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Enlightenment

An International System of Thought

Centered in Paris, the movement gained international character at cosmopolitan salons. Masonic lodges played an important role in disseminating the new ideas throughout Europe. Foremost in France among proponents of the Enlightenment were baron de Montesquieu, Voltaire, and comte de Buffon; Baron Turgot and other physiocrats; and Jean Jacques Rousseau, who greatly influenced romanticism. Many opposed the extreme materialism of Julien de La Mettrie, baron d' Holbach, and Claude Helvétius.

In England the coffeehouses and the newly flourishing press stimulated social and political criticism, such as the urbane commentary of Joseph Addison and Sir Richard Steele. Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope were influential Tory satirists. Lockean theories of learning by sense perception were further developed by David Hume. The philosophical view of human rationality as being in harmony with the universe created a hospitable climate for the laissez-faire economics of Adam Smith and for the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham. Historical writing gained secular detachment in the work of Edward Gibbon.

In Germany the universities became centers of the Enlightenment (Ger. Aufklärung ). Moses Mendelssohn set forth a doctrine of rational progress; G. E. Lessing advanced a natural religion of morality; Johann Herder developed a philosophy of cultural nationalism. The supreme importance of the individual formed the basis of the ethics of Immanuel Kant. Italian representatives of the age included Cesare Beccaria and Giambattista Vico. From America, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin exerted vast international influence.

Some philosophers at first proposed that their theories be implemented by "enlightened despots"—rulers who would impose reform by authoritarian means. Czar Peter I of Russia anticipated the trend, and Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II was the prototype of the enlightened despot; others were Frederick II of Prussia, Catherine II of Russia, and Charles III of Spain. The proponents of the Enlightenment have often been held responsible for the French Revolution. Certainly the Age of Enlightenment can be seen as a major demarcation in the emergence of the modern world.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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