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.
Denis Diderot (1713–1784)
Denis Diderot was born in 1713 in Langres, France. His father was an artist and had a great influence on the technical craftsmanship of Diderot’s masterpiece, the Encyclopédie, a compendium of knowledge on a wide variety of subjects of which he was the editor and a major contributor. Diderot distinguished himself as a student at the University of Paris, from which he graduated in 1732. As an adult, his personal life was often tumultuous and mysterious. He secretly married an uneducated woman named Antoinette, whose temper made his life difficult. In 1755, he carried on a secret love affair with Sophie Volland, and his love letters to her are ranked among the best ever written. Diderot was able to establish himself professionally
while in his twenties and enjoyed a fruitful career as a translator and encyclopedist. His greatest accomplishment is his work on the Encyclopédie, a multiple-volume (the number of volumes ranges from eleven to thirty-five in varying editions) work that took Diderot and the other contributors more than twenty years to complete (1750–1772). The success of this work earned Diderot notoriety and the respect of such highprofile figures as Catherine II of Russia.
Diderot’s other work includes fiction (most notably The Nun, 1782, and Jacques the Fatalist, 1784), drama, dialogues (simple theatrical presentations involving two characters discussing or debating issues and ideas), philosophical treatises, literary criticism, and essays. His particular concern was the rightful place of the artist in society, with attention to the difference between the appreciation for the artist by his contemporaries and by future generations. Diderot saw how the artist in eighteenth-century Europe endured the scrutiny of religious and political leaders and faced limitations imposed by censors. Despite a career subjected to such pressures, Diderot was respected by his peers because of his imagination, cleverness, and conversational ability.
Diderot often withheld his writing from publication to protect it from censorship and for fear that his contemporaries would not understand it. He preferred that it be preserved for posterity, and in fact much of his work has been more fully appreciated in the generations since his death. Sigmund Freud’s Oedipal theory was influenced by one of Diderot’s dialogues. Diderot himself offered early theories of psychology and evolution, and he predicted the inventions of Braille, the typewriter, and the cinema. Many scholars contend that Diderot was far ahead of his time.
Diderot died after a long illness in Paris in 1784. His work had a major impact on future writers, especially the German writers of the Sturm und Drang movement, such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
David Hume (1711–1776)
David Hume was born on April 26, 1711, at his family’s estate near Edinburgh, Scotland. His interest in philosophy began at an early age, and when he was eighteen, he abandoned his plans to study law in favor of pursuing philosophy. His first...
(The entire section is 1273 words.)