Enlightenment Themes

Themes

Superiority of the Intellect
The philosophes claimed that humanity has the ability to perfect itself and society and that the state has the potential to be an instrument of that progress. Part of their criticism of the existing government was that it impeded such progress in its refusal to surrender power or resources to the people so that they could take control of their lives. The philosophes lamented the social conditions of contemporary France, but they remained confident that its people could attain happiness and improve living standards. Armed with these concepts and fortified by science and reason, the philosophes attacked Christian tradition and dogma, denouncing religious persecution and championing the idea of religious tolerance.

At the center of the belief in the superiority of the intellect was the Enlightenment reaction against traditional authority, namely the church and the ruling class. The philosophes claimed that rather than depend on these authorities for physical, spiritual, and intellectual needs, individuals could provide for themselves. By using their minds and demanding morality of themselves and others, people could actually change their realities for the better. This idea is evident in Rousseau’s The Social Contract and in the Declaration of Independence. It is expressed more subtly in Émile wherein a child’s education is designed to draw upon his unique...

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