Western Europe's worship of reason, reflected only vaguely in art and literature, was precisely expressed in a set of philosophic ideas known collectively as the Enlightenment. It was not originally a popular movement. Catching on first among scientists, philosophers, and some theologians, it was then taken up by literary figures, who spread its message among the middle classes. Ultimately, it reached the common people in simplified terms associated with popular grievances.
The most fundamental concept of the Enlightenment were faith in nature and belief in human progress. Nature was seen as a complex of interacting laws governing the universe. The individual human being, as part of that system, was designed to act rationally. If free to exercise their reason, people were naturally good and would act to further the happiness of others. Accordingly, both human righteousness and happiness required freedom from needless restraints, such as many of those imposed by the state or the church. The Enlightenment's uncompromising hostility towards organized religion and established monarchy reflected a disdain for the past and an inclination to favor utopian reform schemes. Most of its thinkers believed passionately in human progress through education. They thought society would become perfect if people were free to use their reason.
Before the eighteenth century, the Enlightenment was confined to Holland and England. Its earlier Dutch spokesmen were religious refugees, like the French Huguenot Pierre Bayle (1674-1706), whose skepticism and pleas for religious toleration were widely known in France. Baruch Spinoza (1632-1687), a Jewish intellectual and Holland's greatest philosopher, was a spokesman for pantheism, the belief that God exists in all of nature. Spinoza's influence, along with Newton's, profoundly affected English thinkers. Mary Astell (1666-1731), perhaps the earliest influential English feminist, lauded rational thinking and cited Newton as proof of an ordered universe. Such ideas were given more credibility by John Locke (1632-1704), the famous English philosopher. Back home from exile in Holland after the Glorious Revolution of the 1680s, Locke applied Newton's recently published principles to psychology, economics, and political theory. With Locke, the Enlightenment came to maturity and began to spread abroad.
After the Peace of Utrecht (1713), the Enlightenment was largely a French Phenomenon. Its leading proponents were known as the philosophes, although the term cannot in this instance be translated literally as "philosophers." The philosophes were mostly writers and intellectuals who analyzed the evils of society and sought reforms in accord with the principles of reason. Their most supportive allies were the salonnieres, that is, the socially conscious and sometimes learned women who regularly entertained them, at the same time sponsoring their discussion of literary works, artistic creations, and new political ideas. By 1750, the salonnieres, their salons, and the philosophes had made France once again the intellectual center of Europe.
A leading light among the philosophes was the Marquis de Montesquieu (1688-1755), a judicial official as well as a titled nobleman. He was among the earliest critics of absolute monarchy. From his extensive foreign travel and wide reading he developed a great respect for English liberty and a sense of objectivity in viewing European institutions, particularly those of France. Montesquieu's Persian Letters (1721), which purported to contain reports of an Oriental traveler in Europe, describing the irrational behavior and ridiculous customs of Europeans, delighted a large reading audience. His other great work, The Spirit of Laws (1748), expressed his main political principles. It is noted for its practical common sense, its objective recognition of geographic influences on political...