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The European Enlightenment: The Men Behind It

1313 words - 6 pages

The European Enlightenment of the eighteenth century was a movement inspired by the era preceding it; the seventeenth century was full of scientific discovery which challenged age-old beliefs and built faith in man’s reason rather than superstition and religion. Impressed with the works and philosophies of men such as Descartes and Galileo, intellectuals began to construct new ways of thinking that relied on man’s ability to apply reason to not only physics, but to human nature. The conceptual force behind the Enlightenment therefore began in the seventeenth century with the rise of human reason above blind faith, and the concept took form and flourished in the eighteenth century due to a ...view middle of the document...

Descartes strongly believed in deism, the system of thought that denies the interference of the Creator with the laws of the universe. Descartes acknowledged the existence of God, although his philosophies placed Him as only the Creator, limiting him to serve a strictly spiritual purpose whereas men were free to begin exploring the world independent of God. This divorce between the spiritual and the physical worlds tended to lead to a purely materialistic interpretation of the physical. Before the separation of life into secular and religious, there had been no such distinction. Previous Dark Age belief reduced natural phenomenon like lightning and comets into spiritual occurrences which were to be feared. Now that modern scientists and philosophers were dispelling fear and explaining phenomenon with scientific reason, the two worlds of spiritual and physical began to diverge. For this reason, Thinkers and scientists of the seventeenth century faced scorn and skepticism and even punishment from the religious community. In 1633 Galileo was condemned by the Catholic Church and Descartes himself died in Exile in 1650, and the Pope had his works listed in the Index of Prohibited Books. Nevertheless, Descartes’ mathematical, deductive method had a profound influence on the men of the eighteenth century, works managed to inspire a century’s more worth of rational thinkers who challenged religious dogma and traditional thought and encouraged men to push past the boundaries of old ideas.
François-Marie Arouet, or his more well-known pen name, Voltaire, was inspired by Descartes’ writings and came to be one of the key figures in the eighteenth century Enlightenment movement. He is especially known for his criticism of Christianity, and like Descartes, he championed deism. Voltaire’s Dictionnaire philosophique was the summation of his philosophy, and Voltaire came to the conclusion that “reason was the only weapon that raised man above the animals.” Voltaire, leaving the world over fourteen thousand known letters and over two thousand books and pamphlets, managed to popularize and transmit to the literate public of Europe the scientific ideas of the seventeenth century, including Descartes’. Voltaire was also a humanist, and as well as using reason and logic like the seventeenth century scientists, he saw the need for social reform and defended civil liberties such as rights to a fair trials and religious tolerance. He made clever use of his works to criticize the French institutions and church dogma; his most well-known works is his Candide satire – a far too rebellious and influential novel for the authorities, and Voltaire was exiled. Voltaire’s boldness and wit inspired current and future writers across Europe to dare to question and challenge old beliefs and used his opinions to usher in social reform.
Voltaire was joined by another French philosopher and writer Denis Diderot, who was also singled out for punishment because of his rebellious...

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