Historical Context

Seventeenth-Century Advances
Among the important influences of Enlightenment thinkers were seventeenth-century scientists and thinkers such as Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, René Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke. Locke’s theory of sensationalism (the belief that knowledge is solely derived through sensation and perception) was especially important to Voltaire and Rousseau, and Locke’s views on the relationship between the individual and society laid the groundwork for the social contract theories of Rousseau.

Along with the writings of these influential figures, the seventeenth century provided other inspirational advances for the Enlightenment. Discoveries and inventions made by scientists supported the Enlightenment belief in the superiority of the intellect, and world exploration led to a sense of relativism with regard to non-European cultures. These advances served to reveal new realities, and thus Enlightenment writers encouraged open-mindedness and tolerance. Unfortunately, these opinions did not influence most leaders in European governments, who continued their mission to discover and conquer new lands and peoples at almost any cost. Isaac Newton’s discovery of the law of gravity suggested that God’s laws were accessible to the human mind. Enlightenment thinkers extended this notion and claimed that all of the laws and structures of nature and society could be discovered and known by applying reason. Locke had taught that knowledge comes from experience, which further supported the belief that the mind was the portal to all knowledge, both scientific and moral. The Enlightenment encouraged people to seek knowledge by observation rather than by reading what past authorities (such as the Bible or the Greek philosophers) taught.

Open expression of thought in eighteenthcentury France was regularly curtailed by a stringent but often arbitrary censorship. Literary works were published only with the permission of the Director of Publications. Even when the censor granted permission, books could be suppressed by the clergy, the Parliament of Paris (the main judicial authority), the royal decree, or by other political and religious authorities. In 1754, a royal decree ordered the death penalty for “all those who shall be convicted of having composed, or caused to be composed and printed, writings intended to attack religion, to assail our authority, or to disturb the ordered tranquility of our realm.” Despite its threatening tone, enforcement of the measure was often arbitrary. The Encyclopédie, for example, was published with royal sanction yet championed nearly all the radical doctrines of the century.

As a result of...

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