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What did Edward Gibbon contribute?

Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) wrote The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which was published between 1776 and 1788. This tome is still read today. Gibbon argued that Rome fell because of invasions by barbarians and the corruption of christianity that rendered the citizens of Rome "servile and pusillanimous."

Who was Gotthold Lessing?

Gotthold Lessing (1729-1781) represented the philosophes in Germany, which was a difficult task, owing to the conservatism and strict censorship there. In Nathan the Wise (1779) he argued for the toleration of Jews and for human equality across religions. In On the Education of the Human Race (1780) he claimed that all religions are part of a progression of humanity to the point when it will turn away from religion and toward pure reason.

What reforms did Cesare Beccaria advocate?

Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794) wrote On Crimes and Punishments (1764), which was influential against the idea that punishment serves retribution. He reasoned that the purpose of imprisonment was the protection of society and the reform of criminals. Beccaria's book is believed to have been influential in the abolition of torture and maiming as routine criminal punishments by the mid-nineteenth century.

Adam Smith defined the economic system of capitalism and founded the science of modern economics (iStock).

Adam Smith defined the economic system of capitalism and founded the science of modern economics (iStock).

Who was Voltaire?

"Voltaire" was the pen name of François-Marie Arouet (1694-1778), a playwright, poet, essayist, and widely read popularizer of Sir Isaac Newton. His Philosophical Letters (1734) and Philosophical Dictionary (1764) both express his brilliant wit and underlying sense of social justice. He made great fun of Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716) as Dr. Pan-gloss in the satire Candide, but although he thought that this was not the best of all possible worlds, as Pangloss did, he believed improvement was possible on specific issues.

Voltaire's empiricism was similar to that of John Locke (1632-1704) in that he was a moderate skeptic who also thought that human knowledge is generally adequate for the lives most people lead. In other words, we know what we need to know. He argued for toleration and objected to the narrowness of church Christianity. By the same token, he did not go as far as Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) in extolling simplicity over civilization. He replied to Rousseau after he gave him a copy of The Social Contract: "I have received your new book against the human race, and thank you for it. Never was such a cleverness used in the design of making us all stupid. One longs, in reading your book, to walk on all fours. But as I have lost that habit for more than sixty years, I feel unhappily the impossibility of resuming it."

What was interesting about Voltaire's life?

Voltaire (1694-1778) led a very dramatic life. After his classical education at a Jesuit school, he chose literature over law, and his subsequent satires resulted in his banishment from Paris as well as exile to Holland. He spent almost a year imprisoned in the Bastille. All of this happened by the time he was 24.

Voltaire was believed to be the best playwright in France for half a century. A disagreement with a chevalier resulted in another sojourn in the Bastille, after which he went to England and learned the language, philosophy, and politics of that country. In 1734 he had to flee Paris again, and for the next 15 years he studied physics, metaphysics, and history with the highly intelligent Marquise Du Châtelet, in Lorraine. During this time he was also at court, protected by Madame de Pompadour, who was the mistress of King Louis XV.

Voltaire became historiographer of France and a member of the French Academy in 1746. In 1750 he was appointed philosopher-poet to Frederick the Great of Prussia, but they had disagreements after three years; Voltaire then bought a château in Geneva, Switzerland, and then an estate in France. In France he defended Jean Calas, a Protestant who in 1762 was tortured on the rack and executed. Voltaire was by then very rich and he devoted himself to causes against the oppression of the Church. When he returned to Paris at age 83, he was highly acclaimed, but died soon afterwards. He was first buried outside Paris, but then his remains were moved to the Pantheon, only to be again disinterred during the Restoration. (Voltaire's body was never completely reassembled after that.)

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