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Enlightenment Thinkers

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Enlightenment Thinkers

The Enlightenment was a broadly based intellectual movement across many countries that had an enormous impact. Enlightenment thinkers offered new ideas and perspectives on the sciences, philosophy, and politics. What we most often remember this movement for today is the contribution it made to our ideas of democratic government and the revolutions it inspired, such as U.S. Independence and the French Revolution. Learn about the broad trends and main ideas of the most famous Enlightenment thinkers here.

Enlightenment Thinkers Definition

To devise a sound Enlightenment thinkers' definition, let's first consider the definition of the Enlightenment. Enlightenment thinker Immanuel Kant defined Enlightenment as the "human being's emergence from his self-incurred immaturity."1

Kant suggests that being Enlightened meant learning to reason and then daring to use your full potential to think, learn, and understand the world around you. The origins of the Enlightenment grew out of the Scientific Revolution. With the triumphant explanation of much of the natural phenomena in the world through science, reason, observation, and experimentation, some Enlightenment thinkers now sought to explain human behavior, society, and institutions scientifically.

Therefore, we arrived at a definition of Enlightenment: an intellectual movement from approximately the 1680s to 1820s that emphasized reason as primary knowledge to explain human behavior and the world. So, the most suitable Enlightenment thinkers' definition is the group of intellectuals who used reason to guide their philosophy. For politics, this meant critiquing existing institutions and proposing alternatives.

Enlightenment Thinkers Timeline

As noted above, the Enlightenment is usually considered to run from approximately the 1680s to the 1820s. See some of the critical events and fundamental works by Enlightenment thinkers on the timeline below:

Enlightenment Thinkers Timeline StudySmarterEnlightenment Thinkers Timeline. Made by the Author Adam McConnaughhay, StudySmarter Originals.

Most Famous Enlightenment Thinkers

The list below includes some of the most famous Enlightenment thinkers. See a summary of some of the Enlightenment thinkers' ideas below or click the links to see more detailed explanations of their lives and ideas.

This list is far from exclusive, and there were many more philosophers, writers, scientists, and poets that could be considered necessary Enlightenment thinkers. Still, these are often considered some of the most famous Enlightenment thinkers and certainly the most influential!

Most Famous Enlightenment Thinkers on Government Locke StudySmarterPortrait of John Locke, one of the most famous Enlightenment thinkers on government. Source: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

Enlightenment Thinkers' Ideas

The most famous Enlightenment thinkers proposed many influential ideas. They contributed many ideas to philosophy, behavioral sciences, and natural sciences.

However, for our purposes of studying history, it's best to focus on their political ideas that helped shape events in their day and continue to be influential today. Enlightenment thinkers proposed several noteworthy political concepts.

Hint

Keep in mind that as historians, it's useful for us to define trends and movements with broad commonalities like the Enlightenment. However, we mustn't see them as a monolithic group either. Even though many had contact with one another, Enlightenment thinkers proposed different ideas in different places and over more than one hundred years.

Enlightenment Thinkers on Government

The ideas of the Enlightenment thinkers on government are arguably their most significant impact on us today. Many of the foundations of Western democracy are found in the ideas of the Enlightenment thinkers on government.

Debating the Social Contract: Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau

One of the most influential ideas of the Enlightenment thinkers on government was the idea of the social contract. This came to define the relationship between government and its citizens, defining the duties for each.

Social Contract:

An unwritten but implicit agreement between citizens to give up at least some of their freedom to do whatever they want to a government responsible for protecting their rights and providing them with security.

Thomas Hobbes and the social contract are often linked since he was one of the first to write on it. Sometimes still considered an Enlightenment thinker, Hobbes was writing earlier and reached a very different conclusion than most other Enlightenment thinkers on government.

Hobbes proposed that the social contract was created so that man could escape the state of nature, which he saw as a horrible place filled with violence as humans competed for limited resources. For this reason, Hobbes saw the need to provide order and security as paramount and proposed that the best form of government was an absolute monarch who wielded total and even arbitrary power over his citizens.

State of Nature:

Political philosophers use an analytical device or metaphor to imagine a time before government. Considering what this condition was like and human nature influenced what they thought the best form of government should be.

However, John Locke reached a very different conclusion on the state of nature and the social contract. He believed that man was generally good and moral. However, there would at times be some that violated this natural order. For this reason, Locke believed the government's main job was to protect what he called natural rights to life, liberty, and property.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau offered the most radical explanation of the state of nature and social contract. He saw the state of nature as primarily neutral. While humankind was mostly good, it was corrupted by society, namely by the advent of private property. The wealthy and powerful created a condition where they exploited the majority, using the social contract and government to further their own interests.

Natural Rights:

A concept initially proposed by John Locke, natural rights are rights that people have simply by virtue of being citizens, in Locke's view, given by their creator. They are considered universal and the duty to uphold them was the government's prime responsibility according to many Enlightenment thinkers.

Rousseau, therefore, proposed a new social contract based on his idea of the general will where the good of the collective guided government rather than the good of the individual or specific social classes.

General Will:

Sometimes also called popular sovereignty, this idea was based on the common good being the guiding principle of government.

All three of these ideas are influential.

  • Hobbes's idea that we must give up our freedom and let government enforce order lends itself to government agents such as police ensuring our safety.
  • Meanwhile, Locke's idea that government should primarily protect the rights of individuals and when they don't it should be replaced is also generally accepted.
  • Rousseau was somewhat ambiguous on how government should be structured, but the idea that it generally should reflect the will of the people as a collective and not serve to the benefit of one class over another is also important to our ideas of democracy.

Most famous Enlightenment Thinkers on Government Social Contract Rousseau StudySmarterTitle page of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's On the Social Contract, Source: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

Montesquieu and the Separation of Powers

Montesquieu is one of the most influential Enlightenment thinkers on government. He argued for the separation of powers, where government authority was vested in three equally powerful branches, each with checks and balances on the other to prevent abuses. This idea has been implemented in most western democracies today.

Separation of Powers:

This idea holds that government power should be divided between an executive, legislative, and judicial branch, each with the ability to check and balance the power of the other two, preventing anyone from becoming too powerful and abusing its power.

Enlightenment Thinkers on Religious Toleration and Freedom of Expression

Most Enlightenment thinkers on government also expressed strong ideas of religious toleration and freedom of expression. In this regard are Locke, Rousseau, and the French philosopher Voltaire, who was highly critical of established institutions like the Church and what he considered a tyrannical monarchy in his native France.

After the religious wars of the Reformation, most Enlightenment thinkers embraced the separation of Church and State and tolerating different religious sects. Many rejected strict religious views of the divine, adhering to a more deist view of God as a creator that did not intervene in the day-to-day lives of humans. This belief was closely connected to their opinions on science and reason governing the world.

Enlightenment Thinkers on Slavery and Women

One of the most significant critiques of the Enlightenment relates to the seemingly hypocritical views of Enlightenment thinkers on slavery and women.

Enlightenment Thinkers on Slavery

While many of the most important Enlightenment thinkers on government called for liberty, they were often silent at best and at times contradictory on their views of slavery.

In the Thirteen British Colonies of North America that became the United States, some Enlightenment thinkers, such as U.S. Declaration of Independence author Thomas Jefferson, were themselves enslavers even while they called for liberty. German Enlightenment thinker Immanuel Kant expressed views of a racial hierarchy where Blacks and indigenous peoples were lesser than whites.

However, other Enlightenment thinkers, such as Rousseau and Benjamin Franklin, were publicly hostile to slavery and condemned it, even if they were not as outspoken on it as they were on other issues. The French Revolution, largely inspired by the Enlightenment, led to the abolition of slavery and the ideas of its Declaration of the Rights of Man helped spark the Haitian Revolution even if the reactionary regime of Napoleon temporarily reinstated it.

Another more positive view of the Enlightenment thinkers on slavery is that the ideals they espoused helped lead, at least in part, to the Abolitionist movement. Ultimately, the hypocrisy of calls for liberty, equality among citizens, and free speech proved to be incompatible with slavery, and as the ideas of the Enlightenment became more widespread and influential, they would come to be powerful weapons against the institution of slavery.

Most famous Enlightenment thinkers Wollstonecraft StudySmarter

Portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote advocating for equality between men and women. Source: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

Women

Another important critique of the Enlightenment thinkers was their exclusionary view towards women. Many of the most famous Enlightenment thinkers held opinions that were consistent with the traditional gender roles of women.

However, the Enlightenment salons and coffee houses where ideas were discussed often became new forums where women could participate and share their ideas. Some became outspoken critics. For example, the Olympe de Gouges wrote a direct response to the Declaration of the Rights of Man with her Declaration of the Rights of Woman. Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman advocated for equality for women and more educational opportunities.

These critiques and the newfound space for women to participate eventually led to more equality and representation. Similar to the issue of slavery, the Enlightenment thinkers may not have always fully lived up to their ideals at the time, but those ideals were eventually influential in bringing about positive change.

Enlightenment Thinkers - Key takeaways

  • The Enlightenment thinkers were those philosophers that lived roughly from the 1680s to 1820s that attempted to improve human society by applying reason.
  • Besides their contributions to philosophy, they also contributed alternative ways of organizing government and society, with their ideas of the social contract, natural rights, and the separation of powers proving highly influential in sparking political and social revolutions such as U.S. Independence, the French Revolution, and the Haitian Revolution.
  • The Enlightenment thinkers' views on slavery and women were complex, contradictory, or even hypocritical. However, the application of their ideas over time contributed to the ending of slavery and movements for more equality between races and the sexes.

References

  1. Immanuel Kant. "What is Enlightenment," 1784.

Frequently Asked Questions about Enlightenment Thinkers

Enlightenment thinkers held diverse views but generally they all believed in the importance of government having a duty to the people, liberty and the freedom of expression, and religious toleration.

There were many Enlightenment thinkers but four of the most important were John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, and Montesquieu for their contributions to our ideas of government and democracy.

Enlightenment thinkers in Britain and America held much in common but had some differences. Enlightenment thinkers in America favored independence and held often contradictory views on slavery.

Enlightenment thinkers highly influenced the French Revolution due to their criticism of established institutions such as the church and monarchy. Their ideas of liberty and equality influenced the French Revolution.

Enlightenment thinkers were afraid of tyranny and religious intolerance.

Final Enlightenment Thinkers Quiz

Question

When was Marry Wollstonecraft born?

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1759

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Which was not an occupation Mary Wollstonecraft had in the course of her life?

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factory worker 

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What was the name of the publisher that gave Mary Wollstonecraft a chance?

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Joseph Johnson

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Who did Mary Wollstonecraft refute in A Vindication of Rights of Man?

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Edmund Burke

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What was the name of Mary Wollstonecraft's most influential piece on women's rights?

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A Vindication of the Rights of Women

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Why did Mary Wollstonecraft move to Paris?

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to witness the French Revolution

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When did Mary Wollstonecraft publish A Vindication of the Rights of Women?

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1792

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Who did Mary Wollstonecraft ultimately marry?

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Joseph Johnson

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Why did Mary Wollstonecraft become suicidal in 1795?

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the rejection she felt in her relationship with Gilbert Imlay

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How did Mary Wollstonecraft die?

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childbirth

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According to Mary Wollstonecraft, how could women achieve equality?

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education

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Where was Voltaire from?

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France

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What characterized Voltaire from a young age?

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Rebelliousness and criticism of authority

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Why was Voltaire imprisoned in the Bastille?

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He mocked the regent of France and later had conflict with a nobleman.

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Where did Voltaire go into exile after his second imprisonment?

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England

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What impressed Voltaire so much about England?

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Its religious toleration and generally more open society than France.

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Who was Voltaire's longtime mistress and fellow writer and intellectual?

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Émilie du Châtelet

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At which Enlightened Despot's court did Voltaire spend time living?


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Frederick the Great

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What kind of society did Voltaire propose?

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Voltaire offered more criticisms than firm proposals for changes. He did advocate for toleration and freedom of expression.

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Did Voltaire believe in democracy?

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Voltaire voiced support for a strong ruler but one that was fair, meaning he supported Enlightened Absolutism over democracy.

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What is Voltaire's best known work today?

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Candide is his most well read work today.

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How did Thomas Hobbes describe the state of nature?

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One of perpetual warfare or competition and the threat of violence.

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What was Hobbes's idea of the state of nature?

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It was a hypothetical time before government.

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What was the name of Hobbes's most influential work?

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The Leviathan

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What was the best kind of government in Hobbes's opinion?

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An absolute monarchy with a powerful ruler.

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Did Hobbes believe people had the right to change government if they believed it to be bad?

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No, Hobbes believed everyone had to submit to the government's rule.

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Why did Hobbes think the social contract was necessary?

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He believed it was the logical result of people wanting to escape the state of nature where they were constantly in danger.

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What event likely influenced Hobbes views of human nature and best form of government?

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The English Civil War

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What other English philosopher wrote about the state of nature and the social contract?

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John Locke

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How was Locke's view of human nature different from Hobbes's?

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Locke saw humans in the state of nature as respecting each other's life, liberty, and property, whereas Hobbes saw them constantly fighting.

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How did Hobbes and Locke differ in their view of good government?

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Hobbes believed the ruler should have complete authority and not be changed while Locke believed people could decide to change their government if they believed that government was not doing its job effectively.

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What did John Locke study at Oxford?

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Locke studied medicine.

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What revolution did Locke write in support of?

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The Glorious Revolution

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What were Locke's religious beliefs?

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He was a Christian but believed in religious toleration.

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What characterized the state of nature according to Locke?

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Locked believed the state of nature was mostly harmonious with people following certain natural laws.

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What were natural rights according to Locke?

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Natural rights were certain rights all people had an equal right to based on God's natural laws in the state of nature.

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Identify the 4 natural rights Locke argued for.

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Life, Liberty, Health, and Property

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What was the purpose of the social contract according to Locke?

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Locke believed the social contract created government that would ensure the protection of man's natural rights.

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When government's failed to uphold the social contract what did Locke believe people should do?

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They should replace it with rebellion if necessary.

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Which country's declaration of independence was inspired by Locke?

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The United States

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What philosopher did Locke's views on the state of nature and role of government contrast?

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Thomas Hobbes, who believed the state of nature was violent and dangerous and believed government's main job was to ensure order.

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Where was Rousseau born?

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Geneva

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What did Rousseau believe about religion?

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He believed man was created in the image of God, making them inherently good and he rejected the idea of Original Sin. He also advocated for religious toleration.

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In addition to political philosophy, what else was Rousseau known for?

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Being a composer

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How did Rousseau's idea of the state of nature differ from Hobbes?

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Unlike Hobbes, he believed the state of nature was relatively peaceful and conflict was only introduced by society.

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How did Rousseau's idea of the state of nature differ from Locke?


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Unlike Locke, Rousseau did not believe in there were natural laws that governed the state of nature.

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Why did Rousseau see the social contracts made when government was established as corrupt?

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He saw them as reinforcing inequality, allowing the rich and powerful to control the poor and weak.

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What did Rousseau propose to make society better?

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A new social contract based on the principle of the general will.

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What is Rousseau's concept of the general will?


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The general will was the common good, or the best for the community at large over the best for each individual.

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Why did Rousseau advocate for social and economic equality?

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When people are more or less equal, it prevents some individuals' interests from coming into conflict with the general will.

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