The Enlightenment, which is also known as the Age of Enlightenment, or Age of Reason (also known in French as the Siècle des Lumières, translated to mean Century of Lights) is a time in the history of Europe (and the world at large) when philosophical and intellectual thoughts, ideas and happenings reigned supreme, right from the 17th century through to the 19th century (Némorin, 2016).
This movement arose from a previous movement known as the Renaissance (which lasted from the 14th to 16th century: a period in which people strongly advocated for adventure, humanism and the revival of classical antiquity).
It was during this period (i.e., the period of enlightenment) that the scientific, political, philosophical, and communicational aspects of Europe were radically transformed. This may be the primary reason it has been tagged the “Age of Enlightenment” or “Age of Reason”; because a lot of the domains that were present before the start of the period were completely reoriented and also redirected toward an entirely new general perspective of doing things.
This is why, in this essay, we will be briefly looking at some of the most influential thinkers of The enlightenment period, their life, and, finally, their role in the reformation of previously established ideas and thoughts.
Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) was a highly popular English scientist and philosopher. He was also one of the most famous political figures of his period as well. Hobbes is popularly regarded as one of the founding fathers of modern political philosophy. He is popularly known in the field of philosophy for his book Leviathan (which was published in 1651). It is in this book that he presented the philosophical idea of the social contract theory upon which the popular topic of State of Nature (SON) is based (Irrera, 2017). The main idea behind this social contract theory is, that society can only be safe if we let absolute sovereignty reign and, in addition, totally surrender our rights to the Leviathan (upon which the sovereign power is placed). Hobbes is also known for his ideas on absolute sovereignty, civic responsibility, and moral obligation.
John Locke (1632–1704) was also another English philosopher of The Enlightenment Period. He was also a physician. Locke is popularly known as the pioneer of Liberalism; a movement in moral and political philosophy that is basically based on the ideas of freedom, legitimacy, and equality (Chappell, 1994). This great enlightenment philosopher is also commonly considered by scholars as one of the first British empiricists. His works have greatly influenced many other great philosophers, like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, that came after him. One of his particularly notable works is his 1690 Essay Concerning Human Understanding, in which he was able to successfully question most of Rene Descartes’ rationalist views. Locke is usually credited with the Tabula Rasa–Blank Slate theory (Duschinsky, 2012); this is the idea that the human mind before its first experience is a blank slate, which will be filled subsequently after every perception or experience.
Baron de Montesquieu
Baron de Montesquieu (1689–1755), also referred to simply as Montesquieu, was a political philosopher, a man of letters and a lawyer (judge) from France, whose huge influence on the foundation of political philosophy, as well as the progress of the European Enlightenment, cannot, however, be overlooked. Montesquieu is popularly known for the introduction of “separation of power”, which has been adopted worldwide in the constitution of many countries (Althusser, 1972). Separation of Power is a model of governance that has to do with the division of the power of the state between different independent branches; the typical division is the executive, legislature, and judiciary, with each having its own roles to play in the governance of the state. Montesquieu’s unanimously published book of 1748, De l’espirit des Lois, which translates to mean (On) The Spirit of Law, covered different topics ranging from law to anthropology. The book also got the attention of many philosophers in Britain and the US in the long run. It was even upon this book that the founding fathers of the United States of America were able to draft the first US Constitution.
According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2001), David Hume (1711–1776) is commonly described as one of the most important English philosophers. During his time, Hume was known to be a very popular writer, essayist, and historian (Ernest, 1980). He wrote on a lot of diverse issues, ranging from politics, religion, and morality to philosophy. Some of his widely studied essays include:
1. A Treatise of Human Nature (1739–1740);
2. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748);
3. An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751) and;
4. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779) (published posthumously).
Hume, like Locke, was also an empiricist. He discarded the idea of innate or preconceived ideas and presented, in many of his works, the notion that ideas can only be gained through experience.
Rousseau (1712 – 1778) is a contemporary of David Hume. In fact, they often had intellectual engagements on political and moral philosophy. Jean-Jacques moral philosophy greatly influenced the general progress of the Enlightenment movement and has also influenced the works of many philosophers across Europe that came after him (Damrosch, 2005). Two of his essays, The Social Contract, and Discourse on Inequality, have been described as the pillar of modern political and social philosophy. Some of Rousseau’s works were mainly based on Hobbes’s philosophy, especially his essay on the social contract theory (Rosenblatt, 1997).
The aforementioned are some of the most influential thinkers of the enlightenment. They did not only work to champion the course of Enlightenment, but they have also become an important reference point in many philosophical, political, moral, and social talks of today.