Enlightenment Thinkers

Thomas Hobbes

Hobbes, an English philosopher and scientist, advocated the idea of absolutism of the sovereign while developing fundamentals of European liberal thought. He argued that people needed to accept a social contract in order to avoid chaos and establish a civil society.

According to Hobbes, society is a population under a sovereign authority. All individuals in that society forfeit some rights to the authority in return for protection. Any power exercised by this authority must be accepted because the protector’s sovereign power stems from individuals’ surrendering their own sovereign power for protection. If humans wish to live peacefully, they must give up most of their natural rights and create moral obligations to establish political and civil society.

John Locke

Locke was an English philosopher commonly known as the “Father of Liberalism.” His political theory was founded on social contract theory. He believed that human nature is characterized by reason and tolerance. He assumed that 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 reflected in his 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 over whether his writings provide justification of slavery.


Montesquieu was a French lawyer whose idea of separation of powers shaped modern democratic governments. Montesquieu favored a constitutional system of government and separation of powers, ending of slavery, and preservation of civil liberties and the law. He believed political institutions should reflect the social and geographical aspects of each community.

Montesquieu defined republican, monarchical, and despotic political systems. He argued that the executive, legislative, and judicial functions of government 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. He also argued against slavery and for the freedom of thought, speech, and assembly.


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 discussed the abuses of the people by royalty and the clergy. He demonstrated new ways to look at the past. He perceived the French bourgeoisie as too small and ineffective, the aristocracy as 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 believed that only an enlightened monarch could bring about change, and it was in the king’s rational interest to improve the education and welfare of his subjects.

Source: Enlightenment Thinkers
Boundless.com. License: CC BY-SA 4.0

Back to top