Denis Diderot (1713–1784)

A French scholar who was the primary editor of the Encyclopédie, a massive thirty-five-volume compilation of human knowledge in the arts and sciences, along with commentary from a number of Enlightenment thinkers. The Encyclopédie became a prominent symbol of the Enlightenment and helped spread the movement throughout Europe.

David Hume (1711–1776)

A Scottish philosopher and one of the most prominent figures in the field of Skepticism during the Enlightenment. Hume took religion to task, asking why a perfect God would ever create an imperfect world, and even suggested that our own senses are fallible, bringing all observations and truths into question. Hume’s skepticism proved very influential to others, such as Immanuel Kant, and was instrumental in the shift away from rationalist thought that ended the Enlightenment.

Voltaire (1694–1778)

A French writer and the primary satirist of the Enlightenment, who criticized religion and leading philosophies of the time. Voltaire’s numerous plays and essays frequently advocated freedom from the ploys of religion, while Candide (1759), the most notable of his works, conveyed his criticisms of optimism and superstition into a neat package.


Collective name for key thinkers of the Enlightenment that included Voltaire, Diderot, and d’Alembert. 

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778)

An eclectic Swiss-French thinker who brought his own approach to the Enlightenment, believing that man was at his best when unshackled by the conventions of society. Rousseau’s epic The Social Contract (1762) conceived of a system of direct democracy in which all citizens contribute to an overarching “general will” that serves everyone at once. Later in his life, Rousseau released Confessions (1789), which brought a previously unheard-of degree of personal disclosure to the genre of autobiography. The frank personal revelations and emotional discussions were a major cause for the shift toward Romanticism.

Popular pages: Selected Works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau