The enlightenment philosophers belonged to the Enlightenment Movement which started as a cultural movement in the 17th and 18th centuries, first in Europe and then in America. The term ‘enlightenment’ was not known before the mid-eighteenth century. This movement aimed at the suppression of intolerance, superstition, and abuses by church and state. Enlightenment intended the reformation of society through the use of reason and advanced knowledge which challenged the deeply rooted dogmas and traditions within the fabric of society. The movement was initiated by philosophers like Baruch, Spinoza, and John Locke, and was nurtured by many other philosophers who followed. Not only the philosophers but also intellectuals from other spheres of life including scientists like Isaac Newton, ruling princes, writers, and artists also supported and encouraged this movement through their writings and actions. The movement continued progressing until 1800 when it started to be suppressed by the counter-enlightenment movement of Romanticism.
1. Baruch Spinoza
Baruch Spinoza, better known as Benedict de Spinoza, was born in Amsterdam, Dutch Republic in 1632 and died at The Hague, Dutch Republic, on February 12, 1677. He was a Jewish Dutch philosopher who was one of the founders of the Enlightenment Movement. His best-known works include: Modern Biblical Criticism, Magnum Opus, and Ethics. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel who was a renowned philosopher and German idealist said to his colleagues about Spinoza, ‘You are either a Spinozist or not a philosopher at all.’ He was highly critical of the Hebrew Bible; therefore, the Jewish religious authorities had excluded him from Jewish society. His books were listed on the Index of Forbidden Books of the Catholic Church.
2. John Locke
John Locke was born to Agnes Keene and John Locke on August 29, 1632 near the Wrington Church in Somerset, England. He died at Essex, England on October 28, 1704 at the age of 72 years. Locke is considered the most influential Enlightenment philosopher. He influenced Voltaire, Rousseau, Scottish thinkers, and American revolutionaries. His Liberal Theory is reflected in the United States’ ‘Declaration of Independence.’ Contrary to Cartesian philosophy and innatism, according to which the mind is born with ideas, Locke formed the theory of ‘tabula rasa,’ literally meaning ‘blank slate.’ Locke maintains that we are born without innate ideas, and that knowledge is attained through experience and perception. Thomas Jefferson wrote about him ‘Bacon, Locke and Newton…I consider them as the three greatest men that have ever lived, without any exception, and as having laid the foundation of those superstructures which have been raised in the physical and moral sciences.’
3. Pierre Bayle
Pierre Bayle was born in Champtercier, Provence on November 18, 1674 and died in Paris on December 28, 1706. He is best known for his renowned work The Historical and Critical Dictionary published in 1695. He opined that God, being incomprehensible, faith and reason are separate entities. Voltaire said about his prelude to the poem, PoÃ¨me sur le DÃ©sastre de Lisbonne, ‘le plus grand dialecticien qui ait jamais Ã©crit,’ or ‘the greatest dialectician to have ever written. He advocated toleration of different beliefs and played an important role in the development of enlightenment.
FranÃ§ois-Marie Arouet, better known by his pen name Voltaire, was born in Paris, France on November 21, 1694 and died in Paris on May 30, 1778 at the age of 83. He was a renowned enlightenment philosopher, writer, and historian. He was known for his wit, but he opined that wit proves nothing. He said ‘It is dangerous to be right in matters where established men are wrong.’ He advocated freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and separation of state and church. He was a prolific writer and had written in almost all genres. He wrote more than 20,000 letters and more than 2,000 books.
5. Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born to Isaac Rousseau and Suzane Bernard Rousseau, in Geneva on June 28, 1712 and died in Ermenonville, Kingdom of France on July 2, 1778 at the age of 66 years. He was a famous Genevan philosopher, writer, and composer. He advocated indifferentism and opined that all religions are worthy as long as they lead to virtue. He, therefore, advocated that people should practice their religion in which they had been raised. The archbishop of Paris banned him from the pulpit, and his books were burned and warrants for his arrest were issued.
6. Charles-Louis de Secondat
Charles-Louis de Secondat, better known as Montesquieu, was born to Jacques de Secondat and Marie FranÃ§oise de Pesnel at ChÃ¢teau de la BrÃ¨de, Aquitaine, France on January 18, 1689 and died in Paris, France on February 10, 1755 at the age of 66 years. He was a political thinker and is best known for advocating the ‘Theory of Separation of Powers,’ which is now a usual practice. Montesquieu divided the French society into three classes or trias politica, being the monarchy, aristocracy, and the commons. He held that administrative powers were the executive, legislative, and judicial should all be kept separate and dependent on one another. The power of none of them should exceed the power of the other two singly or in combination.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born in the free imperial city of Frankfurt, Holy Roman Empire, on August 28, 1749 and died at Weimar, Grand Duchy of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach and German Confederation on March 22, 1832 at the age of 82 years.
He was a German philosopher, writer, and politician. He had worked in many different genres including: epic, lyric poetry, prose, drama, and autobiography. His very first novel The Sorrows of Young Werther was a success, and he was a celebrity at the age of 25. Arthur Schopenhauer considered his work Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship as ‘one of the greatest novels ever written.’
8. Immanuel Kant
Immanuel Kant was born in Konigsberg, Prussia on April 22, 1724 and died there on February 12, 1804. He was an enlightenment philosopher best known for his Critique of Pure Reason. He opposed skepticism of thinkers like Hume saying ‘It always remains a scandal of philosophy and universal human reason that the existence of things outside us …should have to be assumed merely on faith, and that if it occurs to anyone to doubt it, we should be unable to answer him with a satisfactory proof.’ Kant believed that time and space were inherent to our minds. In addition to Critique of Pure Reason, other major works of Kant include: Metaphysics of Morals and Critique of Judgment.
9. Johann Gottfried von Herder
Johann Gottfried von Herder was born in Mohrungen, East Prussia, Kingdom of Prussia on August 25, 1744 and died at Weimar, Saxe-Weimar on December 18, 1803. He was a German philosopher, poet, literary critic, and theologian. He was a student of Immanuel Kant at the University of Konigsberg. He met Goethe at Strasbourg in 1770. He endorsed the French Revolution in the later stages of his life and earned some opposition for it. He was ennobled by the Elector Prince of Bavaria during this period.
10. Christian Wolff
Christian Wolff was born in Breslau, Habsburg Silesia on January 24, 1679 and died at Halle, Duchy of Magdeburg on April 9, 1754. He was the most distinguished philosopher between Leibniz and Kant. He is considered as the founding father of public administration and economics as academic disciplines. Out of many others, a few of his works are: Philosophia Rationalis, Sive Logica, Philosophia Prima, Sive Ontologia, Cosmologia Generalis, and Psychologia Empirica Psychologia Rationalis. A mountain on the moon is named Mons Wolff in his honor.
The enlightenment philosophers brought a paradigm shift from the established norms of the 17th and 18th centuries. Since it was supported by the rulers and intelligentsia of the society, the Enlightenment Movement influenced society greatly. This movement played a pivotal role in making the world as we find it today. Like every movement, this movement too had its time, and having completed its life cycle declined gradually being replaced by the counter-enlightenment Romanticism Movement. The great philosophers associated with this movement have left indelible imprints on the history of mankind.