During the eighteenth century, the Enlightenment emerged as a social, philosophical, political, and literary movement that espoused rational thought and methodical observation of the world. The term “Enlightenment” refers to the belief by the movement’s contributors that they were leaving behind the dark ignorance and blind belief that characterized the past. The freethinking writers of the period sought to evaluate and understand life by way of scientific observation and critical reasoning rather than through uncritically accepted religion, tradition, and social conventions. At the center of the Enlightenment were the philosophes, a group of intellectual deists who were centered in Paris. Deists believe in the existence of a creative but uninvolved God, and they believe in the basic goodness, rather than sinfulness, of humankind. Because this view of God contradicted the accepted religious views of the day, the philosophes were considered very dangerous. The church wielded considerable power at the time, so the philosophes were subjected to censorship and restrictive decrees carrying harsh punishments. Still, the philosophes continued to spread their views, and as the church’s political power dwindled over the years, the Enlightenment gained momentum. In fact, by the 1770s, many philosophes collected government pensions and held important academic positions.
Scholars do not agree on the exact dates of the Enlightenment. Most literary historians support the claim that it ended with the onset of the French Revolution in 1789, and they place the beginning somewhere between 1660 and 1685. Although it was centered in France, the Enlightenment had adherents all over the world. Contributors to the movement include France’s Denis Diderot (who edited Encyclopédie), Voltaire (Candide), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (The Social Contract), Germany’s Immanuel Kant (who is also associated with Transcendentalism), England’s David Hume, Italy’s Cesare Beccaria, and America’s Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Most of the major contributors knew one another and maintained contact despite the great distances. The Enlightenment’s influence extended not only geographically but also chronologically, as reactions to it became evident in subsequent literary movements such as Sturm und Drang and Romanticism.