At the most visible end of the Enlightenment
were a group of thinkers who consciously sought human advancement through logic, reason and criticism. Biographical sketches of these key figures are below in alphabetical order of their surnames.
Alembert, Jean Le Rond d’ 1717 – 1783The illegitimate son of hostess Mme de Tencin, Alembert was named after the church on whose steps he was abandoned. His supposed father paid for an education and Alembert became famous both as a mathematician and as co-editor of the Encyclopédie, for which he authored over a thousand articles. Criticism of this – he was accused of being too anti-religious – saw him resign and devote his time to other works, including literature. He turned down employment from both Frederick II of Prussia and Catherine II of Russia.
Beccaria, Cesare 1738 - 1794The Italian author of On Crimes and Punishments, published in 1764, Beccaria argued for punishment to be secular, rather than based on religious judgements of sin, and for legal reforms including the end of capital punishment and judicial torture. His works proved to be hugely influential among European thinkers, not just those of the Enlightenment.
Buffon, Georges-Louis Leclerc 1707 – 1788The son of a highly ranked legal family, Buffon changed from a legal education to science and contributed to the Enlightenment with works on natural history, in which he rejected the biblical chronology of the past in favour of the Earth being older and flirted with the idea that species could change. His Histoire Naturelle aimed to classify the whole natural world, including humans.
Condorcet, Jean-Antoine-Nicolas Caritat 1743 – 1794One of the leading thinkers of the late Enlightenment, Condorcet focused largely on science and mathematics, producing important works on probability and writing for the Encyclopédie. He worked in French government and became a deputy of the Convention in 1792, where he promoted education and freedom for slaves, but died during the Terror. A work on his belief in human progress was published posthumously.
Diderot, Denis 1713 – 1784Originally the son of artisans, Diderot first entered the church before leaving and working as a law clerk. He achieved fame in the Enlightenment era chiefly for editing arguably the key text, his Encyclopédie, which took up over twenty years of his life. However, he wrote widely on science, philosophy and the arts, as well as plays and fiction, but left many of his works unpublished, partly a result of being imprisonment for his early writings. Consequently, Diderot only gained his reputation as one of the titans of the Enlightenment after his death, when his work was published.
Gibbon, Edward 1737 – 1794Gibbon is the author of the most famous work of history in the English language, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It has been described as a work of “humane scepticism”, and marked Gibbon out as the greatest of the Enlightenment historians. He was also a member of the British parliament.
Herder, Johann Gottfried von 1744 – 1803Herder studied at Königsburg under Kant, and also met Diderot and d’Alembert in Paris. Ordained in 1767, Herder met Goethe, who obtained for him the position of a court preacher. Herder wrote on German literature, arguing for its independence, and his literary criticism became a heavy influence on later Romantic thinkers.
Holbach, Paul-Henri Thiry 1723 – 1789A successful financier, Holbach’s salon became a meeting place for Enlightenment figures like Diderot, d’Alembert and Rousseau. He wrote for the Encyclopédie, while his personal writings attacked organised religion, finding their most famous expression in the co-written Systéme de la Nature, which brought him into conflict with Voltaire.
Hume, David 1711 – 1776Building his career after a nervous breakdown, Hume gained attention for his History of England and established a name for himself among Enlightenment thinkers while working at the British embassy in Paris. His best known work is the full three volumes of the Treatise of Human Nature but, despite being friends with people like Diderot, the work was largely ignored by his contemporaries and only gained a posthumous reputation.
Kant, Immanuel 1724 – 1804A Prussian who studied at the University of Königsburg, Kant became a professor of mathematics and philosophy and later rector there. The Critique of Pure Reason, arguably his most famous work, is just one of several key Enlightenment texts which also include his era defining essay What is Enlightenment?