Although the first major figures of the Enlightenment came from England, the movement truly exploded in France, which became a hotbed of political and intellectual thought in the 1700s. The roots of this French Enlightenment lay largely in resentment and discontent over the decadence of the French monarchy in the late 1600s. During the reign of the wildly extravagant “Sun King” Louis XIV (reigned 1643–1715), wealthy intellectual elites began to gather regularly in Parisian salons (often hosted by high-society women) and complain about the state of their country. The salons only grew in popularity when Louis XIV died and the far less competent Louis XV took over.
Gradually, complaints in the salons and coffee shops changed from idle whining into constructive political thought. Especially after the works of John Locke became widespread, participants at the salons began to discuss substantive political and social philosophies of the day. Before long, cutting-edge thought in a variety of disciplines worked its way into the salons, and the French Enlightenment was born.
By the early 1700s, coffee shops, salons, and other social groups were popping up all over Paris, encouraging intellectual discussion regarding the political and philosophical status of the country. Moreover, members of these groups increasingly clamored to read the latest work of leading philosophers. These nontraditional thinkers came to be known as the philosophes, a group that championed personal liberties and the work of Locke and Newton, denounced Christianity, and actively opposed the abusive governments found throughout Europe at the time. As varied as they were, the leading French philosophes generally came from similar schools of thought. They were predominantly writers, journalists, and teachers and were confident that human society could be improved through rational thought.
A large part of the philosophes’ attacks were focused on the Church and its traditions. In matters of faith, many of the prominent philosophes were deists—they believed in an all-powerful being but likened him to a “cosmic watchmaker” who simply set the universe in autonomous motion and never again tampered with it. Moreover, they disdained organized religion and the Church’s traditional idea of the “chain of being,” which implied a natural hierarchy of existence—God first, then angels, monarchs, aristocrats, and so on.
The philosophes also raised objections against the decadent lifestyles of leading Church representatives, as well as the Church’s persistence in collecting exorbitant taxes and tithes from the commoners to fund outlandish salaries for bishops and other Church officials. What the philosophes found most appalling, however, was the control that the Church held over impressionable commoners by instilling in them a fear of eternal damnation. The philosophes may have had mixed feelings about the common people, but they had very strong feelings against the Church. As a result, they provoked the Church by challenging doctrines such as the existence of miracles and divine revelation, often disproving specific tenets with simple science. The Church, in turn, hated the philosophes and all they stood for.
Complementing and enabling the socially and politically active atmosphere was the dramatically improving literacy rate in France. Beyond just talking about revolutionary ideas, more and more French people, especially in Paris and its surrounds, were reading and writing about them as well. A symbiotic relationship developed as readers anxiously awaited more literature from the philosophes, and in turn the response that the writers received compelled them to write more. The scholarly atmosphere at the time also provided women of French society—albeit still within traditional roles as salon hostesses—with an opportunity to contribute to the conversation.
One of the leading political thinkers of the French Enlightenment, the Baron de Montesquieu (1689–1755), drew great influence from the works of Locke. Montesquieu’s most critical work, The Spirit of Laws (1748), tackled and elaborated on many of the ideas that Locke had introduced. He stressed the importance of a separation of powers and was one of the first proponents of the idea of a system of checks and balances in government.
Although Montesquieu’s work had a great effect on the development of democracy, Montesquieu himself believed that no one governmental system better than the others but rather that different forms were better than others in certain situations. An early pioneer in sociology, he spent considerable time collecting data from various world cultures, which led him to the rather outlandish conclusion that climate is a major factor in determining the best form of government for a given region. Montesquieu believed that environmental conditions affect behavior and response and thus concluded that governments located in different climates should be adjusted accordingly. Even Montesquieu admitted that this idea worked better in theory than in practice. His legacy therefore lies primarily in his methods, his combination of practicality and Enlightened idealism—ultimately, he was a researcher through and through.
The primary satirist of the Enlightenment, François-Marie Arouet, better known by his pen name Voltaire (1694–1778), entered the literary world as a playwright. He quickly became renowned for his wit and satire, as well as the libel claims that often resulted. In and out of prison and other various predicaments for most of his young life, Voltaire spent a period of exile in England during which he was introduced to the works of Locke and Newton. The two thinkers had a profound impact on the young Voltaire, who became wildly prolific in the years that followed, authoring more than sixty plays and novels and countless other letters and poems.
Voltaire was an avowed deist, believing in God but hating organized religion. As a result, he made Christianity—which he called “glorified superstition”—a frequent target of his wit. Voltaire was also an ardent supporter of monarchy and spent a considerable amount of time working toward judicial reform. Later, after bouncing around to various countries and working with a number of notable contemporaries, Voltaire wrote the satire Candide (1759), which has since earned distinction as one of the most influential literary works in history.
Although Voltaire lacked the practical breadth of some of his contemporaries—he did not dabble in multiple scientific fields—he made up for it with the volume of his work. Using his brilliant, sarcastic wit to analyze everything from philosophy to politics to law, he extolled the virtue of reason over superstition and intolerance and effectively became the voice of the Enlightenment. Moreover, his satirical style enabled him to make incredibly pointed criticisms while generally avoiding serious prosecution by those he attacked. Although detractors complain that Voltaire never offered any solutions to the problems he criticized, he never aspired to do so. Nonetheless, by merely pointing out problems and criticizing different philosophies, he caused considerable change.
The third major figure of the French Enlightenment was Denis Diderot (1713–1784), a writer and philosopher best known for editing and assembling the massive Encyclopédie , an attempt to collect virtually all of human knowledge gathered in various fields up to that point. Twenty-eight volumes in length—seventeen text, eleven illustrated—the portion of the Encyclopédie edited by Diderot was published one volume at a time from 1751 to 1772. Diderot, assisted by French mathematician Jean Le Rond d’Alembert for part of the project, painstakingly collected as much Enlightenment-era knowledge as he possibly could. After Diderot’s involvement, an additional seven volumes were completed, but Diderot himself did not edit them.
Beyond just facts, definitions, and explanations, the Encyclopédie also included space for philosophes to discuss their thoughts on various topics—although even these opinions were filtered through the lens of scientific breakdown. A veritable who’s-who of Enlightenment-era scholars contributed to the collection, including Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Rousseau (see Rousseau, p. 29 ). Due to the highly scientific—and thus untraditional—nature of the Encyclopédie, it met with a significant amount of scorn. Diderot was widely accused of plagiarism and inaccuracy, and many considered the collection to be an overt attack on the monarchy and the Church.
The Encyclopédie was one of the primary vehicles by which the ideas of the Enlightenment spread across the European continent, as it was the first work to collect all of the myriad knowledge and developments that the Enlightenment had fostered. However, the Encyclopédie succeeded not because it explicitly attempted to persuade people to subscribe to Enlightenment ideas. Rather, it simply attempted to present all of the accumulated knowledge of the Western world in one place and let readers draw their own conclusions. Not surprisingly, the power establishment in Europe frowned on the idea of people drawing their own conclusions; the Church and monarchy hated the Encyclopédie, as it implied that many of their teachings and doctrines were fraudulent. In response to attempted bans, Diderot printed additional copies in secrecy and snuck them out.