The spread of Renaissance ideologies throughout Europe gave way to new ways of thinking and the emergence of reason. French Renaissance Philosopher Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) preceded the Age of Enlightenment, inspiring the generations of philosophy that followed. His deliberate use of the essay as a platform for his philosophical argumentation established the writing style as a literary genre employed by those that followed him. Montaigne famously wrote such essays as allegories that compared the Europe he lived in to the savage acts of foreign indigenous people groups, constantly drawing into question the assumption of European superiority.
Philosophers during the Enlightenment drew inspiration from Montaigne’s essays and gazed the social, economic, and political atmosphere around them to find subjects for their work. The Lisbon Earthquake, along with the fires and tsunami that resulted from the quake, devastated Portugal in 1755. In addition to increased political tensions and a decline in Spain’s colonial ambition, the earthquake acted as a focus of Enlightened philosophers. For Voltaire, in Candide, the Lisbon Earthquake acted as a counterexample for the common belief that all is for the best. Rousseau used the same quake as an indication that the cities were overcrowded and encouraged a return to a more naturalistic way of life.
Voltaire’s influence flowed far past Candide, as he had the ear of King Louis XV and thus had political influence. This influence came to light when the trial, torture, and execution of Jean Calas in 1762 was brought to the philosopher’s attention. Calas, accused of murdering his son, was exonerated post mortem by King Louis XV after Voltaire’s request that the injustice be reversed. Voltaire utilized Jean Calas’ story to explore the Church’s intolerant and fanatical view to expose what he saw as a few of the Catholic Church’s many faults.
Enlightenment philosophers engaged in conversation to challenge the authoritative truths that dictated society’s motion and ultimately broke through some of the walls the Church spent centuries placing across Europe.