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The Enlightenment‘s Unsung Heroes: 5 Thinkers Who Shaped the Modern World

The Age of Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries marked a turning point in human thought, as reason, individualism, and skepticism of traditional authorities took center stage. Luminaries like John Locke, Voltaire, and Immanuel Kant became household names, their ideas forming the bedrock of modernity.

However, for every Locke or Voltaire, there were scores of lesser-known Enlightenment figures whose groundbreaking ideas and tireless activism helped reshape the intellectual and political landscape. Unfortunately, factors like gender, nationality, and choice of focus often relegated these thinkers to the footnotes of history.

Let‘s shine a spotlight on five of the Enlightenment‘s unsung heroes and examine how their contributions changed the world:

1. Olympe de Gouges (1748-1793)

Olympe de Gouges was a true revolutionary in every sense of the word. Born Marie Gouze in Montauban, France, she was a self-educated butcher‘s daughter who became a prolific writer and passionate activist for women‘s rights and the abolition of slavery. In an era when women were considered intellectually inferior and denied basic rights, de Gouges fearlessly challenged the status quo.

Her most famous work, the "Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen" (1791), boldly asserted that women deserve the same rights as men. Published in response to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789), which excluded women, de Gouges‘ declaration proclaimed:

"Woman is born free and remains equal to man in rights. Social distinctions can only be based on common utility."

De Gouges also wrote plays, political pamphlets, and abolitionist tracts. Her 1788 play "Zamore and Mirza" was a scathing indictment of slavery in the French colonies. It was performed at the Comédie-Française, making de Gouges one of the first women to have a play staged at France‘s national theater.

However, de Gouges‘ fiery rhetoric made her a thorn in the side of the Jacobins, the radical faction that seized power during the French Revolution. In 1793, she was arrested for sedition after publishing a poster criticizing the Reign of Terror. De Gouges was tried before the Revolutionary Tribunal and sentenced to death. On November 3, 1793, she was executed by guillotine at the age of 45.

Though her life was cut tragically short, de Gouges‘ fearless advocacy for gender equality and human rights lit a flame that still burns today. As historian Lisa Beckstrand notes:

"Olympe de Gouges‘ writings and activism laid the groundwork for the feminist movements of the 19th and 20th centuries. Her declaration was a radical document that challenged the very foundations of patriarchal society."

2. Marquis de Condorcet (1743-1794)

The ultimate Renaissance man, Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas de Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet, excelled as a mathematician, philosopher, political scientist and politician. Born into an aristocratic family in Picardy, France, Condorcet was educated at the Jesuit College in Reims and the Collège de Navarre in Paris, where he studied mathematics and philosophy.

Condorcet was a close collaborator of Voltaire and an ally of the Girondins, the moderate faction of the French Revolution. A visionary far ahead of his time, he advocated for free public education, women‘s rights, and the abolition of slavery. In 1790, he published "On the Admission of Women to the Rights of Citizenship," arguing that:

"Either no individual of the human species has any true rights, or all have the same; and he or she who votes against the rights of another, whatever may be his or her religion, colour, or sex, has by that fact abjured his own."

Condorcet‘s most enduring work is 1795‘s "Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Spirit," which he wrote while in hiding from the Jacobins. In this treatise, he articulated the concept of the perfectibility of humanity and envisioned a future of unending progress. Condorcet believed that through reason and education, humanity could achieve ever-greater levels of knowledge, morality, and happiness.

Tragically, Condorcet was imprisoned during the Reign of Terror and took his own life in his cell in 1794. But his optimistic vision of human potential helped shape the modern concepts of liberalism and progressivism. As philosopher William Godwin wrote in 1798:

"The works of Condorcet breathe the true spirit of philanthropy and freedom, mixed indeed with an unfortunate tincture of fanaticism, but free from any pernicious maxims of government or unworthy compromise with the vices and prejudices of men."

3. Mary Astell (1666-1731)

Regarded by many as the first English feminist, Mary Astell was a pioneering advocate for women‘s education and autonomy. Born into a wealthy family in Newcastle upon Tyne, Astell received an unusually thorough education for a woman of her time. After her father‘s death and a failed engagement, she moved to London, where she joined intellectual circles and began publishing anonymously.

Astell‘s most influential work was 1694‘s "A Serious Proposal to the Ladies," in which she called for the establishment of an all-female college to cultivate women‘s minds. She argued that women‘s intellectual inferiority was not innate, but the result of inadequate education and socialization:

"If all Men are born free, how is it that all Women are born slaves? As they must be if the being subjected to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, arbitrary Will of Men, be the perfect Condition of Slavery?"

Astell followed this up with 1697‘s "An Essay in Defense of the Female Sex," in which she critiqued the notion of female inferiority and called for women‘s right to education and self-determination. While her ideas were met with controversy and derision by many male contemporaries, Astell helped plant the seeds of the women‘s rights movement.

Though less radical than later feminists, Astell‘s reasoned arguments for female education and equality were truly groundbreaking for her time. Her impact on subsequent feminist thinkers like Mary Wollstonecraft cannot be overstated. As historian Ruth Perry notes:

"Mary Astell was the first to articulate in print the idea that women were rational creatures who deserved the same educational opportunities as men. Her works laid the foundation for the 18th-century feminist movement."

4. Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794)

An Italian criminologist, jurist, and philosopher, Cesare Beccaria is considered the father of modern criminal justice. Born into a wealthy Milanese family, Beccaria studied law at the University of Pavia but was more interested in literature and philosophy. He became a member of the "Academy of Fists," a group of young intellectuals who discussed Enlightenment ideas.

Beccaria‘s seminal work, 1764‘s "On Crimes and Punishments," condemned torture and the death penalty as irrational and inhumane. Drawing on the social contract theory of Locke and Rousseau, Beccaria argued that laws should serve to preserve public safety, not to exact vengeance. He believed that the certainty of punishment, not its severity, was the key to deterring crime.

Translated into 22 languages, Beccaria‘s treatise was a sensation, influencing Enlightenment heavyweights like Voltaire and Denis Diderot. His ideas even made their way into the U.S. Declaration of Independence via John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Beccaria‘s influence can be seen in the Eighth Amendment‘s prohibition on "cruel and unusual punishments."

Thanks to Beccaria, the presumption of innocence, the right to a speedy trial, and the concept of proportionate punishment are now enshrined in law in much of the world. Every time a prisoner is spared torture or an innocent person is acquitted, we have Beccaria to thank. As philosopher Michel Foucault wrote:

"Beccaria‘s book had an immense success. It was translated into every language; several rulers made it their bedside reading and tried to apply its principles in their States."

5. Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786)

Dubbed the "German Socrates," Moses Mendelssohn was a towering figure of the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment. Born into poverty in Dessau, Germany, Mendelssohn defied the odds to become one of the foremost public intellectuals of his time, winning the admiration of Kant and G.E. Lessing.

As a Jew in Christian Europe, Mendelssohn recognized that his people would never achieve equality without integrating into secular society. He translated the Torah into German, wrote philosophical works in the vernacular, and advocated for Jewish civil rights. At the same time, he defended Judaism from Christian attacks and sought to reconcile reason with revelation.

Mendelssohn‘s 1783 work "Jerusalem, or On Religious Power and Judaism" was a landmark plea for religious tolerance. In it, he argued that the state should have no power over individual conscience and that Jews should be granted full civil rights. The book had a profound impact on the Jewish community and on Enlightenment discourse around religious freedom.

Mendelssohn‘s intellectual and cultural legacy is immense. He paved the way for Jews to emerge from the ghettos and become full participants in European civilization. Subsequent luminaries of the Haskalah like the poet Heinrich Heine and the philosopher Hermann Cohen carried Mendelssohn‘s torch forward. As historian Allan Arkush notes:

"Mendelssohn‘s Jerusalem provided the philosophical foundation for Jewish emancipation in Europe. His vision of a Judaism compatible with reason and tolerance inspired generations of Jewish reformers and modernizers."


From de Gouges to Mendelssohn, these five thinkers demonstrate the incredible breadth and diversity of Enlightenment thought. Their stories remind us that progress is often driven by brave individuals who challenge the status quo, even at great personal risk.

As we reflect on the Enlightenment‘s legacy, it‘s crucial that we look beyond the canonical figures and appreciate the movement‘s many unsung heroes. By studying their lives and ideas, we gain a richer, more complete understanding of an age that forever changed the world.

The Enlightenment may be long past, but its spirit of reasoned inquiry, individual liberty, and hope in human progress remains an inspiration for us all. As we face the challenges of our own time, let us draw courage from these bold thinkers who dared to imagine a better world.