The Philosophes

In the 1700s, France saw a flowering of Enlightenment thought. French philosophes (fee loh ZOHFS), or philosophers, felt that nothing was beyond the reach of human reason. As they examined ideas about government, law and society, they called for reforms to protect people's natural rights. Their ideas, like those of Locke, would shift political thought and strongly influence the development of democratic-republican government.

Montesquieu Calls for Separation of Powers

An early and influential philosophe was Baron de Montesquieu (MAHN tus kyoo). Montesquieu studied the governments of Europe, from Italy to England. He read about ancient and medieval Europe, and learned about Chinese and Native American cultures. He sharply criticized absolute monarchy.

In 1748, Montesquieu published The Spirit of the Laws, in which he discussed governments throughout history. Montesquieu felt that the best way to protect liberty was to divide the various functions and powers of government among three branches: the legislative, executive, and judicial.

He also felt that each branch of government should be able to serve as a check on the other two, an idea that we call checks and balances. Montesquieu's beliefs would influence the Framers of the United States Constitution.

Voltaire Supports Freedom of Thought

Probably the most famous of the philosophes was François-Marie Arouet, who took the name Voltaire. “My trade,” said Voltaire, “is to say what I think.” He used biting wit as a weapon to expose the abuses of his day. He targeted corrupt officials and idle aristocrats. With his pen, he battled inequality, injustice, and superstition. He detested the slave trade and deplored religious prejudice.

Voltaire's outspoken attacks offended both the French government and the Catholic Church. He was imprisoned and forced into exile. Even as he saw his books outlawed and sometimes even burned, he continued to defend the principle of freedom of speech.

Diderot Edits the Encyclopedia

Denis Diderot (DEE duh roh) worked for years to produce a 28-volume set of books called the Encyclopedia. As the editor, Diderot did more than just compile articles. His purpose was “to change the general way of thinking” by explaining ideas on topics such as government, philosophy, and religion.

Diderot's Encyclopedia included articles by leading thinkers of the day, including Montesquieu and Voltaire. In these articles, the philosophes denounced slavery, praised freedom of expression, and urged education for all.

Montesquieu: Separation of Powers
FUNCTION EXAMPLES IN U.S. GOVERNMENT EXAMPLES IN BRITISH GOVERNMENT
LEGISLATIVE Creates law Congress Parliament
EXECUTIVE Enforces law President Prime minister
JUDICIAL Applies law Supreme Court U.K. Supreme Court

Analyze Charts

Montesquieu believed in the separation of the powers of government into branches. Who currently heads the executive branch of government in the United States?


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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments