In the meantime, we have now freed ourselves from the century. XVII, in which the court, with the death of Louis XIV, is no longer the center of culture and the arts and in which science and philosophy will assert themselves above all, no longer aimed at metaphysical investigation, but socio-political. This is a century in which we want to learn, to learn everything and everything. The premise to this trend is anticipated by the Dictionnaire published by Bayle between 1695 and 1697. This is the first example of an encyclopedia: traditions and beliefs no longer have credit in it, just as the principle of authority is contested. On the same line is Fontenelle (1657-1757): with its Histoire des Oracles (1687) Christian prophecies seem to be brought back to the level of ancient oracles, so much so that they do not respond to the spirit of analysis and credibility. The interest in knowledge became a stimulus for the publication of scientific works, and the scientific spirit entered politics and religion, history and philosophy. Culture became the pride of the bourgeois and not only of the sovereigns. Men of genius no longer frequented only the courts, but the lounges and cafes where the newspapers were read and conversed; intense correspondence was maintained with the sovereigns: it was the triumph of the spirit. Montesquieu (1689-1755) with the anonymous Lettres persanes (1721) entertains all of Paris, showing the city through the eyes of two foreigners who exchange news and opinions by letter, and deals with political problems by studying (or criticizing) the evolution of governments starting with that of Louis XIV, of philosophy of history with the Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence (1734), and finally of social philosophy with the Esprit des lois (1748) in which, after examining the three forms of government (republic, monarchy, despotism) the choice goes to a moderate monarchy where the spirit of tolerance is a guarantee of freedom. His influence was great and reached the threshold of the Revolution that was born, even before the political-social conditions, from the awareness of the dignity of man, thanks to the works that the century was proposing. While Buffon (1707-88) with the mighty Histoire naturelle (44 volumes), to which he dedicated almost forty years of activity (1749-88), introduced the sciences of observation in the world of letters, and in philosophy testified to his confidence in man and in progress, Voltaire (1694-1778) thanks to his spirit, his vivacity, his dialectic, his polemical culture ruled not only in France but in Europe, not sparing any temporal or spiritual authority. He published plays of the theater (Oedipe, 1718; Zaïre, 1732; etc.), composed poems (Henriade, 1728), wrote about philosophy (Lettres anglaises, 1733; Traité sur la tolérance, 1763; Dictionnaire philosophique, 1764) and history (Charles XII, 1731; Le Siècle de Louis XIV, 1751; Essais sur les mœurs, 1756). Voltaire is the fighter of reason called to supreme judge of every action of man.
Proponent of an enlightened government, he inundated France with pamphlets, fighting against all abuses, in defense of the innocent. He fought for Calas, for Sirven, for La Barre, for Lally, for all those who needed to be rescued or rehabilitated. If he was not a great philosopher, he was certainly an innovator for culture. He no longer saw history as a chronology of military exploits and diplomatic events, but as a history of civilization, seen through analysis, not the recording of facts. At his side, friend-enemy, another great fighter for freedom and progress, for the dignity of man and the development of the arts: J.-J. Rousseau (1712-78). He became famous with two short writings: Discours sur les sciences et les arts (1750) and Discours sur l’igine et les fondements de l’inegalité parmi les hommes (1755), manifestations of his philosophical conception based on the principle that man is good and society corrupts him, which makes it necessary to reconstitute a society on a new basis in order to give man back the life he is entitled to. The following works were equally successful: La nouvelle Héloïse (1756-61), a delicate transposition of his love for Mme d’Houdetot into a novel; Le contrat social (1762), in which in support of total democracy he denied the right to property and upheld the principle that when a minority of the community is invested with the will of all it must act for all, and finally the Émile ou de l’Éducation (1762), in which education is formulated in the free development of the child taught by a nature that is not inert, but investigated. Rousseau was certainly the one who, more than any other, contributed with his ideas to make the Revolution mature. With him we must especially remember Diderot (1713-84), founder and animator of the Encyclopédie, to which he devoted himself for over twenty years. A tireless worker, Diderot wrote about everything: philosophy, theater criticism, art criticism, fiction.
For his Lettre sur les aveugles à l’usage de ceux qui voient (1749) he was imprisoned. He also wrote Le Neveu de Rameau (1762) to fight the enemies of the Encyclopédie, but the book came out posthumously (1823). Innovative in everything, he was the precursor, with his criticisms, of the bourgeois theater and in fiction, especially with the subject of the Religieuse (1760), he anticipated, with other works, the Manzoni della Signora di Monza and Flaubert, while in philosophy (see also his Rêve de d’Alembert) was the proponent of the experimental method and while reaching materialism he surpassed it with evolutionary intuitions. Beside him, floating around the great enterprise of the Encyclopédie, to which Diderot wanted to give the character of a reasoned dictionary of the sciences, arts and crafts, were d’Alembert (1717-83) who headed the scientific section until 1759, and less committed, but valuable collaborators: Condillac (1715-80), Daubenton (1716-1800), Helvetius (1715-71), d’Holbac (1723-89 ), Marmontel (1723-99), Quesnay (1694-1774) and, for some articles, Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu. In the commitment of a century that tried to shake hearts, attacking them with reason, the voice of exquisite narrators and poets came softly. Such is the case of a Bernardin de Saint-Pierre (1737-1814), a disciple of Rousseau, who with his Paul et Virginie (1787) exalted sentiment and nature. Such is that of Chenier (1762-94), certainly the most outspoken poet of the entire century. In the ancient spirit he sang the national themes of his time (Le serment du Jeu de Paume, 1791; Hymne aux Suisses de Châteauvieux, 1792), while in the Jambes he expressed his protest against the Terror which led him to the gallows. This poem of exaltation and protest is contrasted by the work of Beaumarchais (1732-99), who on the eve of the Revolution published two masterpieces: Le barbier de Séville (1775) and Le mariage de Figaro (1784), comedies of intrigue. To the comedy of analysis on tender love by Marivaux (1688-1763), in whose masterpiece Le jeu de amaour et du hasard (1730) the subtlety of the female heart is exalted, Beaumarchais replaced the ironic play of the spirit, the impertinence, the audacity of the word and of the action. Meanwhile, the Revolution revived an ancient art: oratory, in which tribunes such as Mirabeau (1749-1791), Danton (1759-94), Robespierre (1758-94) excelled, themselves victims of that purifying violence many times exalted.