Early Enlightenment in France Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

During the three decades following publication of Montesquieu’s Persian Letters, French writers produced a growing number of literary, scientific, and philosophical works advocating individual liberty, empirical investigations of all kinds, secular progress, and a skeptical attitude toward religion and tradition.

Summary of Event

The metaphorical term “enlightenment” refers to the liberal Liberalism intellectual movement of the eighteenth century in Western Europe and North America. It was a diverse movement with both radical and moderate wings. As for any such movement, it is impossible to provide definitive dates for its beginning and end. Because of the large numbers of outstanding French thinkers and writers, historians have often tended to identify it primarily with France, even though it was slower to gain momentum there than in England, the Netherlands, and some German states. Most likely, this was because of the absolutist character of France’s government, which was committed to championing Catholic privileges and values. [kw]Early Enlightenment in France (1721-1750) [kw]France, Early Enlightenment in (1721-1750) [kw]Enlightenment in France, Early (1721-1750) Enlightenment;France [g]France;1721-1750: Early Enlightenment in France[0600] [c]Philosophy;1721-1750: Early Enlightenment in France[0600] [c]Literature;1721-1750: Early Enlightenment in France[0600] [c]Cultural and intellectual history;1721-1750: Early Enlightenment in France[0600] [c]Science and technology;1721-1750: Early Enlightenment in France[0600] Bayle, Pierre Fontenelle, Bernard Le Bovier de Boulainviller, Henri de Voltaire Châtelet, marquise du Diderot, Denis Rousseau, Jean-Jacques Montesquieu Buffon, comte de Alembert, Jean le Rond d’ Maupertuis, Pierre-Louis Moreau de La Mettrie, Julien Offroy de Condillac, Étienne Bonnot de

Leaders of the French movement were commonly called philosophes (philosophers), even though few of them were interested in constructing a philosophical system. The philosophes defended a variety of religious ideas, including liberal Christianity, Christianity;and the Enlightenment[Enlightenment] atheism, Atheism Deism Deism (belief in a Creator who does not intervene in human affairs), and pantheism Pantheism (the identification of God with nature or the universe). Despite these differences, the philosophes generally agreed in rejecting orthodox Christian creeds, and they were firmly committed to religious freedom. Religious freedom;and the Enlightenment[Enlightenment]

In the realm of government, Government;Enlightenment ideas the majority of French Enlightenment thinkers were moderates who were sympathetic to constitutional monarchy and distrustful of republicanism Republicanism;and the Enlightenment[Enlightenment] and democracy. Democracy;and the Enlightenment[Enlightenment] Some of them endorsed the practice of enlightened absolutism, provided that the ruler would enact reforms and respect individual liberties. Most despised slavery and were critical of rigid caste distinctions, while at the same time they generally respected the concept of private property and the right to property.

The roots of the Enlightenment can be traced to many different sources. From classical Greco-Roman civilization, the philosophes were inspired by the materialism of Lucretius, Lucretius the skepticism of Pyrrhon, Pyrrhon the secular Secularism;and the Enlightenment[Enlightenment] morality of the Epicureans, Epicureans and the natural law concepts of the Stoics Stoics and others. From the Renaissance, they borrowed ideas from proponents of toleration and skepticism, particularly Desiderius Erasmus Erasmus, Desiderius and Michel Eyquem de Montaigne. Montaigne, Michel Eyquem de Even more, the philosophes were influenced by three intellectual giants of the seventeenth century: Sir Isaac Newton, Newton, Sir Isaac Newton, Sir Isaac;philosophes John Locke, [p]Locke, John and Baruch Spinoza. Spinoza, Baruch Newton’s scientific work suggested to them that the universe was a large machine, reducible to mathematical laws. Locke’s attribution of the origins of ideas to sensations implied that social progress was theoretically possible. Spinoza practiced biblical criticism, defended a form of pantheism, and rejected the notion of divine providence.

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle and Pierre Bayle were the two most prominent forerunners of the French Enlightenment. Fontenelle’s forte was the interpretation of science, and he helped popularize the heliocentric astronomy of the sixteenth century cosmologist Nicolaus Copernicus. He also questioned the idea of an omnipotent God and ridiculed superstition and myths. Bayle, a French Protestant who had found refuge in the Netherlands, was author of the widely read Dictionnaire historique et critique (1697, 1702; An Historical and Critical Dictionary, Historical and Critical Dictionary, An (Bayle) 1710), which scandalized conservatives with its sympathetic discussions of Pyrrhonism and Spinoza. While acknowledging the limits of reason and professing loyalty to the Reformed Church, Bayle denounced the burning of witches and did not hesitate to question the legitimacy of religious traditions. Religion;criticism of

More than any other single occurrence, however, it was the appearance of Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes (1721; Persian Letters, Persian Letters (Montesquieu) 1722) that marked the beginning of the French Enlightenment as a significant cultural movement. Claiming to contain the correspondence of two Persian travelers, Usbek and Rica, the imaginative novel presented a satirical attack on attitudes of intolerance and bigotry. Social criticism By devoting many of the 161 letters to oppressive practices in Persian harems, Montesquieu suggested that the condition of women Women;and Enlightenment views[Enlightenment] in a given society provided the measure of that society’s level of freedom and cultural advancement. Although manifestly critical of France’s government and culture, Persian Letters did not attract much attention from the censor. An instant best-seller, it allowed Montesquieu to sell his inherited judgeship and devote the rest of his life to literary pursuits and travel.

By the early 1720’s, France already had a number of Masonic lodges and other groups whose members were committed to unorthodox religious views. The result was a strong demand for works that had been condemned by the French censor. Henri de Boulainviller, who died in 1722, led an association of freethinkers who circulated numerous unauthorized publications and manuscripts, including the notorious Traité des trios imposteurs (treatise on the three impostors), which first appeared anonymously sometime before 1715. Boulainviller’s admirers published posthumous editions of his Deistic interpretations of Moḥammad and Spinoza in 1730 and 1731. When the obscure parish priest Jean Meslier Meslier, Jan died in 1729, he left behind the explosive Testament, Testament (Meslier) which denounced Christianity, private property, and inequality. Many manuscripts of the Testament were copied and passed around before Voltaire published an edited version later in the century.

During this period, French intellectuals often looked to England as a model for political liberties, and they also admired English accomplishments in science, philosophy, and literature. In 1733, Voltaire added to this mystique by publishing his Letters Concerning the English Nation, Letters Concerning the English Nation (Voltaire) which first appeared in English and then in French as Lettres philosophiques the next year. Voltaire asserted that England had four virtues lacking in his own country. First, he extolled England’s governmental system for limiting the powers of the king with an elected legislature, transparently implying that the French monarchy was potentially despotic. Second, he asserted that the English granted scientists and intellectuals considerable freedom and held them in high esteem. Third, he admired England’s relative tolerance of a multiplicity of religions, in contrast to French laws that granted full religious freedom only to Catholicism. Finally, he asserted that the English people, including the nobility, valued commerce and entrepreneurship, whereas the French disdained trade and the merchant class.

Voltaire’s Letters Concerning the English Nation has been called a “bomb hurled against the old order.” The high court of Paris quickly condemned Censorship;France Book censorship;France the book to a public burning. When Voltaire learned of an order for his imprisonment, he fled Paris, and from 1734 to 1749 he made his headquarters in the duchy of Lorraine at the château of his mistress, the marquise du Châtelet. During this period, Voltaire devoted his great energy to study and writing. In addition to books of poetry and fiction, he published a defense of worldly affluence (1736) and a popular account of Newton’s scientific theories (1738).

More than simply Voltaire’s mistress, du Châtelet was one of the great female intellectuals of the century. Having studied with Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis and other scientists, she had a specialized knowledge of mathematics and Newtonian physics, and she decided to write her own book about Newton with a broader scientific perspective than Voltaire’s account. Her Institutions de physique Institutions de physique (Châtelet) (1740; lessons in physics) provided an excellent summary of the state of knowledge about physics at the time. Somewhat later du Châtelet would publish the standard French translation of Newton with explanatory notes.

During the 1740’s, several French skeptics propagated a forbidden mechanical view of the universe. The banned writings of the marquis d’Argens, for instance, were widely available. Even more, the clandestine book Le Philosophe Philosophe, Le (Marsais) (1743; the philosopher), probably written by César du Marsais, ridiculed beliefs in Christian “fables” and described “civil society” as “the only divinity that true philosophers acknowledge.” A Catholic priest, Étienne Bonnot de Condillac, helped provide an epistemological Epistemology;and the Enlightenment[Enlightenment] basis for a materialistic metaphysics in Essai sur l’origine des connaissances humaines (1746; An Essay on the Origin of Human Knowledge, Essay on the Origin of Human Knowledge, An (Condillac) 1756), which went beyond Locke in arguing that sensation was the only source of all knowledge.

The most infamous atheist and materialist Materialist philosophy of the century, Julien Offroy de La Mettrie, shocked pious readers with his L’Homme machine (1747; Man a Machine, 1750; also known as L’Homme Machine: A Study in the Origins of an Idea, Man a Machine (La Mettrie) 1960), which rejected the idea of an immortal soul and argued that the ability to think was simply a result of the organic construction of the brain. In his next work, Discours sur le bonheur: Ou, L’Anti-Sénèque (1747; Anti-Seneca: Or, The Sovereign Good, Anti-Seneca (La Mettrie)[AntiSeneca] 1996), La Mettrie deduced moral hedonism Hedonism;and Enlightenment[Enlightenment] from his materialistic premises, suggesting that people should pursue egoistic pleasure and self-aggrandizement. He acknowledged, nevertheless, society’s right to repress acts that were manifestly harmful. Moderate philosophes, not wanting to be accused of encouraging immorality or social disorder, joined with conservatives in condemning La Mettrie’s writings. Banished from France and Holland, he found refuge in Prussia, where he was viewed as an unbalanced extremist when he died in 1751, presumably from indigestion.

Sir Isaac Newton’s model of a universe governed by immutable physical laws was a crucial influence on Denis Diderot and Voltaire, leaders of the French Enlightenment.

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As scientists learned more about the physical universe, they increasingly tended to formulate speculative explanations without reference to God or metaphysics. In 1749, the comte de Buffon published the first volume of his monumental Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière (1749-1789; Natural History, General and Particular, Natural History, General and Particular (Buffon) 1781-1812), which proposed a naturalistic theory of Earth’s origin and speculated that the planets had most likely resulted from a collision of a large comet and the Sun. After theologians at the Sorbonne condemned parts of his work, Buffon issued a formal retraction and was much more cautious in subsequent volumes. Another noted scientist, Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis, made empirical studies of heredity Evolution;and the Enlightenment[Enlightenment] in ways that foreshadowed modern theories of genetics. His book Essai de cosmologie Essai de cosmologie (Maupertuis) (1750; essay on cosmology) contained a speculative theory of biological evolution based on the inner viability of organisms. His view of a dynamic universe in constant change stimulated the imagination of numerous philosophes.

In the area of political theory, Political philosophy Montesquieu’s large and complex work De l’esprit des loix (1748; The Spirit of the Laws, Spirit of the Laws, The (Montesquieu) 1750) argued that each legal system functioned according to an operating principle (or spirit). Montesquieu distinguished between three governmental forms: despotism, constitutional monarchy, and republicanism (the latter appearing in two versions, democracy and oligarchy). On the one hand, he took the relativistic position that viable political systems must be based on particular historical and geographical circumstances. On the other hand, he indicated his strong preference for a rule of established laws with “intermediary powers” dominated by hereditary noblemen. The English constitution, in his idealized interpretation, had preserved liberty through a separation into three institutions—an executive, a representative legislature, and a judiciary. The Spirit of the Laws was one of the seminal achievements of the moderate Enlightenment. Although it was condemned by the Vatican, the French censor allowed it to be printed and sold in Paris.

In 1750, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the great maverick of the philosophes, burst upon the literary scene when the Dijon Academy awarded him first prize for his provocative essay Discours sur les sciences et les arts (1750; A Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, A (Rousseau) 1751), which asserted that humans once lived cooperative and nonviolent lives in a state of nature, whereas they had become greedy, violent, and alienated in modern civilizations. Although other philosophes were usually appalled by his attacks on reason and modernity, Rousseau was nevertheless affiliated with the Enlightenment by virtue of his commitment to freedom, individualism, and social criticism. A Discourse on the Arts and Sciences reflected his strong tendency to sympathize with outsiders and disadvantaged persons, a perspective that would become more pronounced in his later works.

Without doubt, Denis Diderot was one of the most creative and adventuresome of the major French philosophes. Like Voltaire, he was greatly influenced by the liberal British writers, and his first major publications were translations of English books. Diderot’s early opposition to Catholicism soon developed into a radical Deism that tended toward atheism. His Pensées philosophiques Pensées philosophiques (Diderot) (1746; English translation, 1819) was quickly condemned by the Paris Parlement (the high court). His controversial Lettre sur les aveugles (1749; An Essay on Blindness, Essay on Blindness, An (Diderot) 1750) described the universe as purposeless and without any metaphysical foundation for human morality. For this work, he was imprisoned in Vincennes for three months. He was released only after agreeing to recant the materialistic ideas of the book and to reveal the names of its publishers.

Before Diderot’s imprisonment, he and Jean le Rond d’Alembert had already begun their work as joint editors of the large and comprehensive Encyclopédie: Ou, Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts, et des métiers (1751-1772; partial translation Selected Essays from the Encyclopedy, 1772; complete translation Encyclopedia, Encyclopedia (Diderot) 1965), which would eventually become the greatest collaborative enterprise of the century. The watershed year of 1750 saw the composition of d’Alembert’s Discours préliminaire de l’Encyclopédie (1751; Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopedia of Diderot, Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopedia of Diderot (Alembert) 1963), which explained the principles to guide the multivolume compendium. In effect, d’Alembert wrote a manifesto of the Enlightenment’s hopes for progress Progress;concept of through the cultivation of reason and secular knowledge. Praising the contributions of scientists and philosophers of the past, he used the term lumières (lights) nineteen times and siècle des lumières Siècle des lumières (century of lights) (century of lights) twice. The following year, the first volume of the monumental Encyclopedia was published.


Before 1721, the Enlightenment in France had been an underground movement supported only by small groups of dissident thinkers. By 1750, in contrast, the perspectives of the moderate Enlightenment were commonly accepted among the educated elite. Although radical aspects of the movement—such as atheism, democracy, and opposition to monarchy—continued to be outside the mainstream, they too had an impact on a minority of the population. By mid-century, the philosophes had laid a firm foundation for the broad diffusion of Enlightenment views that would occur during the second half of the century.

Although the influences of the Enlightenment cannot be precisely measured, there is abundant evidence of its multifaceted effects. For instance, historian Michel Vovelle has documented a decline in references to religion in the last wills and testaments written in France over the course of the eighteenth century. During the French Revolution, French Revolution (1789-1796);Enlightenment ideas the ideas of the philosophes appeared to inspire both moderate reforms and radical excesses. Since then, the legacy of the Enlightenment has included a growth in scientific knowledge, secular attitudes, constitutional government, public education, the questioning of traditions, and the belief that progress is possible.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Aldridge, Alfred Owen. Voltaire and the Century of Light. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1975. Dependable account of Voltaire’s life and writings.
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    xlink:type="simple">Gay, Peter. The Enlightenment: An Interpretation. 2 vols. New York: Knopf, 1966, 1969. Classic work that views the Enlightenment as a single pan-European movement in which most thinkers shared compatible ideas and faced common enemies.
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    xlink:type="simple">Goodman, Dena. The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1996. Focuses on the social context of salons dominated by women, where men and women cooperated and had complementary roles.
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    xlink:type="simple">Himmelfarb, Gertrude. The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments. New York: Knopf, 2004. Controversial book that criticizes the French Enlightenment for glorifying abstract reason and praises English, Scottish, and American thinkers for elevating common sense and the social virtues of compassion, benevolence, and sympathy.
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    xlink:type="simple">Israel, Jonathan. Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. A large and scholarly study of early antireligious proponents of extreme secularization, emphasizing the pan-European nature of the movement and the pivotal role of Spinoza.
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    xlink:type="simple">Outran, Dorinda. The Enlightenment. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. A relatively brief summary organized by major topics, with excellent analysis of the major interpretations of the Enlightenment.
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    xlink:type="simple">Roger, Jacques. The Science of Life in Eighteenth-Century France. Translated by Robert Elbrich. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1997. The most important treatment of Buffon and other Enlightenment scientists.
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    xlink:type="simple">Shklar, Judith. Montesquieu. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. A small book that gives an excellent introduction to Montesquieu’s writings.
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    xlink:type="simple">Spencer, Samia, ed. French Women and the Age of Enlightenment. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984. A valuable collection of essays about the conditions and achievements of Enlightenment women, as well as the philosophes’ views on women and society.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wilson, Arthur. Diderot. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972. A scholarly biography that considers all aspects of Diderot’s life and thought.

Voltaire Advances Enlightenment Thought in Europe

D’Alembert Develops His Axioms of Motion

Montesquieu Publishes The Spirit of the Laws

First Comprehensive Examination of the Natural World

Maupertuis Provides Evidence of “Hereditary Particles”

Diderot Publishes the Encyclopedia

Condillac Defends Sensationalist Theory

Helvétius Publishes De l’esprit

Voltaire Satirizes Optimism in Candide

Rousseau Publishes The Social Contract

Voltaire Publishes A Philosophical Dictionary for the Pocket

Publication of Holbach’s The System of Nature

Publication of Rousseau’s Confessions

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Eighteenth Century</i>

Jean le Rond d’Alembert; Comte de Buffon; Marquise du Châtelet; Étienne Bonnot de Condillac; Denis Diderot; Montesquieu; Jean-Jacques Rousseau; Voltaire. Enlightenment;France

Categories: History