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.


How has the historiography of the Enlightenment changed since the 1960s?

Discussions of the Enlightenment have been in place since as early as the eighteenth century.[1] ‘Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity’, Immanuel Kant stated in his 1784 essay, ‘An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?’[2] In this, Kant cleverly defines the Enlightenment as an event or a process which brings humanity out of its self-inflicted ignorance and lack of knowledge through reason. Similarly, Moses Mendelssohn defines the Enlightenment as an ongoing ‘process of education’.[3] Academics, such as Christopher Nadon, have suggested that the Enlightenment will never cease to hold significance in a society in which it is paramount that one knows and understands the world, in order to make informed choices from a young age.[4] Further, historian Anthony Pagden defines it as the ‘true beginning of modernity, as an open-ended, continuing progression’, suggesting that the study of the Enlightenment is paramount to any historian analysing the journey that society, and humanity, embarked upon in getting to its current point.[5] This study will examine and investigate the historiography of the Enlightenment, from the limited early studies of historians such as Peter Gay in the 1960s, through the breaking of the limitations of these early studies, to current understandings. Specifically, this essay will address how historians developed Enlightenment history in a national context and how historians came to uncover the ways in which the Enlightenment was transmitted through newspapers, pamphlets and popular culture.

Originally, the Enlightenment was studied as a ‘unitary phenomenon’, presented as a period in which rationality prevailed over faith, and in which ideas were shared by the great thinkers, such as Voltaire, Diderot, Wolff and Leibniz.[6] Peter Gay is an example of the historians of the 1960s who studied the Enlightenment by this definition. Gay defines the periods of the Enlightenment by the chronology of the thinkers, from Voltaire to Diderot and Rousseau, followed by Kant.[7] Further, Gay defines the Enlightenment as a movement in which ‘men …united on a vastly ambitious program, a program of secularism, humanity, cosmopolitanism, and freedom’, in a staunch rejection of organised religion in favour of progress.[8] Interestingly, Gay suggests that the philosophers of the Enlightenment formed a ‘family’, in which philosophical unity did not necessarily dictate political alignment and so there were numerous rifts within the family.[9] However, since the ‘lofty’ intellectual discussions of Peter Gay and the 1960s, academic historians have generated new ‘down-to-earth’ approaches to Enlightenment history, which attempt to locate it more precisely in terms of its geographical and social context.[10]

Robert Darnton was one of the first historians to offer a comprehensive discussion of the limitations of Gay’s work; Darnton suggests that Gay was most simply limited by his blinkered focus on the great writers of eighteenth century France – ‘for how can it be written from within the confines of even a first-rate library?’[11] Further, one cannot truly understand the culture of France’s ancien régime or how it, coupled with an insidious distaste for their monarchy, paved the way for a period of new thinkers.[12] Darnton proposes that new sources and methodology must be approached in order to enable historians to place the Enlightenment more accurately within a social and geographical context.[13] Since the work of Darnton, historians have challenged these limitations, creating histories which address the Enlightenment through different geographical perspectives, and economic structures, taking into consideration its movement through social classes and the public and private spheres. Further, historians have considered how the Enlightenment was transmitted through pamphlets, newspapers and novels, as well as its interactions with popular culture and women. Enlightenment studies continually developed from the study of great men with great ideas, to a study of the transmission of new ideas in varying cultures and contexts.

For Peter Gay and other historians of the Enlightenment, it was very much a case of studying the thinkers of eighteenth century France; Charles W. J. Withers states that Gay’s Enlightenment was ‘embodied in those Voltairean radicals’.[14] However, despite the beliefs of many 1960s historians, the Enlightenment found a home in many cities outside of Paris. Voltaire himself stated in 1733 that ‘the only people upon earth who have been able to prescribe limits to the power of Kings by resisting them’ was the English; thus is it not England that embodies a spiritual home for the history of the Enlightenment.[15] The Enlightenment was studied in a national context which provoked analysis of varying writers, the structures within each society, such as the Church and newspapers, and the transmission of ideas between states. Withers further discusses the development of the Enlightenment in a national context by highlighting the pluralisation of the term in order to avoid its unitary presuppositions. National difference has become one of the most frequent themes in Enlightenment studies, regardless of whether the discussion also concern economic, social or gender themes.[16] This is, perhaps, due to the fact that the culture and socio-political context of a single nation can have the greatest impact on the development of its history.[17]

The development of the Enlightenment in France, for example, was unique to its nation. Norman Hampson discusses how France remained powerful despite its ineffectual monarchy; France’s power instead stemmed from a ‘highly developed’ bureaucratic government, containing law courts, civil services and a largely literate public.[18] ‘The disgruntled parlements and a divided Church weakened the authority of the state’ so that ‘critical writers might find protectors amongst their disunited opponents’.[19] Hampson states that though censorship in France was theoretically strict, publication and spread of new ideas was made relatively simple by the ‘pretence of anonymity’ and the ‘manipulation of influence’.[20] Contrastingly, Naples and Palermo formed part of a kingdom in which ‘real power belonged to a landed aristocracy’.[21] Whilst the eighteenth century proved unsettled for much of Italy, factors such as Catholicism and ‘their proud cultural tradition’ kept it in close contact with other European nations.[22] The strength of their Church and theatre created what Hampson claims was a ‘complicated pattern of influences’ by which Italy allowed the ideas of a similarly-minded Paris to flow into its culture without much resistance.[23] Additionally, the Enlightenment in Spain proved to be an interesting contrast to those aforementioned; ‘despite a reforming ruler, the new ideas made very little headway in the face of clerical opposition’.[24] It is evident that placing the Enlightenment within a national context is significant in terms of gaining a full understanding of its origins and how it was accepted and adapted across the globe. These ideas have been discussed by several historians concerning a wide range of nations; Sergio Moravia addressed the Italian Enlightenment as early as 1969 and notably Roy Porter and Mikulas Teich provide a fascinating collection of essays concerning an array of nations.[25]

Alongside studying the Enlightenment in a national context, historians have also used the Enlightenment as an opportunity to study the transmission of ideas. Though the historians of the 1960s focussed on great thinkers, such as Voltaire and D’Alembert, who passed on their ideas by recording them in grand academic literary works, it has since become evident that the ideologies of the Enlightenment were more frequently shared in pamphlets, newspapers, and discussions in salons. For the literate public, the widespread availability of printed material enabled ideas to travel with speed and accuracy; Carla Hesse states 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.’[26] Historians, such as Hesse, discuss the Enlightenment in terms of how print culture affected the transmission of ideas, since it would surely not have been possibly to amass such support without ease of communication. For those less-literate, culture played a large part in the spreading of ideas. For example, in a state in which power lay in the hands of the people and not their monarchy, such as France, ideas could quickly spread by word of mouth, in lectures and meetings; Norman Hampson stated that the salons of Paris ensured quick dissemination of Enlightenment ideas.[27] Recent historians have increasingly focussed on how Enlightenment ideas came to the attention of wider audiences instead of their circulation amongst an elite few which was focussed upon by earlier historians, such as Gay.

To conclude, the original view of the Enlightenment was entirely limited. Historians of the 1960s chose to approach the Enlightenment as a unitary movement, which was led by a small group of eighteenth century French philosophers, such as Diderot and Voltaire, leaving them largely open to criticism from historians, such as Darnton, who suggest that the Enlightenment should be approached in a way which enables thorough analysis of its social and political context.[28] The historiography of the Enlightenment has much developed since this point, encompassing analyses of how ideas were transmitted, the people who became involved in the Enlightenment and the countries which it spread throughout. By taking an interest in the print culture surrounding the transmission of Enlightenment ideals and the geographical context in which these ideals were spread, historians can gain a much more thorough understanding of why these philosophical ideas became popular at this specific point in history and how this popularity differed between nations. Historians have now come to the conclusion that to use the term Enlightenment is misleading, when history abounds with many varying Enlightenments, emerging in different places at different times.

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

[2] I. Kant, An Answer to the Questions: What is Enlightenment?, (London: Penguin Books, 2013), p.1.

[3] Outram, The Enlightenment, p.1.

[4] C. Nadon, Enlightenment and Secularism: Essays on the Mobilisation of Reason, (Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2013), p.xi.

[5] A. Pagden, The Enlightenment and Why It Still Matters, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp.10-11.

[6] Outram, The Enlightenment, p.3.

[7] Ibid.

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

[9] Ibid., p.4.

[10] R. Darnton, ‘In Search of the Enlightenment: Recent Attempts to Create a Social History of Ideas’, Journal of Modern History, 43.1, (1971), pp.113-132.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] C. W. J. Withers, Placing the Enlightenment: Thinking Geographically about the Age of Reason, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), p.26.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., p.28.

[17] Ibid.

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

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Enlightenment in the National Context, R. Porter and M. Teich (eds.), (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).

Sergio Moravia, ‘An Outline of the Italian Enlightenment’, Comparative Literature Studies, 6.4, (1969), pp.380-409.

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

[27] Hampson, The Enlightenment, Chapter 1 (ebook).

[28] Darnton, ‘In Search of the Enlightenment’, JMH, (1971), pp.113-132.


In what ways do historians’ own personal experiences shape their interpretations of the past?

Alan Atkinson, in the journey to understand whether or not a ‘good historian’ should allow compassion to stain their work concluded that to not experience and project emotion is inhuman.[1] Similarly, Charles Beard’s 1935 article condemned the possibility of writing an entirely objective history, asserting that this was simply an unachievable yet ‘noble dream’.[2] Despite some academics, such as Leopold Von Ranke who will be discussed further, arguing that it is pertinent for historians to remain entirely objective in their interpretations of the past, it is widely accepted that oneself may bleed into one’s work. Whilst debates regarding whether an historian should be objective are prevalent, there exists less discussion concerning how personal experiences and opinions can affect interpretations of the past.

According to traditional hermeneutic literature, in an attempt of interpretation, an academic is in the pursuit of truth – this being an actuality and certainty within the interpreted source.[3] However, more modern considerations of the nature of interpretation, such as in the work of Ruth Lorand, suggest that interpretation is to be considered as a pursuit of desired knowledge, not truth.[4] Lorand asserts that interpretation is a deliberate act to uncover specific truths, not a general truth, thus, the interpreter dictates the nature of interpretation.[5] Being mindful of Lorand’s hermeneutic theory, it is pertinent to consider that the personal experiences and intentions of an historian will significantly shape their interpretations of the past. Personal experiences, for the purposes of this essay, will be considered as an historian’s background and upbringing, educational environment and academic influences as well as any significantly emotive personal events at any stage of life, these may include the death of a mentor, the experience of prejudice, or political upheaval in their homelands.

Historians’ own personal experiences shape their interpretations of the past largely incidentally. An historian may not hold the intention of allowing the events of their childhood and involvement with their immediate surroundings affect their account of the past, however, it is possible that this intention of objectivity is irrelevant. It is in an indirect way in which historians’ experiences shape their work. Mark Donnelly and Claire Norton, in their critique of the practice of history, argue that historians’ work is shaped by the limitations and conventions of the genre that they have chosen, their specific source collection and their intended research questions.[6] These factors are influenced by more intimate factors, such as their political alliances, personal morality, academic interests and social values, which are, in turn, impacted by an historian’s home life and environment.[7] Linda Anderson quotes Candace Lang’s assertion that all writing may be perceived as autobiographical, adding that ‘the writer is always, in the broadest sense, implicated in the work’.[8]

Leopold von Ranke argued that to allow oneself to influence how the past is interpreted in unnecessary and inappropriate; it should not be judged ‘by the historian’s own criteria’.[9] Rankean theory states that each period of history should stand alone from the rest, and in this the historian should attempt to retell it without judging the past.[10] The preoccupations of this scientific style of history, according to Green and Troup, include ‘rigorous examination and knowledge of historical evidence, verified by references’ as well as ‘impartial research’ and ‘an inductive method of reasoning’.[11] This style of historical study gained a wide following, particularly in the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, the intention of this essay is to discuss ways in which historians’ personal experiences have affected their interpretations of the past, regardless of whether or not it is appropriate for them to do so.

The life and works of Slavoj Zizek offer a particularly interesting case in terms of analysing in which ways an historian’s work is influenced by their own personal experiences. On the first page of Zizek’s introductory essay he remarks that ‘every history is a history of the present’, continuing with the explanation that ‘historiographical reception always closely mirror[s] the twists and turns of political struggles’.[12] Zizek offers that any history written, particularly that of the French Revolution, is consistently written with the influence of the current political upheavals and power conflicts in mind.[13] In times of particular conservatism, he states, the French Revolution is rejected as a catastrophic rebellion against the state, however, liberal attitudes reclaim the idea that the period was a ‘historical necessity to assert the modern principles of personal freedom’.[14] Zizek was born in Yugoslavia in 1949. This places the beginnings of his academic career within the influence of the political environment of 1970s East Europe, a time of the liberalisation of the Communist regime – a factor which would have manipulated his ideologies. The liberalisation of Communism was unwelcome in parts of Eastern Europe, since despite its oppressive nature, it ensured some sense of equality. This breakdown of equality in young Zizek’s environment may have acted as an indoctrinating factor, leading Zizek towards an anti-socialist mentality.

One area in which this experience has filtered into Zizek’s work is in his study of Maximilien Robespierre; whilst many historians, such as John Kekes who will be discussed further, are prone to criticise the motives of Robespierre in attempting to construct a Republic of Virtue, Zizek argues that Robespierre was correct in attempting to create a more moralistic society.[15] It is possible that these beliefs stem from seeing the rise of dissimilarity and inequality of income that accompanied the rise of socialism in Eastern Europe. Correspondingly, the Jacobinism of the French Revolution has been considered the beginning of Communism.[16] Being surrounded by Marxist and Communist propaganda and literature in his early academic career has shaped the way Zizek has interpreted Robespierre’s role in the French Revolution. In discussing Robespierre, Zizek references Marx’s assertion that without virtue and terror, there is simply corruption.[17] Perhaps due to Zizek’s early life being influenced by Communism, he was directed to Marxist literature and as a result has interpreted Robespierre’s career in light of his own personal influences. Zizek also frequently discusses the nature of belief within the context of Marxism and Hegelianism in his 2001 book.[18] This interpretation of the past is clearly shaped by Zizek’s research interests, which can be traced back to his political environment in youth.

Another valuable case study is American historian and philosopher John Kekes’ interpretation of Robespierre’s motives during the French Revolution. Due to Kekes’ extensive philosophical knowledge and experience, it is appropriate that Kekes would approach the topic of the French Revolution with a significantly different stance to Zizek. With the opening lines of his 2006 article on the subject, Kekes admits that he is unusual in being an American academic that is unfavourable to the history of the French Revolution, since America was ‘itself born in revolution’.[19] However, Kekes maintains that Robespierre was a terrorist who sought little more than power by way of unjustifiable massacres.[20] He discusses the idea that people who defend Robespierre with the argument that he wholeheartedly believed it was moral and correct to pursue a Republic of Virtue by any means necessary are misguided.[21]

Kekes states that any defence of Robespierre would prove equivalent to tolerating the crimes of any terrorist or Nazi supposing that they were truly fanatical about their cause.[22] As a man of religious and philosophical background, it is not unexpected that Kekes’ interpretation of the past would take into great consideration debates of human morality and ethics. In his book, The Roots of Evil, Kekes places great emphasis on providing an interpretation of events in history with the intention of analysing the events in terms of philosophical and ethical protocol. For instance, in his discussion of Robespierre Kekes denounces Robespierre’s claim to morality and virtue stating that he did not intend to provide equality for all, simply those he approved of.[23] Kekes argues that it is the pursuit of terror and inflicting pain and suffering beyond which is necessary to achieve an end that is decisively evil, and Robespierre’s pursuit of virtue surpassed any appropriate measure of terror for righteous means.[24]

Contrastingly, Marisa Linton is a modern, British historian who, perhaps influenced by a conservative British culture, would be more drawn to a revisionist style of writing. British historical studies, dating from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, are traditionally empirical in their approach; concepts of scientific methods of enquiry originating in the Enlightenment influenced social studies. Green and Troup state that with this newfound ‘professionalism for historical study came an emphasis upon systematic archival research.’[25] Historical revisionism, with its foundations in the reinterpretations of orthodox views by reanalysing evidence, is very much a rebirth of this style of interpretation. Typical to a more conservative historical analysis, Linton asserts that Robespierre was a terrorist with motives against traditional government, however, this is delivered in a revised style. Linton suggests that Robespierre was simply a scapegoat for the more powerful terrorists within government due to his public image.[26] Linton does not deny that Robespierre was part of the Terror, or even that he did hold some authority in the revolution, however, she does state that Robespierre had a ‘dream of a virtuous republic’ suggesting that he was unlike the other men in the committees in both character and ambition.[27] This is a relatively new interpretation of a much discussed field of history.

Additionally, Linton’s frequent use of primary sources would highlight a predilection for empirical, revisionist histories that are popular with British historians. In one essay concerning Robespierre, Linton frequently references contemporary sources, such as Robespierre’s speeches and the works of Saint-Just; for instance, in her discussion of Robespierre’s pre-Revolution works.[28] In her wider range of works on the Terror period of the French Revolution, Linton criticises the politicians’ influence in inciting fear, suggesting that such governmental corruption was an inevitably catastrophic course. Such a standing is typical of a British historian due to the custom of checks and balances present in the British political system and the long tradition of a strong constitutional monarchy. In this way, Linton’s personal upbringing and environment have affected the way in which she interprets the past.

Hampson suggests, as does Linton, that Robespierre’s political influence was more than likely overstated by fellow politicians who had held major roles in the Terror in an attempt to avoid ridicule and reprimand from the surviving victims of the Terror.[29] In a similar vein to Linton, though writing much earlier, Norman Hampson was one of the earliest revisionist historians to write about the French Revolution. Donnelly and Norton argue that each new wave of history on a particular subject is, in a progressive manner, part of an unending improvement process; with the development of revisionism in the study of the French Revolution, Hampson brought a new interpretation through a new use of the sources.[30] This is likely associated with the time of his writing. Whilst Linton is developing an existing school of historical study in her work, Hampson’s writing on the topic began in the 1960s. Following the mid-century studies of the causation of the French Revolution decidedly viewing it as a successful bourgeois revolution, further research in the 1960s by historians, such as Francois Furet, developed the theory of causation to where it stands today. Norman Hampson was part of a generation of historians that expanded the discussions of the French Revolution into a series of complex social questions and debates regarding the relationships between internal and external warfare alongside economic crisis as part of the beginning of the revolution. In this manner, Hampson’s interpretations of the past were shaped by his academic influences and experiences, which came from his colleagues and the natural progression of the study of history.

To conclude, it is evident, therefore, that there exist many ways in which an historian’s interpretation of the past can be shaped by their personal experiences. One of the most significant ways in which personal experience can affect the work of an academic is through their childhood and upbringing. Most significantly their political and cultural environments. Zizek is a prime example of an historian whose academic career was largely influenced by his upbringing in Eastern Europe and his resulting political affiliations. In reaching adulthood in a politically-charged environment, with a sense of revolution and radicalism filling the hearts of all young academics, it was inevitable that Zizek would turn to the less conservative works of Marx, Engels and Lacan to inspire his interpretations of history. Contrastingly, it is anticipated that the works of a middle-class, white British woman would offer a more conservative interpretation of the period. Marisa Linton has sought influence from a subconscious comparison of the relative peaceful and uncorrupted modern Britain; in doing so, Linton is typically offended by the blatant corruption and savagery of revolutionary France.

Offering significant dissimilarity, Hampson and Kekes are more greatly influenced by their academic experiences that their cultural or political environments. Hampson’s work is strongly affected by the natural progression of the subject as it gains new evidence and researchers. With the development of historical revisionism, Hampson’s career – and, as a result, his interpretations of the past – followed a specific set of guidelines that fit within this new field of history. Equally, Kekes’ works and interpretations of the past are largely restricted by the limitations of his genre. Kekes’ research intentions, in his analysis of Robespierre, were to understand the events of the French Revolution within the confinements of understanding human morality and philosophical righteousness. It is clear that Kekes’ interpretation of the past has been significantly shaped by his background as an academic and professor of philosophy.

[1] A. Atkinson, ‘Do Good Historians Have Feelings?’, in S. Macintyre (ed.), The Historian’s Conscience: Australian Historians on the Ethics of History, (Victoria: Melbourne University Press, 2004), p.26.

[2] C. Beard, ‘That Noble Dream’, The American Historical Review, 41.1 (1935), pp. 74-87.

[3] R. Lorand, ‘The Logic of Interpretation’, in P. Machamer and G. Wolters (eds.), Interpretation: Ways of Thinking about the Sciences and the Arts, (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010), pp.16-29.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] M. Donnelly and C. Norton, Doing History, (Oxon: Routledge, 2011), p.93.

[7] Ibid.

[8] L. Anderson, Autobiography, 2nd ed. (Oxon: Routledge, 2011), p.1.

[9] A. Green and K. Troup, The Houses of History: A Critical Reader in Twentieth-Century History and Theory, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999), p.2-3.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Zizek, Robespierre, p.vii.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] S. Zizek, Robespierre: Virtue and Terror, (London: Verso, 2007), pp.vii-xxxix.

[16] W. H. Chamberlain, ‘The Jacobin Ancestry of Soviet Communism’, Russian Review, 17.4 (1958), pp.251-257.

[17] Zizek, Robespierre, p.ix.

[18] S. Zizek, On Belief,  (London: Routledge, 2001), pp.1-5.

[19] J. Kekes, ‘Why Robespierre Chose Terror’, City Journal, 16.2 (2006), p.92-103.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] J. Kekes, The Roots of Evil, (New York: Cornell University Press, 2005), p.37.

[24] Kekes, The Roots of Evil, pp.1-2.

[25] Green and Troup, The Houses of History, p.1.

[26] M. Linton, ‘Robespierre and the Terror’, History Today, 56.8 (2006), pp.23-29.

[27] Ibid.

[28] M. Linton, ‘Robespierre’s Political Principles’, in C. Haydon and W. Doyle (eds), Robespierre, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p.44.

[29] N. Hampson, ‘Robespierre and the Terror’, in C. Haydon and W. Doyle (eds), Robespierre, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p.173.

[30] Donnelly and Norton, Doing History, p.94.


Summary of Stefan Berger’s “History and national identity: why they should remain divorced”

(One of my first university pieces)

Stefan Berger’s article is intrinsically critical of historiographic nationalism in its description of the development of this over the past few centuries. It explores the ideas of patriotism and implores that a separation between national history and national identity is key, though this is often confused or ignored.

Berger begins introducing the idea that national history and national identity have long been associated as a simple matter of political pride; this is evident in Gordon Brown’s concern for a lack of so-called ‘Britishness’. However, as the late eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries demonstrate with the nationalist swing to the American and French revolutions, the idea of historiographic nationalism was born largely liberal, only developing its right wing agenda towards the late-nineteenth-early-twentieth centuries. At this point in time we see an event of what Berger refers to as ‘hyper-nationalism’[1], an event that sees nationalism associate itself with decades of violence, war and genocide in early twentieth century Europe.

Moving on, Berger discusses the slight lack of distinction between east and west Europe in terms of their attitude towards historiographic nationalism, though it is notable that some parts of Europe have a more distinct understanding of the relationship between their national history and identity. In this, the independence of the state highlights the issue of the nation and national agenda, as in post-Soviet states. Subsequently, political commentators have been led to question whether devolution in nations such as Britain will allow for a more comprehensive appreciation of historiographic nationalism despite the fact that even some modern historians openly promote it.

Intellectual development over time has directed perspectives on historiographic nationalism to change; from the Enlightenment historians who wrote to map trends in human development to the Romantic historians of the early nineteenth century who were more concerned with the development of specific countries in their progression to creating a national identity. Originally, efforts to write local or global histories failed to achieve great substance on their own due to the resounding importance of nationalism in issues such as class, religion and race and indeed the way that these histories were written.  However, attempts to avoid a nationalistic approach to history have vastly accelerated in progress since the 1980s.

As well as the growing transnationalisation of historical writing, the growth of constructivism proved hugely important. Expansion in the study of deliberate creation of a national identity for a political agenda curbed the significance of nationalism as an academic standing. Furthermore, the existence of new fields in history exacerbated the decline in nationalism; progression in world history, historical anthropology, gender studies and comparative histories all played a part in this. Particularly fields such as women’s history took off in the late twentieth century providing a new perspective on history that did not concern national interests but looked at history in two parts – the role of the male and the corresponding role of the female. Similarly, comparative historical writing has progressed to allow historians to take a step away from bias in the form of nationalism.

To conclude the article, Berger sums up his argument with some key arguments. Firstly, that the developments in historiographic nationalism mean that historians are less prone to promote nationalism despite the fact that it remains unquestionably popular. Secondly, that politicians would be astute to leave nationalism in the political past due to its history of exclusion and consequently unspeakable violence and war – alluding that Gordon Brown’s concern with Britishness is somewhat misguided. Finally, a proposal that focus on projects such as Third World development and global environment protection is the key to ignoring nationalist agendas and ultimately progressing to a world of greater solidarity.

[1] Stefan Berger, “History and national identity: why they should remain divorced”, (December 2007) <http://www.historyandpolicy.org/policy-papers/papers/history-and-national-identity-why-they-should-remain-divorced&gt; [accessed 10th October 2013]

The Value of a History Degree in 510 Words

Ever-expanding and constantly under criticism for being ‘irrelevant’ to modern society, History is one of the most all-encompassing academic subjects; there is little that can be excluded from its studies. Forever delving further into the depths of time and the recesses of the past allows its students to develop critical research skills that are beneficial in every career path. Its fluidity between Medias permits an expanse of ingenuity to radiate creativity and inspiration across all access points and its simplistic accessibility drives all generations to take part in History. Furthermore, as a subject of study, History is significantly pleasurable in comparison to more strenuous academic paths; this is not to say that History is any less serious at degree level as it can prove infinitely more difficult to master given its magnitude. It must be maintained that History allows a greater breadth of study that is frequently undertaken in and outside of the academic circles.

The study of History is self-absorbed; it emphasises heritage and insists that we explore our own history, since it would be nearly impossible to discover the past without discovering yourself. Arguably, this is the stem of its importance and popularity. Extensively rewarding, heritage studies allows you to explore your own existence at a time where the concept of existential dilemmas, fuelled by the expanding culture of belief in science not religion, fill the world of cinema and literature; although debatably questioning the mystery of man’s existence is timeless.

Contrary to this, I am enthusiastic about studying history because it combines my passion for more modern social sciences with an interest in research and analytical frame of mind that benefits any career path. History provides its students with the opportunity to develop an objective state of mind gained from being able to distance oneself from events; this is beneficial in theoretical and practical analysis in both biological and social sciences as it matures a largely under-appreciated skill, the ability to think. Additionally, the ways that History craves to be retold and reassessed draws us to improve our own communication skills so that we can do justice to the grandeur of the past.

History’s value for me lies in its competence for encouraging constant self-improvement; as well as the talents that are to be gained from its study, looking at the epic events of the bygone times inspires apathetic individuals to ‘make a difference’ to their world. Often the excitement of the modern world can overwhelm people, leading to a general sense of apathy and the idea that you are one lonely person in a constant and unsleeping world; much like the existence of political apathy due to media overkill, frequent most in American presidential elections. However, History is stimulating. It provides example after example of ‘good’ conquering ‘evil’ and of the everyday man changing an entire generation of inventing technology to revolutionise an age. It is this inspiration that I can only hope to instil in the future citizens as I embark on my dream of educating children and feeding a new generation’s thirst for knowledge.