2.3 Enlightenment

Enlightenment figures include John Milton, John Locke, Voltaire, David Hume, John Stuart Mill, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Baron de Montesquieu, Thomas Jefferson.

The Enlightenment was a philosophical and cultural movement of the 17th and 18th centuries that tried, with some success, to reform the social order by challenging faith, tradition and superstition with rationality, human rights and a new relationship between the government and the governed.    When we think of the “balance of powers” within a government, we can credit Enlightenment philosopher Montesquieu.  When we think of the “social contract” we can thank John Locke.  Other concepts  like the “marketplace of ideas” and the notion of  natural or God-given rights have emerged from this era.


John Milton (1608-1674) believed the truth would always win in a free and fair fight in the marketplace of ideas.  Milton, also famous for Paradise Lost,  wrote a 1644 plea to Parliament that he called the Areopagetica: “Who ever knew truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?” (The name Areopagetica was a reference to the Athenian marketplace and also to a speech by Isocrates called the Areopagitic Discourse or Areopagiticus (about 355 BCE).  This period was time of religiously inspired revolution and civil war in England. Parliament broke with the king, and in 1649, political disputes led to the execution of King Charles I.
In many cases, people who rebelled at intolerance of the Catholic Church were themselves intolerant. Milton, for example, did not want to let Catholics publish freely.  But some Puritans, such as the more radical Levellers, were in favor of complete religious freedom. They said religious censorship kept people ignorant and that ignorance “fitted only to serve the unjust ends of tyrants and oppressors.”

English Civil War and Glorious Revolution of 1688

Milton lived at the time of the English Civil War.  Parliament won the war in 1645, and  executed King Charles I in 1649, Oliver Cromwell and then his son Richard ruled. But Richard was unfit and in 1660, Britons welcomed Charles II back from exile. Soon Parliament and the king were at odds again. Charles II didn’t oppose Parliament openly but worked behind the scenes. As a result, Charles II ensured that English kings were firmly in power again, although a king would never rule without Parliament again. In 1688 James II tried to undermine Parliament, and he was deposed in what is called  the Glorious Revolution because there was a major change of government effected without bloodshed. James fled England without a fight. Parliament called in William and Mary, the rulers of Holland, and made them king and queen. Parliament was now firmly in command of English politics.

William and Mary agreed to religious toleration and to Parliament’s claims to authority in a formal Declaration of Rights in 1688.   The Declaration recognized basic freedom for British subjects to petition the king and to bear arms. It also prohibited excessive fines and cruel and unusual punishment. While the British Bill of Rights protected fewer individual rights than the American Bill of Rights adopted a century later, it was an acknowledgement that Britons were due a large measure of freedom.

Also, in 1689 the Act of Toleration acknowledged civil rights for Roman Catholics and Dissenters.  In 1693, a college named for William and Mary was founded in Virginia.


Summing up the English Civil War by comparing Rome and England, Francois Voltaire said:

“The Romans never knew the dreadful folly of religious wars, an abomination reserved for devout preachers of patience and humility. Marious and Sylla, Caesar and Pompey, Anthony and Augustus, did not draw their swords and set the world in a blaze merely to determine whether the flamen (priest) should wear his shirt over his robe, or his robe over his shirt… But here follows a more essential difference between Rome and England, which gives the advantage entirely to the later – viz., that the civil wars of Rome ended in slavery, and those of the English in liberty. The English are the only people upon earth who have been able to prescribe limits to the power of kings by resisting them; and who, by a series of struggles, have at last established that wise Government where the Prince is all powerful to do good, and, at the same time, is restrained from committing evil… “

 Voltaire (1694-1778)  was perhaps the best known figure of the European Enlightenment.  It was Voltaire who captures the spirit  of the age by saying:

“I may disagree with what you have to say, but I shall defend, to the death, your right to say it.”  (Actually, this a popular paraphrase of a sentiment that Voltaire often repeated but never quite said that succinctly.)

Francois-Marie Arouet, known by his assumed name of Voltaire, was a prolific journalist, novelist and political thinker whose writing had a tremendous impact on the American revolution. He was educated by the Jesuits and began writing verse early. He was twice exiled from Paris and twice imprisoned in the Bastile. In 1726 he fled to England. Some years after his return he became historian of France, and gentleman of the French king’s bedchamber; from 1750 to 1753 he lived at the court of Frederick the Great of Prussia, an enlightened despot, but he found they did not agree on many things. He spent the last period of his life, from 1758 to 1778, on his estate of Ferney, near Geneva, where he produced much of his best work. He also helped Benjamin Franklin advance the cause of the American Revolution in Paris during the late 1770s.  Voltaire believed, more than anything else, in toleration, the rule of law and freedom of opinion.


John Locke (1632-1704) came up with the idea of the social contract. He was an English philosopher, naturalist and physician who helped start the Enlightenment in England and France, and his ideas were a major inspiration for the U.S. Constitution, as well  the framework of government in many other nations. He was the author of, among other works, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. The book opposed press licensing in 1694 and advanced two important ideas:

1) People and government had a social contract and government existed to serve the people, not the other way around;
2) People had natural rights to life, liberty and property.


David Hume (1711-76),  a Scottish journalist and philosopher, was a pioneer of social psychology and a champion of free press. He rejected absolutes (and  inspired the opposing view in Immanuel Kant). His philosophy echoed Greek stoics and Romans like Cicero. He wrote Essays, Moral and Political in two volumes in 1741 and 1742 and a history of England.  Hume saw freedom of the press as offering no threat to rulers, however much it might be abused.  Press freedom can not excite popular tumults or rebellions because “a man reads a book or pamphlet alone coolly. There is none present from whom he can catch the passion by contagion.”


 John Stuart Mill (1773-1836) was a Scotish philosopher and historian who expanded on Milton’s Marketplace of ideas by arguing that:

1) A censored opinion may be true and the accepted view may be in error
2) Even error may contain particle of truth
3) Truth may be held as prejudice, not rationally
4) Truth loses vitality if not contested from time to time.

“The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”


Baron de Montesquieu (1689-1755) created the idea of the separation of powers, arguing in his 1748 book On the spirit of the Laws that the best government would be one in which power was balanced among three groups of officials. He thought England – which divided power between the king (who enforced laws), Parliament (which made laws), and the judges of the English courts (who interpreted laws) – was a good model.
Montesquieu also believed that if the powers of government were limited, people would be free to follow their natural inclinations and do the right thing.


Thomas Jefferson (1743 – 1826), the principal author of the Declaration of Independence (1776) and the third President of the United States (1801–1809)  is also considered an Enlightenment figure. Jefferson’s arguments for religious tolerance are compelling:

“Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites.” (Bartlett’s 16th Ed., p.343)

“What, but education, has advanced us beyond the condition of our indigenous neighbors? And what chains them to their present state of barbarism and wretchedness,* but a bigoted veneration for the supposed superlative wisdom of their fathers, and the preposterous idea that they are to look backward for better things, and not forward, longing, as it should seem, to return to the days of eating acorns and roots, rather than indulge in the degeneracies of civilization? And how much more encouraging to the achievements of science and improvement is this, than the desponding view that the condition of man cannot be ameliorated, that what has been must ever be, and that to secure ourselves where we are, we must tread with awful reverence in the footsteps of our fathers. This doctrine is the genuine fruit of the alliance between Church and State; the tenants of which, finding themselves but too well in their present condition, oppose all advances which might unmask their usurpations, and monopolies of honors, wealth, and power, and fear every change, as endangering the comforts they now hold”. — Thomas Jefferson, Report of the Commissioners for the University of Virginia.


* This part of Jefferson’s report seems objectionable from the modern viewpoint  in that it is  demeaning to Native Americans.  While the clear targets of Jefferson’s disdain here are the advocates of Church-State alliances, Jefferson’s ideas about Native Americans were  typical of the time and of the European Enlightenment.

According to the Monticello foundation,  in his Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson defended American Indian culture and noted a speech by the Mingo chief Logan, who mourned the loss of his family in an attack by a white settler. Jefferson held up “Logan’s Lament” as an example of great and powerful oratory, the equal of any European orator, classical or modern. “I beleive [sic] the Indian then to be in body and mind equal to the white man,” Jefferson wrote to the Marquis de Chastellux.

On the other hand, Jefferson also advocated Indian removal, by force if necessary, to regions west of the Mississippi.