The Enlightenment

The Enlightenment Period started in the late 17th century, and was a time of dramatic progress and innovation in many disciplines, including social and political theory, sciences and economics. It was a time of emergence of many great thinkers like John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Paine and Immanuel Kant. Underpinning most Enlightenment theorising was a growing belief in rationality, where our understanding of the nature world was developed exclusive of religion, and a conviction in the power of social and political structural improvement to overcome human cruelty and violence.

The key philosophes (French Enlightenment thinkers) to be considered are Montesquieu, Voltaire and Rousseau.

Charles-Louis de Secondat MONTESQUIEU

Notable work

De l’Esprit de Lois (‘The Spirit of the Laws’)

Key ideas

  • Separation of powers. This entailed power to be distributed across three branches: legislative (i.e. the parliamentary lawmakers), executive (i.e. the government) and judiciary (i.e. the courts).
  • Religious tolerance
  • Constitutional monarchy, in the style of Britain. This involved a representative government holding legislative power, with a monarch as the executive power.

Francois-Marie de Arouet de VOLTAIRE

Key ideas

  • Religious tolerance. Voltaire emphasised the necessity of the separation of Church and State.
  • Freedom of the press, involving an end to government censorship.
  • Social utility, which theorised that happier citizens would be more productive member of community.
  • Justice, especially in the need for reform in criminal procedures and legal codes.

Jean-Jacques ROUSSEAU

Notable work

Du contrat social (‘The Social Contract’)

Key ideas

  • Contract between the ruler (or government) and its people, where the ruler’s power resides in the people who have appointed it.
  • The general will, where one’s natural state is one of liberty and equality.

Rousseau was a significant influence on Robespierre, as well as Sieyès.


See Also

Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen