Enlightenment and Its Effects on the French Revolution Thesis

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¶ … Enlightenment and the French Revolution

The Enlightenment represents a period of intellectual advancement characterized by a burgeoning espousal of secularism, humanity, and freedom from the late sixteenth century to the advent of the French Revolution (Gay; Outram; Cassirer). While there is no clear consensus with regard to when the Enlightenment began, its culmination was unequivocally as an impetus for the French Revolution, which advanced fundamental changes in individuals' personal freedoms and liberties as a result of the principles of Enlightenment philosophy (Gay; Outram; Lefebvre; Rude). Among the influential philosophers of the Enlightenment period were John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Francois-Marie Arouet, Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brede et de Montesquieu, Thomas Hobbes and Denis Diderot (Outram; Gay; Cassirer). Immanuel Kant, the Prussian eighteen century philosopher described the Enlightenment as "man's emergence from his self-imposed immaturity" and that the enlightenment exhibited during this period was congruous with true freedom and intellectual discourse which was not stymied by the restrictions and impositions of immaturity and oppression, as in early eras (Gay).

The Enlightenment and France

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Interpretation of the Enlightenment period is often posthumous in nature, as the period itself was rather an "unorganized coalition" of critics, skeptics and reformers (Gay). However, what is remarkable is the high level of concordance and harmony amongst these disparate intellectuals. Their views and beliefs advanced the underpinnings of widespread freedom in multiple forms that would eventually launch the political reform of the French Revolution (Gay) and induce an abrupt end to the Enlightenment era. There discourse was not without clash and intellectual debate, however, the extraordinary consistency in general intellectual pursuit that emphasized the power of reasoning is a fundamental characteristic that defines the uniqueness and importance of the Enlightenment period (Cassirer; Outram).

Thesis on Enlightenment and Its Effects on the French Revolution Assignment

Within France, the Enlightenment occurred slightly later than other regions of the world and is considered by some to be a rejoinder to the decadence and corruption of the French Monarchy during the early seventeenth century (Church). As a result, social discontent fulminated into political and philosophical ideology leading to the advent of the Enlightenment (Outram) and eventual emergence of the French philosophes.

The philosophes of the Enlightenment were a formally disconnected, though intellectually unified, contingencies of thinkers who challenged the norms and mores of period through novel discourse (Church; Cassirer). Unified by an espousal of beliefs in personal liberty and intellectual reasoning, the philosophes provided the force behind the Enlightenment movement. Among the thinkers of this period were Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Diderot.

A primary target of the nascent philosophical discourse within France was the Catholic Church, whose beliefs and traditions were perceived as backward, antiquated, and oppressive (Gay; Outram). As a result, many philosophes delivered direct polemics against the established doctrines of the Catholic church. Specifically, main issues of contention were the perception that the Church was purposefully evoking fear within the public in an effort to control and extort them via mandatory tithes and voluntary donations. The self-indulgent and debauched lifestyle of many Church officials was also inharmonious with the teachings of the Church and lead to a widespread antagonism by French philosophes. The philosophes themselves were not necessarily adverse to religious belief or belief in God or a higher power, rather their argument was one of personal freedom instituted as a fundamental right of every human being.


Francois-Marie Arouet, best known by the pen name Voltaire, is perhaps one of the best well-known philosophers and writers of the French Enlightenment period, known for his fervent intellectual and scholarly achievements in the defense of civil and religious freedoms (Torrey)(Cassirer; Torrey)

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. Inspired by the thinkers John Locke and Isaac Newton, Arouet was an enthusiastic contrarian in the realm of political and religious discourse . While Francois-Marie Arouet was a deist in nature, he staunchly opposed the organization of religion and the Catholic Church, which to him represented an abject corruption of religious thought. Similarly, Arouet expressed a moderate disdain for the Bible, Islam, and Mohammed (Gay; Cassirer).

Arouet, however, was no so progressive as to embrace full democracy within the sphere of governance and public power (Torrey; Cassirer). He perceived the unenlightened public and rife with ignorance and potentially dangerous if given too substantial power. Rather, Arouet believed an enlightened despotic regime would be sufficient to protect the civil rights and liberties of the public. Among Arouet's most well-known goals were the desire for fair trial and freedom of religion and he was an untiring supporter of political and social reform up until his death in 1778 (Torrey; Gay; Cassirer).


Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brede et de Montesquieu was a French philosopher and political reformist best known for his avid support for the separation of powers within the government, specifically the administrative powers of the executive, judicial and legislative elements of government (Torrey; Cassirer). One of Montesquieu's most influential and important bodies of work was the Spirit of Laws, which emphasized the importance of this separation of powers within the process of governance. Montesquieu was also an accomplished anthropologist with regard to human society and government, classifying and delineating an assortment of government forms, and was an oppositionist to slavery and the curtailment of human rights.

While Montesquieu was predominantly for the institutions of democracy, he believed that no form of governance was fundamentally superior to another, but rather each form was inherently apposite for given regions, times, and circumstances (Torrey; Cassirer). This conception appeared to be more of a theoretical pursuit and less of a practical one, and as result, it is intertwined with the importance of Montesquieu's accomplishments in providing the value of reasoning and intellectual pursuit in the attainment of better citizenry and government rule (Torrey; Cassirer; Gay)

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Jean Jacques Rousseau was a political philosopher who altered the contemporary political thought and whose idea's would posthumously become utilized during the French Revolution and radicalized during the subsequent Reign of Terror (Torrey; Cassirer; Church; Gay). Rousseau's most important work within the political sphere was the publication of the Social Contract, which represented a delineation of human society and law, but also made contributions in philosophical understanding of man, morality, and the purposes of science (Torrey; Cassirer). The role of society and morality propagated by Rousseau would ultimately provide momentum for the radicalized and violent upheaval of the Reign of Terror and be proffered as justification and rationalization for a variety of atrocities during this subsequent time period (Torrey; Israel; Church; Cassirer).


Denis Diderot was an eminent French philosophical thinker whose various contributions to the development and advancement of the Enlightment included the assemblage of the work Encyclopedie and the creation of critical plays and literary works which challenged the affected conventions of contemporary French art (Torrey; Cassirer). Encyclopedie was an ambitious attempt to unify and coalesce human knowledge within the fields of arts and sciences for widespread human consumption and was ultimately comprised of twenty-eight individual volumes (Torrey; Cassirer; Church). Diderot's efforts to included appending additional philosophical viewpoints of well-known thinkers during the period, such as Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu, and as a result fomented significant attacks on its veracity and legitimacy. However, the Encyclopedie would ultimately become the prominent vector for spreading intellectual and philosophical discourse throughout France and Europe (Torrey; Cassirer). The Encyclopedie's presentation of knowledge and ideas was concordant with the theme of the Enlightenment, providing individuals with the knowledge, power, and freedom to engage in personal and philosophical reasoning (Cassirer).

End of the Enlightenment and Advent of the French Revolution

The political discourse and general discontent of the French populace resulting from the widespread intellectual and philosophical exchange of ideas during the Enlightenment engendered a subsequent period of political and governmental reform known as the French Revolution, thus marking an end to Enlightenment and the beginning to a hostile and painful era of restructuring (Gay; Outram; Church).

The French Revolution represented a violent upheaval of political and social organization within France and represented a practical attempt at realizing the political and philosophical virtues of the Enlightenment, including an attainment of representative governance and rights (Rude; Church). The French Revolution also represented a significant shift in the paradigms of the Catholic Church as a result of progressive subjugation via governmental authority (Rude). A significant drive for the institution of deism was also a result of appropriating Rosseau's views on religion and pantheistic deism (Torrey; Cassirer; Church; Outram).

The spread of popular sovereignty throughout France lead to civil unrest and violent uprising against what was perceived as a tyrannical monarchy, eventually leading to the abolishment of feudalism and the progression toward a constitution which would afford specific rights and the development of a constitutional monarchy (Rude; Church). The constitutional monarchy, however, would effectively fail as a result general incompetence and lead to the subsequent institution of a republic via the National Convention of France in 1792 (Rude). Symbolic of the transition from monarchy to republic, the Convention voted to execute King Louis XVI for his perceived role in constraining public liberties (Rude).


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