Skip to main content

Enlightenment Thought

Enlightenment Thought

A developed concept of colonialism did not exist in the eighteenth century. Enlightenment thought, therefore, did not directly address the topic of colonialism. Reference works produced in the eighteenth century, for instance, had no entries for "colonialism." But writers of the Enlightenment, in Europe and America, frequently wrote on subjects that we now recognize as falling under that topic. Eighteenth-century writers approached colonialism from widely differing perspectives and with varying goals. It is not surprising, then, that they drew diverse and even opposed conclusions about the origins, dimensions, consequences, and future of European colonialism.


The European "discovery" and subsequent colonization of much of North and South America from the late fifteenth through the end of the eighteenth century—as well as the exploration and colonization in Africa, Asia, and the islands of the South Pacific—informed Enlightenment thought in important ways. The "Age of Discovery" and its aftermath were interpreted by many Enlightenment thinkers as real evidence of the advances occasioned by the application of science. The Age of Discovery was also seen as an age of change leading the Western world to new stages of development.

David Hume (1711–1776), an important Scottish Enlightenment historian, philosopher, and man of letters, characterized these events as ones that led to a new epoch in the history of humankind: "America was discovered: Commerce extended: The Arts cultivated: Printing invented: Religion reform'd; And all the Governments of Europe almost chang'd" (1932). Hume considered the transformation wrought by the European discovery of America as a point from which to date "the commencement of modern History." Hume's fellow Scot, William Robertson (1721–1793), in his History of America (1777), argued that the Age of Discovery was the time "when Providence decreed that men were to pass the limits within which they had been so long confined, and open themselves to a more ample field wherein to display their talents, their enterprise and courage."

With the window that the Age of Discovery opened on a wider world, Enlightenment writers were led to discuss many topics related to the nature of civil society. International commerce and domestic industry, the institution of slavery and the slave trade, population growth and decline, all were debated in the "Republic of Letters." Enlightenment writers aimed to link those and similar debates to ones about human nature and also attempted to fit them into larger trends of historical development. Some Enlightenment thought on these topics was abstract and philosophical, but that was not always the case. Enlightenment thought on colonialism—as on other topics—was also often and intimately connected with the real world within which Enlightenment writers lived and wrote, as well as the historical world many aimed to recover and analyze. Enlightenment writers often filtered their ideas about colonialism through their experiences with it, past and present.

Enlightenment thinkers had a long history of earlier writings on colonialism on which they could, and did, draw. Included in that tradition were writers on ancient empires but also Spanish writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, such as Francisco de Vitoria (ca. 1483–1586); Bartolomé de Las Casas (1474–1566), who gained a reputation as the so-called Apostle of the Indies; José de Acosta (1539–1600); and Garcilaso de la Vega (1539–1616). Acosta's Historia natural y moral de las Indias (The Natural and Moral History of the Indies, 1590), for instance, circulated widely in the eighteenth century, not only in Spanish, but in translation throughout Europe and Britain. Like Acosta, Las Casas, in his Apologética historia sumaria (Brief Apologetic History), was critical of what he took to be Spain's harsh colonizing of such peoples as the Aztecs of central Mexico and the Incas of the Andes of South America. That critical edge resonated in other sixteenth-century pre-Enlightenment writers, such as Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592), for instance, whose essays, such as "On Cannibals," were skeptical about Europeans' supposed superiority over "primitive" non-European peoples.

Writers of the Enlightenment built upon those earlier and critical foundations. They also relied on travel accounts of various sorts, such as those edited by Giovanni Ramusio (1485–1557), Richard Hakluyt (c.1552–1616), and Richard Eden (ca. 1521–1576), whose Decades of the Newe Worlde or West India (1555, 1577) was popular in the English-speaking world, but also others that were compiled in the eighteenth century. Important here were the Journals of James Cook (1728–1779); the works of the Dutch naturalist Cornelius de Pauw (1739–1799), including Recherches philosophiques sur les Américains (Philosophical Inquiry into the Americas) (1768–1769); and Louis-Anne de Bougainville's (1729–1811) Voyage autour du monde (A Voyage Round the World) (1771). All of these sources, and many others, were used by Enlightenment writers as the raw materials from which to construct theories about humans, their natures, and their development.

The Enlightenment also inherited a pattern of thought that in some ways assumed European domination of the world and that was ambivalent about the implications of that domination for others. Illustrative of such ideas was the Treaty of Tordesilla (1494), which had aimed to divide the colonial world between Spain and Portugal. It was on the foundation of the Treaty of Tordesilla that Spain claimed its American empire, which, based at first on the island of Hispaniola, grew to include present-day Mexico and Peru, but also large parts of western South America, Florida, and southwestern North America. Portugal laid claim to and colonized lands to the east of the Tordesilla line, including Brazil.

This treaty and others like it gave little or no credence to the rights of the non-European peoples who happened to inhabit the lands in question. The possessions of the Iberian powers, however, faced intense rivalry from the British, French, and the Dutch, who increasingly came to want their own colonies in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Taken as a whole, Europe's expansion in the early modern period acted to validate a sense of European superiority and, in the minds of many, bolstered a European right of continued expansion.

Enlightenment thought sometimes assumed this European domination of the world and also acted to buttress a European sense of superiority in other ways. The French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon's (1708–1788) theory on the degeneration of animals, for instance, was a widely circulated and influential part of his Histoire naturelle (1749–1788) that argued for the natural inferiority of America's fauna and flora. That theory was criticized by other Enlightenment writers, including some who were colonials, such as Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826). Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia (1787) aimed to show the superior size of America's animals as well as to illustrate the natural virtues and eloquence of Native American peoples.


Enlightenment thought systematized earlier writings but also took debate about colonialism into new directions. Enlightenment writers often mitigated early Spanish criticisms of colonization, for instance, especially in emphasizing what was seen to be the reciprocal advantages of commerce. That was the case in a number of important Enlightenment texts, including the monumental work of the French Enlightenment, the Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts, et des métiers (Encyclopedia, or Classified Dictionary of Sciences, Arts, and Trades; 1751–1772), edited by Denis Diderot (1713–1784) and Jean le Rond d'Alembert (1717–1783). In the Encyclopédie's article for "Colonie," for instance, François Véron de Forbonnais (1722–1800) differentiated types of ancient and modern colonies, arguing that the "discovery of America towards the end of the fifteenth century has multiplied European colonies, and offers us a sixth type." Modern colonies were ones that were "either founded with an eye towards both commerce and agriculture, or have eventually moved in this direction. On this basis, these colonies required the conquering of territory and the driving out of existing inhabitants, in order to import new ones." But these modern colonial endeavors, and the trade associated with them, were such that by their nature they encouraged commerce to "flourish everywhere."

Important in focusing Enlightenment thought on the topic of colonialism and commerce, as he was on others, was the French social and political writer Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu (1689–1755). In his Spirit of the Laws (1748), Montesquieu gave a section to "The Discovery of two new Worlds, and in what Manner Europe is affected by it." Like Acosta and Las Casas, Montesquieu was critical of the Spanish treatment of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, writing that the Spanish "sported with the lives of the Indians." But he was also interested in tracing some of the positive consequences, for Europeans, of colonialism. When he thought about the English and French conquests in the New World, for instance, he especially was interested in delineating the commercial wealth generated by those colonial activities.

With Montesquieu, we can also see how the study of colonialism sparked interest in related topics, such as the theory of value. Montesquieu wrote that "Gold and silver are a wealth of fiction or of sign. These signs are very durable and almost indestructible by their nature. The more they increase, the more they lose of their worth, because they represent fewer things. When they conquered Mexico and Peru, the Spanish abandoned natural wealth in order to have a wealth of sign which gradually became debased" (Spirit of the Laws).

Like Montesquieu, writers of the Scottish Enlightenment were especially interested in discerning the economic and political consequences of colonialism. They did so in philosophical writings, but also in historical writings and popular essays.

David Hume addressed colonialism in his Essays Moral and Political (1741 and 1742), Political Discourses (1752), and at many points in the six volumes of his widely read History of England (1754–1762). Hume was interested, in part, in detecting the negative impacts of colonialism on the colonizer. In his essay "On the Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth" (1752), for instance, he wrote that "extensive conquests, when pursued, must be the ruin of every free government; and of the more perfect governments sooner than of the imperfect; because of the very advantages which the former possess above the latter." In his essay "Of the Balance of Power" (1752), he concluded that "The power of the house of Austria, founded on extensive but divided dominions, and their riches, derived chiefly from gold and silver, were more likely to decay, of themselves, from internal defects, than to overthrow all the bulwarks raised against them." For, he thought, "enormous monarchies are, probably, destructive to human nature; in their progress, in their continuance, and even in their downfall, which never can be very distant from their establishment." Hume's writings were to have a particular impact in America in the eighteenth century, but other Enlightenment writers pursued similar paths.

William Robertson, a Scottish clergyman and educator, aimed in part in his historical works to turn the attention of the enlightened to the relationship between wealth and corruption. In all of his historical writings, Robertson was interested in delineating the causes of Europe's commercial expansion, a theme that is evident in his The History of Scotland During the Reigns of Queen Mary and King James VI (1759) and also his The History of the Reign of the Emperor Charles V (1769). In The History of America (1777), perhaps his most important book, Robertson focused his discussion of Spain's American conquests on the overriding theme that informed so much of his work, Europe's commercial expansion.

Colonialism was a central feature—even one of the guiding themes—of Adam Smith's (1723–1790) An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, a book that included an entire chapter titled "Of Colonies." In a section called "Of the Motives for establishing new Colonies," Smith differentiated modern colonialism from that of the ancients, arguing that when Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) arrived in America in 1492 he found "nothing but a country quite covered with wood, uncultivated, and inhabited only by some tribes of naked and miserable savages." In "Causes and Prosperity of New Colonies," Smith wrote that the "colony of a civilized nation which takes possession, either of a waste country, or of one so thinly inhabited, that the natives easily give place to the new settlers, advances more rapidly to wealth and greatness than any other human society." And in "Of the Advantages which Europe has derived from the Discovery of America, and from that of a Passage to the East Indies by the Cape of Good Hope," he celebrated many of the social and political advances of England's American colonies.

The French and the Scots were not the only ones to think in these ways. English Enlightenment figures such as Edmund Burke (1729–1797) did too, as is evident from An Account of the European Settlements in America (1757), a book that Burke wrote with his brother, William. There, and in other writings, Burke aimed to delineate the positive effects of colonization for the commercial life of the colonizers. Similar themes may be traced in Burke's important Annual Register, a widely read periodical publication whose first number was printed in 1758.


Eighteenth-century writers were often drawn to sketch the history of humankind. Those histories increasingly aimed to incorporate the knowledge gained of overseas peoples. The late 1750s and early 1760s saw a number of such histories, including Antoine Yves de Goguet's De l'origine des loix, des arts, et des sciences, et de leurs progrès chez les anciens peuples (1759) (The Origin of Laws, Arts, and Sciences, and Their Progress among the Most Ancient Nations), Jens Kraft's Brief History of the Various Institutions, Manners, and Opinions of Savage Peoples (1760), and Isaak Iselin's Philosophical Conjectures on the History of Mankind (1764).

For other writers of the Enlightenment, such as Adam Ferguson (1723–1816), European colonialism provided evidence that was to be worked into broad understandings of humans and their developments. Widely considered to be the father of modern sociology, Ferguson in his An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767) relied on travel accounts and other writings to fashion a theory of societal development that he divided into four stages—savage, barbarian, commercial, and polite.

The writings of Henry Home, Lord Kames (1696–1782), especially his Sketches of the History of Man (1774), helped to popularize ideas that were commonplace by the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Ideas of this sort could be used to justify colonialism as a means with which to help non-Europeans move from one stage to a higher one.

Enlightenment thought addressed, as well, the question of racial differences. A footnote to Hume's essay "Of National Characters" (1748) was important here. Hume wrote in that essay:

I am apt to suspect the negroes, and in general all the other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences. On the other hand, the most rude and barbarous of the whites, such as the ancient Germans, the present Tartans, have still something eminent about them, in their valor, form of government, or some other particular. Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction betwixt these breeds of men.

Hume's footnote was repeated often in writings in Europe and America in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), an important philosopher of the German Enlightenment, for instance, cited Hume in his Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime (1764), as did Edward Long (1734–1813) in his History of Jamaica (1774). Other Enlightenment writers, such as Thomas Jefferson in Notes on the State of Virginia, struck notes not dissimilar to Hume's. However, some Enlightenment writers, including the American writer Benjamin Rush (1746–1813), satirized Hume and wrote in support of the abolition of slavery. Indeed, Enlightenment thinkers were often critical not only of slavery in particular but of colonialism in general.


Enlightenment thought was not infrequently critical of colonialism in a direct way. Louis-Armand de Lom d'Arce Lahontan (1666–1716), for instance, in his Conversation Between the Author and a Savage of Sound Common Sense (1702–1703) argued that "it is the socalled civilized nations that are the real barbarians, in fact: may the example set by the savage peoples teach them to recover their human dignity and their freedom." Others, such as the English writer Daniel Defoe (1660–1731), popularized similar notions. That was the case in Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719), a novel based loosely on the life of Alexander Selkirk, a real castaway, and in which Defoe's hero treated the Man Friday as a human being capable of being taught in European ways.

That critical attitude was magnified by the midpoint of the eighteenth century by writers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) in Discours sur les sciences et les arts (Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts) (1750) and Discours sur l'origine et les fondements de l'inégalité parmi les hommes (Discourse on the Origin of Inequality among Men) (1755) and François-Marie Arouet, better known by his penname, Voltaire (1694–1778). Rousseau's works and Voltaire's Essai sur les moeurs et l'esprit des nations (Essay on the Manner and Spirit of Nations) (1756) continue to be read today.

Not as well remembered today as an Enlightenment thinker, but illustrative of a trend that aimed to see all people as naturally equal in important respects was the Swiss physiologist and poet Albrecht von Haller (1708–1777). Von Haller wrote in 1755:

Nothing is better calculated to dispel prejudice than an acquaintance with many different nations and their diverse manners, laws and opinions—a diversity that enables us, however, with little effort to cast aside whatever divides men and to comprehend as the voice of Nature all that they have in common. However uncouth, however primitive the inhabitants of the South Sea islands may be, however remote the Greenlander may be from Brazil or the Cape of Good Hope, the first principles of the Law of Nature are identical in the case of all nations: to injure no man, to allow every man his due, to seek perfection in one's calling, this was the path to honour with the ancient Romans, and it is still the same for dwellers on the Davis Strait or the Hottentots.

Towards the end of the eighteenth century, Enlightenment criticisms of colonialism were heightened in a changing world in which some European colonies had fought for their independence. The thirteen colonies of British America had fought and won a war of independence from 1776 to 1783, and the French colony of Saint Domingue (present-day Haiti) claimed its independence in 1804.

Kant, in Perpetual Peace, a Philosophical Sketch (1785), wrote of "the inhospitable conduct of the civilized states of our continent, especially the commercial states" and of "the injustice which they display in visiting foreign countries and peoples (which in their case is the same as conquering them)." Diderot's later writings witness a similar tone of censure and identified the negative consequences of European colonialism, views he often put forward in works of fiction. In his Supplément au voyage de Bougainville (Supplement to a Voyage of Bougainville) (written in 1772, first published in 1796), for instance, Diderot had a fictitious Tahitian ask a European: "So this land is yours? Why? Because you set foot on it! If a Tahitian should one day land on your shores and engrave on one of your stones or on the bark of one of your trees, This land belongs to the people of Tahiti, what would you think then?"

Richard Price (1723–1791), a Welsh Enlightenment writer, assessed Britain's colonial expansion more bluntly: "Englishmen, actuated by the love of plunder and the spirit of conquest, have depopulated whole kingdoms and ruined millions of innocent peoples by the most infamous oppression and rapacity."

Perhaps the most important of the Enlightenment's anticolonialist works was produced by the Abbé Guillaume Thomas Raynal (1713–1796). The most important of Raynal's works was his multivolume Histoire philosophique et politique des établissements et du commerce des Européens dans les deux Indes (A Philosophical and Political History of the Establishments and Commerce of Europeans in the Two Indies). First published in an anonymous edition in 1770, the third edition of 1780 was greatly expanded and was the work not of Raynal alone but of a "société de gens de lettres" (society of men of letters). Raynal and his contributors, who included Diderot, offered a biting criticism of European colonialism that was widely read by contemporaries in its numerous printings and translations.

Raynal's text is perhaps best seen as an apt summation of much Enlightenment thought on colonialism. Raynal asserted that he had "interrogated the living and the dead. I have weighed their authority. I have contrasted their testimonies. I have clarified the facts." His conclusion was that "there has never been any event which has had more impact on the human race in general and for Europeans in particular, as that of the discovery of the New World…. It was then that a commercial revolution began, a revolution in the balance of power, and in the customs, the industries and the government of every nation. It was through this event that men in the most distant lands were linked by new relationships and new needs." But Raynal was ambivalent when it came to assessing the implications of all of these changes. "Everything changed, and will go on changing. But will the changes of the past and those that are to come, be useful to humanity? Will they give man one day more peace, more happiness, or more pleasure? Will his condition be better, or will it be simply one of constant change?" Raynal's book was a best seller by any standard, with more than thirty editions coming out between 1770 and 1787. In 1785 Raynal's long-time interest in Europe's overseas colonies produced another work of note, his Essai sur l'administration de St. Dominque (Essay on the Administration of St. Domingue).

In 1791 Joseph Priestly (1733–1804), an English scientist and philosopher, was not only critical of European colonialism, he looked forward to its end, which he predicted. In his Letters to the Right Honorable Edmund Burke, Occasioned by his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Priestly wrote:

The very idea of distant possessions will be even ridiculed. The East and the West Indies, and everything without ourselves will be discarded, and wholly excluded from all European systems; and only those divisions of men, and of territory, will take place which the common convenience requires, and not such as the mad and insatiable ambition or princes demands. No part of America, Africa, or Asia, will be held in subjection to any part of Europe, and all the intercourse that will be kept up among them will be for their mutual advantage.

Enlightenment writers, we see, frequently acknowledged the significance of colonialism in their thought, but they assessed its importance in disparate ways. There is no single Enlightenment understanding of European colonialism. Rather, it was judged in varying ways. Enlightenment thought provided colonialism with some of its rationale; it also provided a good deal of criticism. The consequences of Enlightenment writings for the legacy of colonialism in the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries continue to be debated by modern scholars.

see also Enlightenment and Empire.


Bailyn Bernard. Atlantic History: Concept and Contours. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005.

Bitterli, Urs. Cultures in Conflict: Encounters Between European and Non-European Cultures, 1492–1800. Translated by Ritchie Robertson. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1989.

Brown, Stewart J. "An Eighteenth-Century Historian on the Amerindians: Culture, Colonialism, and Christianity in William Robertson's History of America." Studies in World Christianity 2 (Autumn 1996): 204-222.

Cañizares-Esguerra, Jorge. How to Write the History of the New World: Histories, Epistemologies, and Identities in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001.

Canny, Nicholas, and Anthony Pagden, eds. Colonial Identity in the Atlantic World, 1500–1800. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987.

Capaldi, Nicholas, ed. The Enlightenment: The Proper Study of Mankind. New York: Capricorn, 1968.

Davis, David Brion. Slavery and Human Progress. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Dickason, Olive Patricia. The Myth of the Savage and the Beginnings of French Colonization in the Americas. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1984.

Elliott, J. H. The Old World and the New, 1492–1650. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1970.

Frost, Alan. "The Pacific Ocean: The Eighteenth-Century's 'New World'." Studies in Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 142 (1976): 279-322.

Gay, Peter, ed. The Enlightenment: A Comprehensive Anthology. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973.

Hof, Ulrich Im. The Enlightenment. Translated by William E. Yuill. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994.

Honigsheim, P. "The American Indian and the Philosophy of the Enlightenment." Osiris 10 (1952): 91-108.

Hulme, Peter. Colonial Encounters: Europe and the Native Caribbean, 1492–1797. London: Methuen, 1986.

Hulme, Peter, and L. J. Jordanova, eds. The Enlightenment and its Shadows. London: Routledge, 1990.

Hume, David. Essays Moral, Political, and Literary (1777). Edited by Eugene F. Miller. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1987.

Hume, David. The History of England from the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Revolution in 1688 (1754–1762). Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1985.

Hume, David. The Letters of David Hume. Edited by J.Y.T Grieg. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1932.

Koebner, Richard. Empire. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1961.

Kors, Alan Charles, ed. Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Kramnick, Isaac, ed. The Portable Enlightenment Reader. New York: Penguin, 1995.

Marshall, P. J. "Europe and the Rest of the World." In The Eighteenth Century, edited by T. C. W. Blanning. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

McAlister, Lyle N. Spain and Portugal in the New World, 1492–1700. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

Outram, Dorinda. The Enlightenment. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Pagden, Anthony. The Fall of Natural Man: The American Indian and the Origins of Comparative Ethnology. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Pagden, Anthony. Lords of all the World: Ideologies of Empire in Spain, Britain, and France, c. 1500–c. 1800. London: Yale University Press, 1995.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Enlightenment Thought." Encyclopedia of Western Colonialism since 1450. . 23 Jun. 2019 <>.

"Enlightenment Thought." Encyclopedia of Western Colonialism since 1450. . (June 23, 2019).

"Enlightenment Thought." Encyclopedia of Western Colonialism since 1450. . Retrieved June 23, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.