Aristotle (384-322 BCE)

Ancient Greek philosopher and author of Nicomachean Ethics, Politics, and other influential works. Rousseau's ideas are deeply indebted to Greek political philosophers, especially Aristotle, and so he thinks of the ideal political unit as a small city-state, like Sparta (or Geneva). The influence of Aristotle's Politics pervades The Social Contract.

Hugo Grotius (1583–1645)

A Dutch scholar who lived during the Thirty Years’ War and felt compelled to write in response to it. The result, a treatise on war and international relations titled On the Law of War and Peace (1625), eventually became accepted as the basis for the rules of modern warfare.

Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679)

A philosopher and political theorist whose 1651 treatise Leviathan effectively kicked off the English Enlightenment. The controversial Leviathan detailed Hobbes’s theory that all humans are inherently self-driven and evil and that the best form of government is thus a single, all-powerful monarch to keep everything in order.

John Locke (1632–1704)

An English political theorist who focused on the structure of governments. Locke believed that men are all rational and capable people but must compromise some of their beliefs in the interest of forming a government for the people. In his famous Two Treatises of Government (1690), he championed the idea of a representative government that would best serve all constituents.

Baron de Montesquieu (1689–1755)

The foremost French political thinker of the Enlightenment, whose most influential book, The Spirit of Laws, expanded John Locke’s political study and incorporated the ideas of a division of state and separation of powers. Montesquieu’s work also ventured into sociology: he spent a considerable amount of time researching various cultures and their climates, ultimately deducing that climate is a major factor in determining the type of government a given country should have.

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.

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.

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.


Key thinkers of the Enlightenment that included thinkers such as Voltaire, Diderot, and d’Alembert.