The “Enlightenment” or the “Age of Realization” was an age of great advancement and reform for all of Europe and beyond. Great advancements were being made in the fields of science, philosophy, mathematics, and logic. Most people attribute these achievements to the social critics of that time, also known as the philosophes. These philosophes were controversial thinkers and pioneered the intellectual movements of the 1700’s. They stood up for what they believed in, although they were constantly criticized and censured by many other people. Such philosophers include Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, and Voltaire. Although their beliefs violently contradicted, they were all working to change what they thought was wrong with their present government. They were four men who disagreed about almost everything, and yet they were working towards a common goal. This is how the Age of Enlightenment became a reality.
Rene Descartes was a French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist. He was born in La Haye, France (now called Descartes) in 1595. Unlike some other Enlightenment thinkers, he relied on logic and math in his reasoning. He was educated at the Jesuit College of La Fleche. It is thought that his most important influence was a man named Isaac Beeckman. It was with this man that Descartes discussed math, philosophy, and physics. This man was his friend and trusted colleague. In 1618 Descartes served in the army of Prince Maurice of Nassau. It was Descartes theory that stated, “the discovery of proper method is the key to furthering scientific advancement.” Descartes was responsible for a number of very influential works including Rules for the Direction of Mind, Le Monde (The World), Discourse on Method, Meditationes de Prima Philosophia (Meditations on the First Philosophy), The Principles of Philosophy, and Les Passions de l’ame (Passions of the Soul.) He coined the phrase, “Cogito Ergo Sum,” in English meaning, “I Think Therefore I Am.” Although Descartes died in Stockholm in1650, his words have lived on for many centuries and will survive through many more.
Thomas Hobbes was born in London, England in 1588. He was educated at Oxford University in England where he studied the classics. In 1651, Hobbes wrote his most famous book, Leviathan. In this book he argued that most people were born evil and could not be trusted to govern themselves. He thought that a ruler needed to have complete control over his people to govern efficiently. His idea was to have something to force the people to obey their ruler at all costs. He called this document the Social Contract. He thought that giving power to an individual would start a “war of every man against every man” and make life “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. “Although these thoughts may seem to label Thomas Hobbes as a supporter of an authoritarian government, he favored a representative democracy. He coined the phrase, “voice of the people,” but he thought that this “voice” should be vetoed if a ruler deemed it proper.
John Locke was born in 1632 at Wrinton in Somerset, England. He opposed the views of Thomas Hobbes and thought that people were born neither good nor evil. He believed that people’s characters were solely based on their experiences and their environment. He also believed that people could learn from their experiences and change their characters for the better. He believed that people had three Natural Rights- life, liberty, and property. In Locke’s eyes, the purpose of the government was to protect the people’s Natural Rights. He thought that if the government was not doing this job, that the people had the right to overthrow it. Although it may seem that Locke would support a democracy, he was not a democrat. He believed that laborers were of a lower status that the middle and upper classes and had no place meddling in the affairs of the government. He believed that the poor had neither the education nor the inclination to make political decisions responsibly. This was a popular belief of the time.
Francois-Marie Arouet de Voltaire was born in Paris France to a wealthy family. He was raised a deist and a liberal. He was educated at Louis de Grand, a Jesuit College, where he was exposed to both Latin and French theatre. Although his father wanted him to study the law, Voltaire abandoned the idea for philosophy and his interest in theatre.
Voltaire is famous for his satirical poetry and controversial works, many of which never became published because they were so astonishing to the society. He wrote poems and plays that made a mockery of the French government and society. He encouraged free speech among his colleagues and friends and is sometimes remembered by this line, “I disapprove of what you are saying, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Voltaire fought for a limited government and was arrested twice for insulting nobles. It is said that this great man published over 70 books of political essays, philosophy, history, and drama. Voltaire died in his sleep at the age of 84, a hero. This rebel’s contribution to the field of philosophy will never be forgotten because it helped to free the minds of the people of the eighteenth century from the hypnotic drone of former life.
Each of these enlightenment thinkers has a different view about people and about life. Each in their own way, I can relate to all of these philosophes. For example, I agree with the ideas of democracy presented by Thomas Hobbes. I can also relate to the beliefs of John Locke. I also believe that people are influenced by their experiences and environments. I also think that if given the chance I would encourage Voltaire’s rebellious behavior and satirical views of government. I also agree with the ideas of Descartes. I think that math and logic are important keys to decipher human philosophy. Who could pick only one of these amazing thinkers of the Enlightenment era? Not I. I would rather do as Rome did to Greece: take what I like and adapt it to fit me. Perhaps I could be one of the Enlightenment thinkers of the Two thousand tenth century. Perhaps I could have the great honor and recognition to be called a philosophe.