Revolutionary changes in the leadership of 18th Century France did not occur overnight or with some sudden spark of defiance by citizens. The events and ideals which led to the French Revolution were part of a gradual yet dramatic trend toward individualism, freedom, liberty, self-determination and self-reliance which had been evolving over years in Europe, and which would be called The Enlightenment. This paper examines and analyses the dynamics of The Enlightenment - and also, those individuals who contributed to the growth of The Enlightenment and to the ultimate demise of the Monarchy - in terms of what affect it had on the French Revolution.
Introduction to the French Revolution
When the legitimate question is raised as to what role, if any, The Enlightenment played in the French Revolution, the best evidence from credible historic sources is that The Enlightenment did indeed play an important role in the transformation of key social and political dynamics leading up to and through the French Revolution. The trends in the early to middle 18th Century indicate that Europeans were in the midst of dramatic social change. For one, secularization was taking place: the Church was losing its once-powerful position; people were no longer true and total believers in the Church's dogma that citizens would be damned if they strayed to a place outside the boundaries of the Church's influence. For another, the powerful authority of the French Monarchy was being challenged by the middle class, also known as the "bourgeoisie"; this large body of citizens grew more and more weary of supporting the lavish lifestyles of the Monarchy through outrageous taxes levied. And moreover, the poverty-stricken classes were becoming allies of the bourgeoisie, and the great bulk of ordinary citizens were hungry for freedom from brutal authority, for individualism over mindless tradition, for ideology over dogma.
The Enlightenment was an ongoing struggle for self-determination and for the fulfillment of basic inherent freedoms in a society where, according to Professor Paul Brians (Brians 2003, 6), "the twin fortresses of monarchy and Church opposed almost everything [that philosophes Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau, and their allies] stood for." And quite beyond - and in addition to - the key affects The Enlightenment had upon the French Revolution, its impact and its tenets are very much felt today, in the United States, Europe, and in other Western cultures.
Social Issues leading up to the French Revolution
There were numerous pertinent and pressing social issues and causes building up within the populace prior to the French Revolution, according to the joint history Web pages of the American Social History Project (ASHP), a production of City University of New York, and the Center for History and New Media (CHNM), a project of George Mason University, called Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution (hereafter referred to as LEF:EFR). One issue at the top of the list of stressful and highly contributing factors to the revolution was the large population in France. At the dawn of the 18th Century, France had 20 million residents, but that number ballooned by nearly 10 million by the end of the century. Important too, was the fact that most of these people were located "in the rural countryside: of the nearly 30 million French under Louis XVI, about 80% lived in villages of 2,000 or less, with nearly all the rest in fairly small cities (with fewer than 50,000 inhabitants)" (LEF:EFR, 2003). The exception was Paris (population 600,000), and also Lyons, Bordeaux, and Marseilles, with more than 100,000 in their city limits. The tensions rose on the small farms and in the villages in the rural areas of France because an estimated 90% of "peasants" were living either below poverty levels or just at the level of bare subsistence. And there were also tensions due to the fact that a small number of farmers were wealthy landowners who were indifferent to, and wielded power over, the poor farmer.
Cities in France were "unsavory places to live" (LEF:EFR 2003) because of dirty air and water, because conditions which dictated employment were strictly regulated, and because "masterships" in any particular industry were not awarded based on skill and duration, but rather, were handed down within families. In those very cities, when the price of bread suddenly rose dramatically, there were loud and rowdy protests, causing still more tension and an unsettled sense of existence.
The three stratified divisions of society in France at the time of the revolution were the clergy (dominated by nobles), the nobility, and the common people. Privileges were pretty much the domain of the nobles, and were passed down through families, the same as masterships. Tension had been building because of the bias inherent against being a commoner, and against the stratified societal divisions, in part also because the two privileged orders (clergy and nobles) made up the great majority of the estates representatives, even though the clergy and nobles made up only 5% of the population. Reformers believed that commoners (the Third Estate), especially the more educated of the middle class commoners, should have an equal vote with nobles and clergy, and they made their points public through the distribution of numerous pamphlets. Following the fall of the Bastille, on July 14, 1789, the peasants living in rural France began to engage in acts of rebellion, such as attacking the manors of the lords, and destroying the symbols of noble privilege like weather vanes, protective walls and deeds to nobles' property.
The Enlightenment's Historical Origins
The Enlightenment did not just suddenly emerge in 18th Century Europe, but rather, it had its emergence and development over several centuries. In the 13th Century, for example, Thomas Aquinas attempted to combine the tenets of logic with those of Christianity, in the genre of Greek philosopher Aristotle; Aquinas offered a five-fold proof of the existence of God, in effect, a moral law of nature. In the years to follow, "other thinkers pursued these goals...[and they were called] schoolmen, or scholastics" (Brians 2000). Other thinkers in the 14th and 15th Centuries were called "humanists," and they pursued a philosophy of religion which celebrated the human race and its fullness. Their argument against the Church was that worshippers were asked to listen to "gloomy priests and monks who harped on original sin and continuously called upon people to confess and humble themselves" before God. The Church, they insisted, should celebrate humanity, since some humans were quite like God - notably the creative geniuses who painted, the brilliant musicians, the architects, scholars, and other talents.
The Scientific Revolution was one of the engines driving The Enlightenment
By 1632, creative, scientific minds such as Galileo Galilei were breaking out of the mold of conservative thought promoted by the Church; Galileo's belief was that the earth rotates on an axis beneath an unmoving sun, which flew in the face of what the Church insisted people believe. In 1633, Galileo was convicted of heresy by the Roman Catholic Church's Inquisition proceedings, and put under house arrest for the rest of his life; nevertheless, he was a pioneer in the movement toward enlightened thinking. And by 1672, Sir Isaac Newton was another intellectual who emerged as part of the early evolution of The Enlightenment. Newton insisted that human reason could uncover the immutable laws of nature - and by implication, his efforts showed that if humans could discover the laws of nature, they could also discover the laws which are best for human society (O'Connor 2003). His research led to the explanation of a wide range of previously unrelated phenomena: the orbits of comets; the gravitational motion of tides as connected to the motion of the Moon and the gravity of the Sun; the precision of the Earth's axis. Perhaps Newton's greatest work was the Principia, which explained centripetal forces: "The results were applied to orbiting bodies, projectiles, pendulums, and a free-fall near the Earth." Newton's contribution to The Enlightenment also includes, according to O'Connor, the discovery that "...the planets were attracted toward the Sun by a force varying as the inverse square of the distance and generalized that all heavenly bodies mutually attract one another."
Michel de Montaigne, Charles Montesquieu, and Rene Descartes
Meantime, another great mind who made a contribution to The Enlightenment was Michel de Montaigne, who wrote "What do I know?" repeatedly in his Essays: "Who are Europeans to insist that Brazilian cannibals who merely consume dead human flesh instead of wasting it are morally inferior to Europeans who persecute and oppress those of whom they disapprove?" (Brians 2000).
If we are not sure that all our values are God-given, Montaigne insisted, we have no right to impose them by force on others. A nobleman and judge named Charles Montesquieu, in 1721, made an extremely important and lasting contribution to enlightened thinking by lampooning the despotism of the French Monarchy. Montesquieu published an anonymous novel called The Persian Letters; the novel consisted of fictitious letters between Persians visiting France, and it was…