The Age of Reason & the Age of Enlightenment

Age of Reason / Age of Enlightenment

The Age of Reason & the Age of Enlightenment

The Age of Reason is generally considered a separate movement in 17th and early 18th Century Europe, which preceded – and led into – the Age of Enlightenment; it is also commonplace to approach both eras as having overlapping boundaries – and hence, they are more often than not joined as one extended period of intellectual, scientific and philosophical advancement.

But aside from the issue of the co-mingling of the eras, the Age of Reason did indeed come first, and led into the Age of Enlightenment. Among the most prominent philosophers associated with the Age of Reason and the Age of Enlightenment are Voltaire, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Immanuel Kant. Those three philosophers will be reviewed and critiqued in this paper.

Voltaire: Voltaire is perhaps best known for his novel Candide – which ranks as “one of the masterpieces of European literature,” according to author A. Owen Aldridge (Voltaire and the Century of Light) (Aldridge 260). On page 260, the author explains that Voltaire’s Candide was not (and is not) so much lauded for its style, but instead for its “realistic portrayal of the human condition.” Voltaire’s Candide is “unmitigated satire,” Aldridge writes on page 252, and in the story Voltaire pokes fun at Germany – at the “deficiencies in aristocratic refinements and excess of pretensions” – because he had been harassed by the German court, and this was the way writers answered back when their dignity or credibility had been attacked.

But Candide was far more than just a satire; it is a many things to many people, and still stands out today as a masterpiece. Candide is a parody of a style of education in the 17th Century in which, Aldridge writes (253), “is carried on by means of extensive travel in the company of an all-knowing tutor.” Candide is the protagonist who is being tutored, and his teacher / mentor is Pangloss, who taught “not that all is right…but that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds,” Aldridge explains. This theme was used as an exaggeration of “ordinary deism,” the author explains. Also among the characters are two who act as “foils” to Candide and his mentor; they are Jacques, who extols the “doctrine of moral degeneration of man” and Martin, who teaches the “supremacy of evil rather than a balance of evil and good.” In both cases, the moral and political views of Voltaire are being expressed.

Although the book is roughly written in the episodic style of Gulliver’s Travels – in which author Jonathan Swift used a number of different methods to convey his gloomy messages – Candide is written using one literary technique, “ludicrous juxtaposition.” The protest message that Voltaire was putting forward – based on what he saw around him in the early 18th Century – was of course a kind of introduction into the midst of the Age of Reason and into the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment, during which wise and visionary men and philosophers creative and scientific pains to define the universe.

Candide the character is a “na ve, idealistic mind” which comes into constant contact with “opposing realities” (Aldridge 253). Candide is sent from his home, conscripted (against his will) into the Bulgarian army, and nearly killed by running the gauntlet. He is witness to a terribly bloody battle in which “thirty thousand men are slaughtered,” Aldridge writes on page 254.

Candide is a survivor, though; he survives the terrible Lisbon earthquake, he survives a tempest and a shipwreck too. The parody and the satirical themes are carried throughout the novel, and all the time Candide’s tutor Pangloss keeps muttering that “everything is for the best in the physical and moral realms,” Aldridge continues on page 254. Even after Candide is “whipped to insensibility by the Inquisition,” his mentor mumbles that “…Nothing could be any otherwise than it is.”

Readers today are – and readers in Voltaire’s day were – smart enough to know that’s not how life works; everything isn’t for the best when tens of thousands of people are being slaughtered and when an individual is being whipped nearly to death because he didn’t follow the exact rules of the Church. But that was Voltaire’s point, that things are not good and they must be made better in order to improve the lot of mankind.

The absurdity of these events of course was a design by Voltaire to make his statement that the world was a very violent, dangerous and unsettling place – due in large measure to the idiocy of the people (many of whom are in charge of institutions and should know better). Throughout his narrative, Voltaire critiques many “scientific, social, and philosophical notions” of great interest to himself and to his generation. He lampoons the evils of institutionalized religion, politics, and social pretensions; and he does it in such a way, with clever and refreshing narrative, that it could easily be applied to today’s political, religious, and social institutions.

Jean Jacques Rousseau: While Voltaire’s most memorable and influential work was Candide, Jean Jacques Rousseau’s most meaningful works were his Second Discourse and his Social Contract.

When Jean Jacques Rousseau began his Discourse – “What is the Origin of Inequality Among Men, and is it Authorised by Natural Law?” – by calling attention to the fact that he considered his “Sovereign Lords” “honourable” and “magnificent,” was he using charm to get attention? Was he “buttering them up” – those who would be reading his tome – in the hopes that his arguments would be more persuasive? No, and no. Those “Sovereign Lords” Rousseau spoke of were not the political or religious powers of his day in France, but rather, the citizens. The ordinary people who could read and write and think.

On that first page, Rousseau gave a strong pitch for the fact that he believed in equality; he wanted an open society “…in which every person being equal to his occupation”; he equated the “love of country” with “a love of the citizens… [rather] than of its soil.” Those simple concepts relate directly to a more just society.

As readers continue into the meat of his presentation, it is obvious that he finds war a contemptible institution; if he had his choice, he “should have wished” to be in a place where no one was “above the law.” He used the example of the Roman Empire, where people, once they were set free from dictatorship, had no idea how to govern themselves; “People once accustomed to masters are not in a condition to do without them.” So, his point is, don’t start with anything but liberty and democracy, and then justice won’t be hard to find because it will always have been at hand. The people of Rome, a place that was “debased by slavery” – following its liberation from tyranny, was no better “than a stupid mob.”

All the agony of starting from scratch in the process of training Roman citizens’ minds (which had been “enervated…brutalized” under the iron rule of autocrats) to the idea of “health-giving air of liberty,” could have been avoided if those citizens had been “long accustomed to a wise independence.”

In Robert Wokler’s book Rousseau the author cites the “most famous line” (Wokler 56) from Rousseau’s Social Contract, and probably the “most often-cited statement” from everything Rousseau wrote is found at the beginning of book i. Rousseau offered three brief paragraphs in which he pronounced that he was fit and able to speak on “matters of right, justice, and utility.” Rousseau pointedly reminded readers – as he often did – that his justification for speaking out through his sometimes-provocative narrative was not because he “was a prince or legislator,” but rather because he was simply a “native son or citizen of a free state.”

Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains,” Rousseau asserted. And the use of force “creates no right,” Wokler writes on page 57, which parallels Rousseau’s earlier claim that the physical differences of people “provide no warrant for our moral inequalities,” Wokler continues (in his paraphrasing of Rousseau). The fact Rousseau was making at the outset of his Social Contract was that if force could (or did) create “right,” then, Wokler goes on, “right would be as transient as every change in the disposition of force.” In other words, each time a new strategy is employed in the use of force, a new set of values would also necessarily emerge.

Rousseau’s logic was that disobedience, then, would be “legitimate” as soon as “sufficient power were acquired.” Part of what Rousseau was accomplishing in this writing was a rebuttal to Hobbes, who had asserted (in chapters 5 and 6 of De Cive, chapter 18 of Leviathan, along with other passages of his work) that right and force should always go hand-in-hand. Hobbes’ reasoning was that mere words (laws) without the “sword” to back them up, were not sufficient to stay the course. You can’t just issue degrees without having the use of force lurking in the background to make sure those degrees have some “teeth” so to speak. But Rousseau rejected that idea.

Rousseau also rejected the notion that ties between family members were an appropriate model for relationships between the state and its citizens. In using precepts from what Aristotle had written two thousand years earlier (in Aristotle’s Politics), Rousseau – who admitted that he owed a profound debt to Aristotle – “was adamant that the authority of man over man in civil society – whether for good or evil – had been and ought to be established by choice and not necessity,” Wokler explained.

Justice, in other words, cannot thrive if the government is in a paternal partnership with citizens (the belief that father knows what’s best isn’t applicable to government in a true democracy); a just society is a society in which all are nearly equal, and have an equal chance to select individuals and policies that exist for the benefit of all, not just the few. Rousseau was a giant in his time, and though he was criticized for changing some of his own philosophies as he went along, and he was a bit of a free spirit. But this world today could use a few men as brilliant as Rousseau, to question how governments (including the United States) can spend billions of dollars on wars that don’t seem to accomplish anything, while millions of American citizens are without health insurance, schools are in need of repair and upgrading, and there are still tens of thousands of people in the New Orleans area who are without a decent place to live following the disastrous Hurricane Katrina.

Immanuel Kant: Immanuel Kant, meanwhile, was another giant whose beliefs and philosophies helped shape the Age of Enlightenment. Kant believed that participating in or by initiating any formulation of any thought or idea (or imperative) was actually bringing “an idea of reason closer to intuition…and thereby to feeling” (436). By “an idea of reason” it is probable that Kant is alluding to his Moral Law and by “intuition” he most likely uses the term not in an ethical sense but rather as a way to make immediate recognition of something that is true or clear.

Kant’s Universal Law Formulation (“…Act only in accordance with – or according to – that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law…”) of the Categorical Imperative (an unconditional command like “Thou shall not kill” or “Don’t cheat on your wife”) has different interpretations in the scholarly community, but is all about how to make a moral decision. And although in critically analyzing Kant’s writings one can deduce that several of his formulations are saying things in a different way in each case, they do seem very similar in philosophy. The whole point of this part of his philosophy is in aiding the individual, the thinking individual, in doing the ground work for a moral decision; this is in effect a way to think through whether a decision one is about to make is indeed a moral decision.

Four steps help break Kant’s philosophy (Universal Law) down to workable units. First step: one must formulate a maxim that embraces the real reason for acting a certain way or making a certain decision; second step: one must put that potential act to the test of the Universal Law (would this make sense to be imposed as international / universal statute?); third step: is this maxim possible in a world where the laws of nature rule? Fourth, if knowing it meets the first two steps and one indeed has the willpower to act on this maxim, it may well be morally acceptable.

An example would be: if I deceive my friend somehow in order to obtain a coveted 50-yard-line ticket to a football game, I would have to be willing to present the notion to the world that it is okay for anyone and everyone to use deception to get what they want. Therefore, I must agree that acquiring what one wants in order to bring pleasure is more important on the morality scale than the fact that someone was betrayed or tricked or even swindled in order that the person acquired that pleasurable item (or in this case, ticket). And I don’t agree. Honesty is not always the policy that people follow in America (I include politicians in this statement), but if voters and young people hold their leaders to a higher standard, and vote them out if they don’t measure up, America might be a better country.

The bottom line of the Universal Law Formulation is that a strategy where a football ticket is obtained through fakery or trickery is not a strategy that any rational person would want adopted universally. If this kind of rule, saying it is all right to basically lie to get something of worth or something that is pleasurable by deception, were adopted across the board around the world, sooner than later people would not believe each other any more. Then the maxim to get the football ticket – or anything – would be self-destructive and self-defeating.

Conclusion: The “Enlightenment” led to the American and French Revolutions:

The philosophical writings and intellectual discoveries of the philosophers from the Age of Reason and the Age of Enlightenment did more than just stir discussions and controversy. They actually helped to start two revolutions.

In fact, many of the ideas that led to the French Revolution were not necessarily French original ideas, according to an article in HighBeam Encyclopedia online. Indeed, France was governed by “privileged groups – the nobility and the clergy – while the productive classes were taxed heavily to pay for foreign wars” and government extravagance. But, the French political leadership was “undermined intellectually by the apostles of the Enlightenment,” the article states.

And among those “apostles” was Voltaire (who attacked the Church and “absolutism” with his satire and his poetry), and Montesquieu, a French philosopher who believed that “all political societies…were to be judged by absolute standards of justice and liberty” (Hampson, 10). Both Voltaire and Montesquieu had been impressed with England’s “limited monarchy, rule of law, and division of powers.”

Voltaire, along with Rousseau, had a substantial influence on the social rebellion against the French aristocratic powers; Rousseau’s “dogma of popular sovereignty” was an attack on French government tradition, and also led to the French Revolution. Rousseau was basically a “moralist,” and as such, HighBeam writers continue, “a political theorist.” Rousseau had as his social aim, as was noted earlier in this paper, “…freedom, which again does not involve a retreat to primitivism but perfect submission of the individual to what he termed the general will” (or, another way of saying general will is “what rational people would choose for the common good.”)

The only reason society gives government its power, Rousseau argued, is by way of helping the greater society “achieve liberty and well-being as a group.” That power, Rousseau claimed (and the French people were influenced by his Enlightenment-based thinking) “cannot be transferred and resides ultimately with society as a whole, with the people, who can withdraw it when necessary” (which the Americans did in their revolution and the French people did in their revolution). And Rousseau’s philosophy of freedom and how government should be operating with the will of the people made a big impression on American writers and thinkers and political leaders like Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson and others who helped write the Declaration of Independence.

Works Cited

Aldridge, A. Owen. Voltaire and the Century of Light. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975.

Hampson, Norman. Will & Circumstance: Montesquieu, Rousseau and the French Revolution.

London: Duckworth, 1983.

HighBeam Encyclopedia “Origins of the Revolution / Rousseau.” (2005). Retrieved 29 Nov, 2006, at

Rousseau, Jean Jacques. A Discourse on a Subject Proposed by the Academy of Dijon:

What is the Origin of Inequality Among Men, and is it Authorised by Natural Law? (1754). Retrieved 1 Dec. 2006, at

Rousseau, Jean Jacques. The Social Contract. (1763) Retrieved 30 Nov. 2006 at

Sensat, Julius. “Three Formulations of the CI.” University of Wisconsin Milwaukee (2001): Retrieved 29 Nov. 2006 at

Wokler, Robert. Rousseau. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

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