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Major Thinkers of the Enlightenment

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012

Major Thinkers of the Enlightenment

The philosophes of the Enlightenment were such a large and varied group that this book can only cover a few of the most prominent.

Montesquieu

Charles-Louis Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, was born in 1689 in the Gironde region of southwestern France. His two most famous works are the Persian Letters (1721) and L’Esprit des lois, or The Spirit of Laws (1748).

Many scholars consider the Persian Letters as the book that began the Enlightenment. It is in the form of a collection of letters written by two fictional Persian travelers in Europe. The travelers observe and comment on French society, government, and customs, and also discuss conditions at the Persian court they have left behind. Montesquieu used this format to make some pointed, although veiled, criticisms of the despotism that prevailed at this time in France. He scoffed at the vanity and pride that the hereditary nobles took in their social position, noting that it came not from intelligence or virtue but from the accident of birth. Montesquieu published the Persian Letters anonymously in the Netherlands, a common course for authors to pursue at that time if they thought their ideas would stir up trouble with the authorities. The book was a great success, going through several editions in a single year.

The Spirit of Laws is a work of serious political theory; unlike Persian Letters, it does not make its points under the guise of fiction. This was the first book to advocate a balanced government made of different branches—executive, legislative, and judicial—each of which had some power over the others. Montesquieu believed this was the best way to avoid the autocracy that he felt was corrupt and harmful to society. The work also examined the roles of major social institutions such as the Church, which lost no time placing it on the Index of Forbidden Books. However, it was widely read and highly influential; fifty years after the book’s appearance, the government of the United States was organized along the lines suggested by Montesquieu.

Voltaire

Born in Paris in 1694, François-Marie Arouet was educated by the Jesuits and determined early on to pursue a career in writing. Around 1718, he coined the pen name “Voltaire,” by which he was known for the rest of his long and productive life.

One of Voltaire’s most important concerns was freedom of religion. During a three-year stay in England in the 1720s, he observed what he considered an ideal society, one that supported its artists and men of letters while allowing its citizens to worship as they saw fit. By praising England enthusiastically in his Letters on England (1733), Voltaire implied severe criticism of the very different conditions in France; as a consequence, the book was banned in his own country. Voltaire was twice imprisoned in the Bastille for his writings; after the second prison term, he moved to the Swiss border area, where it would be easy to flee if the state pursued him in the future.

Voltaire published throughout his lifetime, both fiction and nonfiction, and kept up a voluminous correspondence with all the great thinkers of his age. His best-known work is the short novel Candide (1759), which lampoons many of the worst aspects of European society: government, military life, and religion. The novel concludes that “one must cultivate one’s garden”—in other words, what is most important is to use one’s intellectual and philosophical skills to solve real, practical problems in a realistic and practical way.

Voltaire lived to the great age of eighty-four, not quite long enough to wit- ness the French Revolution but long enough to see himself crowned as the elder statesman of the Enlightenment.

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