The Age of Reason

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1788) raised the question of Nature vs. Nurture in his treatise, "The Social Contract," saying that humans are born good but become corrupted by social influences.
"Dare to know" was the motto given to this age by the philosopher Immanuel Kant. The battle between faith and reason, feelings and fact was raging in Europe. As the middle class grew, so did the number of literate citizens. As a result, more and more people were being influenced by literature. This was a time when critical thinking became the guide for human beings into the future. Progress and change were the goal for the new, cosmopolitan world; one based solidly in logic instead of the religious dogma that controlled previous generations and governments.

The Age of Reason, also called "The Enlightenment" was a time when citizens of Europe changed their medieval, God-centered world view to a non-religious view. The effects of the scientific revolution led to the use of natural laws to disprove religious inconsistencies. Fact soon became the only acceptable basis for modern thought.

Changes in the social, literary, and political scene in Europe were abundant. The feudal class systems that were a part of European culture for most of its history were changing. Enlightened thinkers such as Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu, and Diderot, also referred to as the philosophes, worked to uplift the minds of the European leaders who claimed to base their rule on these new ideas.

The center of this intellectual storm was Paris, where women of wealth hosted evenings in their salons that were frequented by the enlightened ones in European society. Through their work in the areas of science, literature, philosophy, and sociology, illuminated ideas began to spread throughout the continent. Salons provided meeting places for these great minds and allowed for ideas to be contemplated, argued and diffused.

The philosophes were responsible for writing the Encyclopedia, and were therefore also referred to as the Encyclopediestes. Denis Diderot edited this compilation of papers, essays, and articles, written by the great thinkers of the age. It served as an alphabetical reference that focused on the whole field of human knowledge as it had been seen through the eyes of the "enlightened ones." Conversation in the salons was centered around this work, and one was not considered to be cultured or worldly unless he or she was familiar with these volumes.

The philosophes proposed new and controversial ideas such as deism or the belief in a God, but not necessarily an organized and autocratic religious system. They recognized that the natural world and the human world has nothing to do whatsoever with religion and should be studied independently from religion. The persecution that Europe witnessed owing to religious intolerance was seen as the greatest crime. Many, like Voltaire, sought to exonerate those who had been tormented by the Church risking their own persecution.

These philosophes were not typical philosophers. They were scientists, biologists, even economists and inventors. This term was used for anyone involved in attaining "advanced knowledge." They did not engage in speculating or abstract concepts, instead they focused on bettering society. They were practical. They wished to reform individuals, institutions, and antiquated belief systems. Some rulers of the day bought into the writings of the philosophes. Frederick the Great of Prussia, Catherine the Great of Russia and Joseph II of Austria were considered to be Enlightened Despots, leaders who pledged to cure societal ills. They were the first to recognize that they were servants of their people.

These rulers were thought to be the closest things to Plato's Philosopher Kings. The philosophes kept in contact with these rulers and even spent time living in their castles. Such was the case of the strange relationship between Frederick and Voltaire. These intellectuals praised the works of these leaders and felt they would help to bring about progress, the major goal of the philosophes and the Enlightenment.

Salons of 

Human Nature

Critiques of
The Life of
Other Enlightenment Thinkers
Go to Jean-Jacques Rousseau
WARNING: Exposure to science and art can be morally corrupting.
During the height of the Enlightenment, this is what Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed to be true.
Go to fairy tale flower
Barred from university educations, many upper-class women turned to the salons to develop and share their intellect and wit. One result of these playful conversations was the emergence of fairy tales.

Adapted from Beyond Books, New Forum Publishers, Inc., 2001