The European Enlightenment was a movement in 17th and 18th century Europe that emphasized the rejection of traditional ideas about religion, governance, and society. The Enlightenment grew out of the European Renaissance and Scientific Revolution. Enlightenment thinkers believed that a scientific approach to knowledge and learning could be applied to human actions and relationships. Enlightenment thinkers tended to focus on how best to promote individual liberty and freedom. While the Enlightenment started in Europe, it inspired significant historical changes across the world. 

Over the two centuries of the European Enlightenment, many thinkers debated the best ways to structure communities and societies. Enlightenment thinkers often intensely disagreed with one another. Many Enlightenment philosophers were hostile to establishment political and religious systems, especially absolute political power and the role of the church in government. This questioning of old political and religious systems resulted in several influential Enlightenment philosophers leaving their homelands and living in exile to prevent their arrests and potential executions.

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Enlightenment philosophers developed new ideas across fields of study. Below are three common ideas that many Enlightenment philosophers wrote about and debated.

Enlightenment philosophers also grappled with the role of the individual and how best to protect their freedoms. Some Enlightenment philosophers argued that the only legitimate (lawful) political system protects an individual’s rights.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) wrote that a government was only legitimate if it protected “the general will” of the people as a whole. The “general will” being that which is in the common good or interest. 

Social contracts are the rules that society defines for itself and its people to keep society running smoothly. Social contracts lay out the rights and responsibilities of different people, groups, and institutions within a community. There is no one correct version of a social contract. Different philosophers hold differing beliefs about the roles and responsibilities of societies many competing social groups.

Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) wrote that we live in a state of nature without rules, which is insecure and dangerous. He argued that people come together into societies and create social contracts. That these social contracts limit our freedoms, but they also provide us safety and protection. Without these social contracts, he believed man lived in “a state of nature” where none would be safe.

Enlightenment philosophers generally believed that all people were born with fundamental human rights that no one or no government could take away. They called these rights “natural rights.” Enlightenment philosophers attempted to define the concept of natural rights.

John Locke (1632-1704) included thought, religion, and property in his natural rights list.

Explore the painting below title The Death of Socrates by French artist Jacques Louis David. David painted this painting during the European Enlightenment period. Note how the artist has included Enlightenment ideas into the painting.

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 There were hundreds of well-known European Enlightenment philosophers from the 17th and 18th centuries. Below are those best known for their ideas on the social contract, the individual, and natural rights.

Major Beliefs

Famous Quote


John Locke (1632-1704)

this consent should come through actions such as voting this consent should come through actions such as voting God does not choose monarchs the people should be sovereign (rule) the right to rule arises from the "consent of the governed" (their permission to rule) consent to govern should come through actions such as voting
"The obvious answer is that rights in the state of nature are constantly exposed to the attack of others. Since every man is equal and since most men do not concern themselves with equity and justice, the enjoyment of rights in the state of nature is unsafe and insecure. Hence each man joins in society with others to preserve his life, liberty, and property."


government power in a single individual"s hands will be abused to prevent abuse, power should be separated into executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government
"Political liberty is to be found only in moderate governments; and even in these it is not always found. It is there only when there is no abuse of power...When the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or in the same body of magistrates , there can be no liberty. . . . Again, there is no liberty if the judiciary power be not separated from the legislative and executive…"


governments should work to protect "the general will" society is a social contract between citizens and federal government the people can break the contract and rebel if the government does not protect their rights (a revolution)
"From whatever side we approach our principle, we reach the same conclusion, that the social compact sets up among the citizens an equality of such a kind, that they all bind themselves to observe the same conditions and should therefore all enjoy the same rights. "


freedom of thought, expression, and religion are fundamental natural civil liberties separation of church and state protects fundamental rights


women"s first duty is to be a good mother women should be able to decide what is best for themselves women should not be entirely dependent on their husbands equal education for boys and girls leads to healthier societies