By: Linh Tran P.4
The Enlightenment was a period where the growth of science led to the use
of reason to study society. It was also a time of new thinking about the structure of
society and economic systems. This period began in the late 1600s in Europe and
ended in the early 1800s. Enlightenment thinkers concluded that since physical
laws governed nature, natural laws would govern human affairs. They began
searching for natural laws by asking questions like: What is the purpose of
government? What is the best kind of government? People believed that just as
progress had been made in science, progress could also be made in understanding
and improving human society.
An English philosopher named John Locke was one of the earliest
Enlightenment thinkers. He reasoned by nature that people are basically rational.
They were born with the ability to control their personal affairs and are also born
with natural rights, or rights that the government cannot take away from them.
Locke argued that people formed governments to protect their natural rights and if
the government didn’t live up to that purpose then the people had the right to rebel
and form a new government.
Baron de Montesquieu is a French philosopher that took Locke’s ideas one
step further. He focused on ways to prevent rulers from becoming despots and
believed that a balanced government was the only way to stop that. His ideal
government was composed of three branches: a legislative branch that made laws,
an executive branch that carried out the laws, and a judicial branch that interpreted
the laws. This system helped balance the branches powers, limit it, and prevent one
of the branches from becoming powerful enough to take away everybody’s
Another French philosopher who was also concerned with liberty was Jean
Jacques Rousseau. He said,” Man was born free and yet everywhere was in chains.”
he revived an idea known as the social contract. Under a social contract, people
agreed to give up their freedom to do anything they wanted. In return, the rulers
agreed to keep order and protect the people’s natural rights. Members of society
agreed to live together for the good of one another.
A French writer known as Voltaire was a famous Enlightenment philosopher.
Voltaire had a witty style and a strong sense of social justice. He was most
passionate in his writings on religious tolerance since he saw the damage caused by
religious wars. He argued that Christians should be tolerant of others beliefs.
Women at the time had very few rights even though Enlightenment view on
liberty. They received very little or no education and couldn’t work in most
professions. An English writer named Mary Wollstonecraft couldn’t tolerate the way
they were treated and believed that men and women were equal in their ability to
reason, so she wrote a book in 1792 called A Vindication of the Rights of Women. She
believed that “ignorance and slavish dependence” was because of their lack of
education. She called for “a revolution in female manners,” which would begin with
education so that women and men would become equal.
Adam Smith was a Scottish writer who applied reason to economic
questions. He published a book called The Wealth of Nations in 1776. He stated in
his book that the way for a nation to become wealthy was to allow free trade.
During his time though, the government had limited trade with other countries. He
argued that wealth is not measured in money, but what money could buy and that
an economy works best when people are allowed to make their own economic
decisions, also known as laissez faire.
Some of the greatest thinkers in history came from the Enlightenment
period. Their ideas became the foundation of the world’s first democratic nation-
The United States of America. Our founding fathers used the ideas of philosophers
such as Locke, Rousseau, and Descartes when they wrote the Declaration of
Independence. Baron de Montesquieu’s ideal government comprising of three
branches became the model the the government of the United States. In a time
where women had little or no rights, Mary Wollstonecraft fought for their rights.
Her writings became the the basis for the women’s suffragette movement in the
United States and Great Britain. This was a great influence on the civil rights
movement that followed. The writings of Adam Smith, who sometimes called the
father of global trade, is more important today than ever. When some people today
argue for restricting free trade for the sake of wealth, we must remember Smith’s
argument that ”Wealth is not measured by how much money we have, but what
that money can buy.” Citizens of the United States owe our way of life to these great
men and women from the Enlightenment period. Our nation was born in the
Enlightenment period. Even today we look back and study the writings of these
philosophers to help us with our future. These are the reasons why I feel that the
Enlightenment period is the greatest period in history.
Hart, Diane. “Chapter 20.” Medieval and Early Modern Times, Prentice Hall,
2006, pp. 562–595.