The Age of Enlightenment was a period of intense questioning of the dominant ideas in the fields of philosophy, politics and economics. Just as the Reformation challenged spiritual dominance of the Roman Catholic Church and the 17th century Scientific Revolution shattered the dogmatic consensus in sciences, the Enlightenment defied the ideas of divine right of the kings, of superiority of religious faith over human mind, and of the eternity of existing social arrangements. The basic ideas of the Enlightenment may be found in the works of its most prominent representatives, including François-Marie Arouet (pen name Voltaire; 1694-1778), Charles-Louis de Montesquieu (1689-1755), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) and Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797).
Voltaire made his name known as a polemicist, attacking entrenched social institutions of his time in a sharp and satirical prose and poetry (Cunningham & Reich, 2010, p. 421). During his forced exile in Great Britain (1726-1728), he was greatly impressed by the British system of constitutional monarchy that stood in stark contrast with the absolutist regimes which dominated in Continental Europe (p. 416).
Voltaire considered himself a deist, viewing “natural religion” as based on human reason and the contemplation of nature (Cunningham & Reich, 2010, p. 417). He was vehemently opposed to religious fanaticism of any kind, being especially negatively predisposed towards the Catholic Church. Nevertheless, he was a partisan of religious toleration and viewed religious persecution and bigotry in general as medieval barbarity (p. 417).
Even though Voltaire was in principle a supporter of constitutional and parliamentary government, he distrusted mass politics and democracy as such. Mostly for this reason, he supported the growing ideology of “enlightened despotism” (Cunningham & Reich, 2010, p. 416), as evidenced by his attachment to the rule of Frederick the Great in Prussia. In that sense, his political ideas were rather conservative in comparison with the other figures of Enlightenment.
The other famous representative of Enlightenment, Montesquieu is best remembered for his theory of separation of powers, which basically became the founding principle of the majority of modern nation-states. Having seen the excesses of unlimited royal authority in France, Montesquieu became a supporter of the notion of sharing of governmental power between parliamentary body (legislative power), executive power (embodied in monarch and his ministers) and independent judiciary (judicial power) (Cunningham & Reich, 2010, p. 415).
Ideas of Montesquieu became rather influential in the Thirteen Colonies, where the notion of separation of powers would later become a guiding political idea of the Founding Fathers of the United States. Likewise, Montesquieu’s attempts to classify human society by their prevailing political forms would prove the beginning of modern political science.
Rousseau espoused political views which were radically different from those of Voltaire or Montesquieu. He thought that modern society exerted a corrupting influence upon naturally equal and good human beings (Cunningham & Reich, 2010, p. 421). Rousseau believed that virtue should become a basis of new socio-political system that was to replace corrupt European monarchies of his time (p. 419).
In his seminal work, The Social Contract (1762), Rousseau attempted to present his political ideas in terms of radical republican democracy, where the political sovereignty derived from the general will of the people (p. 415). Rousseau thought that the development of virtue and moral sense in children should be the highest goal of any proper education system, and he attempted to synthesize his ideas on education in Emile, one of his most prominent literary works.
Finally, Mary Wollstonecraft was one of the first advocates of women’s rights, being a principal forerunner to the contemporary feminist movement. Her most influential work is A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), where she suggested an educationalist approach towards bridging the gap in social status of men and women. She believed in innate rationality of human beings and advocated republicanism as opposed to hereditary monarchy.
Cunningham, L.S., & Reich, J.J. (2010). Culture & values: A survey of the humanities. Vol. II, with readings. 7th ed. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.