Both the French Revolution and the American Revolution before it were inspired by ideas from the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment (sometimes referred to as the Age of Enlightenment) was an intellectual movement that began in western Europe in the mid-1600s and continued until the late 18th century. The Enlightenment was driven by scepticism about traditional ideas and beliefs, curiosity and a desire for intellectual progress. Enlightenment thinkers and writers challenged existing knowledge and assumptions, seeking new information and a better understanding of humanity and the natural world. Most Enlightenment thinkers were empiricists: they expected new discoveries to meet certain standards of proof and verifiability before being accepted as fact. To achieve this, they developed a new system of thinking and investigation, the beginnings of what we now call the ‘scientific method’. Before the Enlightenment, knowledge was largely derived from religious teachings, supposition and the writings of ancient forebears. During and after the Enlightenment, knowledge was produced by scientific processes, logic and reasoning.
Today we know the Enlightenment for its scientific thinkers and their wonderful discoveries. In Italy, Galileo Galilei (1654-1742) developed an improved type of telescope that brought advances in astronomy. In the American colonies, Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) conducted a series of experiments involving electricity, battery power and lightning, the most famous involving Franklin flying a kite in the middle of an electrical storm. In Britain, men like Isaac Newton (1642-1727) made significant contributions to the fields of mathematics and physics, most notably Newton’s theory of gravity, which according to legend was inspired by a falling apple. Other notables of the scientific Enlightenment included Francis Bacon, René Descartes, Edmond Halley, William Herschel, Robert Hooke and Antonie van Leeuwenhoek. Though they operated in different fields, these men sought scientific explanations to natural phenomena, where previous information had come from religion and folklore.
Scrutinising society, government and power
The Enlightenment was not just concerned with the physical sciences. While scientists were exploring and questioning the natural world, others questioned the nature of humanity and human society. They gave particular scrutiny to the nature of government and political power. Previously, rulers had legitimised their power and authority through the doctrine of ‘divine right’. They claimed that political power was a divine responsibility, a gift given to them by God. In Europe, the Catholic church supported the notion of divine right by disseminating it among ordinary people. Because the power of kings and emperors came from God, it was beyond challenge; to engage in rebellion or disloyalty against one’s king was to disobey the will of God. The French king Louis XIV (1638-1715), great-grandfather of the doomed Louis XVI, was a devoutly religious leader who worked to expand and strengthen the doctrine of divine right in France.
Enlightenment philosophers began to question and challenge these archaic political beliefs. The men who did this were not revolutionaries or radical democrats; they had no wish to destroy the authority of kings and governments or to level social hierarchies. Nevertheless, they did not believe that political power emanated from God. In their view, governments existed to guard the nation, to protect the people and to secure their individual rights. The English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was in favour of a strong government and absolutist monarchy; this type of government, Hobbes believed, was necessary to protect its citizens. Another Englishman, John Locke (1632-1704), argued that every individual was born with three inherent rights (life, liberty and property). These views about the relationship between government power and individual rights formed the theory of a ‘social contract’. In France, the best-known exponent of this theory was Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78).
The Enlightenment in France
The political Enlightenment differed from country to country and was shaped by local conditions and grievances. In France, the Enlightenment began to take shape in the early 1700s, reaching its peak by the middle of the century. The writers of the French Enlightenment were referred to as philosophes (‘philosophers’). Their number included Denis Diderot, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Guillaume-Thomas Raynal, Baron de Montesquieu and François-Marie Arouet (Voltaire). Politically, most of these philosophes were concerned with two issues: how to improve French law and government and how to create a society based on reason, logic and merit. Some philosophes looked for ideas abroad, particularly in England. Montesquieu’s conception of the ‘separation of powers’, for example, was largely derived from the British political system. Voltaire spent three years in voluntary exile in England and later praised its democratic processes, its rule of law, its freedoms of religion and speech and its lack of arbitrary arrests and imprisonment. This stood in striking contrast to France, where royal power was often used to silence or punish critics, dissidents and free thinkers.
Voltaire and some others aside, most Enlightenment thinkers did not engage in attacks or sustained criticism of the Catholic church. Most philosophes were Christian deists, not atheists. They maintained a belief in God but considered him a more benign figure than the vengeful, interventionist God of the Old Testament. The analogy favoured by some was that God was a ‘cosmic watchmaker’, an all-powerful deity who had constructed the universe but left it to run according to natural laws. This reimagining of God, along with other tenets of the Enlightenment, was criticised by the Catholic church. Theological opposition to the Enlightenment was hardly surprising. For centuries the church had served as Europe’s largest repository of wisdom and knowledge. The political Enlightenment challenged the church’s stranglehold over knowledge, information and education. It also threatened the privileges and protections it enjoyed from the state.
An upsurge in thinking, discussion and debate
Margaret C. Jacob
The Enlightenment had a profound effect on the ideology of the French Revolution. Most of the notable Enlightenment philosophes were dead long before the fiscal crisis of the 1780s. Many of their writings pre-dated the revolution by decades (Diderot’s first Encyclopedie was published in 1752, Voltaire’s Letters on England in 1734, Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws in 1748). No significant Enlightenment texts predicted or suggested a revolution in France. Nevertheless, the Enlightenment created an ideological context for revolution. Its political treatises triggered a wave of discussion and debate, some of it organised and formalised in France’s salons and circles. This upsurge of political ideas created an environment where questioning and criticising the old order was not only possible, it was expected. Importantly, the political philosophy of the Enlightenment stripped away much of the magic and mystique of the Ancien Régime. The Bourbon kings were no longer seen as representatives of God, they were simply men. France’s social hierarchies and inequalities were stripped of their ideological defences. According to the ideas of the Enlightenment, the ordinary people were born not only with rights but the right to expect better government. It was on this platform of ideas and assumptions that the French Revolution was constructed.
1. The Enlightenment was a long period of intellectual curiosity, scientific investigation and political debate. It began in western Europe in the mid 17th century and continued until the end of the 18th century.
2. The Enlightenment was marked by a refusal to accept old knowledge, ideas and suppositions. Enlightenment writers and thinkers preferred to use logic, reason, experimentation and observation to reach conclusions.
3. The political Enlightenment examined the nature of human society, government and power. It also questioned the relationship between the state and individuals, who were assumed to be born with natural rights.
4. In France, the Enlightenment emerged in the early 1700s and was driven by writers and intellectuals called philosophes. Among their number were men like Denis Diderot, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire.
5. The philosophes of the French Enlightenment were mostly dead by the late 1700s so did not play a direct role in the revolution. Their ideas and writings lived on, however, stimulating discussion, sparking curiosity and creating an environment where revolutionary ideas could emerge and flourish.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn and S. Thompson, “The Enlightenment”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date], https://alphahistory.com/frenchrevolution/enlightenment/.