The Enlightenment Period

Statue of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, exterior Louvre, Paris

According to The Oxford Guide to Philosophy, "'Enlightenment' contrasts with the darkness of irrationality and superstition that supposedly characterized the Middle Ages" (252). The text lists several central tenets of Enlightenment thought:

The specific dates of the Enlightenment period are a matter of debate (see Course Overview handout), but it is generally agreed that the movement began in the mid to late 17th century and continued throughout much of the 18th century.


Here are some key figures in Enlightenment thought. Those writers marked with an asterisk (*) have texts in your anthology, The Bedford Anthology of World Literature, Compact Edition, Vol.2,

Thomas Hobbes (1588 - 1679, England): Hobbes's seminal text is Leviathan, published 1651. In this text, he describes a horrific state of nature in which humans lived before they formed governments and other social constructs, and after analyzing this situation and his observations of human societies, he concludes that an authoritarian monarchy is the best form of government. This text is significant because it is the first major attempt to justify a political system based on reason and logic; prior thinking had typically identified the authority of the monarch with divine-right.

Statue of Rousseau outside the Pantheon, Paris.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau* (1712 - 1778, France): Rousseau three best-known works are The Social Contract, Emile, and Confessions. The Social Contract is the most overtly political. In it, Rousseau describes a state of nature contrary to Hobbes's portrayal, and he concludes the best form of government is one which leaves intact as much individual freedom and liberty as possible. He describes this situation as a "social contract" in which all citizens willingly give up certain rights (thought not too many) in exchange for the benefits of a central government. Previously, John Locke* (born in England, 1632 - 1704), had similarly attempted to refute Hobbes's theory.

Monument to Diderot, The Pantheon, Paris

Denis Diderot* (1713 - 1784, France): Diderot is most famous for being the editor and a major contributor to the Encyclopédie, an impressive attempt to catalogue social, scientific, and artistic knowledge, with the ambitous goal of encompassing all human knowledge.

Immanuel Kant* (1724 - 1804, East Prussia): Kant was an extremely prolific writer. One of his best known works is a short essay entitled "An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?" (1784). Written towards the end of the Enlightenment period, this essay attempts to accomplish exactly what the title indicates: provide a description of what it means for a person to be "enlightened."

Mary Wollstonecraft* (1759 - 1797, England): Wollstonecraft is often regarded (though probably inaccurately) as the first feminist. Her seminal text is A Vindication of the Rights of Women; an excerpt from this text appears in your textbook.


The following writers were not Enlightenment thinkers per se, but they lived during the Enlightenment and composed their literature during that period.While those writers listed above wrote political and philosophical treatises, those listed here are better known for their literary works (i.e. fiction, drama, and poetry). However, Enlightenment ideology is often clearly visible in their texts.

Jonathan Swift* (1667 - 1745, born Ireland; lived in Ireland and England): Swift occupies an interesting place in British literary history. Swift witnessed quite a bit of political change, having been born soon after the English Civil War and the reign of Oliver Cromwell (1649 - 1660), and seeing the Glorious Revolution (1688) put William of Orange of the throne when Swift was a young man. Swift was born to an Irish father and an English mother, and his father died before he was born. He was taken to England at a young age, then returned to Ireland to be raised by his father's family. After graduating from Dublin University, he obtained a post as a secretary to a British politician. Eventually, he was made Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral in back in Dublin. (Despite what the logic of the name and location might lead one to conclude, St. Patrick's is not a Catholic Cathedral. It is the seat of the Church of Ireland, which in Swift's day was the Irish branch of the Church of England. As such, while his job was official a religious post, he essentially served the King of England.) For Swift, this was a failure. He wanted a political career; had he been more successful in politics, he may never have engaged in any serious writing.

Due to his parentage, his frequent travels between Ireland and England, and his job in the Church of Ireland/British government, Swift is unusually qualified to comment on British politics and society. He is a high-ranking English official, but he is also an outsider. This unusual status filters into his writing, and he is able to provide critical and relevant social commentary.

Swift's most famous work is Gulliver's Travels. In the excerpt in your textbook, the main character Lemuel Gulliver, directly criticizes many elements of 18th century British society. The way in which Swift presents this criticism provides a lucid reflection of Enlightenment thought.

Street Sign, Rue Molière, Paris

Molière* (1622 - 1673, France): Molière was a 17th century French playwright and actor, known mostly for his comedies. (If you refer to the drama page, you should note that a comedy, when referring to the type of play, is not by defintion funny. Molière's plays, however, typically are quite humorous.) Molière was successful enough that his troupe was in residence at the Palais-Royal theatre.

Molière's grave, Cimetière Du Père-Lachaise, Paris

Molière frequently included scathing social criticism in his plays, which often got him into trouble, particularly in some cases where it was relatively easy for the audience to identify particular people (usually noblemen) who were being mocked.

Tartuffe (1664) is a comedy that mocks the hypocrisy Molière frequently observed in people who put on an act of religious piety. It contains even more intense ridicule for people who fall for such facades.

Voltaire* (1694 - 1778, France): Voltaire is best known for his satirical fiction and plays. His progressive views in 18th century France often led him into trouble. He was imprisoned in the Bastille for 11 months after writing a caustic satire of the French government, and was later forced into exile after insulting a young nobleman. In exile he spent three years in England - he found England's constitutional monarchy, religious tolerance, and atmosphere of philosophical rationalism quite appealing, and many such ideas worked their way into his subsequent works. He advocated civil liberties, such freedom of religion, separation of church and state, and freedom of expression. His views had a profound influence on the American and French Revolutions and his impact is apparent in the US Bill of Rights (1791) and the post-Napoleonic French Republics of the 19th century.

Candide (1759) is perhaps best known for its unabashedly sarcastic tone. It follows the adventures and exploits of a young man (named Candide) as he travels much of the known world (often by accident) and learns about people, politics, life, and about himself. Along the way, Voltaire humurously parodies countless governments, people, customs, and philosophies. The humor and parody, however, often have serious undertones, leading readings simultaneously to laugh and think seriously.