Like a lamp shining in a dark room, the philosophy of Enlightenment was supposed to open the eyes of the world's poor and free them from unjust rule. Excited writers and poets believed the spirit of Enlightenment could lift the world from an age of darkness and ignorance into a world of science, rationality and equality. The Enlightenment spread throughout the European continent and even helped inspire the American Revolution. Of all the countries, France most eagerly embraced the ideas of this new philosophy, but what started as a movement for reason, rationality and brotherhood turned into hysteria and slaughter during the French Revolution.
The Enlightenment grew popular throughout Europe during the 18th century. To its supporters, the Enlightenment was much more than a philosophy; it was a way of thinking that stemmed from faith in human reason and progress. Enlightenment thought was the culmination of many scientific advances such as Isaac Newton's laws of gravity and writings from Europe's most famous thinkers. These supporters believed that humankind was coming out of ages of darkness and superstition. They foresaw a future where all people were educated and free and liberty reigned as the supreme law of the land. Pamphlets, essays and newspapers filled the streets of Europe all forwarding a new and brighter era - The Age of Reason.
Enlightened thinkers believed that through reason humanity could advance into a new and wonderful world. These thinkers lived in many different countries and came from many different backgrounds. The most famous Enlightenment thinker was a Frenchman with the very long name of Jean Francois-Marie Arouet to which he later added Voltaire. This writer, playwright, poet and scientist was a friend to kings and queens all across Europe. Voltaire often used humor and ridicule to criticize those he did not agree with, and was the most admired and feared writer of the 18th century. Voltaire's main enemy was the church, which he believed was corrupt and stifled the freedom of thought.
Another famous thinker of this era was John Locke. Locke lived in England and believed that humans were born completely free of personality or character. "Let us suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas," Locke proposed in one of his numerous essays on the subject. Locke believed that experience and observation created knowledge, and his ideas supported Enlightenment thought. He believed that if attitude and character could be taught than humanity could be shaped into a whole new form of society; one based on justice and reason.
Many other great thinkers, writers and scientists preached the ideas of the Enlightenment. These philosophes included Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin who brought Enlightenment ideals into the American Revolution. Across the ocean, many Europeans watched as America fought against what it considered the unjust rule of Britain. When the Americans won the war, they set up a government based upon Enlightenment ideas. Instead of a monarchy (a government ruled by a un-elected leader such as a king or queen), the Americans created a government where leaders were chosen by the people. To many Europeans living under the rule of a king or queen, the American Revolution served as an example of the success of Enlightenment thought. Nowhere was this message better received than in France.