Term Paper: Enlightenment on the French Revolution

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[. . .] Later, in 1748, Montesquieu published a book called Spirit of Laws, which presented a "comparative political analysis of the conditions most favorable to liberty," according to LEF:EFR's research.

Yet another major 17th Century contributor to what was later to be called The Enlightenment was Rene Descartes, who made famous the phrase, "I think, therefore I am." Descartes, however, while he attempted to use reason in defense of Christianity, "committed so many logical faults that his successors over the centuries were to slowly disintegrate his gains," Brians asserts.

Enlightenment Heavyweights: Voltaire vs. Rousseau

And as the 17th Century evolved into the 18th Century, philosophers like Voltaire emerged; while taking the position that tyranny and dogma were bad for civilization, and that educated and sophisticated people could help bring dramatic change and improve the conditions of the world, he nonetheless dined with and blended in with existing aristocracy, the social group most responsible for championing tyranny and dogma.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, on the other hand, did not trust aristocrats, because he believed they betrayed decent human values, and instead he argued for changes that were in line with a democratic revolution. While Voltaire argued that equality was not possible, Rousseau's argument was that inequality was unnatural and made good government an impossibility. While Voltaire was a charming personality and insisted on the "supremacy of the intellect," according to Brians, Rousseau was said to be quite the "ponderous" person and emphasized the emotional aspects of the human condition. Rousseau was also a man who "reacted against the artificiality and corruption of the social customs and institutions of the times" (Fieser 2001, 2). Further, Rousseau "was a keen thinker, and was equipped with the weapons of the philosophical century and with an inspiring eloquence." Still, notwithstanding his shining qualities, Rousseau, according to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, displayed "a pronounced egotism," was a "self-seeking" and "arrogant" man, which "led to bitter antagonism against his revolutionary views and sensitive personality" (Fieser 2001, 2).

Rousseau's well-known Social Contract of 1762 - which is alluded to as the "textbook" of the French Revolution - took the ideas of Montesquieu a step further and argued that government was by nature obliged to see to it that "the assembled people" determine their own destinies. The notion that there were divine rights, or that clergy or tradition should guide government, was foreign to Rousseau, albeit Rousseau said very little about "rights" in his writings. In fact, his Social Contract, surprisingly, did not guarantee rights for French citizens, an omission for which he was roundly criticized through the years, albeit Rousseau did champion the rights of a community to steer its own course. Voltaire, on the other hand, made a reputation for himself by defending those individuals who had been persecuted for their opinions on religion.

Rousseau's Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789)

The "textbook" of the revolution, penned by Rousseau, and written in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence in the American colonies, was approved by the National Assembly of France on August 26, 1789. In its preamble (Yale Law School 2003), the document asserts that the "ignorance, neglect, or contempt of the rights of man are the sole cause of public calamities and the corruption of governments" - and therefore, a new definition of the rights of mankind must be spelled out. The opening paragraph also demanded that "the acts of the legislative power, as well as those of the executive power, may be compared at any moment" with the purpose of all "political institutions," and therefore, may "thus be more respected." Moreover, the "grievances of the citizens" shall be tended to by the government's constitution and "redound to the happiness of all."

Given the enormous impact of this declaration on The Enlightenment's power to influence the revolution, this paper will summarize the document's seventeen articles: 1) "Men are born and remain free and equal in rights"; 2) the rights of man are "liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression"; 3) all power resides in the nation; 4) liberty is defined as the freedom to do "everything which injures no one else" 5) the only actions laws can prohibit are those "hurtful to society"; 6) all citizens have an equal opportunity to contend for occupations and public positions; 7) there will be no false arrests and imprisonments; 8) laws will proscribe only punishments which are "strictly and obviously necessary"; 9) citizens are innocent until proven guilty; 10) religious views cannot be punished; 11) the "free communication" of opinions is "one of the most precious of the rights of man"; 12) military forces are for the good of all, not for the personal advantage of any leader; 13) taxes should be fair; 14) citizens have the right to know how their taxes are used; 15) public officials are accountable; 16) laws and power must be carefully defined; 17) no one can be denied the right to own property; property is an "inviolable and sacred right."

Meanwhile, it did matter that Rousseau and Voltaire, two giants of 18th Century enlightened thinking, disagreed and often contradicted one another, they were, as a team of great French philosophers, nonetheless elected to the Pantheon (on October 12, 1793), when the likes of Descartes and other philosophers were rejected by the revolutionary assemblies (Chartier 1991, 88). And Chartier goes on to discuss how much the writing of Rousseau inspired one of the French Revolution's heroes, Maximilien Robespierre; Chartier quotes from a discourse of Robespierre on May 7, 1794: "Among those who, in the times I speak of, stood out in the career of letters and philosophy, one man [Rousseau], by the elevation of his soul and by the grandeur of his character, showed himself worthy of the ministry as preceptor of human-kind." And the quote continued, "Ah! If he had been witness to this revolution whose precursor he was...who can doubt that his generous soul would have embraced with transport the cause of justice and equality!"

Rousseau's partner in the Pantheon, Voltaire, had the following inscription engraved on the sarcophagus which contained his remains: "He combated atheists and fanatics, he demanded the rights of man against the servitude of feudalism; Poet Historian Philosopher, he enlarged the human spirit and taught it that it must be free."

The Enlightenment's Direct Impact on the Revolution

Author Roger Chartier's book, The Cultural Origins of the French Revolution (Chartier 1991, xiii), maintains that the actual impact of The Enlightenment on the French Revolution is still, after more than two hundred years, an open question, worthy of and in need of discussion. The "tensions and contradictions" of the commemoration of the revolution "...are nourished by the tensions and contradictions of historical interpretation," his book's Introduction offers. Further, he asks: "Is it certain that the Enlightenment must be characterized exclusively... As a corpus of self-contained, transparent ideas or as a set of clear and distinct propositions?" (page 17). Author Chartier goes on to assert that the ideas put forward by Rousseau, Voltaire, et al., did more than help spawn a revolution; they actually "led to the emergence of a new conceptual and social reality: public opinion." And when public opinion - using the Chartier definition: the "circulation of thoughts or cultural models" as a dynamic process - reached the point that most non-nobility citizens agreed that the Old Regime was not responsive to citizen needs, the basis for the revolution had been established.

Meanwhile, the Enlightenment certainly established its dynamic intellectual leaders, notably Voltaire, Montesquieu, Rousseau, among others. They pressed for "reason" and "liberty" - according to LEF:EFR - and they attempted to apply the methods which were gleaned from the scientific revolution to the general problems of society. The knowledge of how to create a better, more just society could come only from "the careful study of actual conditions and the application of an individual's reason," not from "religious inspiration" or "traditional beliefs." And for the Enlightenment leaders, when they said "liberty," they meant freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and freedom from unreasonable government actions such as torture, censorship, and more. The French Monarchy and the Roman Catholic Church tried their best to ban the writings of Rousseau, Montesquieu, and Voltaire, but the influence of these writers spread throughout not only France, but Europe as well.

And when The Enlightenment's above-mentioned superstars, in particular Rousseau, created the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, it was the common sense marriage of two points-of-view coming together in one document. One point-of-view was from the Anglo-American tradition of individual liberties backed up by constitutional guarantees; the other was based on The Enlightenment's thrust that reason above all should be the guide when it comes to the affairs of human beings.

And even though the likes of Rousseau, Voltaire, and others were not among the ranks of the warriors of the revolution - with weapons at the ready to spill blood - the language of "reform… [END OF PREVIEW]

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