The Enlightenment

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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 work, A Treatise on Human Nature (1739), was poorly received, but his next effort, Essays, Moral and Political (1741), was praised by critics and readers alike. Philosophical Essays Concerning Human Understanding (1748) is among his most respected work. He wrote numerous philosophical and political treatises and enjoyed a varied career as a tutor, political secretary, and librarian. During the years he spent in Paris (1763–1766), he was acclaimed and invited to the most elite salons. Although Hume attracted his share of critics, his work was largely admired. Upon leaving Paris to go to London, he took French author Jean-Jacques Rousseau with him, but after a series of public quarrels, the two parted ways. He returned to Scotland in 1769,...

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where he occupied a grand house in Edinburgh. It was there that he died peacefully on August

Considered one of the most important philosophers of modern thought, Hume advocated a form of philosophical skepticism that claimed that all knowledge attained by experience is uncertain. His writings about perception and cause-and-effect reach into religion, politics, and ethics. Hume was particularly interested in the processes people use to secure knowledge and to deem it reliable.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778)
Born in Geneva, Switzerland, on June 8, 1712, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a writer, botanist, social theorist, and musician. When his mother died a few days after his birth, an aunt and uncle agreed to rear him. Although Rousseau was an engraver’s apprentice, he ran away at the age of sixteen to be the secretary and companion of a wealthy woman named Madame Louise de Warens, who was enormously influential in the young man’s life. At the age of thirty, he left for Paris, where he was a music instructor and political secretary. His friend Diderot commissioned him to contribute music articles to Encyclopédie, and Rousseau’s writing career began. He wrote social commentary and essays espousing the belief that science and rationalism offer the way to truth. Rousseau’s social commentary drew fire from Voltaire, and the two became rivals.

In 1756, Rousseau left Paris and went to Montmorency, France, where he wrote The Social Contract and Émile, both published in 1762. The Social Contract is considered one of the formative documents of the ideology of the French Revolution. Rousseau believed that the will of the people should guide government and that individuals should be free of pressures from church and state. The novel Émile presents an unorthodox view of educational theory, couched in a novel about a tutored student. Rousseau’s views made him unpopular with authorities in France and Switzerland, so he went first to Prussia (a kingdom comprising parts of presentday Germany and Poland; it ceased to exist after World War II) and then to England with Hume. A series of disagreements, however, led them to publicly denounce each other, and Rousseau returned to France in 1768. He died on July 2, 1778, in Ermenonville.

Rousseau’s major contributions to the Enlightenment were The Social Contract, Émile (both 1762), and the autobiographical Confessions (published posthumously in 1782). These works are regarded as some of the most inspired and original of the Enlightenment era, and they had farreaching effects on political theory and education. While early Enlightenment thinkers championed rationalism above all else, Rousseau introduced a note of emotion. His work represented the merging of the two approaches without weakening the Enlightenment stance that truth is revealed through individual inquiry rather than through blind adherence to tradition and authority.

Voltaire (1694–1778)
Born in Paris on November 21, 1694, François Marie Arouet wrote extensively using the name Voltaire. As a young man, he gravitated toward writing and was soon considered one of the most intelligent and witty Parisians to frequent the gatherings of distinguished guests, artists, and writers (held in private homes) called salons. Voltaire’s sarcasm and irreverence toward authority earned him two jail sentences, after which he spent two years in London. In the ensuing years, he moved from one patron to another in France and Germany, as his critical and sarcastic writings alternately intrigued and enraged members of the ruling class. He finally settled in Ferney, France, in 1758, where he lived for the remaining twenty years of his life. There, he continued his literary career, completing such masterpieces as the novel Candide. His mature work criticized religion, politics, economics, and philos- ophy, broadening and strengthening the Enlightenment spirit. He died in Paris on May 30, 1778.

Voltaire is considered one of the most influential of the Enlightenment writers, and scholars find it impossible to discuss the Enlightenment without reference to Candide (1759). A prolific writer, Voltaire wrote fiction, nonfiction, drama, poetry, history, satire, essays, and philosophical treatises. In these diverse genres, Voltaire explored science, philosophy, and the emerging consciousness of his day. Critics often cite the elegance, wit, and thoughtfulness of his work, but Voltaire is also criticized for being overly concerned with historical detail and philosophical persuasion.