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Leaders of the Enlightenment, in a nutshell

Leaders of the Enlightenment

The process of philosophic and scientific enlightenment has shaken the stability of beliefs held explicitly as articles of faith
Michael Polanyi

The Enlightenment was a period in which ideas of philosophy, art, science and politics, coalesced to sweep away the Medieval ideas that had held back radical thinking for hundreds of years.

We explore a number of aspects of Enlightenment but just by way of an introduction here are some of the leading figures in the enlightenment period.

  • English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) champion of empiricism, advocate of the social contract between the governed and the government…belief driven that knowledge is expanded and developed by use of the senses and experience as well as evidence of life.
  • Baron de Montesquieu french philosopher and writer (1689-1755) Charles Louis de Secondat his work Spirit of the Laws 1748 shows how systems of law and government varied from society to society, giving rise to the concept of ‘cultural relativism’ but yep that a whole new ball-game…
  • France’s prolific writer and philosopher Voltaire, Francoise-Marie Arouet: (1694-1778) built upon and promoted the ideas of Locke and Newton, a champion of liberty and tolerance, he was able in many areas both intellectually and commercially.
  • David Hume Scottish Philosopher and historian: (1711-1776) adopted belief in empiricism, rejected the existence of innate ideas, based his belief on the psychological basis of human nature, was a profound sceptic, seeking and wanting hard evidence to take any knowledge seriously.
  • French philosopher Jean-Jaques Rousseau: (1712-1778) he believed that in essence human-nature is innately good, only corrupted by the society that surrounds it.  Over time he increasingly opposed rationalism being a great champion of the significance and importance of individual feeling.
  • Denis Diderot french philosopher and editor and contributor to the Encyclopedie: (1713-1784) originally commissioned to translate from the English he ended-up re-writing it in 78 volumes incorporating the discoveries and thinking of recent scientific and philosophic thought, a major work during the period of enlightenment.
  • Adam Smith Scottish philosopher and economist: (1723-1790) he was the original proponent of promoting free-trade, in his definitive work The Wealth of Nations in 1776, he was against monopoly and regulation, was committed to the importance of pursuing self-interest to create a wealthier and more successful society and articulated the advantages of the division of labour and the mechanisation of industry.
  • Cesare Beccaria Italian legal theorist: (1738-1794) his work Crime and Punishments of 1764 expounded the principles of what was to become criminal law, called for the abolition of torture and capital punishment and was the inspiration that sparked many countries to change their penal codes in consequence.

All are worth of exploration in their own right, they didn’t follow one course and often disagreed with one-another but the healthy debate was all part of and crucial to the importance of this period of intellectual liberalism and enlightenment.

Leaders of enlightenment

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