationalism, or a belief that we come to knowledge through the use of logic, and thus independently of sensory experience, was critical to the debates of the Enlightenment period, when most philosophers lauded the power of reason but insisted that knowledge comes from experience.

painting of Rene Descartes
Rene Descartes, after Frans Hals

Rationalism—as an appeal to human reason as a way of obtaining knowledge—has a philosophical history dating from antiquity. While rationalism, as the view that reason is the main source of knowledge, did not dominate the Enlightenment, it laid critical basis for the debates that developed over the course of the 18th century. As the Enlightenment centered on reason as the primary source of authority and legitimacy, many philosophers of the period drew from earlier philosophical contributions, most notably those of René Descartes (1596-1650),a French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist. Descartes was the first of the modern rationalists. He thought that only knowledge of eternal truths (including the truths of mathematics and the foundations of the sciences) could be attained by reason alone, while the knowledge of physics required experience of the world, aided by the scientific method. He argued that reason alone determined knowledge, and that this could be done independently of the senses.

Immanuel Kant

Painting of Immanuel Kant
Immanuel Kant, artist unknown

Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz are usually credited for laying the groundwork for the 18th-century Enlightenment. During the mature Enlightenment period, Immanuel Kant attempted to explain the relationship between reason and human experience, and to move beyond the failures of traditional philosophy and metaphysics. He wanted to put an end to an era of futile and speculative theories of human experience, and regarded himself as ending and showing the way beyond the impasse between rationalists and empiricists. He is widely held to have synthesized these two early modern traditions in his thought.

Natural Rights

Natural rights, understood as those that are not dependent on the laws, customs, or beliefs of any particular culture or government,(and therefore, universal and inalienable) were central to the debates during the Enlightenment on the relationship between the individual and the government.

Natural Rights and Natural Law

Natural rights are usually juxtaposed with the concept of legal rights. Legal rights are those bestowed onto a person by a given legal system (i.e., rights that can be modified, repealed, and restrained by human laws). Natural rights are those that are not dependent on the laws, customs, or beliefs of any particular culture or government, and are therefore universal and inalienable (i.e., rights that cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws). Natural rights are closely related to the concept of natural law (or laws). During the Enlightenment, the concept of natural laws was used to challenge the divine right of kings, and became an alternative justification for the establishment of a social contract, positive law, and government (and thus, legal rights) in the form of classical republicanism (built around concepts such as civil society, civic virtue, and mixed government). Conversely, the concept of natural rights is used by others to challenge the legitimacy of all such establishments.

The idea of natural rights is also closely related to that of human rights; some acknowledge no difference between the two, while others choose to keep the terms separate to eliminate association with some features traditionally associated with natural rights.

Natural Rights and Social Contract

Although natural rights have been discussed since antiquity, it was the philosophers of the Age of Enlightenment that developed the modern concept of natural rights, which has been critical to the modern republican government and civil society.

Thomas Hobbes’ conception of natural rights extended from his conception of man in a “state of nature.” He argued that the essential natural (human) right was “to use his own power, as he will himself, for the preservation of his own Nature; that is to say, of his own Life.” Hobbes sharply distinguished this natural “liberty” from natural “laws.” In his natural state, according to Hobbes, man’s life consisted entirely of liberties, and not at all of laws. Since by our (human) nature, we seek to maximize our well being, rights are prior to law, natural or institutional, and people will not follow the laws of nature without first being subjected to a sovereign power, without which all ideas of right and wrong are meaningless.

Portrait of Thomas Hobbes by John Michael Wright
Portrait of Thomas Hobbes by John Michael Wright
Portrait of John Locke by Sir Godfrey Kneller
John Locke in 1697, by Sir Godfrey Kneller

The most famous natural right formulation comes from John Locke in his Second Treatise, when he introduces the state of nature. For Locke, the law of nature is grounded on mutual security, or the idea that one cannot infringe on another’s natural rights, as every man is equal and has the same inalienable rights. These natural rights include perfect equality and freedom and the right to preserve life and property. Such fundamental rights could not be surrendered in the social contract. Another 17th-century Englishman, John Lilburne (known as Freeborn John) argued for level human rights that he called “freeborn rights,” which he defined as being rights that every human being is born with, as opposed to rights bestowed by government or by human law. The distinction between alienable and unalienable rights was introduced by Francis Hutcheson, who argued that “Unalienable Rights are essential Limitations in all Governments.” In the German Enlightenment, Georg Hegel gave a highly developed treatment of the inalienability argument. Like Hutcheson, he based the theory of inalienable rights on the de facto inalienability of those aspects of personhood that distinguish persons from things. A thing, like a piece of property, can in fact be transferred from one person to another. According to Hegel, the same would not apply to those aspects that make one a person. Consequently, the question of whether property is an aspect of natural rights remains a matter of debate.

Thomas Paine further elaborated on natural rights in his influential work Rights of Man (1791), emphasizing that rights cannot be granted by any charter because this would legally imply they can also be revoked, and under such circumstances, they would be reduced to privileges.

Adapted from “World Civilizations” from Lumen Learning is licensed CC BY-SA: Attribution-ShareAlike

Questions to Consider: What are natural rights? What is social contract? How do you see these applied today?


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