Enlightenment Thinkers



Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes, an English philosopher and scientist, was one of the key figures in the political debates of the Enlightenment period. He introduced a social contract theory based on the relation between the absolute sovereign and the civil society.

Learning Objectives

Describe Thomas Hobbes’ beliefs on the relationship between government and the people

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Thomas Hobbes, an English philosopher and scientist, was one of the key figures in the political debates of the Enlightenment period. Despite advocating the idea of absolutism of the sovereign, he developed some of the fundamentals of European liberal thought.
  • Hobbes was the first modern philosopher to articulate a detailed social contract theory that appeared in his 1651 work  Leviathan. In it, Hobbes set out his doctrine of the foundation of states and legitimate governments and creating an objective science of morality.
  • Hobbes argued that in order to avoid chaos, which he associated with the state of nature, people accede to a social contract and establish a civil society.
  • One of the most influential tensions in Hobbes’ argument is a relation between the absolute sovereign and the society. According to Hobbes, society is a population beneath a sovereign authority, to whom all individuals in that society cede some rights for the sake of protection. Any power exercised by this authority cannot be resisted because the protector’s sovereign power derives from individuals’ surrendering their own sovereign power for protection.
  • Hobbes also included a discussion of natural rights in his moral and political philosophy. While he recognized the inalienable rights of the human,  he argued that if humans wished to live peacefully, they had to give up most of their natural rights and create moral obligations, in order to establish political and civil society.

Key Terms

  • natural rights: The rights that are not dependent on the laws, customs, or beliefs of any particular culture or government, and are therefore universal and inalienable (i.e., rights that cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws).
  • English Civil War: A series of armed conflicts and political machinations between Parliamentarians (“Roundheads”) and Royalists (“Cavaliers”) over, principally, the manner of England’s government. The first (1642-1646) and second (1648-1649) conflicts pitted the supporters of King Charles I against the supporters of the Long Parliament, while the third (1649-1651) saw fighting between supporters of King Charles II and supporters of the Rump Parliament.
  • social contract theory: A theory or a model that typically posits that individuals have consented, either explicitly or tacitly, to surrender some of their freedoms and submit to the authority of the ruler or magistrate (or to the decision of a majority), in exchange for protection of their remaining rights.
  • Leviathan: A book written by Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and published in 1651. The work concerns the structure of society and legitimate government, and is regarded as one of the earliest and most influential examples of social contract theory. It argues for a social contract and rule by an absolute sovereign.

Background: The Age of Enlightenment

The Enlightenment was a philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe in the 18th century. It included a range of ideas centered on reason as the primary source of authority and legitimacy, and came to advance ideals, such as liberty, progress, tolerance, fraternity, constitutional government, and separation of church and state. The Enlightenment has also been hailed as the foundation of modern western political and intellectual culture. It brought political modernization to the west by introducing democratic values and institutions and the creation of modern, liberal democracies. Thomas Hobbes, an English philosopher and scientist, was one of the key figures in the political debates of the period. Despite advocating the idea of absolutism of the sovereign, Hobbes developed some of the fundamentals of European liberal thought: the right of the individual; the natural equality of all men; the artificial character of the political order (which led to the later distinction between civil society and the state); the view that all legitimate political power must be “representative” and based on the consent of the people; and a liberal interpretation of law that leaves people free to do whatever the law does not explicitly forbid.

Leviathan: Social Contract

Hobbes was the first modern philosopher to articulate a detailed social contract theory that appeared in his 1651 work Leviathan.
In it, Hobbes set out his doctrine of the foundation of states and legitimate governments and creating an objective science of morality. As Leviathan was written during the English Civil War, much of the book is occupied with demonstrating the necessity of a strong central authority to avoid the evil of discord and civil war.

Beginning from a mechanistic understanding of human beings and the passions, Hobbes postulates what life would be like without government, a condition which he calls the state of nature. In that state, each person would have a right, or license, to everything in the world. This, Hobbes argues, would lead to a “war of all against all.” In such a state, people fear death and lack both the things necessary to commodious living and the hope of being able to toil to obtain them. So, in order to avoid it, people accede to a social contract and establish a civil society. According to Hobbes, society is a population beneath a sovereign authority, to whom all individuals in that society cede some rights for the sake of protection. Any power exercised by this authority cannot be resisted because the protector’s sovereign power derives from individuals’ surrendering their own sovereign power for protection. The individuals are thereby the authors of all decisions made by the sovereign. There is no doctrine of separation of powers in Hobbes’s discussion. According to Hobbes, the sovereign must control civil, military, judicial, and ecclesiastical powers.

image

Thomas Hobbes by John Michael Wright, circa 1669-1670,  National Portrait Gallery, London

Hobbes was one of the founders of modern political philosophy and political science. He also contributed to a diverse array of other fields, including history, geometry, the physics of gases, theology, ethics, and general philosophy.

Natural Rights

Hobbes also included a discussion of natural rights in his moral and political philosophy. His’ conception of natural rights extended from his conception of man in a “state of nature.” He argued that the essential natural (human) right was “to use his own power, as he will himself, for the preservation of his own Nature; that is to say, of his own Life (…).” Hobbes sharply distinguished this natural “liberty” from natural “laws.” In his natural state, man’s life consisted entirely of liberties and not at all of laws, which leads to the world of chaos created by unlimited rights. Consequently, if humans wish to live peacefully, they must give up most of their natural rights and create moral obligations in order to establish political and civil society.

Hobbes objected to the attempt to derive rights from ” natural law,” arguing that law (“lex”) and right (“jus”) though often confused, signify opposites, with law referring to obligations, while rights refer to the absence of obligations. Since by our (human) nature, we seek to maximize our well being, rights are prior to law, natural or institutional, and people will not follow the laws of nature without first being subjected to a sovereign power, without which all ideas of right and wrong are meaningless. This marked an important departure from medieval natural law theories which gave precedence to obligations over rights.

John Locke

John Locke, an English philosopher and physician, is regarded as one of the most influential Enlightenment thinkers, whose work greatly contributed to the development of the notions of social contract and natural rights.

Learning Objectives

Explain Locke’s conception of the social contract

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • John Locke was an English philosopher and physician, widely regarded as one of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers, and commonly known as the “Father of Liberalism.” His writings were immensely influential for the development of social contract  theory.
  • Two Treatises of Government, Locke’s most important work on political theory, is divided into the First Treatise and the Second Treatise. The First Treatise is focused on the refutation of Sir Robert Filmer, in particular his Patriarcha, which argued that civil society was founded on a divinely sanctioned patriarchalism. The Second Treatise outlines a theory of civil society.
  • Locke’s political theory was founded on social contract theory. He believed that human nature is characterized by reason and tolerance, but he assumed that the sole right to defend in the state of nature was not enough, so people established a civil society to resolve conflicts in a civil way with help from government in a state of society.
  • Locke’s conception of natural rights is captured in his best known statement that individuals have a right to  protect their “life, health, liberty, or possessions” and in his belief that the natural right to property is derived from labor.
  • The debate continues among scholars over the disparities between Locke’s philosophical arguments and his personal involvement in the slave trade and slavery in North American colonies, and over whether his writings provide, in fact, justification of slavery.

Key Terms

  • Rye House Plot: A 1683 plan to assassinate King Charles II of England and his brother (and heir to the throne) James, Duke of York. Historians vary in their assessment of the degree to which details of the conspiracy were finalized.
  • empiricism: A theory that states that knowledge comes only or primarily from sensory experience. It is a fundamental part of the scientific method that all hypotheses and theories must be tested against observations of the natural world, rather than resting solely on a priori reasoning, intuition, or revelation.
  • Two Treatises of Government: A work of political philosophy published anonymously in 1689 by John Locke. The first section attacks patriarchalism in the form of sentence-by-sentence refutation of Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha, while the second outlines Locke’s ideas for a more civilized society based on natural rights and contract theory.
  • natural rights: The rights that are not dependent on the laws, customs, or beliefs of any particular culture or government, and are therefore universal and inalienable (i.e., rights that cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws).
  • social contract theory: A theory or a model that typically posits that individuals have consented, either explicitly or tacitly, to surrender some of their freedoms and submit to the authority of the ruler or magistrate (or to the decision of a majority), in exchange for protection of their remaining rights.

John Locke: Introduction

John Locke was an English philosopher and physician, widely regarded as one of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers and commonly known as the “Father of Liberalism.” Considered one of the first of the British empiricists, he is equally important to social contract theory. His work greatly affected the development of epistemology and political philosophy. His writings influenced Voltaire and Rousseau, many Scottish enlightenment thinkers, as well as the American revolutionaries. His contributions to classical republicanism and liberal theory are reflected in the United States Declaration of Independence.

Locke was born in 1632 in Wrington, Somerset, about 12 miles from Bristol, and grew up in the nearby town of Pensford. In 1647, he was sent to the prestigious Westminster School in London, and after completing studies there, he was admitted to Christ Church, Oxford in 1652. Although a capable student, Locke was irritated by the undergraduate curriculum of the time. He found the works of modern philosophers, such as René Descartes, more interesting than the classical material taught at the university. Through a friend, Locke was introduced to medicine and the experimental philosophy being pursued at other universities and in the Royal Society, of which he eventually became a member. In 1667, he moved to London to serve as a personal physician, and to resume his medical studies. He also served as Secretary of the Board of Trade and Plantations and Secretary to the Lords Proprietor of Carolina, which helped to shape his ideas on international trade and economics. Locke fled to the Netherlands in 1683, under strong suspicion of involvement in the Rye House Plot, although there is little evidence to suggest that he was directly involved in the scheme. In the Netherlands, he had time to return to his writing, although the bulk of Locke’s publishing took place upon his return from exile in 1688. He died in 1704. Locke never married nor had children.

image

Portrait of John Locke, by Sir Godfrey Kneller,1697, State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia

Locke’s theory of mind has been as influential as his political theory, and is often cited as the origin of modern conceptions of identity and the self. Locke was the first to define the self through a continuity of consciousness. He postulated that, at birth, the mind was a blank slate or tabula rasa. Contrary to Cartesian philosophy based on pre-existing concepts, he maintained that we are born without innate ideas, and that knowledge is instead determined only by experience derived from sense perceptions.

Two Treatises of Government

Two Treatises of Government, Locke’s most important and influential work on political theory, was first published anonymously in 1689. It is divided into the First Treatise and the Second Treatise. The First Treatise is focused on the refutation of Sir Robert Filmer, in particular his Patriarcha, which argued that civil society was founded on a divinely sanctioned patriarchalism. Locke proceeds through Filmer’s arguments, contesting his proofs from Scripture and ridiculing them as senseless, until concluding that no government can be justified by an appeal to the divine right of kings. The Second Treatise outlines a theory of civil society. Locke begins by describing the state of nature, a picture much more stable than Thomas Hobbes’ state of “war of every man against every man,” and argues that all men are created equal in the state of nature by God. He goes on to explain the hypothetical rise of property and civilization, in the process explaining that the only legitimate governments are those that have the consent of the people. Therefore, any government that rules without the consent of the people can, in theory, be overthrown.

Locke’s political theory was founded on social contract theory. Unlike Hobbes, Locke believed that human nature is characterized by reason and tolerance. Similarly to Hobbes, he assumed that the sole right to defend in the state of nature was not enough, so people established a civil society to resolve conflicts in a civil way with help from government in a state of society. However, Locke never refers to Hobbes by name and may instead have been responding to other writers of the day. He also advocated governmental separation of powers, and believed that revolution is not only a right but an obligation in some circumstances. These ideas would come to have profound influence on the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. However, Locke did not demand a republic. Rather, he believed a legitimate contract could easily exist between citizens and a monarchy, an oligarchy, or in some mixed form.

Natural Rights

Locke’s conception of natural rights is captured in his best known statement that individuals have a right to  protect their “life, health, liberty, or possessions” and in his belief that the natural right to property is derived from labor. He defines the state of nature as a condition, in which humans are rational and follow natural law, and in which all men are born equal with the right to life, liberty and property. However, when one citizen breaks the Law of Nature, both the transgressor and the victim enter into a state of war, from which it is virtually impossible to break free. Therefore, Locke argued that individuals enter into civil society to protect their natural rights via an “unbiased judge” or common authority, such as courts.

Constitution of Carolina and Views on Slavery

Locke’s writings have often been tied to liberalism, democracy, and the foundation of the United States as the first modern democratic republic. However, historians also note that Locke was a major investor in the English slave-trade through the Royal African Company. In addition, he participated in drafting the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina, which established a feudal aristocracy and gave a master absolute power over his slaves. Because of his opposition to aristocracy and slavery in his major writings, some historians accuse Locke of hypocrisy and racism, and point out that his idea of liberty is reserved to Europeans or even the European capitalist class only. The debate continues among scholars over the disparities between Locke’s philosophical arguments and his personal involvement in the slave trade and slavery in North American colonies, and over whether his writings provide, in fact, justification of slavery.

Baron de Montesquieu

Montesquieu was a French political philosopher of the Enlightenment period, whose articulation of the theory of separation of powers is implemented in many constitutions throughout the world.

Learning Objectives

Describe Montesquieu’s solution for keeping power from falling into the hands of any one individual

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Montesquieu was a French lawyer, man of letters, and one of the most influential political philosophers of the Age of Enlightenment. His political theory work, particularly the idea of separation of powers, shaped the modern democratic government.
  • The Spirit of the Laws is a treatise on political theory that was first published anonymously by Montesquieu in 1748. Montesquieu covered many topics, including the law, social life, and the study of anthropology, and provided more than 3,000 commendations.
  • In this political treatise, Montesquieu pleaded in favor of a constitutional system of government and the separation of powers, the ending of slavery, the preservation of civil liberties and the law, and the idea that political institutions should reflect the social and geographical aspects of each community.
  • Montesquieu defines three main political systems: republican, monarchical, and despotic. As he defines them, republican political systems vary depending on how broadly they extend citizenship rights.
  • Another major theme in The Spirit of Laws concerns political liberty and the best means of preserving it. Establishing political liberty requires two things: the separation of the powers of government, and the appropriate framing of civil and criminal laws so as to ensure personal security.
  • Montesquieu argues that the executive, legislative, and judicial functions of government (the so-called tripartite system) should be assigned to different bodies, so that attempts by one branch of government to infringe on political liberty might be restrained by the other branches (checks and balances). He also argues against slavery and for the freedom of thought, speech, and assembly.

Key Terms

  • Index Librorum Prohibitorum: A list of publications deemed heretical, anti-clerical, or lascivious, and therefore banned by the Catholic Church.
  • Glorious Revolution: The overthrow of King James II of England (James VII of Scotland and James II of Ireland) by a union of English Parliamentarians with the Dutch stadtholder William III of Orange-Nassau (William of Orange). William’s successful invasion of England with a Dutch fleet and army led to his ascending of the English throne as William III of England jointly with his wife Mary II of England, in conjunction with the documentation of the Bill of Rights 1689.
  • separation of powers: A model for the governance of a state (or who controls the state), first proposed in ancient Greece and developed and modernized by the French political philosopher Montesquieu. Under this model, the state is divided into branches, each with separate and independent powers and areas of responsibility so that the powers of one branch are not in conflict with the powers associated with the other branches. The typical division of branches is legislature, executive, and judiciary.
  • The Spirit of the Laws: A treatise on political theory first published anonymously by Montesquieu in 1748. In it, Montesquieu pleaded in favor of a constitutional system of government and the separation of powers, the ending of slavery, the preservation of civil liberties and the law, and the idea that political institutions ought to reflect the social and geographical aspects of each community.

Introduction: Montesquieu

Baron de Montesquieu, usually referred to as simply Montesquieu, was a French lawyer, man of letters, and one of the most influential political philosophers of the Age of Enlightenment. He was born in France in 1689. After losing both parents at an early age, he became a ward of his uncle, the Baron de Montesquieu. He became a counselor of the Bordeaux Parliament in 1714. A year later, he married Jeanne de Lartigue, a Protestant, who bore him three children. Montesquieu’s early life occurred at a time of significant governmental change. England had declared itself a constitutional monarchy in the wake of its Glorious Revolution (1688-89), and had joined with Scotland in the Union of 1707 to form the Kingdom of Great Britain. In France, the long-reigning Louis XIV died in 1715, and was succeeded by five year-old Louis XV. These national transformations had a great impact on Montesquieu, who would refer to them repeatedly in his work. Montesquieu withdrew from the practice of law to devote himself to study and writing.

Besides writing works on society and politics, Montesquieu traveled for a number of years through Europe, including Austria and Hungary, spending a year in Italy and 18 months in England, where he became a freemason before resettling in France. He was troubled by poor eyesight and was completely blind by the time he died from a high fever in 1755.

image

Montesquieu, portrait by an unknown artist, c. 1727: Montesquieu is famous for his articulation of the theory of separation of powers, which is implemented in many constitutions throughout the world. He is also known for doing more than any other author to secure the place of the word “despotism” in the political lexicon.

The Spirit of Laws

The Spirit of the Laws is a treatise on political theory first published anonymously by Montesquieu in 1748. The book was originally published anonymously partly because Montesquieu’s works were subject to censorship, but its influence outside France grew with rapid translation into other languages. In 1750, Thomas Nugent published the first English translation. In 1751, the Catholic Church added it to its Index Librorum Prohibitorum (list of prohibited books). Yet Montesquieu’s political treatise had an enormous influence on the work of many others, most notably the founding fathers of the United States Constitution, and Alexis de Tocqueville, who applied Montesquieu’s methods to a study of American society in Democracy in America.

Montesquieu spent around 21 years researching and writing The Spirit of the Laws, covering many things, including the law, social life, and the study of anthropology, and providing more than 3,000 commendations. In this political treatise, Montesquieu pleaded in favor of a constitutional system of government and the separation of powers, the ending of slavery, the preservation of civil liberties and the law, and the idea that political institutions should reflect the social and geographical aspects of each community.

Montesquieu defines three main political systems: republican, monarchical, and despotic. As he defines them, republican political systems vary depending on how broadly they extend citizenship rights—those that extend citizenship relatively broadly are termed democratic republics, while those that restrict citizenship more narrowly are termed aristocratic republics. The distinction between monarchy and despotism hinges on whether or not a fixed set of laws exists that can restrain the authority of the ruler. If so, the regime counts as a monarchy. If not, it counts as despotism.

A second major theme in The Spirit of Laws concerns political liberty and the best means of preserving it. Montesquieu’s political liberty is what we might call today personal security, especially insofar as this is provided for through a system of dependable and moderate laws. He distinguishes this view of liberty from two other, misleading views of political liberty. The first is the view that liberty consists in collective self-government (i.e., that liberty and democracy are the same). The second is the view that liberty consists of being able to do whatever one wants without constraint. Political liberty is not possible in a despotic political system, but it is possible, though not guaranteed, in republics and monarchies. Generally speaking, establishing political liberty requires two things: the separation of the powers of government, and
the appropriate framing of civil and criminal laws so as to ensure personal security.

Separation of Powers and Appropriate Laws

Building on and revising a discussion in John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, Montesquieu argues that the executive, legislative, and judicial functions of government (the so-called tripartite system) should be assigned to different bodies, so that attempts by one branch of government to infringe on political liberty might be restrained by the other branches (checks and balances). Montesquieu based this model on the Constitution of the Roman Republic and the British constitutional system. He took the view that the Roman Republic had powers separated so that no one could usurp complete power. In the British constitutional system, Montesquieu discerned a separation of powers among the monarch, Parliament, and the courts of law. He also notes that liberty cannot be secure where there is no separation of powers, even in a republic. Montesquieu also intends what modern legal scholars might call the rights to “robust procedural due process,” including the right to a fair trial, the presumption of innocence, and the proportionality in the severity of punishment. Pursuant to this requirement to frame civil and criminal laws appropriately to ensure political liberty, Montesquieu also argues against slavery and for the freedom of thought, speech, and assembly.

Voltaire

Voltaire was a French Enlightenment writer, historian, and philosopher, who attacked the Catholic Church and advocated freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and separation of church and state.

Learning Objectives

Discuss Voltaire’s thoughts on the masses and government

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Voltaire was a French Enlightenment writer, historian, and philosopher famous for his wit, his attacks on the established Catholic Church, and his advocacy of freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and separation of church and state.
  • Voltaire’s political and philosophical views can be found in nearly all of his prose writings. Most of his prose was written as polemics, with the goal of conveying radical political and philosophical messages.
  • Voltaire’s works frequently contain the word “l’infâme” and the expression “écrasez l’infâme,” or “crush the infamous.” The phrase refers to abuses of the people by royalty and the clergy,  and the superstition and intolerance that the clergy bred within the people. His two most famous works elaborating the concept are The Treatise on Tolerance and The Philosophical Dictionary.
  • Voltaire had an enormous influence on the development of historiography through his demonstration of fresh new ways to look at the past. His best-known works are The Age of Louis XIV and The Essay on the Customs and the Spirit of the Nations.
  • In his criticism of the French society and existing social structures, Voltaire hardly spared anyone. He perceived the French bourgeoisie to be too small and ineffective, the aristocracy to be parasitic and corrupt, the commoners as ignorant and superstitious, and the church as a static and oppressive force.
  • Voltaire distrusted democracy, which he saw as propagating the idiocy of the masses. He long thought only an enlightened monarch could bring about change, and that it was in the king’s rational interest to improve the education and welfare of his subjects.

Key Terms

  • deism: A theological/philosophical position that combines the rejection of revelation and authority as a source of religious knowledge, with the conclusion that reason and observation of the natural world are sufficient to determine the existence of a single creator of the universe.
  • The Philosophical Dictionary: An encyclopedic dictionary published by Voltaire in 1764. The alphabetically arranged articles often criticize the Roman Catholic Church and other institutions. It represents the culmination of Voltaire’s views on Christianity, God, morality, and other subjects.
  • The Treatise on Tolerance: A work by French philosopher Voltaire, published in 1763, in which he calls for tolerance between religions, and targets religious fanaticism, especially that of the Jesuits (under whom Voltaire received his early education), indicting all superstitions surrounding religions.
  • Ancien Régime: The monarchic-aristocratic, social, and political system established in the Kingdom of France from approximately the 15th century until the latter part of the 18th century (“early modern France”), under the late Valois and Bourbon Dynasties. The term is occasionally used to refer to the similar feudal social and political order of the time elsewhere in Europe.

Introduction: Voltaire

François-Marie Arouet, known by his literary pseudonym Voltaire, was a French Enlightenment writer, historian, and philosopher famous for his wit, his attacks on the established Catholic Church, and his advocacy of freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and separation of church and state.

He was born in Paris in 1694 and educated by the Jesuits at the Collège Louis-le-Grand (1704-1711). By the time he left school, Voltaire had decided he wanted to be a writer, against the wishes of his father, who wanted him to become a lawyer. Under his father’s pressure, he studied law but he continued to write, producing essays and historical studies. In 1713, his father obtained a job for him as a secretary to a French ambassador in the Netherlands, but Voltaire was forced to return to France after a scandalous affair. From early on, he had trouble with the authorities over his critiques of the government. These activities were to result in two imprisonments and a temporary exile to England. One satirical verse, in which Voltaire accused Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, of incest with his own daughter, led to an eleven-month imprisonment in the Bastille (after which he adopted the name Voltaire). He mainly argued for religious tolerance and freedom of thought. He campaigned to eradicate priestly and aristocratic-monarchical authority, and supported a constitutional monarchy that protects people’s rights.

image

Voltaire, portrait by Nicolas de Largillière, c. 1724

Voltaire was a versatile writer, producing works in almost every literary form, including plays, poems, novels, essays, and historical and scientific works. He wrote more than 20,000 letters and more than 2,000 books and pamphlets. He was an outspoken advocate of several liberties, despite the risk this placed him in under the strict censorship laws of the time. As a satirical polemicist, he frequently made use of his works to criticize intolerance, religious dogma, and the French institutions of his day.

Political and Philosophical Views

Voltaire’s political and philosophical views can be found in nearly all of his prose writings, even in what would be typically categorized as fiction. Most of his prose, including such genres as romance, drama, or satire, was written as polemics with the goal of conveying radical political and philosophical messages. His works, especially private letters, frequently contain the word “l’infâme” and the expression “écrasez l’infâme,” or “crush the infamous.” The phrase refers to abuses of the people by royalty and the clergy that Voltaire saw around him, and the superstition and intolerance that the clergy bred within the people. Voltaire’s first major philosophical work in his battle against “l’infâme” was The Treatise on Tolerance (1763), in which he calls for tolerance between religions and targets religious fanaticism, especially that of the Jesuits, indicting all superstitions surrounding religions. The book was quickly banned. Only a year later, he published The Philosophical Dictionary— an encyclopedic dictionary with alphabetically arranged articles that criticize the Roman Catholic Church and other institutions. In it, Voltaire is concerned with the injustices of the Catholic Church, which he sees as intolerant and fanatical. At the same time, he espouses deism, tolerance, and freedom of the press. The Dictionary was Voltaire’s lifelong project, modified and expanded with each edition. It represents the culmination of his views on Christianity, God, morality, and other subjects.

Voltaire as Historian

Voltaire had an enormous influence on the development of historiography through his demonstration of fresh new ways to look at the past. His best-known historiography works are The Age of Louis XIV (1751) and The Essay on the Customs and the Spirit of the Nations (1756). Voltaire broke from the tradition of narrating diplomatic and military events, and emphasized customs, social history, and achievements in the arts and sciences. The Essay traced the progress of world civilization in a universal context, thereby rejecting both nationalism and the traditional Christian frame of reference. Voltaire was also the first scholar to make a serious attempt to write the history of the world, eliminating theological frameworks and emphasizing economics, culture, and political history. He treated Europe as a whole, rather than a collection of nations. He was the first to emphasize the debt of medieval culture to Middle Eastern civilization, and consistently exposed the intolerance and frauds of the church over the ages.

Views on the Society

In his criticism of the French society and existing social structures, Voltaire hardly spared anyone. He perceived the French bourgeoisie to be too small and ineffective, the aristocracy to be parasitic and corrupt, the commoners as ignorant and superstitious, and the church as a static and oppressive force useful only on occasion as a counterbalance to the rapacity of kings, although all too often, even more rapacious itself. Voltaire distrusted democracy, which he saw as propagating the idiocy of the masses. He long thought only an enlightened monarch could bring about change, given the social structures of the time and the extremely high rates of illiteracy, and that it was in the king’s rational interest to improve the education and welfare of his subjects. But his disappointments and disillusions with Frederick the Great changed his philosophy and soon gave birth to one of his most enduring works, his novella Candide, or Optimism (1759), which ends with a new conclusion: “It is up to us to cultivate our garden.”

He is remembered and honored in France as a courageous polemicist who indefatigably fought for civil rights (as the right to a fair trial and freedom of religion), and who denounced the hypocrisies and injustices of the Ancien Régime. The Ancien Régime involved an unfair balance of power and taxes between the three Estates: clergy and nobles on one side, the commoners and middle class, who were burdened with most of the taxes, on the other.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a Francophone Genevan philosopher and writer, whose conceptualization of social contract, the theory of natural human, and works on education greatly influenced the political, philosophical, and social western tradition.

Learning Objectives

Identify the components of Rousseau’s philosophy, particularly the idea of the General Will

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a Francophone Genevan philosopher, writer, and composer. His political philosophy influenced the Enlightenment  in France and across Europe. It was also important to the French Revolution and the overall development of modern political and educational thought.
  • In common with other philosophers of the day, Rousseau looked to a hypothetical state of nature as a normative guide. In The Discourse on the Origins of Inequality Among Men, he maintained that the stage of human development associated with what he called “savages” was the best or optimal in human development.
  • In his Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences, Rousseau argued, in opposition to the dominant stand of Enlightenment thinkers, that the arts and sciences corrupt human morality.
  • The Social Contract  outlines the basis for a legitimate political order within a framework of classical republicanism. Published in 1762, it became one of the most influential works of political philosophy in the western tradition.
  • Rousseau’s philosophy of education concerns itself with developing the students’ character and moral sense, so that they may learn to practice self-mastery and remain virtuous even in the unnatural and imperfect society in which they will have to live.
  • Rousseau was a believer in the moral superiority of the patriarchal family on the antique Roman model. To him, ideal woman is educated to be governed by her husband, while ideal man is educated to be self-governing.

Key Terms

  • “noble savage”: A literary stock character who embodies the concept of an idealized indigene, outsider, or “other” who has not been “corrupted” by civilization, and therefore symbolizes humanity’s innate goodness. In English, the phrase first appeared in the 17th century in John Dryden’s heroic play The Conquest of Granada (1672).
  • The Discourse on the Origins of Inequality Among Men: A work by philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau that first exposes his conception of a human state of nature and of human perfectibility, an early idea of progress. In it, Rousseau explains how, according to him, people may have established civil society, which leads him to present private property as the original source and basis of all inequality.
  • state of nature: A concept used in moral and political philosophy, religion, social contract theories, and international law to denote the hypothetical conditions of what the lives of people might have been like before societies came into existence. In some versions of social contract theory, there are no rights in the state of nature, only freedoms, and it is the contract that creates rights and obligations. In other versions the opposite occurs— the contract imposes restrictions upon individuals that curtail their natural rights.
  • Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences: A 1750 treatise by  Jean-Jacques Rousseau, which argued that the arts and sciences corrupt human morality. It was Rousseau’s first expression of his influential views about nature vs. society, to which he would dedicate most of his intellectual life.
  • The Social Contract: A 1762 treatise by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in which he theorized the best way to establish a political community in the face of the problems of commercial society. The work helped inspire political reforms and revolutions in Europe. It argued against the idea that monarchs were divinely empowered to legislate. Rousseau asserts that only the people, who are sovereign, have that all-powerful right.
  • general will: A philosophical and political concept, developed and popularized in the 18th century, that denoted  the will of the people as a whole. It served to designate the common interest embodied in legal tradition, as distinct from, and transcending, people’s private and particular interests at any particular time.

Introduction: Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a Francophone Genevan philosopher, writer, and composer. His political philosophy influenced the Enlightenment in France and across Europe. It was also important to the French Revolution and the overall development of modern political and educational thought.

Rousseau was born in 1712 in Geneva, which was at the time a city-state and a Protestant associate of the Swiss Confederacy. His mother died several days after he was born, and after his father remarried a few years later, Jean-Jacques was left with his maternal uncle, who packed him away, along with his own son, to board for two years with a Calvinist minister in a hamlet outside Geneva. Here, the boys picked up the elements of mathematics and drawing. After his father and uncle had more or less disowned him, the teenage Rousseau supported himself for a time as a servant, secretary, and tutor, wandering in Italy and France. He had been an indifferent student, but during his 20s, which were marked by long bouts of hypochondria, he applied himself to the study of philosophy, mathematics, and music. Rousseau spent his adulthood holding numerous administrative positions and moving across Europe, often to escape a controversy caused by his radical writings. His relationships with various women had important impacts on his life choices (e.g., temporary conversion to Catholicism) and inspired many of his writings. His decision to place his five children (born from a long-term domestic partnership with Thérèse Levasseur) in a shelter for abandoned children was widely criticized by his contemporaries and generations to come, particularly in light of his progressive works on education. Rousseau died in 1778.

image

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, portrait by Maurice Quentin de La Tour, c. 1753: During the period of the French Revolution, Rousseau was the most popular of the philosophers among members of the Jacobin Club. Rousseau was interred as a national hero in the Panthéon in Paris, in 1794, 16 years after his death.

The Theory of Natural Human

In common with other philosophers of the day, Rousseau looked to a hypothetical state of nature as a normative guide. Contrary to Thomas Hobbes’ views, Rousseau holds that “uncorrupted morals” prevail in the “state of nature.” In The Discourse on the Origins of Inequality Among Men (1754), Rousseau maintained that man in a state of nature had been a solitary, ape-like creature, who was not méchant (bad), as Hobbes had maintained, but (like some other animals) had an “innate repugnance to see others of his kind suffer.” He asserted that the stage of human development associated with what he called “savages” was the best or optimal in human development, between the less-than-optimal extreme of brute animals on the one hand, and the extreme of decadent civilization on the other. Espousing the belief that all degenerates in men’s hands, Rousseau taught that men would be free, wise, and good in the state of nature, and that instinct and emotion, when not distorted by the unnatural limitations of civilization, are nature’s voices and instructions to the good life. Rousseau’s “noble savage” stands in direct opposition to the man of culture (however, while Rousseau discusses the concept, he never uses the phrase that appears in other authors’ writings of the period). In his Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences (1750), Rousseau argued, in opposition to the dominant stand of Enlightenment thinkers, that the arts and sciences corrupt human morality.

The Social Contract

The Social Contract outlines the basis for a legitimate political order within a framework of classical republicanism. Published in 1762, it became one of the most influential works of political philosophy in the western tradition. Rousseau claimed that the state of nature was a primitive condition without law or morality, which human beings left for the benefits and necessity of cooperation. As society developed, division of labor and private property required the human race to adopt institutions of law. According to Rousseau, by joining together into civil society through the social contract, and abandoning their claims of natural right, individuals can both preserve themselves and remain free. This is because submission to the authority of the general will of the people as a whole guarantees individuals against being subordinated to the wills of others, and also ensures that they obey themselves because they are, collectively, the authors of the law. The idea of general will denoted  the will of the people as a whole. It served to designate the common interest embodied in legal tradition, as distinct from, and transcending, people’s private and particular interests at any particular time.

Although Rousseau argues that sovereignty (or the power to make the laws) should be in the hands of the people, he also makes a sharp distinction between the sovereign and the government. He posits that the political aspects of a society should be divided into two parts. First, there must be a sovereign consisting of the whole population, women included, that represents the general will and is the legislative power within the state. The second division is that of the government, being distinct from the sovereign. This division is necessary because the sovereign cannot deal with particular matters like applications of the law. Doing so would undermine its generality, and therefore damage its legitimacy. Thus, government must remain a separate institution from the sovereign body. When the government exceeds the boundaries set in place by the people, it is the mission of the people to abolish such government, and begin anew.

Education Theory

Rousseau’s philosophy of education, elaborated in his 1762 treatise Emile, or On Education, concerns itself with developing the students’ character and moral sense, so that they may learn to practice self-mastery and remain virtuous even in the unnatural and imperfect society in which they will have to live. The hypothetical boy, Émile, is to be raised in the countryside, which, Rousseau believes, is a more natural and healthy environment than the city, under the guardianship of a tutor, who will guide him through various learning experiences arranged by the tutor. Rousseau felt that children learn right and wrong through experiencing the consequences of their acts, rather than through physical punishment. The tutor will make sure that no harm results to Émile through his learning experiences. Rousseau became an early advocate of developmentally appropriate education.

Although many of Rousseau’s ideas foreshadowed modern ones in many ways, in one way they do not; Rousseau was a believer in the moral superiority of the patriarchal family on the antique Roman model. Sophie, the young woman Émile is destined to marry, as a representative of ideal womanhood, is educated to be governed by her husband, while Émile, as representative of the ideal man, is educated to be self-governing. This is an essential feature of Rousseau’s educational and political philosophy, and particularly important to the distinction between private, personal relations and the public world of political relations. The private sphere as Rousseau imagines it depends on the subordination of women, in order for both it and the public political sphere (upon which it depends) to function as Rousseau imagines it could and should. Rousseau anticipated the modern idea of the bourgeois nuclear family, with the mother at home taking responsibility for the household, childcare, and early education.

Marquis de Condorcet

Although Marquis de Condorcet’s ideas are considered to embody the ideals of the Age of Enlightenment, his support of liberal economy, free and equal public instruction, constitutionalism, and equal rights for women and people of all races distinguish him from most of his contemporaries.

Learning Objectives

Compare and contrast the Marquis de Condorcet’s thoughts on popular rule with the other Enlightenment thinkers

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Marquis de Condorcet, was a French philosopher, mathematician, and early political scientist. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he advocated a liberal economy, free and equal public instruction, constitutionalism, and equal rights for women and people of all races.
  • He launched a career as a mathematician, soon reaching international fame. However, his political ideas, particularly that of radical democracy and opposition to slavery, were criticized heavily in the English-speaking world.
  • Condorcet took a leading role when the French Revolution swept France in 1789. He hoped for a rationalist reconstruction of society, and championed many liberal causes, including women’s suffrage.
  • Condorcet’s Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Spirit is perhaps the most influential formulation of the Idea of Progress ever written. It narrates the history of civilization as one of progress in the sciences, and shows the intimate connection between scientific progress and the development of human rights and justice.
  • According to Condorcet, for republicanism to exist the nation needed enlightened citizens, and education needed democracy to become truly public. In order to educate citizens, he proposed a system of free public education.

Key Terms

  • rationalism: In epistemology, the view that regards reason as the chief source and test of knowledge, or any view appealing to reason as a source of knowledge or justification. More formally, it is defined as a methodology, or a theory, in which the criterion of the truth is not a result of experience but of intellect and deduction.
  • Idea of Progress: In intellectual history, the idea that advances in technology, science, and social organization can produce an improvement in the human condition. That is, people can become better, in terms of quality of life (social progress), through economic development (modernization), and the application of science and technology (scientific progress). The assumption is that the process will happen once people apply their reason and skills, for it is not divinely foreordained.

Marquis de Condorcet: The Radical of the Enlightenment

Nicolas de Condorcet, known also as Marquis de Condorcet, was a French philosopher, mathematician, and early political scientist. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he advocated a liberal economy, free and equal public instruction, constitutionalism, and equal rights for women and people of all races. Although his ideas and writings are considered to embody the ideals of the Age of Enlightenment and rationalism, they were much more radical that those of most of his contemporaries, even those who were also seen as radicals.

Condorcet was born in 1743 and raised by a devoutly religious mother. He was educated at the Jesuit College in Reims and at the Collège de Navarre in Paris, where he quickly showed his intellectual ability and gained his first public distinctions in mathematics. From 1765 to 1774, he focused on science. In 1765, he published his first work on mathematics, launching his career as a mathematician. In 1769, he was elected to the French Royal Academy of Sciences. Condorcet worked with Leonhard Euler and Benjamin Franklin. He soon became an honorary member of many foreign academies and philosophic societies, but his political ideas, particularly that of radical democracy, were criticized heavily in the English-speaking world, most notably by John Adams. In 1781, Condorcet wrote a pamphlet, Reflections on Negro Slavery, in which he denounced slavery.

image

Portrait of Marquis de Condorcet (1743-1794) by Jean-Baptiste Greuze, date unknown

Condorcet’s political views, including suffrage of women, opposition of slavery, equal rights regardless of race, or free public education, were unique even in the context of many radical ideas proposed during the Enlightenment period, He was also one of the first to systematically apply mathematics in the social sciences.

Role in the French Revolution

Condorcet took a leading role when the French Revolution swept France in 1789. He hoped for a rationalist reconstruction of society, and championed many liberal causes. In 1792, he presented a project for the reformation of the education system, aiming to create a hierarchical structure, under the authority of experts who would work as the guardians of the Enlightenment and who, independent of power, would be the guarantors of public liberties. The project was judged to be contrary to the republican and egalitarian virtues. Condorcet also advocated women’s suffrage for the new government, publishing “For the Admission to the Rights of Citizenship For Women” in 1790. This view went much further than the views of other major Enlightenment thinkers, including the champions of women’s rights. Even Mary Wollstonecraft, a British writer and philosopher who attacked gender oppression, pressed for equal educational opportunities, and demanded “justice” and “rights to humanity” for all, did not go as far as to demand equal political rights for women.

At the time of the Trial of Louis XVI, Condorcet, who opposed the death penalty but still supported the trial itself, spoke out against the execution of the King during the public vote at the Convention. He proposed to send the king to the galleys. Changing forces and shifts in power among different revolutionary groups eventually positioned largely independent Condorcet in the role of the critic of predominant ideas. His political opponents branded him a traitor, and in 1793, a warrant was issued for Condorcet’s arrest. After a period of hiding, he was captured and in 1794 he mysteriously died in prison.

The Idea of Progress

Condorcet’s Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Spirit (1795) was perhaps the most influential formulation of the Idea of Progress ever written. It narrates the history of civilization as one of progress in the sciences, shows the intimate connection between scientific progress and the development of human rights and justice, and outlines the features of a future rational society entirely shaped by scientific knowledge. It also made the notion of progress a central concern of Enlightenment thought. Condorcet argued that expanding knowledge in the natural and social sciences would lead to an ever more just world of individual freedom, material affluence, and moral compassion. He believed that through the use of our senses and communication with others, knowledge could be compared and contrasted as a way of analyzing our systems of belief and understanding. None of Condorcet’s writings refer to a belief in a religion or a god who intervenes in human affairs. Instead, he frequently wrote of his faith in humanity itself and its ability to progress with the help of philosophers. He envisioned man as continually progressing toward a perfectly utopian society. However, he stressed that for this to be a possibility, man must unify regardless of race, religion, culture, or gender.

Education and Rights

According to Condorcet, for republicanism to exist the nation needed enlightened citizens, and education needed democracy to become truly public. Democracy implied free citizens and ignorance was the source of servitude. Citizens had to be provided with the necessary knowledge to exercise their freedom and understand the rights and laws that guaranteed their enjoyment. Although education could not eliminate disparities in talent, all citizens, including women, had the right to free education. In opposition to those who relied on revolutionary enthusiasm to form the new citizens, Condorcet maintained that revolution was not made to last, and that revolutionary institutions were not intended to prolong the revolutionary experience but to establish political rules and legal mechanisms that would insure future changes without revolution. In a democratic city there would be no Bastille to be seized. Public education would form free and responsible citizens, not revolutionaries.

Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft was an English writer, philosopher, and advocate of women’s rights, whose focus on women’s rights, and particularly women’s access to education, distinguished her from most of male Enlightenment thinkers.

Learning Objectives

Summarize the ways in which Wollstonecraft’s philosophy differed from the other Enlightenment thinkers

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) was an English writer, philosopher, and advocate of women’s rights. She was the major female voice of the Enlightenment. Until the late 20th century, however, Wollstonecraft’s life, received more attention than her writing.
  • The majority of Wollstonecraft’s early works focus on education. She advocates educating children into the emerging middle-class ethos: self-discipline, honesty, frugality, and social contentment. She also advocates the education of women, a controversial topic at the time and one which she would return to throughout her career.
  • In response to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), which was a defense of constitutional monarchy, aristocracy, and the Church of England, Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790) attacks aristocracy and advocates republicanism.
  • A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) is one of the earliest works of feminist philosophy. In it, Wollstonecraft argues that women ought to have an education commensurate with their position in society, and claims that women are essential to the nation because they educate its children and because they could be “companions” to their husbands, rather than just wives.
  • Scholars of feminism still debate to what extent Wollstonecraft was, indeed, a feminist; while she does call for equality between the sexes in particular areas of life, such as morality, she does not explicitly state that men and women are equal.
  • Wollstonecraft addresses her writings to the middle class, and represents a class bias by her condescending treatment of the poor.

Key Terms

  • A Vindication of the Rights of Men: A 1790 political pamphlet written by the 18th-century British feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, which attacks aristocracy and advocates republicanism. It was the first response in a pamphlet war sparked by the publication of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), a defense of constitutional monarchy, aristocracy, and the Church of England.
  • Reflections on the Revolution in France: A political pamphlet written by the Irish statesman Edmund Burke and published in 1790. One of the best-known intellectual attacks against the French Revolution, it is a defining tract of modern conservatism as well as an important contribution to international theory.
  • A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: A 1792 work by the 18th-century British feminist Mary Wollstonecraft that is one of the earliest works of feminist philosophy. In it, Wollstonecraft argues that women should have an education commensurate with their position in society, claiming that women are essential to the nation because they educate its children and because they could be “companions” to their husbands, rather than just wives.

Woman’s Voice at the Age of Enlightenment

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) was an English writer, philosopher, and advocate of women’s rights. During her brief career, she wrote novels, treatises, a travel narrative, a history of the French Revolution, a conduct book, and a children’s book. Until the late 20th century, Wollstonecraft’s life, which encompassed an illegitimate child, passionate love affairs, and suicide attempts, received more attention than her writing. After two ill-fated affairs, with Henry Fuseli and Gilbert Imlay (by whom she had a daughter, Fanny Imlay), Wollstonecraft married the philosopher William Godwin, one of the forefathers of the anarchist movement. She died at the age of 38, eleven days after giving birth to her second daughter, leaving behind several unfinished manuscripts. The second daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, became an accomplished writer herself as Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein.

After Wollstonecraft’s death, her widower published a memoir (1798) of her life, revealing her unorthodox lifestyle, which inadvertently destroyed her reputation for almost a century. However, with the emergence of the feminist movement at the turn of the twentieth century, Wollstonecraft’s advocacy of women’s equality and critiques of conventional femininity became increasingly important. Today, Wollstonecraft is regarded as one of the founding feminist philosophers, and feminists often cite both her life and work as important influences.

image

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie (c. 1797), National Portrait Gallery, London

Despite the controversial topic, the Rights of Woman received favorable reviews and was a great success. It was almost immediately released in a second edition in 1792, several American editions appeared, and it was translated into French. It was only the later revelations of her personal life that resulted in negative views towards Wollstonecraft, which persisted for over a century.

Education Theory

The majority of Wollstonecraft’s early works focus on education. She assembled an anthology of literary extracts “for the improvement of young women” entitled The Female Reader. In both her conduct book Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787) and her children’s book Original Stories from Real Life (1788), Wollstonecraft advocates educating children into the emerging middle-class ethos of self-discipline, honesty, frugality, and social contentment. Both books also emphasize the importance of teaching children to reason, revealing Wollstonecraft’s intellectual debt to the important 17th-century educational philosopher John Locke. Both texts also advocate the education of women, a controversial topic at the time, and one which she would return to throughout her career. Wollstonecraft argues that well-educated women will be good wives and mothers, and ultimately contribute positively to the nation.

A Vindication of the Rights of Man

Published in response to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), which was a defense of constitutional monarchy, aristocracy, and the Church of England, and an attack on Wollstonecraft’s friend, Richard Price, Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Man (1790) attacks aristocracy and advocates republicanism. Wollstonecraft attacked not only monarchy and hereditary privilege, but also the gendered language that Burke used to defend and elevate it. Burke associated the beautiful with weakness and femininity, and the sublime with strength and masculinity. Wollstonecraft turns these definitions against him, arguing that his theatrical approach turn Burke’s readers—the citizens—into weak women who are swayed by show. In her first unabashedly feminist critique, Wollstonecraft indicts Burke’s defense of an unequal society founded on the passivity of women.

In her arguments for republican virtue, Wollstonecraft invokes an emerging middle-class ethos in opposition to what she views as the vice-ridden aristocratic code of manners. Influenced by Enlightenment thinkers, she believed in progress, and derides Burke for relying on tradition and custom. She argues for rationality, pointing out that Burke’s system would lead to the continuation of slavery, simply because it had been an ancestral tradition.

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) is one of the earliest works of feminist philosophy. In it, Wollstonecraft argues that women ought to have an education commensurate with their position in society, and then proceeds to redefine that position, claiming that women are essential to the nation because they educate its children and because they could be “companions” to their husbands rather than just wives. Instead of viewing women as ornaments to society or property to be traded in marriage, Wollstonecraft maintains that they are human beings deserving of the same fundamental rights as men. Large sections of the Rights of Woman respond vitriolically to the writers, who wanted to deny women an education.

While Wollstonecraft does call for equality between the sexes in particular areas of life, such as morality, she does not explicitly state that men and women are equal. She claims that men and women are equal in the eyes of God. However, such statements of equality stand in contrast to her statements respecting the superiority of masculine strength and valor. Her ambiguous position regarding the equality of the sexes have since made it difficult to classify Wollstonecraft as a modern feminist. Her focus on the rights of women does distinguish Wollstonecraft from most of her male Enlightenment counterparts. However, some of them, most notably Marquis de Condorcet, expressed a much more explicit position on the equality of men and women. Already in 1790, Condorcet advocated women’s suffrage.

Wollstonecraft addresses her text to the middle class, which she describes as the “most natural state,” and in many ways the Rights of Woman is inflected by a bourgeois view of the world. It encourages modesty and industry in its readers and attacks the uselessness of the aristocracy. But Wollstonecraft is not necessarily a friend to the poor. For example, in her national plan for education, she suggests that, after the age of nine, the poor, except for those who are brilliant, should be separated from the rich and taught in another school.