The Enlightenment

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Themes

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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 capabilities and to teach the child to be his own person in adulthood.

Basic Goodness of Humankind
The philosophes maintained that people were innately good and that society and civilization were to blame for their corruption. Because people are good, they are fully capable of ruling themselves and collectively working toward the welfare of all. Rousseau asserts this in The Social Contract, as he explains that despite individual differences and priorities, people as a whole will make decisions for the common good. In Émile, Rousseau applies this idea to the education of a child, demonstrating that the purpose of education is not to correct a child or mold the child to exhibit a certain set of characteristics but rather to draw out the child’s unique gifts and goodness. Not all Enlightenment writers emphasized man’s inherent goodness, however; in Candide, Voltaire provides numerous examples of humanity’s cruelty and abuse of power. Once the characters are living peacefully on a farm (outside of civilization), they seem to be less violent, but the theme of humankind’s goodness is diminished here.

Deism
Deism is a religious belief system that emphasizes morality, virtuous living, and the perception of a creative but uninvolved God. Deists believe in the existence of God but reject the supernatural, including the miracles and resurrection of Christ. They reject the idea that God is active in people’s daily lives, instead claiming that God created the world but is now distant. This view of God directly contradicts the view of Catholic and Protestant churches. The philosophes were particularly incensed by the Roman Catholic Church, which they perceived as too restrictive and overpowering. As deists, the philosophes were uninterested in life after death. They maintained that people should spend their time and energy improving this life, and they advocated pursuing worldly happiness and contentment. Diderot addresses these ideas in the Encyclopédie, and they are implied in the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence, which states that among a person’s unalienable rights are “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

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