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The Later Enlightenment

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) said in his 1784 essay “What Is Enlightenment?” that the spirit of the Enlightenment was embodied in the Latin phrase sapere aude, or “dare to know.” Kant meant that the Enlightenment encouraged people to boldly ask questions, to seek knowledge, and to dare to think independently. He couldn’t have been more right, particularly about the Enlightenment in its later years before 1789.

As if the early Enlightenment thinkers hadn’t been bold enough, the later intellectuals made even bolder assertions than their forebears. The later thinkers of the Enlightenment lacked the unity of the philosophes of the mid-eighteenth century, formulating their own systems of thought that typically were much more dogmatic, exclusive, and inflexible than those of the early philosophes. In fact, some of the later philosophes created divisions in the Enlightenment movement. The rigid and determined Baron d’Holbach serves as a perfect example.

Baron d'Holbach, Atheist

The German Baron Paul d’Holbach (1723-1789), who was educated in France, took Newton’s idea about the universe operating as a clock or as a machine to the extreme. D’Holbach argued that even humans are machines that have no free will. According to d’Holbach, forces and laws of nature governed the lives of humans, not humans themselves and certainly not God. He aggressively argued against the existence of God and even against the existence of human souls. After all, why would human machines have a need for souls?

From the safety of the Netherlands, d’Holbach published System of Nature (1770), a work that deeply troubled many of the philosophes. The philosophes had worked hard for tolerance and for the acknowledgement of the existence of God, regardless of how God was approached, and d’Holbach aggressively pushed his atheism in the name of the Enlightenment. D’Holbach often hosted formal dinners with other intellectuals to discuss their atheism, a relatively new development for Europe.

David Hume, Also an Atheist

One of the most influential of all d’Holbach’s dinner guests was the Scottish skeptic David Hume (1711-1776). Hume combined skepticism and empiricism into a carefully formulated world-view that would have long-lasting effects on Europe. For Hume, Locke’s ideas about human learning and the human mind made a great deal of sense. All knowledge was sensory, just impressions made on the mind by the senses. Anything that could not be experienced with the senses, through experimentation for example, could not be known.

The logical extreme of Hume’s philosophy, which he laid out in The Natural History of Religion (1775), was that the belief in God equaled superstition, since God could not be experienced with the senses. Hume’s philosophy also implied a great deal of relativism. One person’s truth or knowledge wasn’t necessarily the truth or knowledge perceived by another. For Hume, beauty was in the eye of the beholder.

Rousseau's Different Take on Society

The most influential political philosopher of the later Enlightenment turned out to be one of the stranger, more interesting individuals. The paranoid Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), of Swiss origin yet influenced by Diderot and Voltaire, began his intellectual career by arguing in the mid-eighteenth century that the new emphasis on science and intellectualism had led to a decay in morals in Europe. He followed that essay with works ranging from fiction to essays on education and politics. Though his novel The New Heloise proved to be the most popular French work of fiction in the second half of the eighteenth century, Rousseau made his mark with his political philosophy.

Would You Believe?

Rousseau's distaste for society and his paranoia led him to spend his final days secluded in the countryside far away from his contemporaries.

While so many other philosophes believed that a better, progressive society would lead to better lives for mankind, Rousseau was wary of society and civilization. He believed the relationship between man and society was more strained than other philosophes did. Rousseau once remarked, “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.” This statement shows Rousseau’s distrust of society and civilization.

Rousseau’s The Social Contract, written in 1762, proved to be his most significant political work. Rousseau argues that man will be best served by entering into a social contract, an agreement to be governed. Those who give their consent to be governed agree to live by certain moral standards that place the general will of the people above individual interests. The general will, difficult to define, can be described as that which is in the best interest of the collective.

Rousseau also emphasized popular sovereignty, or the people’s ownership of true political power. These ideas undermined the political authority of rulers and governments who placed no importance on the power of the people. It is no wonder that the French government banned Rousseau’s work. Despite the ban, Rousseau’s ideas, particularly about the general will and popular sovereignty, would be the guidelines for many revolutionaries in the years of the French Revolution (see Chapter 14).

As a Matter of Fact

Rousseau made a significant impact on education with his manuscript Emile.

In the book, Rousseau described the rearing and education of a young boy, Emile, in the natural world rather than in the urban world. Through his writing, Rousseau stressed the emotional needs of students and persuaded the reader to consider the whole person of the student rather than just the intellect of the student. Furthermore, Rousseau emphasized that children are greatly different than adults, have different needs than adults, and should not be treated like adults.

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