Historians have divergent views about the role of French philosophers towards the outbreak of the French Revolution. Some hold the philosopher responsible for the Revolution. They caused the Revolution with their writings. But this view is not acceptable. The Revolution was the outcome of the realities of the political, social, and economic situation. As one historian has pointed out rightly, “To say that the French philosophers caused the Revolution is to put the cart before the horse.” Therefore, we may point out the role of French Philosophers in the French Revolution.
The Role of French Philosophers in the French Revolution
The role of the French phil0sophers in the French Revolution is not minimized by such observation. They played a great role in preparing the field for the Revolution. They did not cause the Revolution but through their powerful writings, they created an intellectual awakening in France without which the Revolution would not have come there in 1789. The philosophers supplied the intellectual cause of stimulation and inspiration that are needed to ignite the spark of Revolution.
Further, the political and social Revolution in France was preceded by a mental revolution, a revolution in the realm of ideas. In fact, France was fortunate to have in the 18th century a galaxy of philosophers and writers who were critical of the existing political and social system.
They exposed brilliantly the political and social abuses of the Ancient Regime and suggested some ways and means for a better order of things. Their writings create a profound impression upon the minds of the people. Especially among the educated and enlightened middle class who got political education and became aware of their rights, duties, and responsibilities.
The writings of the philosophers opened the eyes of the people. They make them conscious of their sufferings due to autocratic rule and unjust social system. Therefore, we may examine here the role of French Philosophers towards the French Revolution and some prominent French philosophers like Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau, and others and see how far their influence was felt in the origin of the French Revolution.
The intellectual revolt in France started with Montesquieu (1689-1755). He was a lawyer as well as a student of natural science. A nobleman by birth, Montesquieu had no sympathy for his country’s political and social institutions. He was deeply influenced by English culture and political institutions.
Nevertheless, he was a brilliant political scientist. After his visit to England, he wrote a book “The Spirit of the Laws” with twenty years of hard labor. In this book which is regarded as his masterpiece, he openly attacked absolute monarchy in France and rejected the theory of “Divine Right” upheld by Louis XIV and his successors.
He prescribed for France a constitutional monarchy of the British type. He was pleaded for separation of powers and held that the three organs of the government, i.e. the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary should be separated from one another, and one person or party should not hold all the three powers. Montesquieu wanted to safeguard the rights and individual freedom of the people.
In fact, the French middle class who wanted a share in the government were greatly inspired by the writings of Montesquieu. They were the spokesmen of the third Estate and they demanded that France should be governed by a written constitution.
When the states-general met on 5th May 1789, the first demand of the members of the Third Estate was that of a constitution for France. They wanted that the absolute monarchy of France should be substituted by a constitutional monarchy. Had Louis XVI listened to their demand, he could have saved himself and the monarchy by remaining as a constitutional king.
Another political philosopher who influenced the French Revolution was Francois de Voltaire. He is also popular as simply Voltaire who was the master-mind of his age. A true representative of the “Age of Enlightenment”. Voltaire wrote profusely and became famous as a man of letters as a poet, philosopher, historian, and dramatist. But, he could not present any particular political philosophy and advocated “Enlightened Despotism” as his ideal. Thus he was neither liberal nor a democrat. But he attacked the French government and the church most vehemently hold them responsible for people’s sufferings
Voltaire condemned the tyranny and cruelty of the Bourbon Monarchy and the inequality and injustice that prevailed in the French society. Voltaire also ridiculed the church and questioned the immoral and corrupt conduct of the higher clergy. The criticism of Voltaire completely shook the people’s faith in government and church and prepared their minds for a change.
Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)
The French philosopher who influenced the French Revolution the most was Jean Jacques Rousseau. The Age of Enlightenment reached its high watermark in his writings which had a tremendous impact upon the French revolutionaries. Although a failure in private life, he presented a political philosophy that was at once simple and revolutionary.
In his famous book “Social Contract” Rousseau analyzed the cause of social evil. The opening sentence of this book is “Man is born free but everywhere he is in chains.” Rousseau pointed out that as all government arose as a result of a contract with the people, the people have the right to change or pull down the government which becomes bad or corrupt.
Rousseau propagated his doctrine of popular sovereignty in this book and said that law is the expression of the general will of the people. Thus, Rousseau’s “Social Contract” became the Bible of the French Revolution.
Also, he contributed to the popular nation of modern democracy and gave the revolutionaries of France their famous slogan of “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.” His philosophy provided a battle cry to the educated middle class who wanted to change their government and society for a better order of things.
Inspired by Rousseau’s philosophy, they took the lead and guided the Revolution. We find the direct influence of Rousseau in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the citizen, Proclaimed by the French National Assembly.
The Encyclopaedists were a hand of eminent intellectuals and scholars who were led by Diderot to compile a great Encyclopaedia that contained all knowledge under the sun. The government was terrified by the fearless thoughts of Diderot and his friends who attacked the autocracy of the king, privileges of the church and nobility, defective taxation system, and blind beliefs of the French people. Though, Diderot was imprisoned. But his encyclopedia became so popular that it was published again and again. It gave birth to rationalism in France and influenced the French Revolution to a great extent.
The Physiocrats were a group of French economists led by Quesnay. Thus, they criticized the economic policy of the government and wanted an equitable system of taxation. They stressed the need for organizations of trade and agriculture and advocated free trade policy.
Thus the French philosophers and intellectuals created a mental revolution by exposing the hollowness of the ancient regime of France. They created awareness for a change and their forceful writings ignited the fire for discontent which ultimately took the shape of the mighty French Revolution. Their influence was greatly felt in the origin of the Revolution. Hence the French philosophers of the 18th century actually heralded the Revolution although they did not originate it.
History of Modern World
(15th Century to World War II)
By: BARBARA F.Jala
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