Fran�ois Marie Arouet de Voltaire (1694-1778) has often been called the embodiment of the Enlightenment. Twice imprisoned in the Bastille for his criticisms of the royal family and the nobility, Voltaire spent time in the relative freedom of London. It was there that he read Newton and Locke and began to compare English society with his own. His Philosophical Letters on the English (1733) popularized Newton's natural science and Locke's epistemology and political theory, and set the tone of Enlightenment propaganda in France and Europe for decades. It was Voltaire and other philosophes who taught the 18th century to despise the ancien regime. And his battle cry became �crasez l'inf�me! -- Wipe out the infamous!
The 18th century witnessed an outpouring of human knowledge in almost every field of human endeavor. Knowledge would, it was hoped, conquer fear, superstition, enthusiasm and prejudice, and in the case of Benjamin Franklin -- death itself! Heady optimism to be sure. But even the careful Kant, a man for whom the city of Konigsberg is said to have kept time by his daily walks, did not let this optimism go to his head. In 1784, Kant asked, "Are we now living in an enlightened age?" His answer was an emphatic "No" But, he was careful to add, "we live in an age of enlightenment." So, even as the century grew to a close, soon to be swept up in Romantic anti-enlightenment ideas, even Kant knew an immense amount of work remained. What was needed was criticism and what was criticized was the whole social and political system of the West -- the ancien regime.
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copyright � 2000 Steven Kreis