Major Thinkers of the Enlightenment (page 2)

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


Jean-Jacques Rousseau, born in 1712 in Geneva, Switzerland, was in many ways the odd man out among the philosophes. As his thinking developed over time, he quarreled violently with almost all of them. Concentrating on man’s emotional side rather than his reasoning powers, Rousseau believed passionately in the importance of each person as a unique individual. His works insist that the emotional makeup of a person is just as important as the intellectual; therefore, he has often been considered the father of the Romantic movement in the arts .

In The Social Contract (1762), Rousseau described his ideal society. He believed that social structure was inherently evil because, as he could see for himself, it created false ideas of inequality. He saw people born into one social rank, and thus condemned to stay in it regardless of natural merits or faults. Rousseau believed that without an imposed social structure, human beings would follow their nature and would relate to one another in benevolence rather than self-interest. This notion of the “noble savage” seemed ludicrous to many of the other philosophes, who believed that education was the key to a better society.


Denis Diderot was born in 1713 in the town of Langres in northeastern France. Like Voltaire, he received a good education under the Jesuits. He was able to turn his hand to any number of intellectual tasks, including editing, translating, and writing both fiction and nonfiction.

Diderot’s most important contribution to the legacy of the Enlightenment is the Encyclopédie. The project came about when he accepted a commission to translate Chambers’ Cyclopedia into French. Diderot decided to publish his own encyclopedia, which grew over time to seventeen volumes of text (published 1751–1765) and eleven volumes of engraved illustrations, completed in 1773. Until 1758, mathematician Jean Baptiste d’Alembert worked with Diderot as coeditor; when D’Alembert withdrew, succumbing to pressure from powerful vested interests who did not want to see the work published, Diderot carried on alone.

As its name suggests, the Encyclopédie was an attempt to sum up all human knowledge in one place. It included articles by all the greatest thinkers and writers of the age (including Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot himself) on a variety of topics: science, technology, crafts, mathematics, art, religion, music, and history. The purpose of the Encyclopédie was to enlighten the ignorant—to provide ordinary people with information that everyone, as a sentient being in the world, should know. The philosophes believed strongly in the value of education; they saw ignorance as their enemy. They believed that educating the common people was one of the most basic and important ways to improve society.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

The Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment Practice Test

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