What role did Enlightenment ideas play in the cultural origins of the French Revolution?

Akin to Daniel Mornet’s underlying thesis that ‘it was, in part, ideas that determined the French Revolution’, this study will highlight the importance of Enlightenment in Revolution.[1] There are undoubtedly greater political and economic causes, including resentment of an increasingly objectionable monarchy and the financial strains of substantial expenditure on wars including the American War of Independence. Jonathon Israel states that, despite continued efforts by academic historians, there has been a significant gap in our causal understanding of the French Revolution due to the prevalence of numerous factors.[2] However, culturally, the Enlightenment played a somewhat significant role in its outbreak. The French Revolution was ultimately a complete reorganisation of the French state, both politically and culturally, bringing about the institution of a secular society. Eric Hobsbawm has stated that the French Revolution was, and remains, ‘the most prominent’ of its kind.[3] Whilst the Revolution was by no means an ‘isolated phenomenon’, it provided the greatest fundamental changes to its own nation and to others; it was, in the truest sense of the word, revolutionary.[4] As a consequence of this uniqueness, its origins cannot be explained in terms of the general conditions of Europe, but must be specific to the context of French culture at that particular moment in history.[5] Therefore, whilst the Enlightenment played some part in the cultural origins of the French Revolution, only limited importance can be attributed to it. This study will argue that, rather than playing a significant role in the Revolution’s origins, the Enlightenment played a greater part in its growth. This is due to the fact that Enlightenment ideas flourished and spread with ease in the social and political atmosphere created by the tragedy and violence of the Revolution.

In order to establish the Enlightenment’s role within the cultural origins of the French Revolution, one must first determine its arrival in France. It was primarily England that first bore the seeds of the fruit which is Enlightenment ideology, and, from England, these ideas travelled outward to France and other nations.[6] Developing ideas concerning physics and natural philosophy, promoted by thinkers such as John Locke and Isaac Newton, inspired and influenced the confidence in natural law, human reason and the rights of man that was emphasised the French philosophes.[7] Such confidence inspired, also, scepticism, particularly concerning organised religion and the authority of an absolute monarchy.[8] Notably, Montesquieu was hugely inspired by the works of Locke. Locke’s fundamental thesis, in terms of foreshadowing the French Revolution, was that ‘absolute monarchy is inconsistent with civil society’.[9]Montesquieu’s ‘The Spirit of Laws’ developed and exaggerated Locke’s key questions; he stressed the importance of the limited power that should be attributed to a government that separated powers between legislature and executive.[10] Dominated by an absolute monarchy, hereditary aristocracy, and powerful Church, the development of the belief in reason and independence from authority led to an inevitable rejection of traditional monarchic hierarchy. Furthermore, the concept that echoed throughout the Revolution, ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’, is first met within the works of French Enlightenment writer, Rousseau.[11] The works of the philosophes emphasised progress in terms of democratic government and freedom from Church authority, and, therefore, it can be argued that they provided the ideas which formed the cultural origins for the Revolution. As this study progresses, it should become clear that Enlightenment ideas acted as a catalyst that sped up and directed the course of the Revolution, whilst providing a stage for social unrest and a new government regime.

The question prevails, then, of how these ideas travelled and how they existed within the public sphere, if they were to cause such a large scale violent rebellion. As a rejection of the absolute authority of the crown and the fanatical prevalence of the Church, these ideas could not have simply appeared within the intellectual clubs of the eighteenth century, since these societies frequently required paid membership; this limited such clubs to elite individuals who could afford to be part of them, such as royal officials and members of the aristocracy. Instead, writing in 1797, Augustin Barruel emphasised the role of secret societies and clubs, as well as informal gatherings and discussions held in salons.[12] In particular, Barruel insists that ‘all the great events of this world are dependent on hidden causes, which these secret societies powerfully influence’; these secret societies were responsible for paving the way, politically and socially, for change.[13] Recent historiography similarly stresses the role of such informal discussions in establishing a culture of critique. Gatherings took the form of judgements concerning ideas and society; ‘such judgement was exercised by the institutions that made the public into a tribunal of aesthetic criticism – the salons, the cafes, the clubs and the periodicals’.[14] It is within such informal societies that the ideas of the Enlightenment were allowed to gain momentum and spread.

The existence of social clubs in France during the period does not distinctly marry the Enlightenment to the cultural origins of the Revolution, without questioning the ultimate intellectual aims and grievances addressed by such clubs. Chartier states that politicisation in eighteenth century France saw ‘intellectual sociability…as founding a new public area in which the use of reason and judgment was exercised’.[15] The popularisation of artistic and literary criticism within sites, such as cafes and salons, paved the way for ‘the emergence of a new political culture’ whereby it became commonplace to discuss previously forbidden topics, including the authority of the Church and state.[16] To put the Enlightenment in its most simple terms, it was a movement which established conversation and debate in arenas of religion, tolerance, morality, experimentation and observation.[17] Whilst undoubtedly the themes of the Revolution, such as liberty and the rights of man, run concurrent with these ideas, there is only a certain level of continuity of ideas between the Enlightenment and the informal social gatherings that were happening throughout France. It could be argued that those Enlightenment ideas which most specifically link to revolutionary ideals were considered the least significant to thinkers outside of the volatile French socio-political environment. As aforementioned, John Locke’s discussions of the limits that could be placed on governmental power were indeed developed by Montesquieu, however, recent historiography, as in the work of Brian Tamanaha, suggests that Montesquieu’s development of Locke’s thesis exaggerates it to the point of misrepresentation; Tamanaha states that Montesquieu ‘misread the actual extent of separation of powers in England’.[18] Perhaps, grievances contemporary to the society in which Montesquieu lived, such as an increasing resentment for France’s absolute monarchy, led him to purposefully emphasise the extent to which power should be devolved to the citizens. This suggests that, whilst there existed some level of continuity of ideas between Enlightenment and Revolution, it cannot truthfully be stated that the Revolution founded its cultural origins wholly in the Enlightenment, since they were evidently also a product of contemporary grievances.

Traditional accounts of Revolution stress the significance of great ideas written by great men, such is the traditional understanding of the Enlightenment. Works, such as Henri Peyre’s 1949 article, ‘The Influence of Eighteenth Century Ideas on the French Revolution’, name Voltaire and Rousseau as key influential figures with regards to influencing revolutionary movement in France.[19] Peyre argues that, during the reign of Louis XIV, Enlightenment thinking develops, encouraging its followers to ‘take it upon themselves to influence the existing facts, to change man by education, to free him from out-moded superstitions, to increase his political liberty and his well-being’.[20] Peyre describes the Revolution as a sudden break point following this building of passion for Enlightenment ideas, which culminates in a rush that ‘sweeps aside the old regime, devours men, and causes heads to fall’.[21] Whilst certainly offering a romanticised ideal of what the years of bloodshed and terror that was the French Revolution, the question remains whether the philosophies of the Revolution truly reflected those of these great writers in such a way that theirs can be considered a cultural origin.

There exist significant inconsistencies between the writings of much celebrated Enlightenment thinker Rousseau, for example, and the actual practicing rebels of the Revolution. Eric Hobsbawm suggested that whilst great men, such as Rousseau, are credited with the philosophical origin of the movement, they had few followers at the time.[22] ‘Poised between pure individualism and the conviction that man is only himself in a community’, Rousseau provided a similar school of thought to predecessors, such as Thomas Paine.[23] Hobsbawm states that, whilst Rousseau provided a strong and persuasive intellectual debate, there existed no ‘specific Rousseauist school of thought’, since his ideas were fused with others of the period, never allowing for a distinct influence of Rousseau on the French revolutionaries.[24] Supporting this suggestion is the work of Daniel Mornet on the contents of French libraries. Analysing the catalogues of five hundred private libraries, Mornet found only a single copy of Rousseau’s ‘Contrat Social’.[25] This theme continued throughout Mornet’s investigation, ultimately establishing that, during the period 1750 to 1780, private libraries ‘contained a surprisingly small percentage of the Enlightenment classics’.[26] This would suggest that Enlightenment ideas could not possibly have established the cultural origins of the Revolution, since the most key figures were not widely read.

One counterargument to this attack on Rousseau’s significance lies in who was likely to have read in such an environment. Surely, any library that was large and significant enough to have had its own catalogue, would not represent the consumption patterns of the everyday reader.[27] Further, Robert Darnton notes that ‘auction catalogues had to pass the censorship before being printed’; as a result, any controversial texts, likely including any Enlightenment literature that could inspire a revolt against the establishment, may have been purposefully struck from the official records.[28] Additionally, it must be considered that Mornet’s research ends in 1780, a full nine years before the break of Revolution; is it not probable that any works that would have influence on the origins of Revolution would be most popular in the years leading to its beginning? Cross-referencing this argument with the French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe’s database for sales destinations, allows one to see that 2035 copies of Rousseau’s works were sold in France between 1769 and 1789.[29] Of these, 1909 copies were sold between the years of 1780 and 1789, suggesting that Mornet’s research may prove of limited use regarding the influence of Enlightenment literature on the outbreak of Revolution. This figure appears to contrast any suggestion that Rousseau held little significance in the period leading to Revolution, since there are a noteworthy number of sales in the region in the twenty years prior. By contrast, only 1597 copies of the Bible were sold in France between the years 1769 and 1789.

Similarly, Voltaire, another great Enlightenment writer, noted for his contributions to the field, has received criticism from modern historians. However, there is a mass of data regarding sale destinations of works on which Voltaire was the primary author up until 1789. The FBTEE database lists 7312 copies of his works sold in France, selling consistently across the region, from Paris in the North, to Montpellier in the South.[30] Jonathan Israel states that whilst Voltaire ‘was the first to emancipate the human mind and render philosophique reason popular with readers’, he was still ‘marginal in terms of the philosophy that caused the Revolution’.[31] He also notes that Brissot himself judged Voltaire ‘no friend of the people’.[32] This demonstrates that the popularity of an author’s work is not enough information upon which one can judge its influence.

In addressing whether the Enlightenment provided the cultural origins for the French Revolution, it should also be considered that, perhaps, there can be no singular term of ‘Enlightenment’. Rather, it may be more pertinent to address the movement as a series of ‘Enlightenments’, since the philosophes did not produce a unified body of thought. Key terms varied across time, geographical region, and even individual writer, meaning that the Enlightenment could be considered a process of debate and intellectual and cultural growth. Far from being considered the ‘unitary phenomenon’ it once was by 1960s historians, such as Peter Gay, the Enlightenment is studied in modern historiography by national context, by class and even by method of transmission.[33] National context, in particular, highlights the vast variations between Enlightenments. As discussed, the Enlightenment in France could be considered to have paved the way for violent revolt and a total restructure of their authority structure. Contrastingly, the Enlightenment in Spain was halted by the strength of their Church; Norman Hampson stated that despite a reforming ruler, the new ideas made very little headway in the face of clerical opposition’.[34] The inability to define a specific set of intellectual ideals, revolutionary authors or even geographical region that classifies the Enlightenment as a unitary phenomenon, poses a significant issue for the historian. However, whilst it proved problematic to establish consumption of specific authors and texts by French readers preceding the Revolution it may be possible to identify the cultural origins of the French Revolution within the confines of a broader, and perhaps less traditional, definition of the Enlightenment.

There exists greater evidence in pre-Revolutionary France that the common man would be influenced by an Enlightenment classified simply as a grand progression to greater rights for man and faith in natural law. Peter Gay’s understanding of the Enlightenment is one that limits political and social discussions to the confines of a greatly educated few, who formed a ‘family’ of philosophers that engaged in discussions concerning humanity, freedom and religion through their literary works.[35] However, modern historiography has come to emphasise the role of the general populace in the Enlightenment. Enlightenment ideas were commonplace within cafes and salons, pamphlets and newspapers; this is true to the extent that Carla Hesse has suggested that ‘no technology better embodied the ideal of ‘Enlightenment’ than the printing press- a machine of human invention that could make useful ideas manifest in material form and spread them in unprecedented quantities.’[36] An Enlightenment as defined by Gay was unlikely to have caused such a large scale violent uprising as the French Revolution, however, an Enlightenment in which ideas were frequently and quickly transmitted between ordinary people may have.

In order to claim that the Enlightenment had any role in the cultural origins of the French Revolution, one must make both the assumptions that: revolutionaries read and were immersed in Enlightenment literature, and that these texts undermined the old regime. It has already been established that a not insignificant amount of Enlightenment literature was circulating during the years preceding the revolution. More accessible texts and the role of the press have been discussed at length by historians, such as Jack Censer. Censer states that debates that were usually confined to the private sphere furthered increasingly into the public sphere as the eighteenth century progressed.[37] Whilst careful to not directly attack either the Church or the state, the literary and philosophical press succeeded in disseminated Enlightenment thinking and the Enlightenment emphasis on rationalisation.[38] However, any evidence that revolutionaries read, or even were exposed to, Enlightenment texts must be addressed carefully, since there exist innumerable issues with this data. Contemporary readers may have been oblivious to the nature or purpose of the texts, either misinterpreting authors or simply missing the key message of the piece. Further, Censer notes that the care taken to avoid offending authority figures and not to breach censorship laws significantly impacted the role that the press were able to play in motivating and mobilising readers to Revolution; thus, the Enlightenment’s role is also dampened.[39] Additionally, it is not wholly realistic that every person that was exposed to Enlightenment literature would be immediately motivated to rise up against the absolute authority of the crown and Church, without other considerable motivations; as aforementioned, the Revolution was caused by an array of social, political and economic grievances, as well as the influence of the Enlightenment.

In order to establish a greater understanding of the relationship between the Enlightenment and revolution, the events of France will now be compared to those of America in 1776. The primary causes of the American Revolution are economic and political; heavy taxation and resentment of British rule sparked the beginning of the Revolutionary War. The American Revolution saw a new way of life forced upon colonies by a change in imperial administration. In this, the American Revolution is somewhat less complex than the French, and as such is placed more easily within the confines of an Enlightenment definition.[40] Robert A. Ferguson defines the Enlightenment in America as ‘the political right of self-determination realized’. Further, the legacy of the Revolution is ‘government by consent of the governed’, emphasising the ‘primacy of reason’ and the ‘value of individual freedom’.[41] Perhaps, therefore, it should be the legacy of the French Revolution which defines the role of the Enlightenment in its origins. However, in the case of the American Revolution, as is exhibited in that of the French Revolution, it is evident that whilst Enlightenment ideas certainly marry with revolutionary movements and share some similarity with the cultural origins of such, the Enlightenment is not the sole basis for the origins of revolutionary ideals. Furthermore, it is possible that the prevalence of Enlightenment literature within revolution periods is caused by the societal desire for critical literature to reflect existing political tensions; this is in stark contrast to the conception that critical literature caused social unrest. Whilst not denying that Enlightenment and Revolution are concurrent through the eighteenth century, this study proposes that the socio-political environment that is created by violent revolution enables an atmosphere in which such critical literature can exist and flourish.

To conclude, the Enlightenment played a significant, if limited, role in the cultural origins of the French Revolution. Suggesting that the cultural origins of the Revolution lay with the Enlightenment is not to determine the cause of the Revolution, but rather to pinpoint ‘the conditions that made it possible because it was conceivable’.[42] Ultimately, the complexity of the Enlightenment complicates the debate regarding its legacy and certainly its place within the cultural origins of the French Revolution. Ultimately, the legacy of the Enlightenment and the Revolution run concurrently as the enactment of democratic values, individual freedoms, and reason. The Enlightenment may have not exploded with such success in France at this point had there not been a culmination of significant political and social grievances. Culturally, the Enlightenment did not cause the French Revolution, but acted as a catalyst, providing depth and academic substance to social grievances, and exacerbating issues by acting as a vehicle for these ideas through the social classes and across a wider geographical area. Similarly, the French Revolution did not cause or establish the Enlightenment in France, but, rather, announced and exaggerated it. The two happenings are intrinsically interlinked in a way which makes it almost impossible for the historian to determine any detail of a causal relationship; the two coexist unquestionably.

[1] R. Chartier, The Cultural Origins of the French Revolution, (New York: Duke University Press, 2004), p.3.

[2] J. Israel, Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from the Rights of Man to Robespierre, (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2014), pp.6-7.

[3] E. Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution 1789 – 1848, (London: Abacus, 1977), pp.74-75.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] H. Trueman Wood, The Reciprocal Influence of English and French Literature in the Eighteenth Century, (London: Macmillan and Co., 1870), pp.25-28.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] B. Z. Tamanaha, On the Rule of Law: History, Politics, Theory, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp.49-53.

[10] Ibid.

[11] H. Trueman Wood, Reciprocal Influence, p.39.

[12] A. Barruel, Memoirs, Illustrating the History of Jacobinism, (London: Author, 1798), pp.54-56.

[13] Ibid., p.55.

[14] Chartier, Cultural Origins, p.22.

[15] Ibid., pp.16-17.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Tamanaha, Rule of Law, pp.49-53.

[19] H. Peyre, ‘The Influence of Eighteenth Century Ideas on the French Revolution’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 10.1, (January 1949), pp.63-87.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Hobsbawm, Age of Revolution, pp.300-301.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] R. Darnton, The Literary Underground of the Old Regime, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982), pp.167-168.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29]‘STN Online Database Archive’, French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe, <http://fbtee.uws.edu.au/stn/interface/query_places.php?t=author&e=rawsales&id=au0000783&pa=on&ea=on&ta=on&d1=01&m1=01&y1=1769&d2=31&m2=12&y2=1789&g=geographic_zone&d=map&gt; [accessed 18th May 2016]

[30] ‘STN Online Database Archive’, The French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe, <http://fbtee.uws.edu.au/stn/interface/query_places.php?t=author&e=rawsales&id=au0000931&pa=on&d1=01&m1=01&y1=1769&d2=31&m2=12&y2=1789&g=town&d=map&gt; [accessed 19th May 2016]

[31] Israel, Revolutionary Ideas, pp.18-19.

[32] Ibid.

[33] D. Outram, The Enlightenment: New Approaches to European History, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), p.1.

[34] N. Hampson, The Enlightenment: An evaluation of its assumptions, attitudes and values, (London: Penguin, 1982), Chapter 1 (ebook).

[35] P. Gay, The Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Paganism, (London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1966), p.3.

[36] Carla Hesse, ‘Print Culture in the Enlightenment’, The Enlightenment World, M. Fitzpatrick et al. (eds.), (London: Routledge, 2004), pp.366-381.

[37] J. Censer, The French Press in the Age of the Enlightenment, (London: Routledge, 2002), p.210.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid.

[40] R. A. Ferguson, The American Enlightenment, 1750-1820, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994), p.22.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Chartier, Cultural Origins, p.2.


One thought on “What role did Enlightenment ideas play in the cultural origins of the French Revolution?

  1. Pingback: What role did Enlightenment ideas play in the cultural origins of the French Revolution? — The Historian’s Apprentice – globalmodernities

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