The Enlightenment and the Revolution essay

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The idea of an ideological connection between the Enlightenment and the French Revolution was put forward by the revolution leaders themselves. They celebrated philosophers who, in their opinion, had prepared a wonderful revolution, and argued that it was the Enlightenment that had planted grains promising to bring a good harvest. Revolutionaries proudly proclaimed themselves to be the successors of the work begun by Montesquieu, Rousseau, Diderot, Mably, Helvetius, Voltaire and other thinkers. Even the opponents of the Revolution tended to associate it with the activity of the Enlightenment, accusing them of a deliberate unleashing of criminal passions that had led to the Revolution. As they argued, it was “a seditious and murderous philosophie that is the cause of our misfortunes” (cited in Mcmahon, 2002, p. 55).

The critics of this view understate the political impact of the Enlightenment for the French Revolution on the grounds that the French Enlightenment had not established a systematic political theory and that “reformation of ideas projected by these great thinkers, however, offered only the theoretical possibility of improvement, not the actuality” (Israel, 2010, p. 2). According to them, even the social contract did not have an established influence on the outbreak of revolution. Thus, the central political idea of revolution was the idea of popular sovereignty. But this is was a new invention made by the revolution, not by the Enlightenment, since it was expressed by Sieyes. Only Rousseau had a similar idea, but his sovereignty was not absolute. However, there are issues, which are obvious even for those, who believe that the Revolution did not put Enlightenment ideas into action.

Before the Revolution took place in reality, it had happened in people’s minds. In the beginning was the Word. Philosophers spoke of the revolution as of a very dangerous and highly undesirable perspective, but consciously or unconsciously they were preparing France for the storming of the Bastille. The Enlightenment proves that the word of a philosopher can sometimes turn into action.

The Enlightenment brought together people of different philosophical and political views. There were materialists, deists, skeptics, pantheists, proponents of enlightened absolutism and the Republicans, militant atheists and followers of the natural religion. Inside the Enlightenment the debates never stopped. But no matter how great was the disagreement between philosophers, their views had a common ideological platform and were formed in line with the common vision and style. They were united by at least the following: 1) their opposition to the official France. The existing order in the country was considered by them as an unreasonable, unjust and immoral; 2) they believed their time was a turning point.

The main common goal of the Enlightenment was to overthrow the caste feudal system and to establish the society based on the equality of people, their rights and freedoms. Philosophers and enlighteners of the 18th century undermined the foundations of the states, where political power and a huge share of wealth were owned by the aristocracy and the clergy, while the masses were in an impoverished state. They proclaimed the supreme dominion of reason and were preaching the faith in human nature, the belief that people can show their good side, as soon as they are given the freedom and the justice is restored. The idea of equality of all human beings, without distinction of race and class, the duty of every citizen, a king or a peasant, to obey the law, passed by the representatives of the people, a free contract between free people – all these demands, put forward by the philosophers, united into one ides, were spread in the mass of the French people and prepared the minds for the fall of the old regime. 

The study of political and economic issues of the new system, thanks to the works of Hume, Hobbes, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Voltaire, was a very common occupation of the bourgeoisie. The works on economic issues and the role of private property were very popular in the community. And even before the outbreak of the revolution, the ideal of a centralized, well-ordered state, governed by the people owning the land and industry or engaged in liberal professions, was discussed in a number of books and pamphlets. From these books the figures of the revolution drew their inspiration and their revolutionary energy.

Public opinion was conquered by the ideas of philosophers. As a matter of fact, the influence of public opinion is huge, even though it has no legal power, or the instruments of coercion and subjugation. Even the kings and formal structures had to take it into account. The main mediating link between the philosophers and the public was the book. The question of whether the Enlightenment had created a revolution can be easily reformulated into another question: can a book lead to a revolution?

Before the Revolution, the book became a necessary attribute in life, not only among small shopkeepers and craftsmen, but also among employees. The need for reading was satisfied by reading rooms, and since the 1760s, the books were offered for a reasonable cost and could be taken home (Goodman, 1994). Under this condition the new ideas could spread rapidly all over the country. At that time the ideas of the Enlightenment represented the main novelty.

An important moment is how significantly had the thematic preferences changed. The share of religious books, which made up a half of all printed materials at the end of the 17th century, has steadily decreased, and on the eve of the Revolution it fell to 10 percent. Conversely, the treatises and books on art grew in popularity, and their number has doubled in comparison with 1720 (Goodman, 1994). It could be the reason of the fact that about two decades before the Revolution a lot of people started leaving different religious brotherhoods. Most of them were government officials, judges, and other educated readers. These changes took place partly due to the influence of accusatory literature of the Enlightenment. Incriminating leaflets and pamphlets were attractive to the public and were widely distributed, while the king at that time ceased to be sacred in the eyes of people. Thus books “fulfilled some of the intellectual aims of humanists and reformers” (Goodman, 1994, p. 16).

Another consequence of this fact was the prevalence of intellectuals and absence of demand for their services, which gave rise to an acute discontent with the authorities. Researchers note the saturation of society by groups of lawyers and writers. The number of newly minted bachelors of law reached in the pre-revolutionary decade the record of 1200 people a year (Goodman, 1994). This estate was growing, but the number of vacancies remained the same. Expectations of many young people were deceived, and career paths were blocked, which led to the situation when young intellectuals had a lot of free time.

In this way five intellectual and cultural trends were formed, that have facilitated the emergence of the revolution:

-         the oppositional impulse against the official church;

-         the appeal to law against the existing regime;

-         opposition of the Country and the Court;

-         a growing skepticism about authority;

-         lack of demand and dissatisfaction of young people engaged in intellectual labor.

These five tendencies led to the hatred to the existing social and political system and the desire to wreck it, which was manifested in unusually harsh revelatory pamphlets.

The weakening of religious feeling, a tarnished image of the monarch, and the politicization of the national consciousness promoted a qualitative leap in the mid-18th century, rising of the movement to a higher level, which was reflected in the formation of public opinion, the achievements of philosophical thought, spread and sharpness of accusatory literature. The result of the impact of these factors was the further growth in critical attitudes and the emergence of the situation, which made the revolution possible.

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