18th century French philosophy  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
French materialism, 18th century philosophy, philosophes, French philosophy

Prominent French Enlightenment philosophers such as Voltaire, Denis Diderot and Jean-Jacques Rousseau questioned and attacked the existing institutions of both Church and State.

French philosophy in the 18th century was deeply political. It was heavily imbued with Enlightenment principles and many of its philosophers became critics of church and state and promoters of rationality and progress. These philosophers would come to have a deep influence on the politics and ideologies of France and America.

Voltaire (1694-1778) came to embody the Enlightenment with his criticisms of Church dogma and French institutions, his defence of civil liberties and his support of social reform. The civil liberties for which he fought were those of the right to a free trial and freedom of religion. He is best remembered for his aphorisms and his satire of Leibniz known as Candide, which tells the tale of a young believer in Leibnizian optimism who becomes disillusioned after a series of hardships.

Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu (1689-1755) was a social commentator and political philosopher. His theories deeply influenced the American Founders, especially his belief that the state powers should be separated into legislative, executive, and judicial branches, which formed the basis for separation of powers under the United States Constitution. In The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu outlined the view that man and societies are influenced by climate. He believed that hotter climates create hot-tempered people and colder climates aloof people, whereas the mild climate of France is ideal for political systems.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) distinguished himself from the progressive scientism of the Enlightenment with his proclamation in Discourse on the Arts and Sciences that art and science are corruptors of human morality. Furthermore, he caused controversy with his theory that man is good by nature but corrupted by society, which is a direct contradiction of the Christian doctrine of original sin. Some of his theories continue to be controversial, such as his idea called the general will, which has been both accused of fascism and praised for its socialist ideals. Rousseau’s thought highly influenced the French Revolution, his critique of private property has been seen as a forbear to Marxist ideology, and his picture was the only one to grace the home of Immanuel Kant. He was so highly praised by the French revolutionists, that in 1794 his remains were moved to the Panthéon in Paris.

Denis Diderot (1713 - 1784) was a key collaborator in the creation of the Encyclopédia. A systematic collection of all the information of the arts and sciences, the Encyclopédia caused great controversy. Diderot was harassed repeatedly by the police, and was even arrested. The ecclesiastical party disliked the Encyclopédia, which was a threat to the aristocracy because it asserted that the state should care of the people and not itself, religious freedom, freedom of thought and the value of science and industry. In the end, the bookseller began removing all articles he deemed controversial in fear of punishment. The Encyclopédia that Diderot had worked on for twenty years was ruined beyond repair.

See also

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