The enlightenment was a great time of change in both Europe and America. Some of the biggest changes, however, happened in the minds of many and in the writings of many philosophers. These included some of the beliefs of David Hume, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, and Francois Voltaire. Writers during this time focused on optimism, which is the opinion to do everything for the best (Chaney 119), and the best for these philosophers was to stretch the minds of the ordinary. David Hume was Scottish and was born on April 26, 1711 and died in 1776.
He states that he was not born into a rich family and was born into the Calvinist Presbyterian Church. However, after being influenced by the works of Isaac Newton and John Locke he began to draw back from the Church. He writes in Enquiry, “The idea of God, as meaning an infinitely intelligent, wise and good Being, arises from reflecting on the operations of our own mind, and augmenting, without limit, those qualities of goodness and wisdom.” (Pomerleau 214) The questions he brought up against religion were that concrete experiences must lead us and that we must think about the quality of the stories that were handed down to us. He wanted everyone to only believe the actions that one experienced, there has to be proof. He also believed that there were four basic problems to the stories that we hear.
First of all, the facts to the stories are never the same to everyone. Second, we stretch the truth to make everything interesting. Third, people who do not understand these stories tend to make things up. Finally, not all of the religions agree.
Therefore, the stories conflicted each other leaving a person to not know what to believe. He believes that “Our most holy religion is founded on Faith, not on reason; and it is a sure method of exposing it to put it to such a trial as it is, by no means, fitted to endure.” (215) Hume also believed in the social contract. This is that kings are in power because of luck and citizens should have control over their own power. During Hume’s lifetime a representative government was not something that countries thrived on.
He also thought that the duties of men were to love children and to pity those that are less fortunate. He also thought that one should respect other’s properties and keep our promises. Hume argued that we are born into our family with the knowledge passed on to us, from this point Hume says that government is only an interference in the lives of people. He uses the example of American Tribes where no one needs a government to keep peace within the group (Pomerleau 222). These are the two main points that Hume tried to make. They are the basis of what got people to think about their lives and decide that what they have now might not be the best thing that their life can accomplish.
From his points of view, we can move on to another influential philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau. Jean Jacques Rousseau was born in Geneva in 1712. His first years in his life were very hard because his mother died shortly after birth and he was sent to live with his aunt. However, his life turned around and he married and began his life as a philosopher. Rousseau was involved with the social contract like Hume.
His book, however, did not become popular until after the French Revolution because these were the conditions that the revolution was based on (Chambers 669). His ideal government would contain a small state, prevention of overpowering businesses, and equality in rank and fortune (Castell 419).He distrusted the aristocrats because he believed they were drawing away from traditions that were once held very high (“The Enlightenment,” http). To him kings are just concerned with themselves and when one dies, another one is needed. None of these people ever take in to consideration the less fortunate.
Everyone has to move to the beliefs of one man. Rousseau felt that the government should be in the hands of many, not just one. Ideally, everyone in a society needs to be in agreement with one another. Another belief that Rousseau represented was deism, which is that god created the universe and then allowed it to run according to natural law and not interfering with it anymore. Again, these questions began to be disputed and the people began to realize that their lives could mean more than just what the higher officials might say.
They began to think about what life and the world is really about. This brings us to the next philosopher, Immanuel Kant. Immanuel Kant was born on April 22, 1724. Kant studied both Hume and Rousseau and rethought his aspects of science and shifted a little towards philosophy. In addition to his thinking, he also spent a lot of time lecturing at Konigsberg, Martin Knutzen. His two main scientific questions dealt with how far can the scientific method be applied to everything and how to explain scientific knowledge.
He realizes that both of these cause the mind to start with some given information and an answer is then given for humans to understand (Stumpf 302). Kant was firm in his belief on a priori knowledge, which is the knowledge that is prior to experiences, but he also states that not everything can be based on experiences since we cannot experience everything. From these beliefs, he also believed in two realities, phenomenal and noumena. Phenomena, derived from a Greek word meaning “that which appears,” (Castell 599) is the world as we experience it and noumena is intelligible or nonsensual reality. In the world we only experience phenomena because noumena is present but it is external from us and only appears as it is organized by us (Stumpf 312).
From a social standpoint, Kant believed that as long as a man could support himself and owned property he should be qualified as a citizen. He states that if everyone is required to pay for public welfare then everyone should have his or her freedom guaranteed. If this if present then there is no need for a rebellion, which will lead to a stronger government. Kant feels that this is hard to obtain because people need a political balance but at the same time they need to be able to keep their freedom. A type of freedom that he feels should be held by all is the freedom that everyone is punished the same and the death penalty should only be carried out only when an individual is proven guilty (Stumpf 316).
Kant believed in God because he felt that if one would deny all existence that did not support any logic, then nothing at all would exist to anyone. He also states that “it is morally necessary to assume the existence of God.” (Stumpf 319) From this he also realizes that one does not necessarily need to believe in God, but one needs to respect the beliefs “for duty’s sake.” When thinking about God, according to Kant, it is an experience that we can not experience. Kant takes us to the last of the four major philosophers on the enlightenment period, Francois Voltaire. He based a lot of his thoughts on the three previous philosophers but did not speak to them directly. His writings are fewer but more radical that the others.
Francois Voltaire lived from 1694-1778. To most he was known as the most vigorous antireligious debater. He was the philosopher that was favoring deism the most. He wished that everyone would stop Christianity and follow his beliefs.
One reason that he felt this was because from his experiences, bad things came from religion (Chambers 660). Voltaire, unlike Rousseau, favored the aristocracy and was often invited to their parties to talk about some of his ideas. From this Voltaire, unlike many of the philosophers of his day, was often left to think about things on his own (“The Enlightenment,” http) and another reason for this is because for twenty eight years he was held in succession from Paris for some of his extreme writings. One of the most disturbing things in Voltaire’s life was from the earthquake in Lisbon on Nobember1, 1755. This was one thing that Voltaire could not understand and thought about forever.
He did not want to turn to God as everyone else did, nor did he want to be on the side of the atheist. He was stuck in the middle and only left with the thought of the innocent people that were killed (Gay 52). For most of the philosophers during the time of the Enlightenment, things were bad. Most of them had to publish their books in secrecy and still had to deal with them getting burned as officials found out. This would be a very big disappointment, but they later prove that some of their beliefs are right when people begin to rebel because of the dramatic messages that they sent to people. Whether philosophy, religion, or politics were the basis of one’s reading they were generally flipped around.
It is said that educated people have the power to do anything, and during the Enlightenment this source of power is obvious and is carried out. Whether the readers believed the philosophers or not, it got the reader thinking and he talked to his friends and the revolts began. The Enlightenment was a time of change but it was also a time that dealt with the “unreality” that some thought could be but never were because some were so extreme or contradicted each other from philosopher to philosopher. Works Cited Castell, Alburey, Donald Borchert, and Arthur Zucker. Introduction to Modern Philosophy.
Macmillan Publishing Compan, 1988. Chambers, Mortimer, Barbara Hanawalt, Thoedore Rabb, Isser Woloch, and Raymond Grew. The Western Experience. The McGraw-Hill College, 1999.
Chaney, Norman. Six Images of Human Nature. Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1990. “The Enlightenment.” Online. BeWell Net.
Available: http://www.wsu.edu/brians/hum_303/enlightenment.html. February 14, 1999. Gay, Peter. The Enlightenment: An Interpretation.
Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1966. Pomerleau, Wayne P. Twelve Great Philosophers.
Ardsley House. 1997. Stumpf, Samuel Enoch. Philosophy History & Problems. McGraw-Hill Publication. 1989.