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The Philosophes

The Enlightenment as an intellectual movement truly came together during the mideighteenth century when the philosophes united for the common cause of educating the public. The philosophes had a number of interests and backgrounds, but they shared the common belief that they were intellectual beacons whose responsibility it was to enlighten the public. To the philosophes, common Europeans had no real use for the message of the Enlightenment because they would forever be preoccupied by their own survival. The philosophes believed in the value of questioning traditions, in the possibility of improving humanity, and in the possibility of progress. They were philosophers in the sense that they exercised their intellects but they had little interest in abstract thought. They had a concrete, practical purpose: to free the public from the dogmas of tradition, superstition, and false medieval ideas that never seemed to go away.

Define Your Terms

Philosophe is the French word for philosopher. The philosophes were the intellectual leaders of the Enlightenment.

One way the philosophes hoped to free people from superstition and dogma was to expose the fallacies of organized religion. The philosophes believed, as Newton did, that a rational God created a universe bound by rules and laws and then set the universe in motion like a clock. They believed that because God was rational, he could be understood through reason. There was no need for the superstitious teachings of the various denominations, nor for the ceremonies and mysticism that accompanied organized religion. The philosophes called this new view of God and his creation deism.

The philosophes were reformers, but their “reform movement” was a top-down and not a grass-roots movement. The philosophes believed the only way society would change was through the education of those who ruled, the aristocrats and even the monarchs. Only they had the power to change existing laws and societal conditions.

Intellectual Freedom in France

For the philosophes, the few years before and after 1750 was when the most important early works were published. The unofficial headquarters for the philosophes was France. France didn’t allow the philosophes total intellectual freedom, but in the years after Louis XIV died, repression and aggressive actions against intellectuals eased up a little. During the reign of Louis XIV, intellectuals who challenged the government or the Church generally found themselves tied to a post about to be burned to death. In the post-Louis years, intellectuals rarely faced the death penalty. They might have had their works banned and burned, and they might have been jailed or exiled, but they didn’t really fear for their lives.

Even though they didn’t fear for their lives necessarily, the philosophes often made their statements against the Church or against the state in a veiled form. They often wrote novels where the characters bad-mouthed other characters who represented the establishment. Some philosophes used the dictionary or encyclopedia format to express their views. Still others used satire to disguise what they really wanted to say.

Another reason the Enlightenment flourished in France had to do with language. French served as the polite language of the elite and the diplomatic language of politicians throughout Europe, and because French culture dominated Europe, French ideas easily spread with the language.

As a Matter of Fact

Charles-Louis Secondat, baron de Montesquieu (1689-1755), attacked the French government even though he was a high-ranking official. In 1721 Montesquieu published a satire called Persian Letters in which two Persians visited France during the reign of Louis XIV and made many unfavorable observations, compared the French government to their own harsh Persian government, and took shots at the pope. Besides the obvious satire, the Persian Letters explored government and morality. Montesquieu later applied the scientific method to problems of government in The Spirit of the Laws in 1748, comparing governments and examining factors such as geography and history as they influenced governments to discern which conditions promoted liberty and prevented tyranny. It didn't take long for Montesquieu's work to end up on the Index (see Chapter 5).

A French phenomenon that contributed greatly to the spread of Enlightenment thought took place in the homes of wealthy aristocrats. Gatherings of philosophes often hosted by wealthy, educated women were known as salons. The salons offered the intellectual elite of France places to gather to discuss politics and religion free from the control of the universities, the Church, and the government. One of the most famous salons was in the Paris home of Madame Marie-Thérèse Geoffrin (1699-1777). The greatest of France’s intellectuals met in Geoffrin’s salons. Eventually, as Enlightenment ideas spread to other European states, so did the idea of salons. Prominent European cities including Berlin, London, and Warsaw hosted salons as well.

As a Matter of Fact

The salons of Paris, and later of other cities, served as the breeding ground for much intellectual activity during the Enlightenment. However, the free-thinking philosophes could not speak in public the way they did behind closed doors in the salons. Therefore, in order to get their ideas into the hands and minds of the world outside the salons, the philosophes used a variety of letters. The philosophes made copies of letters, they published letters, and they even began writing letters to the editors of various pamphlets and periodicals. Much of the success of letter writing for intellectual and political purposes can be attributed to the salons of the Enlightenment. Salons weren't popular with all the Enlightenment thinkers. A number of intellectual men resented the power and influence of the women who hosted salons.

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