Polemic: what was the enlightenment?

Clue: try Montesquieu, Voltaire and Diderot, not Kant

Castalian Stream
9 min readDec 10, 2022


Voltaire’s Zadig finds his Astarte in the former’s Babylonian romance (images-1.medium)

So: what was the enlightenment? Students raised in institutional philosophy over the last forty years will put their hands up as one. The canonical Immanuel Kant tells us in his little essay “What is enlightenment?”, with some telling qualifications, that enlightenment involves daring to think for yourself (sapere aude). As such, it is the emergence of humanity from its self-incurred infancy, wherein authority, including about knowledge, had been placed in the hands of unaccountable secular and religious authorities.

Kant is not wholly wrong, although it is arguably elsewhere in his oeuvre that we can find his more complete answer to the question. What the canonical academic story doesn’t tell you is that the same Kant, a German university philosopher and metaphysician of the last decades of the 18th century, is hardly an unproblematic representative of the age of enlightenment.

Why not? Here’s six reasons, which come from taking the enlightenment to be better represented by Montesquieu, Diderot, and Voltaire, rather than Immanuel Kant.

1. Not “university business” — and not first German, but British, Dutch, or French

Whatever this age involved, it is usually held to have started sometime after 1670 in the Netherlands, or sometime after 1715 in France, or even some time after 1600 in England.

And it was hardly the affair of folk like Kant, cloistered in universities, and busy creating systems of knowledge, to convey preeminently to other scholars. Voltaire, who is certainly central to whatever the enlightenment was, has great fun taking the micky out of such German metaphysics in Candide in the figure of Pangloss.

None of the great French enlighteners were university men, although most were educated by the Jesuits, including in classical philosophy, poetry, history, and rhetoric. They mostly did not write systematic books, and even Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws, which looks like that from…



Castalian Stream

Articles on philosophy, psychology & classical thought (notably Stoic), aimed at renewing, spreading, and applying these ideas today.