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The Enlightenment

Age of the
An Interpretation

Keith Tankard
The Time Traveller
Updated: 14 December 2009
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The people of the 18th century firmly believed that theirs was an enlightened age and it is from their evaluation of themselves that our modern title for their age is derived. They regarded the past as a period of darkness and barbarism, whereas their contemporary age was heralded as an age of progress.

The spirit of the age was derived from the scientific and intellectual revolution which had taken place during the 17th century, with such men as Bacon, Descartes, Spinoza, Locke and Newton.


The philosophy of the new age was characterised by a stress on natural law and a scepticism for tradition. They were confident of the ability of human reason and science, convinced in the regularity of nature, taken with the concept of the advance of civilization.

It was a time of "non-religious faith", that the conditions of human life become better as time goes on and that generally each generation is better than the previous one because it is able to build on what went before.

It was midway through the 17th century that the European witch-craze suddenly ceased and the sense of the supernatural began to dim. There was no need to fear the devil nor, for that matter, to fear God.

The belief in a personal God or a God of love began to give way to the idea of an inconceivably intelligent Being who had made an amazing and complicated universe which the human mind was able to explore by using the intellect.


"Philosophe" is a French word for "philosopher" but it is used technically to denote the philosophers of the Age of the Enlightenment. The word "philosophical" meant for them o be a person who could approach any subject in a critical and inquiring spirit.

The Philosophes were not people who pondered the ultimate questions of existence, as is understood by the modern concept of philosophy, but were men who wrote on any topic, and so spread the ideas of the Enlightenment.

The reading public had become relatively great by the beginning of the 18th century, with a large and educated middle class. Country gentlemen were also acquiring reading habits, as were the members of the nobility.

Newspapers and magazines were multiplying and there was a great demand for dictionaries, encyclopaedias and surveys of all fields of knowledge. The readers appreciated simplicity of presentation, wit and lightness of touch, and so the 18th century style of writing developed a fluency, clarity and precision.

Censorship existed in some form in most countries. The theory was that people had to be protected from harmful ideas in the same way as they were protected from poor merchandise or dishonesty in market practices.

In England censorship was mild while in Spain it was severe, resulting in few original writers. In France censorship was complicated and existed in several forms, namely the Church, the Parlement of Paris, the royal officials and the printers' guilds.

It was loosely applied, however, and the French writers were therefore not seriously affected by it although it did tend to prevent the writers from speaking directly of the problems of the day, such as the administration of the Church.

Indeed, criticism of the Church was legally forbidden. Instead the French writers learnt to approach such subjects indirectly, either on an abstract level with general reference, or by reference to other things which allowed the reader to come to his own conclusions.

Paris was the hub of the movement. In the mid-18th century the city became the centre for the publication of the Encyclopedie, the most serious of all philosophical enterprises.

It was edited by Denis Diderot in 17 volumes and completed over the years 1751 to 1772, being a compendium of scientific, technical and historical knowledge but carrying an undertone of criticism of the existing society.

The Encyclopedie epitomized the sceptical, rational and scientific spirit of the age. Virtually all the French philosophes contributed to it, men such as Voltaire, Montesquieu, Rousseau, d'Alambert, Turgot and Quesnay.

It became widely known and read, with sometimes up to 25 000 copies of each volume sold. Readership consisted of clergy and nobility in greater proportions to the bourgeoisie.


Montesquieu (1689-1775) was a landed aristocrat with a seat in the Parlement of Bordeaux. His great work was The Spirit of Laws , published in 1748, in which he developed two principal ideas, namely that forms of government developed according to climate and circumstances (e.g. hot climates lead to despotism, while small city states lead to democracy).

He also advocated the belief in a separation of the powers of government (executive, legislature, judiciary), that the government should be shared between the king, the parlements, the provincial estates, the organised nobility, the chartered towns and the church.

He greatly admired the English system of constitutional monarchy, with a House of Lords and a House of Commons. This, he believed, provided a healthy mixture of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy.


Voltaire (1694-1778) was born into a wealthy bourgeois family and grew into a writer who was always logical, clear and sarcastic, combining irony and withering ridicule. He often achieved his ends by creating a laugh.

He was a friend of kings (he spent some years with Frederick the Great of Prussia) while he sometimes spent time in gaol for offending regents.

His main interest was in the freedom of thought, being a great admirer of England for its freedom of religion and the press, and for its high regard for the intellectual writer.

He was also a great admirer of Louis XIV and produced a work in praise of him (Age of Louis XIV ). He was a firm believer in the Enlightened Despot.

Voltaire's main writings were in favour of religious toleration. He attacked the organised clergy for their bigotry, intolerance and superstition, and criticised the Catholic Church as well as religion in general, arguing in favour of natural religion and natural morality.

The belief in the existence of God, he said, and the difference between good and evil arose out of reason itself.

In politics he was neither a liberal nor a democrat. He had no concern for how powerful a government was, as long as it was enlightened.

Since only a few people were enlightened, he said, politics could not depend on democracy but should devolve on the king and his advisers. Indeed, the state had to be strong if it wished to overcome ignorance, habit and superstition.


Rousseau (1712-1778) was born in Geneva and had a peculiar character, probably suffering from paranoia. Someone wrote that he had been neglected as a child and had lived for many years by odd jobs such as copying music.

It was not until the age of 40 that he had any success as a writer. He was always the "little man", the outsider.

In addition, his sex life was poor. He finally settled down with an uneducated girl (Therese Levasseur) although her mother who kept interfering in his affairs. By Therese he had five children, all of whom he dumped in the orphanage.

He had no social status, no money, and after he became famous he lived largely by the generosity of his friends.

It seems that he was pathetically and painfully maladjusted, believing that he could trust no-one, that those who tried to befriend him were in fact deriding or betraying him behind his back. In short, a man who had a totally unbalanced personality but who came to be the most famous and most influential of the philosophes.

Rousseau attacked society, declaring it to be artificial and corrupt. He attacked reason, claiming it as a false guide when followed alone. He argued that civilization was the source of evil and that life in nature, if it were possible, would be far better (what he called the "Noble Savage").

The best traits of human nature, such as kindness, unselfishness, honesty and true understanding came from man's animal nature.

Yet he later contradicted all that in his Social Contract where he claimed that the state of nature was brutish, without law or morality and that society existed because people had reached a social contract with each other by which they surrendered their liberty to each other and fused their particular wills to a General Will.

The General Will, he said, was sovereign while government was secondary, consisting merely of representatives of the sovereign people.

His theory is so complex, however, that it is difficult to understand and each individual political philosopher has been able to interpret it to suit himself. Indeed, the Social Contract was little read in his time but gained importance in later years.

Of more influence were his novels Emile and Heloise which led to people attempting to imitate, and so became the springboard for modern humanitarianism.

The Physiocrats

The Physiocrats or Political Economists were often close to the government and acted as administrators or advisers. Quesnay, for instance, was physician to Louis XV; Turgot was minister to Louis XVI. They were mainly concerned with financial and tax reform and measures to increase the wealth of France.

The Physiocrats did two basic things. They sounded the death knell to mercantilism by pronouncing the virtues of free trade (laissez-faire). They also claimed that the monarchy did not exist by Divine Right but as the first servant of the state, dedicated to maximize man's economic potential and to build up the wealth of the state.

They were therefore exponents of the ideas of enlightened absolutism because only by means of strong government could the state bring in economic reforms.

They envisaged a state wherein the ruler removed all obstacles to freedom (economic, social and religious freedom) and then, having done so, would ensure that the system would be maintained.

The Enlightened Despots

The so-called Enlightened Despots were those rulers of the 18th Century who put into practice various ideas of the Age of the Enlightenment and the writings of the Philosophes. Their programmes, however, depended on despotic power.

They did not see themselves as ruling by the will of the people. Indeed, government during that era was generally believed to be for the good of the people and not by the people. Absolutism was therefore still justified, not so much by Divine Right as by utility.

The Enlightened Despots would allow the imperative interests of their country to shape foreign policy, while at home they would attempt to destroy the power of the nobility and establish a centralized government under their own immediate control.

Having done that, they would see to the material and moral well-being of the people in terms of abolishing serfdom, restraining the influence of the Church while allowing a large measure of religious and intellectual freedom, encouraging education and science, and promoting commerce, industry and agriculture.

Since there were so many of such reformers during the 18th Century, the period is often called the Age of Enlightened Despotism.

Although many of the rulers of the smaller nations, such as Sweden, Spain, Portugal and Denmark can be listed in their ranks, we shall only be dealing with Frederick the Great (Prussia), Joseph II (Austria), Catherine II (Russia) and Louis XV and Louis XVI (France).

Frederick the Great -- Prussia

After the Seven Years War, Frederick the Great (1740-1786) engaged in no further serious war but devoted himself to giving Prussia the best possible administration. He took his own task very seriously, concentrating all the powers of government within himself.

He expected the same devotion to duty from everyone and punished disobedience and negligence severely. His aim was "everything for the people, nothing by the people".

His first aim was to rehabilitate agriculture which had been devastated by the Seven Years War. He provided free seed and animals to the farmers, and reduced taxes to allow them to get back on their feet.

He invited settlers to immigrate to Prussia to replace the decimated population, drained the marshes, improved roads and planted forests. He also thought of freeing the serfs but met too much opposition from the Junkers (the Prussian military nobility) and so only reduced their days of service.

Frederick's economic policy was one of mercantilism, i.e. to prevent money from flowing out of the country by self-production and heavy import duties.

In that way new industries were established and prohibitive duties and regulations were introduced to govern commerce but these tended to lead to discontent and smuggling. Nevertheless, industry did flourish during the era of his rule.

Frederick also set about reforming the legal system, by unifying and simplifying the legal codes. He abolished the use of torture except in special cases, established uniform legal fees and made provision for the suspension of incompetent and dishonest lawyers.

He tolerated all religions, welcoming the Jesuits who had been expelled from the various Catholic countries but this tolerance did not extend to the Jews who were granted religious freedom but denied civil rights, were heavily taxed and their commercial activities restricted.

Foreign Jews could enter Prussia only on payment of high sums of money and they were encouraged to invest in industry.

Nevertheless, it does seem that discrimination against the Jews was more economic than religious. He allowed considerable freedom of speech and of the press, even to the extent of criticism of himself and his policies.

His philosophy appeared to be that as long as he could do as he pleased, his subjects could say what they pleased.

Frederick believed in the importance of education and tried to raise the standard of schools by appointing school inspectors. He also tried to set up a system of compulsory and universal schooling between the ages of 5 and 14 but he was not prepared to spend much money on that, since four-fifths of the budget was being spent on the army. Teachers were therefore badly qualified and trained.

Although Frederick the Great was "enlightened", he was nevertheless a despot. He allowed for no independence whatsoever in any sphere and so the entire system rested completely on his shoulders. Should an incompetent ruler follow him, the state would collapse.

He deliberately maintained class barriers, realising that, while the country was sharply divided, there could be little national resistance. While making minor changes to serfdom, for instance, he did not abolish it.

Joseph II - Austria

Joseph (1780-1790) became Emperor on the death of his father, Francis I, in 1765 but shared the administration of Austria with Marie Therese until 1780. He was the most zealous but least successful of the enlightened despots.

In the 10 years of his reign, he issued over 6 000 decrees and more than 10 000 laws but his personality and methods stirred up discontent and opposition.

Joseph realised that the weakness of Austria lay in her scattered possessions, her many languages and the diverse ways of government and so he aimed at unity in all those spheres.

He did away with the old feudal governments and the provincial institutions and divided the empire into 13 administrative districts or circles, each with a royal official as supervisor. German was made the official language, to be taught in schools and universities.

He brought in a mercantilist policy which meant severe tariffs on imported goods and the establishment of home industries. He worked economically, attempted to cut down on expenditure, including his own. His aim was at the equality and welfare of his subjects.

With that in mind, the criminal code was revised, torture and the death penalty were abolished and a new civil code was formulated. All criminals were to receive equal treatment and punishment, and all citizens were to have equal rights and pay equal taxation.

His religious policy aimed at the nationalization of the Church, along the lines of the Gallican Church of France. The power of the Pope was to be restricted, no Papal Decrees would be allowed without his consent, all bishops were to take an oath of loyalty and obedience to the government and monasticism was to be limited.

He also established religious toleration, allowing full rights to citizenship for all religions, including Jews, and the latter were no longer required to wear the distinctive yellow patch to identify themselves. He attempted to purge the Church of anything which resembled superstition or idolatry.

Generally Joseph's reforms failed because he lacked tact, patience and psychology. He did not prepare the people for the reforms or build up an official class to carry them out. Furthermore, nearly all the reforms affected some traditional right, privileged class or vested interest.

His attempt at unifying and centralizing the administration and making German the national language, for instance, angered the Magyars, Flemings and Italians.

The nobles, on the other hand, resented the overthrow of their privileges. The Pope and the clergy were angered by the religious reforms. The most oppressed peoples distrusted him.

As a result, the Austrian Netherlands (i.e. Belgium) broke out in revolt which paradoxically did not aim at forcing reform on a conservative ruler but at preserving the existing institutions against the reforms of a liberal one.

Catherine II - Russia

Catherine (1762-1796) was originally a German but married Tsar Peter III. After a coup d'etat, in which she seemed involved, she became Empress of Russia.

She was in regular correspondence with various Philosophes, discussing with them many of her projects of reform but, though she made a great show of her enlightened principles, she never put them into practice.

Perhaps it was because of her pragmatic attitude, knowing that she could govern a barbarous people only with the means which they understood.

In 1766 she attempted to reform and codify the Russian laws and appointed a commission of 650 deputies, representing all classes and nationalities of Russia (including the serfs) for that purpose but nothing more was ever heard of the Great Russian Code.

On the other hand, local government was re-organised. The whole country was divided into 50 provinces but, although she professed a desire for each district to control its own affairs, she kept all power in the hands of governors whom she appointed.

The peasants constituted some 95 percent of the population. Half of them were serfs, their condition being worse than that of the serfs in western Europe even during the Middle Ages. They were at the mercy of their landlords, whose power was without limit.

Catherine considered that any attempt at alleviating the condition of the serfs would cause an upheaval in the established pattern of Russian society and undermine her own sovereignty.

After a peasants' revolt in 1773-1775, which was ruthlessly suppressed by her imperial troops, her attitude towards the serfs stiffened and she subjected them even more to the cruel and arbitrary rule of the nobles.

Catherine was extremely tolerant in religious affairs. She allowed the Jesuits to come to Russia after their expulsion from various Catholic states and also allowed the Tartars or Mongols to build their own mosques.

She appeared to take a genuine interest in the advancement of science and ordered the vaccination of Russia against smallpox, and built hospitals and orphanages.

There was some measure of industrial development, with an expansion of foreign trade and the signing of commercial treaties but in the sphere of education almost no progress occurred whatsoever.


The Enlightenment was believed to be man's coming of age, where he was able to stand on his own feet, free of the restraints of religion, superstition and medieval practices.

The thinkers of the Enlightenment were in no way intellectual giants but rather, as Owen Hufton puts it, they were like the death-watch beetles which gnawed their way through the intellectual underpinning of centuries.

In many instances, however, they were relatively unconcerned with reconstruction. They touched the literate (consisting of 10% of the population) although, where individuals were in positions to influence policy making, they did sometimes have wider social repercussions.

The enlightenment as a whole had a low view of the people at large, seeing them as only a little higher than the animals because the population generally was unable or unwilling to reason. People were therefore slaves to their instincts, prone to crime and rioting.

Yet the philosophers recognised the people's usefulness for labour. For that reason they were generally prepared to allow the people to remain in their state of subjection and superstition because it was safer so.

Despite their good intentions, the Enlightened Despots were already too late with their reforms. The political thought of Europe had advanced beyond that of an absolute monarchy towards a constitutional monarchy.

The Enlightenment, despite the faith of the Philosophes in the monarchy, was essentially a bourgeois movement and the bourgeoisie were demanding a thorough re-fashioning of both government and society.

The abuses of the Old Order (Ancien Regime) could not be rectified by the good intentions of the ruler alone. Absolute monarchy was given a last chance to prove itself and, when it failed, reform tended to come from below.

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