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Enlightenment Thinkers

1. Enlightenment Thinkers

The enlightenment thinkers were the major profounder of the ideas of the modern world, responsible for many changes which occurred in the European history. Among these prominent thinkers; Locke, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu remained at the forefront during the enlightenment period.          

1.1 John Locke

John Locke (1632-1704) was an English scholar, popularly called as the father of liberalism. He was known widely for his liberal ideas especially on the right to life, liberty & property. As a scholar, he has also played a crucial role in the European Enlightenment and his ideas form the basis of the US Constitution.

The times of Locke were regarded as the ‘dark age’; marked by the lack of scientific temper and the powerful role of the church (religion) – under whose influence, the spirit of questioning was discouraged and even punished at times. Further, the Church owned around 1/3rd of the total land in Europe and could impose taxes on it. It also had the authority to give legitimacy to the rule of king, pass laws or grant pardons to those convicted of the crimes by issuing ‘a letter of comfort/indulgence’, upon payment of certain fees.

The dawn of age of Enlightenment / Renaissance / Reawakening brought back the spirit of reasoning that questioned the age-old assumptions, otherwise discouraged by the Church.

Copernicus, for instance, proposed a Heliocentric (sun at the centre of the universe) model which was in contrast with the geocentric (earth at the centre) model proposed by the Church. In the later years, Galileo invented a Telescope & proved that the model of Copernicus was correct. The Newtonian Physics, the theory of gravitation, and Koch’s germ theory of diseases etc. all questioned the traditional teaching of the Church. Consequently, the hegemony of the Church started to slowly fall apart.

The notion of science and society came to be closely interlinked during the enlightenment age; as the scientific developments affect the society to a large extent. For instance, Locke’s theory of property formed a background for the ‘labour theory of value’ with which he tried to answer the important questions like why the State exists and what is the need of the state etc.

Locke also proposed the theory of social contractual state, which was the result of voluntary association of people to protect their pre-existing natural rights namely, the right to life, liberty and property, which the state cannot violate under any circumstances. If the state fails to uphold this responsibility, it could be overthrown by the people in order to establish a new political state. These ideas of Locke found expression in the American Declaration of independence and later in the Indian constitution as well.

1.2 Rousseau

“Without Rousseau, there would not have been a French Revolution”     


Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) was born in France and was a resident of Switzerland. He has provided great pieces of thought through his discourses on inequality and the theory of social contract based on the idea of general will, which further forms the base of the modern political and social thought. Under his theory of social contract, he argued that the people had constructed states to ensure their well-being and if the state fails to ensure well-being, then it can be overthrown. Like John Locke, he also questioned the theory of divine right to rule professed by the Church.

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1.3 Voltaire

“I might disagree with your opinion, but I am willing to give my life for your right to express it.”


Voltaire (1694-1778), a French philosopher, was widely known to introduce the thoughts of Newton and Locke to France. He believed above all in the efficacy of reason and argued that the social progress could be achieved only through reason and that no authority—religious or political or otherwise—should be immune to be challenged by reason.

Voltaire also speculated a nexus between the ruling class and the priestly class; and thereby, suggested for its destruction. Similarly, in his theory of secular state, he argued for the need to limit the vast powers of the Church in political and economic affairs as he was of the view that,

‘The ills of Europe can be chiefly attributed to the ideas and teachings propagated by the Church.’


1.4 Montesquieu

“There is no greater tyranny than that which is perpetrated under the shield of the law and in the name of justice.”


Montesquieu (1689-1755), a French Judge by profession, was known as the principal source for propounding the theory of separation of powers which forms a basic part of many constitutions throughout the world. Montesquieu argued that the problem in Europe were due to a lack of separation of power and their concentration in the hands of a single authority. Therefore, the idea of separation of power and checks and balances was a necessity. Though some were not in favour of the idea due to the possibility of a constitutional breakdown as a result of its implementation, however, it has become a basis of contemporary politics. The works of Montesquieu also inspired the declaration of rights of man and citizen (1789).

2. Summary

The age of Enlightenment was a result of the authoritative role played by church in the society which obstructed the growth of ideas based on reason and freedom of speech and expression etc. and also played a crucial in determining the powers of the monarchy.

This dark age gave space for the emergence of new thoughts to rectify the undue powers of the church and provide a free ground for the individual thought to develop, which in the modern times, formed the basis for the development of our constitutions and organisational of our lives along the secular and sovereign lines.

  • According to UPSC Syllabus
  • Includes Previous Year Questions
  • PYQ Analysis
  • Plenty of Maps, Images for Illustration
  • Also useful for State PSC Examinations
  • A must-have book for all UPSC Aspirants

3. Test Your Knowledge!

1] Who was widely known as the father of liberalism?
a) Voltaire
b) John Locke
c) Hobbes
d) Rousseau

Show Answer

Ans: b) John Locke

2] The natural rights comprised of which of the following:
a) Right to property
b) Right to life
c) Right to liberty
d) All of the above

Show Answer

Ans: d) All of the above

3] The idea of general will was given by whom?
a) Rousseau
b) Hobbes
c) Montesquieu
d) Mill

Show Answer

Ans: a) Rousseau

4] The theory of separation of church was propounded by:
a) Jeremy Bentham
b) Rawls
c) Montesquieu
d) Plato

Show Answer

Ans: c) Montesquieu

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