Spreading the Ideals of the Enlightenment

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Spreading the Ideals of the Enlightenment

Painting from 1812 depicting an evening in Marie-Thérèse de Geoffrin's salon. One of the best-known women of the Enlightenment, Geoffrin was the hostess of a salon that attracted artists, philosophers, politicians, and many other intellectuals during this critical period in France's development.

Goals of the Philosophes
The Enlightenment was a movement led by 18th-century European thinkers. They included storytellers, editors, playwrights, critics, and philosophers. The most famous group of Enlightenment thinkers were the French philosophes. The Enlightenment varied from country to country, and the thinkers disagreed on many subjects. However, they shared many basic ideas.

The goal of the Enlightenment thinkers was to enlighten—or inform—the public. They aimed to convince others of their ideas. Their hope was to crush superstition, intolerance, and slavery. They wanted to make people "freer, richer, and more civilized."

Criticism was at the heart of the intellectuals' efforts. Enlightenment thinkers aimed to criticize everything. They examined monarchy, religion, government, education, law, prisons, history—even human nature. One philosopher called his time "the very age of criticism."

Roots of Enlightenment Thinking
Two great thinkers of the 1600s helped to set the stage for the Enlightenment. They were both from England: the scientist Sir Isaac Newton and the philosopher John Locke.

Newton used painstaking experiments to test mathematical ideas. One of his most important discoveries was the law of gravity. His work helped to explain the universe—the movement of planets and stars and the nature of light. Newton and other scientists of the scientific revolution inspired 18th-century thinkers. They applied scientific methods to examine and understand life. By using scientific reasoning, Enlightenment intellectuals believed they could discover the truth about human society and nature.

The philosopher Locke tried to explain how people learn. He said that everyone's mind is blank at birth. Through experience, people gain knowledge. Even our understanding of good and evil comes from our experience of pleasure and pain. Locke's thinking led to the notion that people are born equal. His work inspired the Enlightenment thinkers in their criticism of church and state.

Other Influences
By 1660, Europeans were aware of distant civilizations. They recognized that some, like China, had impressive governments, cultures, and histories. Yet those societies had evolved without Christianity.
Enlightenment thinkers used that information to support their views on tolerance. Geography and climate, they said, determined government and customs. Christianity was not the only path to the truth. Those ideas brought the philosophers into conflict with the Christian church and eventually with the ruling elite.

In addition, the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which killed tens of thousands of people, shattered faith and optimism. Some philosophers saw the event as a sign of God's indifference. Others proclaimed that God did not exist.

Influence of the Enlightenment
The age of Enlightenment was not truly an enlightened age, as the philosopher Kant declared. Most people still clung to old superstitions and customs. Enlightenment ideas had spread through the educated elite, but the lower classes remained uninformed.

Yet in their own day, Enlightenment thinkers became respectable, influential, and even feared. Monarchs sought their advice and corresponded with them. Toleration gradually became more widespread. Witchcraft trials declined, and torture disappeared in many places. Education increased. Across Europe, laws were reformed.


  1. What was the goal of the Enlightenment thinkers?

  1. Explain how the Scientific Revolution is connected to the Enlightenment.

  1. Who was John Locke? What did he believe?

  1. Many Enlightenment thinkers came into conflict with what institution? Why?

  1. Enlightenment ideas did not spread to everyone. Who remained uninformed? Why?

  1. What do you think are some of the long term effects of the Enlightenment?

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