Strongly influenced by the rise of modern science and by the aftermath of the long religious conflict that followed the Reformation, the thinkers of the Enlightenment (called philosophes in France) were committed to secular views based on reason or human understanding only, which they hoped would provide a basis for beneficial changes affecting every area of life and thought.
Denis Diderot, advocated a philosophical rationalism deriving its methods from science and natural philosophy that would replace religion as the means of knowing nature and destiny of humanity; The philosophes believed that science could reveal nature as it truly is and show how it could be controlled and manipulated. The enlightened understanding of human nature was one that emphasized the right to self-expression and human fulfillment, the right to think freely and express one’s views publicly without censorship or fear of repression.
Voltaire admired the freedom he found in England and fostered the spread of English ideas on the Continent. Enlightened political thought expressed demands for equality and justice and for the legal changes needed to realize these goals. The Enlightenment came to an end in western Europe after the upheavals of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era (1789-1815) revealed the costs of its political program and the lack of commitment in those whose rhetoric was often more liberal than their actions.
Nationalism undercut its cosmopolitan values and assumptions about uman nature, and the romantics attacked its belief that clear intelligible answers could be found to every question asked by people who sought to be free and happy. The skepticism of the philosophes was swept away in the religious revival of the 1790s and early 1800s, and the cultural leadership of the landed aristocracy and professional men who had supported the Enlightenment was eroded by the growth of a new wealthy educated class of businessmen, products of the industrial revolution.