Who were the philosophes?

The term "philosophe" can and has been applied to virtually all intellectuals who advocated change in the world order during the decades leading up to the American and French revolutions. In that sense, David Hume, Jeremy Bentham, and Benjamin Franklin were all philosophes. However, to tell a manageable history of philosophy it is useful to narrow the term down to the French encyclopedists and Adam Smith, Edward Gibbon, Gotthold Lessing, and Cesare Beccaria.

What was the goal of the encyclopedists?

The goal of the encyclopedists was to gather together, in a collection of contemporary volumes, everything known at the time in all fields. Their main contributors were Denis Diderot (1713-1784), Jean le Rond d'Alembert (1717-1783), Baron Paul-Henri-Dietrich d'Holbach (1723-1789), and Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brede et de Montesquieu (1689-1755), as well as Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) and Voltaire (1694-1778). Their work was humanistic and scientifically inclined. However, its anti-clerical themes resulted in royal censorship in 1750, although the project endured until 1777. There were 140 contributors and almost 150 additional writers and engravers to the project. The 32 volumes produced had more than 70,000 entries, with 11 volumes of plates and 21 of printed text.

What was individually noteworthy about Diderot, d'Alembert, Holbach, and Montesquieu?

• Denis Diderot (1713-1784) was the general editor of the Encyclopedia. His The Skeptics Walk (1747) was a robust attack on Christianity. His claim that the universe was wholly material and evolving, as asserted in Letter on the Blind (1749), resulted in a brief imprisonment. Diderot's comedies were considered second-rate, but his literary analyses created the new genre of literary criticism.

• Jean le Rond d'Alembert (17171783) was the chief philosopher in the encylopedists' project. In his Discours préliminaire he divided a philosophy of man into pneumatology (or the human soul), logic, and ethics. He held that the substance of the universe cannot be known, and in Essay on the Elements of Philosophy (1759) defined the field as a comparison of phenomena (that is, appearances).

• Baron Paul-Henri-Dietrich d'Holbach (1723-1789) was a major contributor to the encyclopedia. He was a solicitor at the Paris Parlement and hosted philosophical dinners. He systematized Diderot's naturalism and published anonymous, irreligious treatises applying philosophy against the Catholic Church. He argued that everything in existence was based on matter and motion in a completely determined universe. Holbach thought that Christian virtues were unnatural, that piety was fanaticism, and that church officials were immoral. He was also a utilitarian.

• Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu (Charles-Louis de Secondat; 1689-1755) was the chief political encyclopedist. His most famous work is The Spirit of the Laws (1740-1748) in which he argued that governments can be divided into republics, monarchies, or despotisms, which are respectively motivated by political virtue, honor, and fear. Types of government depend on the character, history, and geography of a people. A constitutional government with a separation of executive, legislative, and judicial powers is the only form that can protect liberty. This idea influenced the framers of the U.S. Constitution.

Denis Diderot is credited with creating the field of literary criticism (Art Archive).

Denis Diderot is credited with creating the field of literary criticism (Art Archive).

Why was Adam Smith's work important?

Adam Smith (1723-1790) defined the economic system of capitalism and at the same time founded the science of modern economics in his An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776). He sought to answer the question of how nations grow richer, assuming that human life would improve as nations prospered. He analyzed the importance of the ongoing division of labor in the industrialization process, and argued for free competition based on the profit motive. This would be a system of economic liberty or "laissez faire" ("Let them do it"). He argued that selfishness in acquiring wealth would result in better conditions for all, through the "invisible hand" of the market place.

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