How the Enlightenment Worked

Starting With a Clean Slate: The Enlightenment Begins

Voltaire was the leading philosophe of the Enlightenment.
Voltaire was the leading philosophe of the Enlightenment.
Imagno/Getty Images

People often think of the Enlightenment as a French phenomenon. France emerged the victor in the Thirty Years War, and it was recognized as the international center for learning in the 18th century [source: Carey]. However, the ideological roots of the Enlightenment start in England thanks, in large part, to its more liberal religious environment. A year after "Principia," the 1688 Glorious Revolution enhanced the power of the Parliament and put the first Protestant monarchy of William III and Mary on the English throne. Soon after, in 1690, John Locke published "An Essay Concerning Human Understanding."

Locke's treatise posited a blank state of the mind at birth, which he referred to as the tabula rasa. Humans' minds, according to Locke, are shaped solely by experience and education, rather than innate feelings and preordained character traits. A certain French intellect named Francois-Marie Arouet devoured Newton's and Locke's writings after being exiled to England from 1726 to 1729 for openly criticizing the French monarchy. Arouet would eventually go by the nom de plume Voltaire.

When Voltaire returned to France enlivened by these fresh Enlightenment ideals, he fanned the flame quickly. In 18th-century France, salons facilitated intellectual exchange. Organized mostly by aristocratic women and held in their homes, salons served as meeting places for scholars and wealthy laymen to discuss philosophy, politics, religion, or whatever other topics simmered in the academic sphere. These forums provided necessary safe havens because Louis XIV's absolutism instituted harsh censorship and punished detractors.

Some of the most prominent salon members were the philosophes, including Voltaire, Montesquieu, Diderot and Rousseau who valued rationalism as the key to progress. Voltaire reviled the establishment of the Church and questioned the monarchy's absolutism, but didn't necessarily espouse democracy. Instead, he considered the middle and lower classes "very rarely worthy to govern themselves." Conversely, Montesquieu, in his 1748 "Spirit of the Laws," advocated for the separation of powers in the government, and Rousseau and Diderot stridently attacked the influential position of the wealthy [source: Cranston].

In addition to critiquing government, the philosophes also decried the political authority of the church. In place of Catholicism or Protestantism, many Enlightenment thinkers, including the American Founding Fathers, were deists. In its simplest form, deist orthodoxy upheld a clockmaker God who created the world, set things in motion, then withdrew from human involvement. It was easier for intellectuals to rationalize, without fully abandoning religious faith.