Philosophers of the Enlightenment

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The Enlightenment of eighteenth-century Europe marked an era of exploration of human knowledge and reason. During this time, there was a shift in the overall perception of human reasoning. Philosophers moved away from systematic explanations of the world surrounding them and towards a new realm of analysis and observation. Of these philosophes, three men can be recognized for their progressive, radical and novel thinking. Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau each significantly contributed to the enrichment of knowledge and ideas during this time as shown through their various literary pieces. The works and beliefs of these philosophers can be compared and together illustrate the overall meaning of the Enlightenment itself. A commonality among the philosophers’ writings is discussion of religion. Voltaire was a deist. He believed that the nature of life could not have been an accident and that there had to be a creator, namely, God. 1One prominent feature of Voltaire’s writing is messages of anti-Christianity. This is seen in The Sermon of the Fifty and The Homily on the Interpretations of the New Testament. In the former, Voltaire explains how Christianity has caused so much conflict in the world by proving to be “the source of so many divisions, civil wars, and crimes; which have caused so much blood to flow.” 2 He also notes contradictions found within the bible and discusses these in some detail. Ultimately, Voltaire concluded that there is a God, but that Christianity is in no way accurate: May the great God who hears me—a God who certainly could not be born of a girl, nor die on a gibbet, nor be eaten in a morsel of paste, nor have inspired this book with its contradictions, follies, and horrors—may this God, creator of all worlds, have pity on the sect of the Christians who blaspheme him. May he bring them to the holy and natural religion, and shower his blessings on the efforts we make to have him worshipped.3

These anti-Christian views yet belief of some sort of God further illustrate Voltaire’s deist perspective. As can be seen from this exert, Voltaire was very blunt in stating his opinions. Both The Sermon of the Fifty and The Homily on the Interpretations of the New Testament appear to be personal “rants” so to speak. The anti-Christian views expressed in these works went against those of society and certainly would not have been accepted. Because they weren’t written to be read by the general public, these pieces can be so straight forward, allowing Voltaire to express his opinions very clearly.

This is not the case for all of Voltaire’s works. He also expressed many of his views through entertaining stories that were written for the public. These stories still contained controversial views, yet were written in a clever and interesting manner, allowing Voltaire to subtly convey his philosophical ideas. An example of such a story is Micromegas. In this story, Voltaire expresses pessimistic views and messages of human powerlessness while hinting at the importance of our physical senses.

In Micromegas, Voltaire tells a story of two enormous alien travelers who happen upon Earth during their exploration of the universe. These aliens discover a ship of human philosophers crossing the Baltic Sea. The aliens interrogate the men, asking them questions about what they know of the world. Each man represented a different well known philosophe. In this way, Voltaire was able to incorporate different philosophical ideas of the time period. The giants were impressed by the reasoning of the philosophers but found many of their conclusions to be faulty—some even caused them to collapse with laughter, shaking the Earth. For example, one philosopher explained that the aliens’ “persons, their worlds, their suns, their stars, everything was made solely for man.”4 The aliens found this absolutely preposterous! By making the aliens so grand and so knowledgeable, Voltaire’s story belittled human...
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