They attacked divine-right theory and traditional religions.

The French government viewed the Encyclopedia as an attack on public morals, and the pope threatened to excommunicate Roman Catholics who bought or read the volumes. Despite these and other efforts to ban the Encyclopedia, more than 4,000 copies were printed between 1751 and 1789.

Rousseau Promotes the Social Contract

The most controversial philosophe was Jean-Jacques Rousseau (roo SOH). Rousseau believed that people in their natural state were basically good. This natural innocence, he felt, was corrupted by the evils of society, especially the unequal distribution of property.

In 1762, Rousseau set forth his ideas about government and society in The Social Contract. Rousseau felt that society placed too many limitations on people's behavior. He believed that some controls were necessary, but that they should be minimal. Additionally, only governments that had been freely elected should impose these controls. Rousseau put his faith in the “general will,” or the best conscience of the people. The good of the community as a whole, he said, should be placed above individual interests. Woven through Rousseau's work is a hatred of all forms of political and economic oppression.

Photo of an open book on a stack of other books, whose title page reads Encyclopedia A D 1702 with other subtitles in French.

Diderot's Encyclopedia was a collection of articles written by famous Enlightenment thinkers. It represented the rational approach of Enlightenment thinkers.

Women and the Enlightenment

The Enlightenment slogan “free and equal” did not apply to women. Though the philosophes said women had natural rights, their rights were limited to the areas of home and family.

By the late 1700s, a small but growing number of women protested this view. Germaine de Staël in France and Mary Wollstonecraft in Britain argued that women were being excluded from the social contract itself. Their arguments, however, were ridiculed and often sharply condemned.

Wollstonecraft was a British writer and thinker. She accepted that a woman's first duty was to be a good mother but felt that a woman should be able to decide what was in her own interest without depending on her husband. In her book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft called for equal education for girls and boys. Only education, she argued, could give women the tools they needed to participate equally with men in public life. Her ideas would influence the women's rights movement that emerged in the next century.

Painting of a woman with hair casually tied in a relaxed attire, reading a book while seated at a desk.

Writer Mary Wollstonecraft was a passionate advocate for social and educational equality for women.


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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