Were the English and French Enlightenment thinkers[1] influenced by Renaissance humanists[2]?

[1] I mean Locke, Hume, Montesquieu, Voltaire and Hobbes.

[2] Petrarch, Montaigne, Erasmus, More, Rabelais, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola

I never heard or read a connection between the two, something I find astonishing.

Do we know whether concretely, [1] read and or learned the writings of [2]; and possibly made direct reference to them?

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    Good questions, always fascinating to learn such things as such questions imply. E purr is mouve!
    – Hudjefa
    Commented Aug 15, 2023 at 13:52
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    Yes of course. Renaissance "rediscovery" of ancient culture: Greek and Latin, included ancient science and philosophy. Commented Aug 15, 2023 at 13:55
  • @MauroALLEGRANZA Did they read the humanists work heavily? Did they rely upon it?
    – Starckman
    Commented Aug 15, 2023 at 15:14
  • i almost know something about this... maybe the enlightenment was mostly a scientific discourse, and the renaissance was indebted to the greeks' understanding of the body, nature, etc. (Aristotle especially, i think)
    – user67302
    Commented Aug 16, 2023 at 8:33
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    In recent years, critics have stressed the importance of the connection between Montaigne and Hobbes for the development of a modern vision of politics, rooted in a criticism of traditional doctrines of man and society. plato.stanford.edu/entries/montaigne/#MonLegChaDes etc
    – user67302
    Commented Aug 16, 2023 at 8:35

1 Answer 1


Good question indeed.

I never heard or read a connection between the two, something I find astonishing.

One element of response could be in the 'tabula rasa' approach typical of enlightement philosophers. Descartes formalized the concept: we are "blank slates" at birth, and this is good and well, as we should only believe what can either be verified empirically, or deducted from logic. This excludes scolastic tradition as a font of knowledge. In the historical context of the 17th century, it means: "Don't trust the scholastic tradition; don't believe what your scholastic masters have taught you at university."

Already in John Locke's empiricism, which influenced Voltaire and Descartes much, one can find a radical critique of tradition as a reliable source of knowledge.

Those 17th century guys wanted to revolutionarize knowledge. And they did so by rejecting past thinkers, all too linked to a religious mode of thinking, and to the Catholic Church. So they preached and practiced a return to classical authors of antiquity, "blacklisting" more recent ones.

I guess there's also a generational conflict here, one new generation of philosophers pushing the old generation out of the scene. But they did so by using the very tools forged by their predecessors: the bold trust in human reason as God-given, the return to the sources in theology (I think Voltaire used the analyses by Erasmus on the Gospels), and the challenge to institutional dictats of the Church that is inherent to the Reformation, all these and more "humanist victories" created a space, a degree of freedom of enquiry, which the likes of Locke or Descartes could put to further use.

  • I noticed my question was not formulated properly. I edited. Thank you very much for your answer. Do you know whether they indeed had read of lot of these humanists? Here you describe an overall intellectual environment, or spirit; which prompted the Enlightnement thinkers in the direction they followed. What about the concrete direct influence (through education, or reading, etc.)?
    – Starckman
    Commented Aug 16, 2023 at 8:28
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    @Starckman I would think yes, but I know more about the French philosophical tradition/history than about the British. I'm aware that Blaise Pascal and Voltaire had an argument about Montaigne, Pascal attacking the Essays and Voltaire defending them. Also, Rousseau imitated the autobiographical format of Montaigne's Essays in his Confessions. So clearly Montaigne was being read by 17th century philosophers. And I believe Voltaire also quoted Erasmus. I trust more research would dig up more evidence if the same type.
    – Olivier5
    Commented Aug 16, 2023 at 15:13
  • Thank you very much. "I know more about the French philosophical tradition/history than about the British" my question concerned either the French or the British, or both; so your comment is already very useful!
    – Starckman
    Commented Aug 16, 2023 at 16:10

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