An Enlightening Look at the French Revolution

The impact of the Enlightenment on the French Revolution is hard to quantify. Practically every dimension of this critical phase in the history of European civilisation is shrouded in equivocality; and yet none more so, in my view, than the postulated lynchpin of it all. There is a tendency, quite naturally, to fall back on the Enlightenment as the sole causation and propagator of social turmoil – and here we must be careful, since to subscribe to this view would be to fall prey to an enduring fallacy, propounded by Edmund Burke in 1790, on the back of his intransigent belief in the Revolution as a “strange chaos of levity and ferocity, and of all sorts of crimes jumbled together with all sorts of follies.” (Burke, 1999, p.10) When it comes to history, persevering dogma is inadmissible.

There is little consensus on the precise beginnings of the ‘Age of Enlightenment’ – which is a pity, since this dispels any notion of a little bulb lighting up over Europe.  In France, the three musketeers – Rousseau, Montesquieu and Voltaire – epitomised this ‘revolution’ in human thought.   But was there actually any sort of trend between the ideas of these men? In a country which had no active politics, the intellectuals of the day were not in a position to dream up a coherent political system. Montesquieu’s ‘Spirit of the Laws’ (1748), predicated on the virtues of the English constitution, had been brutally distorted   come the third quarter of the century; the concept of the separation of powers was employed merely in defence of the claims of the French parlements, and the word ‘despotism’ had extended so pervasively that it had almost become meaningless – compare ‘deficit’ today. Likewise, Rousseau’s Social Contract (1762) was, and is, characterised by notorious paradox; did contemporaries understand it? Did it have a discernible impact during the Revolution’s course?

What is certain is that the public life of eighteenth century France was acted out before a burgeoning, communal platform of informed public opinion, which by 1770 had escalated beyond the government’s control. However, this is not to say that literacy was a nationwide phenomenon, and the ability to read, then as now, did not necessarily endow the ability to think. On the eve of revolution, just 37% of the population could read, and of them the preponderance were indulging exclusively in popular literature – almanacs, chapbooks, and cheaply produced collections of fictitious works. Enlightening works were not cheap; Diderot’s monolithic Encylopédie cost the equivalent (on average) of ninety-three weeks’ wages. What is more, for most Europeans the monotony of daily life did not call for any modification in thought, or for any revolution. With respect to France, therefore, the question must be posed: what did?

Any attempt to assess the Enlightenment singularly is inevitably going to flounder. This spurt toward the attainment of knowledge and progress, and thereby greater happiness or human perfection, was concomitant with an array of demographic, social and economic alterations in pre-revolutionary France, which were uneasily juxtaposed to the prevailing features of the Ancien Régime: population increase alongside a decline in agricultural output; a thriving over-seas colonial trade alongside a languishing hinterland economy; the assent of the bourgeoisie alongside (an attempt at) the consolidation of government power.  Louis XVI’s accession to the throne in 1774 roughly corresponded with the beginnings of substantial economic downturn; but the protracted recession, glaring in 1778, was by no means incurable. Come 1787 – post bad harvest and the calamitous decision to enter the American War of Independence (1775-1783) – the country had plummeted into a period of cyclical downswing, wrought upon an economy of low resistance; employment and production both fell by 50%. It would take some flare of imagination to resolve this crisis.

The calling of the Estates General in early 1789 was the ultimate product of the above. By no coincidence, in the first four months of that year 2,639 cheap political pamphlets were disseminated. For the first time, “journalism assumed its modern role of whipping up popular passion” (Cobban, 1968, p.25), and hundreds of thousands of starving poor were mobilised. “An unfavourable concatenation of events had brought together in a common opposition the bourgeoisie and the proteleriat” (Labrousse, 1958, p.72); had amalgamated “a political protest against the tyrannies and restrictions of the Ancien Régime, [with] a social protest of depressed [and] impoverished classes.” (Rudé, 1964, p.66) Which was the more important in building up to this point? Were socio-economic changes to “provide the soil in which intellectualism could germinate”? (Lewis, 1999, p.8) Was the Enlightenment the propagator, or a cleverly disguised manifestation of change?  Regardless, the conceptualisation of the French Revolution as a bloc with one inspiration is invalid.

Contributed by Jack Nicholson

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