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The philosophes in the 18th century were French intellectuals whose ideas formed the core of Enlightenment thought. The principal figures involved were Montesquieu, Voltaire, Denis Diderot, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Condillac, Alembert,D'holbach, Turgot, and Condorcet. There were many others as well.


They did not form any sort of organization, but often discussed and debated ideas among themselves. They shared a devotion to reason, philosophical empiricism, mathematical modes of thought, trust in scientific inquiry, and a belief in the Idea of Progress. They had a wide following among the intellectuals of Europe. Their zest for rational investigation of the natural world is exemplified by Diderot's Encyclopédie (1751–66), to which many of them contributed.

In religion the philosophes encouraged toleration and skepticism; in politics their writings often reflected and furthered republicanism and the democratic spirit.

Impact on America

The American Founding Fathers read their work closely and adopted many of their ideas. Montesquieu in particular influenced American republicanism. In turn philosophes followed American events, often with the personal encouragement of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson; most greatly admired the American Revolution

French Revolution

The philosophes had a great influence on the French Revolution. The doctrines of natural law which they helped to popularize, were codified in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789) and in the American Bill of Rights (1791). By the time the French Revolution turned radical, the philosophes had lost their influence. Some were executed or died in prison, including Jacques Pierre Brissot (1754 – 1793), Condorcet, Olympe de Gouges, and Antoine Lavoisier. It is to be noted that their turning radical also had to do in large part to the philosophes' atheism or support of atheism and demonization of Christianity (Timothy Dwight implied that Voltaire and Denis Diderot's six-step plan to discredit and destroy Christianity led to the anti-Christian persecutions during the Revolution and Reign of Terror, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau likewise with his state of nature arguments ensured people went radical).

See also

Further reading

  • Artz, Frederick B. The Enlightenment in France (1968) online edition
  • Becker, Carl L., The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers (1932)
  • Chisick, Harvey. Historical Dictionary of the Enlightenment. 2005. 512 pp
  • Delon, Michel. Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment (2001) 1480pp
  • Fitzpatrick, Martin et al., eds. The Enlightenment World. (2004). 714pp; 39 essays by scholars online edition
  • Gay, Peter. The Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Paganism (1966, 2nd ed. 1995), 952 pp; excerpt and text search vol 1; The Enlightenment: The Science of Freedom, (1969 2nd ed. 1995), a highly influential study excerpt and text search vol 2;
  • Goodman, Dena. The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment (1994) 338 pp online edition
  • Hazard, Paul. European thought in the eighteenth century: From Montesquieu to Lessing (1965)
  • Goodman, Dena. The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment (1994) online edition
  • Kors, Alan Charles. Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment (4 vol. 1990; 2nd ed. 2003), 1984pp excerpt and text search; also complete text online at by a leading conservative scholar
  • Torrey, Norman L. Les Philosophes: The Philosophers of the Enlightenment and Modern Democracy (1960) online edition