This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Art & Artists

Enlightenment is a philosophical, intellectual and civic movement developed in the eighteenth century, which starts from the premise that human thinking is the only one capable of ensuring happiness. It supports inventive spirit, encyclopedias, progressive trends, scientific research, rationalism, critical spirit. Enlightenment appeared in 18th century in France, being represented by the brightest minds of the time: Voltaire, Diderot, Montesquieu, D’Alembert, Descartes, J.J.Rousseau. It spread across Europe and North America at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the next. It is believed that Enlightenment has roots in England, in the work of philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, David Hume, Ricardo, Defoe, Swift, as well as in the model of political organization offered by the United Kingdom. Most representatives of the French Enlightenment were among philosopher writers because of their vast preoccupations that include literature in the narrow sense of the word, science and philosophy. Their literary works are influenced by philosophy and contain a severe critique of society. The name of enlightenment was explained by the fact that the representatives of this current proved trust in human reason and its ability to illuminate the world. “Reason and universal progress,” Voltaire said, “pushing forward history.” Enlightenment could be made in their conception by culture, knowledge and education. title




A. The new ideas begin from the importance of human reason and claim that:

– man has the overriding duty of being happy
– the idea of deism limited to the act of creation and hence the separation of the state church
– “enlightenment” of the masses through education and rationalism
– the principle of good governance based on the sovereignty of the people and the separation of powers in the state
– the Republican regime or the British model constitutional monarchy
– work as a source of wealth, based on individual freedoms, private initiative and demand and supply-based economy

Some scholars or philosophers from the 18th century founded or became members of Masonic lodges that developed mainly in France, but also in other countries. In 1773, the Great Orient was founded, which is said to have had more than 30,000 members in 1789. The 18th century was dominated by rationalism, as well as rethinking the place and role of the state, the relationship between the individual and the state. It is accredited that not only the individual has certain obligations to the state, but also to the individual.

B. Enlightened absolutism was promoted by the Prussian, Russian, Austrian monarchies through Frederic II (1740-1786), Maria Tereza (1740-1780), Joseph II (1780-1790), Ecaterina and-II-a (1762-1796). 

These despots have enlightened the ideas of the Enlightenment in order to modernize the administration, the army, agriculture, industry development, education, church subordination, the aim being to unify the multinational empires, to increase monarchs’ incomes and power. Despite the diversity of manifestations, the new conception of governance has some common features: a centralizing absolutism; a hierarchy of clerks; anger of government (materialized by State intervention in economy, education, religion); a unified conception of governance. The economic thinking of the light monarchs was mercantilism. An active trade balance was pursued, the monarchy supporting the manufacturing and commercial activity. In social terms, the state intervenes, for fiscal and humanitarian considerations, in relations between peasants and nobles, wanting to make each inhabitant an efficient taxpayer. A centralized amministration is created, with the sovereign being the owner of all the levers of the state. The nationalist character of state activity makes education a governance problem. In the religious field, the importance of the Church is maintained, but it is subordinated to the state power that seeks to regulate its activity.

C. Iosefinism. Joseph II ascended to the throne in 1780, after the death of his mother, Maria Theresa, beginning the reformation of the state, by virtue of the philosophy of the lights.

He adopted the German variant of Enlightenment, more conservative and more appropriate to the stage of development of the Austrian Empire. He wanted to impose radical reforms: the abolition of monasteries, equality of cults, social equality, freedom of speech, unification of laws. The most important reform concerned the religious domain. The Edict of Tolerance (1781) maintained the primacy of the Catholic religion, but the practice of the other religions was accepted; it opened to non-Catholics (mostly Protestants) the way to functions, properties, industries, entry into cities. From 1781, Joseph II moved to the administrative organization through which the state was divided into constituencies, with leading commissioners subordinated to the emperor. Thus, the counties were affected, the nobility having important privileges there. In the same year, he demolishes the serfdom on the imperial realms, hoping the nobles will do the same thing. The judicial reform of 1782 created the legislative framework needed to modernize the empire (for example, the death penalty and torture were dropped). At the same time, the monarch censored the clergy and modernized the education.

D. Enlightened Despotism in Russia. Russia was an original model of enlightened despotism.

In fact, even Montesquieu believes that, due to the climate, despotism was a good form of government for a population that reacted only to force. Ecaterina II the Great (1762-1796) occupied the throne after the death of her husband, Peter III. The German princess, Ecaterina, had received an education inspired by the Enlightenment model in her childhood. She has made some reforms aimed at creating a new balance between the great nobility and the new forces, but keeping the old feudal structure. The Empress summoned in 1767 a large representative assembly to make proposals for the revision of the laws, editing provisions itself (Nakaz) for this. Ecaterina II was an enlightened despot, more by education and because of her intentions, because most of the reforms were not applied. In fact, many of her reforms have been canceled by her successor.

E. The spread of Enlightenment was achieved through books including theater, novel, social-political pamphlet, philosophical works, musical works and symphonies. It is remarked here:

– Encyclopedia developed under the leadership of Diderot and d’Alembert (The Encyclopedia concentrated the new ideas of the century and passed it to the great public in accessible form.) Forbidden by Louis XV and condemned by the papacy, the work enjoyed an appreciation with supporters in all levels of society and contributing to the development of public opinion.
– The Social Contract of J.J.Rousseau and About the Law of Montesquieu
– Robinson Crusoe written by Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver Travel
– Faust written by J.W. Goethe and Don Giovanni de W.A. Mozart’s work


The modern state led to the birth of the idea of ​​public life and private life. Public needs, the state, services, public order, the market are defined as parts of public life, so everything that matters to them becomes subject of general interest. Social, economic, political, and governance issues are topics of public debate. This is made up of newspapers, books, brochures, cultural and literary societies, clubs, Masonic lodges. Debates are held through public conferences, literary evenings, press articles. Academic meetings, libraries, exhibitions, dialogues of ideas, lecture theaters are now taking place, while the Catholic Church promotes ecumenical dialogue, pilgrimage and individual and collective charitable acts. The social contract led to the foundation of the concept of sovereignty of the people: J.J. Rousseau said that sovereignty belongs to general will, any form of government must be supervised by the people, the only true owner of sovereignty. Basically, it was proposed to replace royal sovereignty with that of the people, an extremely modern idea that turned into the force of action during the French Revolution of 1789.


Voltaire was conservative enlightenment. It had an extremely extensive work. His writings are directed against social inequities, superstition, religious intolerance. He criticized the Old Regime and the Church militating for the freedom of speech, thought and equality of all people before the law. Considers that the evils of society can be directed by the alliance between monarchs and philosophers. Voltaire is the theorist of enlightened despotism.

Montesquieu was moderate Enlightenment orientation. He created an important work. In 1721 he published “Persian Letters” in which the journey of two Persians travels across Europe and criticizes the realities of our continent, namely: religious intolerance, cultural and state institutions, including the absolute monarchy, in The Book of Laws theorizes the principle of separation powers in the state. Considering the constitutional monarchy the most efficient form of government, because the executive, legislative and judicial power was independent of each other.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a radical Enlightenment. His works, “Discourse on Wealth Inequality” and “Social Contract,” expressed the aspirations of the little bourgeoisie he was part of. Considering the source of inequality and evil in society as private property, that is why it had to be limited. Also, militating for the participation of all citizens in political life, the state had to be organized to ensure the sovereignty of the people. 

– Denis Diderot and d’Alembert published the Encyclopedia in 35 volumes, ‘Encyclopedia’ contains the revolutionary ideas of Enlightenment: the struggle for progress, freedom and tolerance, equality between people and among peoples. The ideological form of Enlightenment, through criticism at The Old Regime, has ideologically prepared the great upheavals caused by the French Revolution.






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