Enlightenment Philosophers Who Influenced Revolutions (Top 5)

American and French revolutionary republican politics were a long time coming. Here are 5 enlightenment philosophers who paved the way.

Apr 9, 2022By Alexander Standjofski, BA in History & Political Theory w/ pre and post-Christian Ideology
liberty leading the people enlightenment philosophers
Liberty Leading the People, by Eugene Delacroix, c. 1830, in The Louvre

 

The central tenets of the Age of Revolution were a wave of liberalism amidst then-politically fashionable absolutist monarchies. Individual liberty from oppressive and invasive government and the tolerance of socio-political others are key pillars in this era of human political history. While this ideology infiltrated European monarchies prior to the Age of Revolution, which enlightenment philosophers contributed to the subsequent era of revolutions?

 

John Locke: Liberty of the Individual

washington crossing delaware enlightenment philosophers
Washington Crossing the Delaware, by Emanuel Leutze, c. 1851, via Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Despite writing a whole century prior to the revolutionary period, John Locke was arguably the most influential thinker on liberal theory and classical republicanism. Though Locke would never live to see the fruits of his philosophical labor, Thomas Jefferson held his liberal tenets strongly in mind when he helped pen the American Declaration of Independence in 1776.

 

John Locke was the first enlightenment philosopher to suggest that the people of a state should possess the right to change or elect their leader. With ancient thinkers, namely Aristotle, largely deterring people from the idea of democracy, Locke played a crucial role in its ushering onto the political stage in the late eighteenth century.

 

Locke was a critical component to the advocacy of classical liberalism. The central pillars of liberalism in its classical sense were formed by those escaping religious persecution and tyrannical, oppressive monarchies. The tenets, then, became true liberty and the idea that no person or governing body has a right to interfere with the affairs of the individual: limited government, and an emphasis on the freedoms of the one over the many.

 

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In the revolutionary era, this was an extremely progressive and new ideology.

 

Adam Smith: Competition in the Market

iron and coal enlightenment philosophers
Iron and Coal, by William Bell Scott, 1861, via National Trust Collections, Wallington, Northumberland

 

Adam Smith was a Scottish economist and thinker – though not a political theorist, Smith contributed to liberal ideology through the language of economics and finance.

 

Still, his ideas can be translated politically. Economic liberalism and the central idea of the free market goes together with Lockian ideals, and later even social Darwinism. This is where young states in the revolutionary era obtained the idea of capitalism and financial laissez-fairism.

 

Like classical Lockean liberalism, Adam Smith upheld that the natural self-interest and individual liberty of the one over the many spurs competition in the market. This yields the healthiest economy possible.

 

One of the most famous economic critiques offered by Adam Smith was his example of the pin factory. In days of old, a craftsman would lovingly pour one hundred percent of his own labor into the manufacturing of pins. The craftsman welded the metal, shaped the tiny pins, crafted each one to a point, and dipped each one in wax on the other end.

 

The craftsman’s work was tied purely to his own labor, adding an emotional facet to his own business and profit. In the wake of the industrial revolution and mass production, the division of labor polluted the process. More workers were added to the equation, laboring like automatons. One worker welds the metal; another crafts the points; another dips the plastic. As a result, Adam Smith critiqued the means of incoming mass production while advocating for a free market.

 

Montesquieu: The Separation of Powers

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The Storming of the Bastille, by Jean-Pierre Houël, c. 1789, via Bibliothèque Nationale de France

 

Montesquieu, born Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de la Brède et de Montesquieu, was a French political philosopher and is today largely considered one of the fathers of the study of anthropology and one of the most prominent enlightenment philosophers.

 

Montesquieu built atop a political ideology founded by the ancient Greek thinker Aristotle. Specifically, the French thinker was fascinated by Aristotelian categorization; the knack the Greek mind had for grouping commonly formed ideas, movements, and even animals.

 

Most of Montesquieu’s life was spent under the two longest serving monarchs in France’s history: Louis XIV (r. 1643-1715) and his great-grandson Louis XV (r. 1715-1774). France was at the zenith of its imperial power under the stewardship of these two monarchs.

 

Within the imperial administration’s political operation, Montesquieu observed and took note of the division of power. Namely, his observations outline that political power was divided between the sovereign and the administration. The administration was subdivided into legislative, executive, and judicial departments – the same three branches found in modern governmental organization.

 

Government operated along these lines as a very intricate web. No one section of government could wield more power or influence than the other to keep the balance. It was from this profound observation that young republican governments were formed in the Revolutionary Age.

 

Rousseau: An Optimistic View of Men

raft of the medusa
Raft of the Medusa, by Théodore Géricault, c. 1819, via Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Rousseau wrote predominantly and extensively on the concept of human nature. Thinkers before his time, such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, projected criticism onto the philosophical canvas that became the State of Nature.

 

The basis of the State of Nature is an argument for the necessity of government in a society. The generation of thinkers prior to Rousseau all argued that the void left by lack of government yields anarchy and chaos. Their disagreement lay mainly in the scope and size of this assumed necessary government.

 

Rousseau was contrary to this idea. He held an optimistic outlook of human nature, claiming that our species is inherently trusting and empathetic. While we do have a biological instinct to sustain our own survival and self-interest, human beings also possess the capacity of empathy for our own kind.

 

The optimistic components to human function held by Rousseau translate into political thought via his concept of perfection. Human beings are the only animals that seek to improve their state of existence. Their will and desire for these improvements, then, translate into their political operation – advocating for a democratic republican society.

 

Voltaire: The Separation of Church and State

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General George Washington Resigning his Commission, by John Trumbull, c. 1824, via AOC

 

Voltaire was more a pivotal enlightenment philosopher than a revolutionary thinker, though his ideas were equally as radical and liberal. Born François-Marie Arouet in Paris, he became a large proponent of enlightened monarchs in his time. Voltaire is known for his infamous wit and quasi-cynical outlook on life and society in his time.

 

Voltaire was an extremely prolific writer who often disguised his rhetoric and thought into satire. He wrote via the medium of the arts: he wrote poetry, plays, novels, and essays. The thinker was often subject to censorship, as France was a stronghold of the Roman Catholic Church for centuries.

 

The thinker satirized and mocked the intolerance of the Catholic faith, arguing that the political realm was no place for religion. The argument of the separation of church and state was a new and radical one in this era, particularly in France.

 

The remnants of the tight grip the Catholic Church held onto French society and survived even in her former Canadian colonies. In the Canadian province of Quebec, where French culture, language, and society continues to thrive, the public school system was only deconfessionalized in 2000.

 

Voltaire criticized the ties secular politics had to religion, and introduced the idea of their separation into revolutionary ideals. Voltaire was also a massive influence on the concept of toleration and equality.

 

The Influence of Enlightenment Philosophers

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The Battle of Bunker Hill, by John Trumbull, c. 1786, via The American Revolution Institute

 

Many of these thinkers and writers would not live to see their philosophical labor bear fruit. Their ideologies would first infiltrate imperial European monarchies in the Age of Enlightenment prior to birthing modern republican states.

 

Highly educated sovereigns read the words that came from these great minds and romanticized liberal political conduct. This was translated into sweeping liberal reforms in this era, albeit reforms that largely inflated the scope and power of the crown.

 

The subsequent ideological experiment was first conceived of in the British Colonies overseas. In the young United States, these concepts of democracy, liberty, and justice translated directly into the forging of its constitution in 1776. Before the end of the century, the French, too, would revolt and establish their own republic built on the ideas of these great enlightenment philosophers.

 

Historically speaking, the longest lasting political structure to exist was fascism; European feudalism dominantly prevailed through to the Age of Revolution. Just as diamonds are formed under pressure, it took the hardships of a fascistically structured society to birth what would become the most profound political movement in human history.



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By Alexander StandjofskiBA in History & Political Theory w/ pre and post-Christian IdeologyAlexander holds a BA in history and political theory from Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. He has studied the historical narrative of the western world as well as pre and post-Christian political thought and ideology spanning from 500 BCE to 1800 CE.