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Q3. Discuss the role of major thinkers during the age of enlightenment?


The main characteristic of the intellectual movement of the Age of Enlightenment was the emergence of personalities such as political reformists, cultural critics, religious sceptics, historians and social thinkers. Among them were Mary Wollstonecraft, Henri de Saint-Simon, Adam Smith, Jean Condorcet, Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Hobbes and Montesquieu.

Most philosophers who emerged in this era presented critical questions about the existing social system. They suggested that changes be made through political actions, by holding campaigns for freedom of speech. It was these ideas that formed the basis of the French Revolution (1789 to 1799).

Although the philosophers of this era held different principles and political interests, they were all involved in finding the truth based on rational principles. This group also believed that each aspect of man’s life could be studied systematically and critically. French social thinkers such as Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieue, Condorcet and Johannes Kepler were considered extremists for challenging Catholic dogma, superstitions, myths, aristocratic privileges and the feudal system which hampered the development of the mind and freedom of thought.

They also held that the objectives of science were to enable man to conduct self-examinations, decide society’s direction as well as handle and solve social, economic and political issues. Scientific knowledge was of a practical value and could be used to build a better society.

Political thinkers and philosophers

Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679): Hobbes was an Englishman whose great work – The Leviathan (1651) discussed the structure of society and the form of legal government and discussed the theory of social contract.

He wrote on the best form of governance and assumed that man was innately evil and lived in anarchy. For Hobbes, man’s nature is to constantly be at war (the war of all against all). This situation could only be avoided with the creation of a strong and absolute central government through a form of social contract. Peace could only be achieved when man allowed the suppression of personal freedom.

John Locke (1632–1704): Enlightenment ideas on politics were rooted in John Locke’s Two Treatises on Government (1694). Locke’s basic idea was that government, rather than being at the whim of an absolute monarch with no checks on his power, existed merely as a trust to carry out the will of the people and protect their “lives, liberty, and property.” If it failed in its duties or acted arbitrarily, the subjects had the right to form a new government, by revolution if necessary.

Locke’s ideas largely summarized the achievements of the English Revolution of the 1600’s. They had a tremendous impact on political thinkers in France chafing under the corrupt reigns of Louis XV and Louis XVI. Locke championed man’s natural rights as well as freedom of thought and speech.

Montesquieu (1689–1755): Montesquieu was French and founder of the theory and methods of sociology. His famous works were Thoughts on the Causes of Greatness of the Romans and their Decadence (1734) and The Spirit of the Law (1748). In his first book, he stated that the rise and fall of an empire depended on moral and physical factors, and were not purely coincidental. His second book was a detailed observation on society which included forms of government, culture, the influence of ecology on the social structure, populations, business/commerce, religion and law. His opinions on the environment and the law at the time were rather advanced as these issues were only given attention at the end of the 20th century.

Voltaire (1694-1778):  He was famous for his attacks on the established Catholic Church, and his advocacy of freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and separation of church and state. Voltaire had an enormous influence on the development of historiography through his demonstration of fresh new ways to look at the past. His best-known histories are The Age of Louis XIV (1751), and his Essay on the Customs and the Spirit of the Nations (1756).

Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778): His works were A Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences (1754) and The Social Contract (1762). In The Social Contract, he gave opinions related to his political philosophy. For him, humans had to hand over their rights and personal freedom to a sovereign body which decides the form of laws that would protect them as members of society with the same basic rights. All members of society would obey general laws that were agreed upon collectively.

Mary Wollstonecraft: Mary Wollstonecraft was one of the first advocates of women’s rights, being a principal forerunner to the contemporary feminist movement. Her most influential work is A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), where she suggested an educationalist approach towards bridging the gap in social status of men and women. She believed in innate rationality of human beings and advocated republicanism as opposed to hereditary monarchy.


Thinkers and philosophers in field of economics and psychology

In economics, the most important figure was Adam Smith, whose The Wealth of Nations pushed for a wholly new attitude toward economics. Smith saw people as selfish and willing to work much harder and produce much more if they had the incentive to do so. He saw the mercantilism of the 1600’s and 1700’s, where the state tried to import gold and silver while exporting its goods, as stifling to an economy. Therefore, doing away with mercantilist monopolies and restrictions would provide more incentive to produce. There was no need to regulate the market since people’s greed and the law of supply and demand would make the market self-regulating. Smith’s free market policy, known as laissez faire (“hands off”) was widely adopted in the 1800’s as Britain, Europe, and the United States rapidly industrialized. It is still a vital part of our economic thinking today.

In psychology, Helvetius claimed our minds and personalities are blank slates at birth and that we are the products of our environment and the sum total of our past experiences. Combining Helvetius’ “blank slate” theory with the prevailing optimism of the age was Jeremy Bentham. He felt we could teach people to act in rational ways by providing an ideal environment where they can learn the right sorts of behavior. Bentham’s movement, Utilitarianism, became quite popular and pushed for a wide range of social reforms in such areas as prisons, law codes, and public health.

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