The Enlightenment

100 years of Reason and Progress made easy

Weimar’s Courtyard of the Muses

The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, the Century of Philosophy. Take your pick from any of these semi-snobbish string of words. They all refer largely to the late 17th/18th century, from approximately 1685–1815.

There are no precise dates that one can emphatically deem to be ‘the Enlightenment’. Historical events like WW1 or the Peloponnesian War generally have well-defined beginnings and resolutions because they are actual, physical episodes that have reverberations in their corresponding day and age.

The Enlightenment is a different sort of fish. It is a vague, retrospective labeling of an amorphous philosophical/intellectual movement that had been brewing for over a century.

It is also devoid of the chains of geography — though hubs of inspiration undoubtedly existed (French, German, Scottish), the Enlightenment transcended borders within Europe.

But more than just abstract philosophy, we will come to see that Enlightenment ideals changed the course of history.

Its political ideas sparked the French Revolution and inspired the American Constitution, its economics bore the free market, its reason gave birth to human rights, and its pursuit of equality still chase us today.

But for such an influential movement, there are no hard timelines of notable peace treaties or political assassinations; only scholar’s birth-dates, death-dates and publishing dates. Why?

The Enlightenment was ultimately centered around thinkers and their ideas, who used human reason to inspire progress.

A proto-definition emerges, but of course, one short sentence won’t do justice. Immanuel Kant spent considerable time on the same issue. He wrote an essay, “Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment?” (1784), in which he defined Enlightenment as the ‘maturity of humanity’, where “immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another.”

Besides the superficial definition, Kant was indirectly on to something as well — that a complete understanding of an ideal might only come about with a complete understanding of what the ideal is not (for Kant, immaturity with respect to maturity).

Thus, I think the best way to understand the Enlightenment is if we first explain what the Enlightenment is NOT, or, to contrast with other parts of human history.

What the Enlightenment is NOT

We start in the Middle Ages — a thousand-year chunk of human history from approximately 476 A.D — 1492 A.D. Some also call it the Dark Ages.

To give the reader a brief idea of the mood that characterised the late stages of the Dark Ages (as if the name didn’t make that clear enough), significant themes that ran were: the Catholic Church’s clout, the Crusades against the Muslims, Black Death and the Inquisition.

The Spanish Inquisition

I am guilty of cherry picking, no doubt, but it is only to set the scene of a period marked by blind devotion, fundamentalism, cruelty and death. Religious crusades were commissioned to purge the land of heretics and infidels through torture and death.

One might even go so far as to say that religion was feared amongst the people. Science and philosophy were sanctioned only insofar as they conformed to theology and showed piety to God’s creations.

For example, a little after the Middle Ages, Giordano Bruno was famously burned alive by the Roman Inquisition for postulating the existence of other solar systems and advancing a heliocentric theory of the stars where the Earth revolves around the Sun.

Galileo before the Holy Office — Joseph-Nicolas Robert-Fleury

Though both theories have been verified today, they were an insult to the fundamentalist theism of the Inquisition; for how could God’s favourite species not be at the centre of His creation? Thus, Bruno was burned at the stake for preaching the truth.

In the 16th century, Bruno was a condemned heretic. Today, some might call him a scientist.

The most concise description I’ve came across of the late Middle Ages comes from 18th Century historian Edward Gibbon who referred it to it as a period of “barbarism and religion”.

It thus does not come as any surprise that by the 1500s, a lack of innovation and progress due to a stifling of good ideas led to widespread discontentment amongst the populace. Thus began the Renaissance — a period of rediscovery of classical ideas, especially of Greco-Roman culture and ancient philosophy.

For our purposes, it is important to note that the concept of humanism (briefly, a strong valuation of human agency and independence) had begun to take shape during the Renaissance.

It was a re-vitalised version of the ancient Roman’s Humanitas, the classical Greek’s philanthrôpía and specifically the philosophies of the Greats like Socrates and Aristotle (click on the links to read more on Ancient History). As we will come to see, this ‘humanism’ would take a great leap forward 200 years later during the Enlightenment.

After the Renaissance, we begin to observe a transition into the Scientific Revolution.

These are two significantly different epochs, because while the former is a revival of the ancient, the latter is marked by going beyond conventional age-old wisdom and tradition.

But that is not to say the Renaissance wasn’t important in laying the foundations for Science, for how else can we discover the new without first understanding the old?

In 1543, a Polish mathematician called Nicolaus Copernicus published his magnum opus — On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres. He formally charged that the Earth was not at the centre of the Universe nor even the centre of the Solar System! We were but one planet revolving around one (big) star, the Sun.

Joseph Wright of Derby, A Philosopher Giving A Lecture at the Orrery, c. 1765, oil on canvas, 147 x 203 cm (Derby Museum and Art Gallery, Derby, England)

In the painting above (1765), we observe a class on planetary motion. The philosopher and his students surround the device known as the orrery — a clockwork device that mimics the motion of planets around the Sun (Copernicus’ heliocentric model). This picture is apt not least because it gives us an idea of what our ancestors believed in.

On a meta level, this painting is a fitting microcosm of the entire Scientific Revolution itself.

It demonstrates the nascent human appetite to use knowledge to build machinery, the willingness to transmit information to the younger generation and most importantly, our newfound curiosity and desire to explain the Universe rationally.

Though Copernicus’ heliocentric model of the Universe was but the first of many scientific theories to come, he also came to represent an ideal: using logic, reasoning and evidence to make conclusions no matter how revolutionary.

Thus more important than Copernicus’ actual thinking was his way of thinking — something that will have reverberate through the pages of human history, beyond simply physics and science.

To crystallise this new trend of science and the scientific method, Francis Bacon in 1620 wrote his thesis titled “Novum Organum”, in which he conceived of the new science as being founded on empirical experimentation and evidence.

The Universe, he claimed, could be understood by deriving mathematical principles that consistently explained an observed phenomena. The former limb of the sentence was revolutionary, because it debunked the idea that the Universe operated on arbitrary whims and fancies of a bearded man in the sky.

Bacon thought that the Universe was not permanently unfathomable— it was only temporarily unaccountable. The Universe was predictable, understandable, even rational.

Then came Issac.

Sir Isaac Newton — Wikipedia

In 1687, Issac Newton published his Principia and became famous for the laws of motion and gravitation. Though Newtonian gravity was eventually disproved by Einstein, Newton nevertheless remained a revolutionary figure because he represented the epitome of Bacon’s New Instrument (‘Novum Organum’).

One can see it this way: Newton was the star student of Bacon’s scientific school of thought. He proved that Bacon wasn’t just talk — that it was possible to describe the laws of the universe AND accurately predict natural outcomes.

The reader might question why a substantial portion of content was devoted to the Scientific Revolution — after all, what do philosophy and science have in common?

A lot, as it turns out.

Perhaps, for one who was actually living through the Enlightenment, it would have been impossible to connect the dots. But with the benefit of hindsight, everything seems so clear…almost inevitable.

Because more than just turning on some men in white lab coats, the Scientific Revolution ignited a newfound confidence that humanity could comprehend the world.

We take this for granted today, but just imagine: it took 198 000 years since the appearance of the first Sapien before we finally had the courage to say “I have the capability to understand Mother Nature. I have the capability to understand my ‘creator’”.

The Universe itself became rational — suddenly there were but a few unerring laws of nature that governed all conduct in it, and by extension, we who could now understand and predict the Universe automatically qualified as rational beings. Only the rational understand reason.

Solar Eclipse superstitions — TIME

We no longer needed the jealous Zeus to explain thunder. Or angry Poseidon to explain the waves. Or an ailing tree-spirit to explain the decay of a branch. We no longer needed religion to explain the world. We could rely on science. We could rely on ourselves. We could explain the world.

(One might consider the last paragraph to be contentious, but read it again: this author is not suggesting religion is useless, in fact, to the exact contrary, he believes that religion is beautiful, necessary, and really just none of my business. All I’m saying is that we no longer need to invoke God to explain simple truths like why water boils.)

Science is a celebration of humanity. Science is humanism.

Science gave us new powers to question. To question the Universe no doubt, but more potently, to question ourselves — our preconceptions, our bias, our assumptions.

The hallmark of new-age scientific thought, epitomised by the likes of Newton, Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler and Harvey, was that they went against conventional wisdom.

Thus, the biggest takeaway from science was not the science itself per se, but how science was conducted — 
using reason, rationality, skepticism, empiricism
combined with the conviction that progress is possible, 
an incorruptible faith in what is right rather than what is popular and 
above all else, a reverence of the infinite potential of human intellect.

Alas, after twenty-odd paragraphs of history, the scene has been adequately set for us to delve into even more history. This time, to the subject of this piece — the Enlightenment. Hopefully, the point of this venture into the Middle Ages and Scientific Revolution will be made clear in time to come.

But first, a small clarification.

Before we get any further, I think it is important to note that though I have certainly alluded to a deterministic reading of history (that is, that things were inevitable), I certainly do not believe that to be the case as logically it would be impossible.

In being human, we sometimes fall prey to the “historical arc fallacy”, which is simply a tendency for us to over-rationalise a series of events into a perfect narrative with clear-cut cause and effects. To strip history of its ‘hi’ to become a story (bad joke, I apologise).

For example, as I have earlier: the Dark Ages were a period of despondency, that inevitably led to a rediscovery of the classics in the Renaissance, which laid the foundation for a new way of thinking in Science.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with doing this so long as it is within the confines of reason and historical evidence, I think. Because to a certain extent, simple historical explanations are true.

The problem comes when we get too caught up and begin to think of history as an ever-progressing trend line (hence ‘historical arc’), marching toward its pre-determined destiny. This is patently untrue, and dangerous if we rely on this to make definitive predictions of the future from the past.

This it completely discounts the highly improbable, Black Swan events (read Taleb!) — the unpredictables that consistently change the course of history.

So the deterministic view is on one end of the extreme. But just because it is undesired, however, does not mean therefore that we should commit to the other extreme that is: condemning history as a boring recount of facts.

Jared Diamond’s excellent quote in Guns, Germs and Steel is apt here:

Already, though, I hope to have convinced you, the reader, that history is not just “one damn fact after another,” as a cynic put it. There really are broad patterns to history, and the search for their explanation is as productive as it is fascinating.

One should not overstate the importance of the backdrop of themes, ideas and beliefs that characterise a historical epoch such as the Enlightenment and its relation to other time-periods…

…but one cannot deny its existence either.

How Science was the mother of the Enlightenment

Moving on — the brewing of ideals like reason, rationality, skepticism and empiricism that originated from science culminated in an extended revolution of ideas in everything else —politics, society, philosophy and economics.

Previously, scientists were eager to determine the natural laws that governed the Universe. But as time went on, this culture of curiosity shaped the mindset of a generation.

People began to apply the tenets of science in other domains and set out to determine the natural laws that governed humanity.

The same tools of reasoning, empirical evidence, healthy skepticism and freedom from conventionality that science ‘provided’ was the basis for donning on a new set of lens to view human interaction —with authority (in government) and each other (in morality, society, criminology and economics).

This was “Enlightenment thought” — commonsensical in our times, but revolutionary for a bygone era.

In a sentence, the Enlightenment was a humanistic revolution inspired by science.

After scientific successes of the 17th Century, there was a renewed expectation that the human condition could be improved indefinitely— that progress was inevitable, and that our reason would get us there.

Bristow Williams puts this very well: he thinks that ‘the dramatic success of science in explaining the natural world promoted philosophy from a “handmaiden of theology” constrained by its purposes and methods, to an independent force with the power and authority to challenge the old and construct the new, in the realms both of theory and practice, on the basis of its own principles’. I humbly agree.

Philosophy, or more generally, reason and discussion, were the main drivers of change during the period of Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment, proper

As mentioned earlier, the Enlightenment was an international (but admittedly Western-ish) project. Though the heart of it all was a group of loosely organised Frenchmen dubbed the “philosophes” (Voltaire, D’Alembert, Diderot, Montesquieu), there were other hubs as well. There were the Scots (Adam Smith, David Hume), Germans and more.

“But these diverse groups of intellectuals had different backgrounds and cultures. Certainly they did not think the same things!”, you might wonder.

Disputes — The Creative Exiles

Indeed, though most of them agreed to a similar set of ideals such as cosmopolitanism and equality, there were heated disputes among them. The two most prominent disputes that I will discuss is Descartes/Spinoza’s rationalism vs Locke/Hume’s empiricism, and Hobbes’ Leviathanic government vs Locke/Montesquieu’s liberal one.

So what makes for a fair grouping of all these varied thinkers under the same label of “Enlightenment thinkers”?

Once again, more than just having similar thoughts (which they didn’t), it was their similar way of thinking that made them ‘enlightened’.

This allowed the debates and conflicts between differing schools of thoughts to be reasoned and fruitful, a trait that we sorely lack these days.

Though ultimately they might have disagreed, at least both interlocutors were on the same frequency; a common ground, on which rules of what qualified as sensible discussion were accepted.

There are two hallmarks of ‘Enlightenment thought’. (To be sure, this is more to give the reader a general idea of what Enlightenment was, rather than a precise definition, for the reasons mentioned above.)

Only two? Yes, after all, it would be foolish to imagine that these thinkers were homogeneous enough to fall under multiple blanket categories.

First and foremost is humanism and progressivism. Today, we take these ideals for granted, but once upon a time they were heretical. It used to be, for a long time, that a good harvest season depended on fervent prayers to the gods of harvest — that progress was a reward from the gods of whom we had absolutely no control over.

But what the Enlightenment thinkers were doing was essentially to wrest the fate of humanity back into our hands.

Through books, dictionaries and papers, their positions indirectly implied that we could come up with the best way to govern a society (Hobbes, Locke etc.), that we could think of a moral code (Kant), that humans can generate progress for humans.

The most salient evidence for this is the vast amount of literature that the Century of Philosophy gave birth to, whether it be Leviathan, On the Wealth of Nations, Two Treatise of Government etc. These show a recurring belief in all the writers that one person’s ideas can change the world for the better.

The second large characteristic I am willing to attribute to the Enlightenment is reason and rationalism.

Here, I am not referring to the extremist strand of rationalism propounded by Descartes. Rather, a more general idea, that humans were capable of using their own faculties of reason to accrue knowledge, instead of relying on scripture or religious figures.

In relation to the first idea, reason was employed as the formula for progress. Reason became the source of legitimacy for all ideas.

Thus, humans can generate progress for humans using reason.

Inevitably, when thinking about progress, these thinkers stumbled upon the same age-old questions, and with a new mindset they attempted to answer them — what rights do we have as humans? (human rights)
Is everyone entitled to the same rights? (equality, suffrage)
What duties do we have towards each other? (morality)
How should we punish those for don’t fulfil their duties? (law)
What role does religion play in society? (politics)
How should the government be organised? (governance)
Why do they have the right to rule? (social contract)
How should the market be organised? (economics)

The observant reader would be correct to realise that these two aspects of Enlightenment thinking — reason and progress, were so closely related to science’s breakthroughs one might even think them to be unoriginal.

Unoriginality, however, is an interesting point in itself. It supports the thesis that science gave birth to Enlightenment; that the impact of science ultimately went beyond the discovery of the atom, of the laws of nature — it affected everything.

It changed the way we thought about philosophy, about morality, about slavery, about markets, about law, about God…about everything.

The Thinkers

Of course, any discussion on the topic would be sorely incomplete without an honourable mention of the thinkers of the Age, for it was their thoughts and theories that made the Enlightenment ‘enlightened’.

We start with Voltaire. Voltaire is perhaps the most interesting of them all because of his caustic writing style and trademark irony. In his novel Candide (1759), Voltaire points out what was wrong with the Enlightenment.

He thought that the unbriddled optimism that characterised other thinkers such as Leibniz was naive and foolish.

His rebuke manifests itself in the character Pangloss, who maintains that “everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.”. This is despite the fact that Pangloss contracts syphilis and witnesses countless atrocities and injustices. Voltaire was directly mocking Leibniz using Pangloss as a hyperbole for his naive sanguineness.

Voltaire also indirectly criticises the inordinate amount of time he thought that his counterparts spent on armchair philosophising and the hypocrisy of religion.

He writes of a daughter of the Pope (the irony being that the Pope isn’t supposed to be sexually active), a Franciscan friar who was a jewel thief in the night (members of the Catholic-offshoot order were expected to commit to poverty and austerity to show devotion) and a gay Jesuit colonel.

Using fictional characters and plots, Voltaire thus nevertheless manages to get his message of skepticism across.

Another skeptic of the age was Rene Descartes, who famously questioned and then re-confirmed his own existence using reason. Descartes’ philosophy was to start from a position of doubt then work his way up.

In his existential conundrum, Descartes imagined the possibility of an evil demon that tricked and manufactured our sense experiences to make us think we are living, when in fact we weren’t. Because this was possible, he concludes that we cannot rely on our senses to tell us anything at all.

The Matrix (1999)

So how can we know we truly exist? Descartes realised that only reason could give us an answer and concluded that the very fact we were doubting proved that we existed. (What non-existent being can doubt?) Hence the immortal line, “Cogito, ergo sum”, or, “I think, therefore I am”.

Unsurprisingly, Descartes’ strand of extreme rationalism was met with heated opposition by Hume’s empiricism. While Descartes relied on derivation a priori, Hume was an a posteriori thinker. Hume claimed that though we can certainly form belief about what lay outside our experiences, we had no basis to conclude that that is true.

Immanuel Kant wasn’t exactly an empiricist but he was a vocal critic of extreme rationalism, observed in his Critique of Pure Reason (1781).

However, Kant is famous for a different reason. Perhaps scarred by the history of the Dark Ages, Kant welcomed of the modern erosion of traditional theism. Still, he recognised that for centuries, religion provided society with a moral code that regulated our conduct. Without it, our innate tendency to ‘sin’ would be unleashed.

Thus, in an attempt to decouple the age-old association of religion with morality, Kant came up with his own system of morality — the categorical imperative, one that relied on reason as a source of legitimacy.

“Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become universal law”

Like Kant, Baruch Spinoza also experienced a divorce with religion. Though he was brought up in a conservative Jewish community, Spinoza came to renounce theism and Judaism in particular.

He thought that it was foolish to presume that humanity, a descendant of the ape, somehow occupied some special place in the universe, and that God would intervene to produce non-natural outcomes just because we prayed hard enough.

Instead, Spinoza believed in a different type of God. He was a pantheist that equated ‘God’ with Nature, Reason, the Universe, Truth etc. He thought the universe had a creator, but that this deity simply set it all into motion and left it to run by itself.

Spinoza’s pantheist God was popular amongst his contemporaries and future thinkers. One famous subscriber was none other than Albert Einstein, the man who refuted classical Newtonian physics.

“I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the harmony of all that exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.
Albert Einstein

The abovementioned thinkers (Voltaire, Leibniz, Descartes, Hume, Kant and Spinoza), though undoubtedly influential in their own right, ultimately dwelled in the realm of the abstract.

On the other hand, the next group of thinkers I will introduce (Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu and Rousseau) were focused on the actual political climate. Though all four men came up with their own unique version of governance, they largely agreed one central point: how governance arose.

In explaining how a group of men (and they were almost certainly men) arose to a level superior to other citizens, how they were given power over their fellow men as government, these thinkers cited the paradigm of the “state of nature”.

“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”

They postulated the hypothetical beginnings of civilisation. Before government, physical, natural freedom was our birthright (Rousseau) and we would have been able to live, act and dispose of our possessions as we saw fit (Locke).

But because there were no constraints on our actions, and the fact that humans had selfish, violent tendencies, thus such a society would soon slip into a “state of war” (Locke).

People would exert their arbitrary will on others and trample on their ‘natural rights’. Unquestionably, such an outcome would be undesirable. Thus, it was thought that in exchange for peace and stability, humans collectively agreed to secede some of their natural freedoms to government.

Societies agreed to have their freedom constrained —to be subject to authority and their laws in order to avoid the state of war. This was the social contract.

And it was also where agreement between these thinkers ended.

Image result for the leviathan
Absolute authority of the Leviathan — 500ish words

The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes argued for an absolute authority in his magnum opus, Leviathan (1651). He thought that strongman leadership was necessary in making the hard choices that softer types of government. They could collect taxes for the greater good, conscript soldiers at will to defend the country etc.

Though we see shades of Hobbes’ Leviathanic government today in Putin and even China, nevertheless there are glaring flaws in this philosophy. What if government became corrupt? If there were no limits to their authority, a corrupt but absolute government could potentially stay in power forever and cause untold suffering of the citizens at their own benefit.

Indeed, his fellow Englishman John Locke was aware of the problems that an unchecked government posed.

Locke wrote his famous Two Treatises of Government (1689) as a direct response to the current political situation in England. Locke was born into the English Civil War caused by a power struggle between the monarchy (King Charles I) and Parliamentarians. The King was accused of abusing his authority, stripping power from Parliament and infringing on religious freedoms.

Naturally, Locke, who had liberal predilections and who was mentored by a Parliamentarian, developed controversial views regarding the traditional delineation of power to the monarch.

The English Civil War — Reaction

In his Treatise, Locke alluded to a series of fundamental rights that every human intrinsically possessed. He also argued that the laws only work because people accept them, thus political power should only be used to protect the people rather than abuse them.

The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions… (and) when his own preservation comes not in competition, ought he, as much as he can, to preserve the rest of mankind, and may not, unless it be to do justice on an offender, take away, or impair the life, or what tends to the preservation of the life, the liberty, health, limb, or goods of another.
John Locke

Similarly, the French philosopher Baron de Montesquieu was keen on preventing the centralisation of authority. He wrote his thesis on the separation of powers — briefly, the political theory that government should be split into three limbs (legislative, executive and judicial) and that each should have an independent source of authority without being allowed to influence the other. Failure to do so will result in tyranny, he argued.

In Book XI <Of the Laws Which Establish Political Liberty, with Regard to the Constitution> in The Spirit of the Laws (1748), Montesquieu wrote:

“In every government there are three sorts of power: the legislative; the executive in respect to things dependent on the law of nations; and the executive in regard to matters that depend on the civil law.
By virtue of the first, the prince or magistrate enacts temporary or perpetual laws, and amends or abrogates those that have been already enacted. By the second, he makes peace or war, sends or receives embassies, establishes the public security, and provides against invasions. By the third, he punishes criminals, or determines the disputes that arise between individuals. The latter we shall call the judiciary power, and the other, simply, the executive power of the state.
When the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or in the same body of magistrates, there can be no liberty; because apprehensions may arise, lest the same monarch or senate should enact tyrannical laws, to execute them in a tyrannical manner.
There would be an end of every thing, were the same man, or the same body, whether of the nobles or of the people, to exercise those three powers, that of enacting laws, that of executing the public resolutions, and of trying the causes of individuals.

If one would imagine Hobbes to occupy one extremity of political philosophy and Locke/Montesquieu on the other, then one would find Jean-Jacques Rousseau somewhere in the middle.

Rousseau had two main strands of thought. The first was quasi-Romanticism. Briefly, Rousseau was appalled by the degeneration modernity brought upon human beings. We had become prideful, egoistic, narcissistic, vain, jealous and plagued with consumerism.

He held the old ways in high esteem, and speaking of the “noble savage”. Rousseau realised that though our ancestors were less prosperous, their simpler way of life was to be envied. The Romantic Rousseau was on display in his Discourse on the Arts and Sciences (1750).


More famously, Rousseau was a political philosopher. Similar to the previous philosophers, Rousseau speaks of the social contract in his eponymous The Social Contract (1762). He labels the collective grouping of citizens as ‘the sovereign’, or the general will of the people.

For the large part, our individual wills fall in line with that of ‘the sovereign’. It is, after all, the aggregate view of society.

However, on the occasions that they do not, Rousseau argues that those who breach the general will of the people should be put to death.

Thus, in order to have the autonomy to pursue one’s desires without being rudely interrupted by another’s “illegitimate” will (eg. raping, murdering you), we have willingly given up some control to the sovereign to make decisions on our behalves. This is what Rousseau meant by his famous line “forced to be free”.

Here, one observes Hobbesian shades of authoritarianism and Locke’s pursuit of individual autonomy coalesce together. Notwithstanding contemporary thought, however, Rousseau was also deeply influenced by the Classics.

His republican-esque thinking was inspired by the SPQR in Ancient Rome (Senātus Populusque Rōmānus, translated: The Roman Senate and People). Similar to the Romans, Rousseau believed that authority ultimately stemmed from the populous. He also often referred to Sparta and Rome as ‘healthy states’ with strong identities and civic spirit. Can we say the same for any country today?

Moving quickly on to Adam Smith. You’re probably already well familiar with The Economist, but nevertheless for completeness sake I will briefly address his ideas. In the The Wealth of Nations (1776), Smith introduced his (now renown) version of free market economics and capitalism.

He had two main theories. The first was on specialisation and the division of labour. He argued that splitting a job down into its component tasks and assigning employees to specialise in each of them would greatly increase productivity. In effect, he was simply applying that which had worked before; in a distant era, the switch to agriculture had allowed villagers to specialise in other professions like governance and healthcare thus spawning advanced empires.

The other was his famous “invisible hand of the market”, or, the idea that even though individual human spending patterns are self-concerned, at the market level collectively it would lead to competition among suppliers and the best outcome for everyone.

If one looked closely, one would realise that this was ‘Enlightened economics’ — the belief that individual human independence, liberty and agency could lead to the greater good. It is also uncannily similar to Rousseau’s contrast between the ‘sovereign’ and the individual.

So, we started with Voltaire’s satire, Descartes’ skepticism, Hume’s empiricism, Kant’s morality, Spinoza’s God, Hobbes’ Leviathan, Locke’s rights, Montesquieu’s government, Rousseau’s Romanticism, and finished with Smith’s economics.

Finally, after a long and winding adventure into the depths of the 17th/18th Century, it is apt I now introduce the last and perhaps most important Enlightenment thinker — Denis Diderot.

Unlike the aforementioned philosophers, Diderot’s contribution to the movement was not by specialising in a particular field. It was something greater than that.

Together with the mathematician Jean Le Rond d’Alembert, Diderot decided to compile an encyclopedia of all the Enlightenment thought similar to what I have done here but on a much, much, much grander scale. His Encyclopédie (1772) was France’s very own Wikipedia.

Another thing special about the Encyclopédie was that it contained articles written by the Enlightenment philosophers themselves. For example, the duo invited Montesquieu, Rousseau and Voltaire to contribute to the Encyclopédie. Other famous scholars, scientists and literature aficionados were gathered to further the publication’s goal: to impart knowledge to the people.

Diderot and d’Alembert’s thinking was unmistakably Socratic — the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates once remarked that knowledge was the first step to living a fulfilled life. Click on the link for an Examination of Socrates.

But more than just a dry list of facts, the Encyclopédie was designed to be persuasive. Diderot’s own articles on social theory (“Droit nature”), aesthetics (“Beau”), and history (“Eclectisme”) showed undeniable bias for his own worldview. In other words, the Encyclopédie tried to influence opinion.

And it worked. Spectacularly.

The Aftermath

Prise de la Bastille

The historian Clorinda Donato in her book The Encyclopédie and the Art of Revolution (1989) put it best:

“The encyclopedians successfully argued and marketed their belief in the potential of reason and unified knowledge to empower human will and thus helped to shape the social issues that the French Revolution would address.
Although it is doubtful whether the many artisans, technicians, or laborers whose work and presence and interspersed throughout the Encyclopédie actually read it, the recognition of their work as equal to that of intellectuals, clerics, and rulers prepared the terrain for demands for increased representation.
Thus the Encyclopédie served to recognize and galvanize a new power base, ultimately contributing to the destruction of old values and the creation of new ones”

France in 1789 was in a state of turmoil. The country was split into three castes known as Estates; the First was for the clergy, the Second for the nobles and the Third was for the commoners.

There were little opportunities for the commoners to improve their fortunes, thus people, and more insidiously, their children, were stuck with an allocated lot in life. Unsurprisingly, there was widespread discontentment.

The ineffective king Louis XVI did not ease the situation either. To maintain the monarchies’ lavish lifestyles in spite of the emptying of French coffers to fight in the Seven Year’s War, the king raised taxes indiscriminately. Inflation ensued and the economy melted down.

These were but triggers for the bloody French Revolution that followed. Out of the spotlight, French Enlightenment writers such as Montesquieu and Rousseau were quietly stirring the people’s sentiments. The rejection of blind submissions to authority had been popularised.

Montesquieu’s push toward a decentralised power, Rousseau’s emphasis on the will of the people and Diderot’s liberal-esque Encyclopédie were the bricks upon which the French Revolution was built on.

One need not go on to say how influential the French Revolution was.

Across the Atlantic, another Revolution had just taken its toll. It was the glorious American Revolutionary War against the English colonialists, and America had just secured her independence.

Little do people know, however, that the historical words of the Declaration of Independence guaranteeing the ‘Right to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness’ were inspired by the very same movement that stoked the French.

Declaration of Independence

One of the founding fathers of the US, Benjamin Franklin, was reported to have visited Europe repeatedly and imported many new ideas back to Philadelphia. Thomas Jefferson too closely followed European ideals and later incorporated them into the Declaration of Independence.

It thus should come as no surprise that the importance of human independence and equality, highlighted by the Declaration, was so similar to the ‘fundamental rights’ which men like Locke once spoke of.

The subsequent United States Constitution follows the same theme. Using “We, the people of the United States” as the ultimate arbiter of the agreement (Rousseau), the separation of powers clauses (Montesquieu)…


In a sense, we never truly left the Enlightenment behind.

A Conclusion

To conclude, we should go back to the earlier discussion on the Middle Ages, Renaissance and Scientific Revolution. I hope that by now the dots have presented themselves sufficiently; what’s left is for us to connect them.

The Middle Ages showed us the consequence of a society that relied too heavily on the arbitrary word of religion. It would inevitably be misused, abused and twisted by people to their own ends.

The Renaissance searched for the new in the old by reopening the books of Socrates, Herodotus and Tacitus — relics of an antiquated era, and they found a beta version of humanism.

Humanism would be indirectly advanced during the Scientific Revolution. Reason, rationalism, empiricism and skepticism were relied on to produce progress, and soon enough the belief that we could make our lives better for ourselves was forged.

Ultimately, the Enlightenment carried forth the ideals of science into every other facet of our life, public or personal, whether it be advances in morality, human rights, equality, law, politics, government, economics, or even religion. (Religion is an interesting one, for the declining trend of traditional theism could be seen as humanity’s delayed pushback against the terrors of the Middle Ages.)

But more than just abstract ideas, the Enlightenment influenced key historical events like the French Revolution and the drafting of the American Constitution. Some might even argue that it affects us today reason, rationality, skepticism, empiricism still remain the hallmarks of wisdom.

It is helpful here to think about the word historians chose to describe this movement — the Enlightenment; to enlighten, which is to shed light on an object to make it clear. Metaphorically, one could think it as using reason to guide our way; the light which shone a path that led to utopia.

We just need to follow it.

Thanks for reading!