12 Quotes From Great Enlightenment Thinkers


Science, philosophy, and government all underwent upheavals during the Enlightenment era in Europe, which lasted from the late 1600s to the early 1800s. It was known at the time as a new “Age of Reason” that centered rational thought above all else. The Enlightenment was sparked by seminal works such as Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica, which introduced his laws of motion and gravity, and English philosopher John Locke’s essays on humans’ inherent right to freedom, which inspired Thomas Jefferson and other American revolutionaries in their pursuit of independence.

The great thinkers of the time took different stances on many topics, but largely upheld the importance of liberty, self-determination, and free thought over adherence to tradition. From this vantage point, they reimagined the individual’s place in society and the universe. These shifts in perspective led more people to question established authority and power structures, as well as the unity of church and state. They were key drivers of the political transformation in France, America, and other regions.

From the widespread adoption of the scientific method to the U.S. Revolutionary War, the Enlightenment saw significant cultural changes and major advancements in human knowledge and understanding. Through the 12 quotes below, we learn what key Enlightenment thinkers had to say about freedom, truth, happiness, and other intangible and essential elements of life.


I think, therefore I am.
— René Descartes, French mathematician and philosopher known for his rationalist system of thought


The end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom.
— John Locke, English philosopher who argued that freedom was an ingrained human right


Happiest are the people who give most happiness to others.
— Denis Diderot, French philosopher who was the driving force behind the “Encyclopédie,” an ambitious encyclopedia published in France


Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing wonder and awe — the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.
— Immanuel Kant, German philosopher who believed in a supreme, uncompromising principle of morality


There never was a good war or a bad peace.
— Benjamin Franklin, American scientist, political philosopher, polymath, and founding father of the U.S.


Of all the things that are beyond my power, I value nothing more highly than to be allowed the honor of entering into bonds of friendship with people who sincerely love truth.
— Benedict de Spinoza, Dutch philosopher known for his biblical criticism and writings on ethical relativism


Surely something resides in this heart that is not perishable, and life is more than a dream.
— Mary Wollstonecraft, English philosopher and women’s rights activist who famously wrote “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman”


Great things are achieved only when we take great risks.
— Frederick II of Prussia, who led his country during multiple wars, promoted religious tolerance, and established a German code of law, while participating in the great philosophical debates of the day


If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.
— Isaac Newton, English scientist and philosopher who contributed significantly to humankind’s understanding of gravity, motion, and other laws of nature


Genius is nothing else than a great aptitude for patience.
— Georges-Louis Leclerc, French scientist and author who published extensive volumes of natural history


A wise man’s kingdom is his own breast.
— David Hume, Scottish philosopher who, like other empiricists, believed all human knowledge was derived from direct experience


The God who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time; the hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them.
— Thomas Jefferson, U.S founding father and third President, and principal author of the Declaration of Independence