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The Enlightenment And The Role Of The Philosophers

843 words - 3 pages

The Enlightenment is a name given by historians to an intellectual movement that waspredominant in the Western world during the 18th century. Strongly influenced by therise of modern science and by the aftermath of the long religious conflict that followedthe Reformation, the thinkers of the Enlightenment (called philosophes in France) werecommitted to secular views based on reason or human understanding only, which they hopedwould provide a basis for beneficial changes affecting every area of life and thought.The more extreme and radical philosophes--Denis Diderot, Claude Adrien Helvetius, Barond'Holbach, the Marquis de Condorcet, and Julien Offroy de La Mettrie (1709-51)--advocateda philosophical rationalism deriving its methods from science and natural philosophy thatwould replace religion as the means of knowing nature and destiny of humanity; these menwere materialists, pantheists, or atheists. Other enlightened thinkers, such as PierreBayle, Voltaire, David Hume, Jean Le Rond D'alembert, and Immanuel Kant, opposedfanaticism, but were either agnostic or left room for some kind of religious faith.All of the philosophes saw themselves as continuing the work of the great 17th centurypioneers--Francis Bacon, Galileo, Descartes, Leibnitz, Isaac Newton, and John Locke--whohad developed fruitful methods of rational and empirical inquiry and had demonstrated thepossibility of a world remade by the application of knowledge for human benefit. Thephilosophes believed that science could reveal nature as it truly is and show how it couldbe controlled and manipulated. This belief provided an incentive to extend scientificmethods into every field of inquiry, thus laying the groundwork for the development of themodern social sciences.The enlightened understanding of human nature was one that emphasized the right to self-expression and human fulfillment, the right to think freely and express one's views publiclywithout censorship or fear of repression. Voltaire admired the freedom he found in Englandand fostered the spread of English ideas on the Continent. He and his followers opposedthe intolerance of the established Christian churches of their day, as well as the Europeangovernments that controlled and suppressed dissenting opinions. For example, the socialdisease which Pangloss caught from Paquette was traced to a 'very learned Franciscan' andlater to a Jesuit. Also, Candide reminisces that his passion for Cunegonde first developedat a Mass. More conservative enlightened thinkers, concerned primarily with efficiency andadministrative order, favored the 'enlightened despotism' of such monarchs as EmperorJoseph II, Frederick II of Prussia, and Catherine II of Russia.Enlightened political thought expressed demands for equality and justice and for the legalchanges needed to realize these goals. Set forth by Baron de Montesquieu, the changes weremore boldly urged by the contributors to the...

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