French revolution

To what extent were the ideas of the French ‘philosophes’ and Enlightenment thinking a precondition to the French Revolution in 1789 – were the social and economic crises of the time not sufficient in causing the Revolution themselves?

The extent to which the philosophy of the 18th century impacted the French Revolution has occupied the historian ever since the days of the Revolution itself. It has proved to be immensely complex; many historians have written on the subject of the Revolution – many choosing to see it purely as a sequence of events culminating in Revolution. The intellectual origins of the Revolution take root initially in the ideas of Sixteenth Century writers. The constant development of these ideas led into the great period of the Eighteenth Century, where philosophers sought to develop new ways of thinking that would allow man to better himself, and to free him from old ways of thinking and superstitions that had engrained themselves in the world. The generations that had grown up in the intellectual environment of the time and the way they were affected by these revolutionary ideas was an essential part of the Revolution. Trained historians have tended to play down the role of played by the philosophes; instead they focus on the historical causes of the Revolution, on the facts such as the financial crisis or the inefficacy of the tax system. However, it is fundamental in understanding the cause of the revolution to appreciate the undercurrent of the development of new ideas over time – this gradual occurrence does not necessarily warrant as much attention as events that happen abruptly, which may have caused the influence of enlightenment thinking to be cast aside somewhat. So how can the extent to which the ideas and writings of the philosophes influenced the general population be measured? To what extent were the revolutionaries influenced by the philosophes and perhaps most importantly did the revolutionaries mould their own philosophies around the circumstances in which they found themselves?

The idea of volonté nationale was a fundamental concept that needed to be considered by many Enlightenment thinkers. What was meant by volonté nationale? It could be interpreted as volonté de la majorité, but how could the will of the masses be gauged? The will of the people needed to manifest itself in some form in order for a people to become revolutionary. To understand how the Enlightenment affected the everyday individual in France is to fully appreciate the question at hand – “il faudra chercher a connaître l’état d’espirit des hommes à l’époque, à nous rendre compte de ce qu’éprouvait alors l’individu par rapport à la masse dont il fasait partie.”

The “Philosophes” and Enlightenment thinking in the 18th Century

Voltaire was one of the key figures in terms of his revolutionary thinking during the Eighteenth Century. He believed that laws were outdated and needed to be changed because they had been created at a different time, haphazardly and the existing laws were “basées sur l’ignorance et la superstition.” In a letter he wrote to Catherine II Voltaire declared “les lois sont faites après coup, comme on calfate des vaisseux qui ont voies d’eau; elles sont innombrables, parce qu’elles sont faites sur des besoins toujours renaissants; elles sont condradictoires, attendu que ces besoins ont toujours changé.” Voltaire was convinced that laws needed to be changed in order to allow the society to become enlightened.  For Voltaire religion also holds man back from becoming enlightened. In terms of morals, he compares the religious morals with philosophical morals. Voltaire’s belief that the philosophical morality is no different from religious morality is clearly explained by Groethuysen: “Les philosophes ont tous des idées différentes sur les principes des choses, mais ils enseignent tout la même parole.” All religions thus have a harmonising and moralising aspect, however Voltaire criticises the way in which religion is based upon so many superstitions and obscure cult practices. These outdated superstitions have led to war and destruction “les gens se sont disputes sur les dogmes, ils sont fait la guerre; des nations en ont detruit d’autres parce que’elles croyaient en Jesus-Christ et non en Mahoment.” Laws and religion are not necessary in order to allow man to know the difference between right and wrong – reason is independent of law and religion. Man has been corrupted by the irrational aspects of religion. He does not use his sense of reasoning to understand the world and commits act of destruction and violence solely in the name of religion. Voltaire wanted man to be freed from its inability to reason, much alike Kant’s belief in Was ist Aufklarung that “Aufklärung ist der Ausweg des Menschen aus seiner selbstverschuldeten Unmündigkeit. Sapere aude!” In answering the question as to how a law of reason can be established Voltaire proposes “une loi fondamentale [qui] agit sur toutes les nations que nous conaissons.” The principle behind this law is first and foremost to distinguish between what is right and what is not. But Voltaire sees this law as secondary in terms of human judgement and reason – every man has an inner instinct that allows them to know what is right, “un sens de l’equite commun a tous les hommes.” For Voltaire ideas of morality are of the utmost importantce; knowledge of all other ideas must come second to morality: “seules les idees morales peuvent nous server a conduire notre vie de facon a la mener en commun avec les autres hommes.” A new philosophy of morality was necessary to create the new modern man; this was Voltaire’s main objective; he wrote in a letter to Frederic Guillaume in October 1737 that “l’humanite est le principe de toutes mes pensees.” Man has to look only to the goodness within him and his own instinctive moral principles “pour que sa raison trouve en lui une egalite universelle dominant toutes les legislations particulieres.” This in turn would lay down the foundations for a moral law.

As Voltaire grew older he increasingly focused his thoughts against religion and the Church. In a letter written to Frederic II in 1767 he declared “depuis dix-sept cents ans, la secte chretienne n’a jamais fait que du mal.” He called on all philosophers of his time to rise up with him in his fight against the Church. Voltaire declared that sooner or later the time would come in France when people would be able to see the conspiracy and lunacy of religion – people were raising “des mains invisibles pour percer le fanatisme d’un bout de l’Europe a l’ature avec les fleches de la verite.” He became very excited about the prospect of the coming revolution through the Enlightenment and could foresee the coming of the age of reason. In 1761 he wrote to d’Alembert, “je suis tetu. Jusqu’a mon dernier souffle, je repeterai mon caeterum censo: Ecrasez l’Infame. C’est une grande lutte, la lutte de tous les etres pensants contre les etres non-pensants…tous les etres pensants doivent etre tendrement unis…contre les fanatiques, les hypocrites, egalement persecuteurs.” However, Voltaire was particularly critical of other philosophers of his time, “toutes les philosophes sont trop tiedes; ils se contentent de rire des erreurs des hommes, au lieu de les ecraser.” Voltaire wanted all the philosophes to join together to cause change in the world and to help the population become enlightenened, he did not wanted the other philosophes to want to enlighten the world and not just see the mistakes in the existing one; “les missionaries courent la terre et les mers, il faut au moins que les philosophes courent les rues, il faut qu’ils aillent semer le bon grain de maisons en maisons.” This use of particularly strong language by Voltaire shows the extent to which he believed in the Enlightenment and how much he wanted it to be realised in the world. Voltaire, in writing to Alembert vehemently calls those leaders who prevent their citizens from becoming enlightened as “monstres persecuteurs, qu’on me donne seulement sept ou huit personnes que je puisse conduire et je vous exterminerai.” He declared that eventually reason will prevail but bemoans the fact that he will not be alive to see this “beau changement” of “l’Eglise de la sagesse, dans laquelle les philosophes seront les precepteurs du genre humain.” He calls on the philosophes to see the fruit of the trees that they themselves had planted.

As regards the division of France into three estates Voltaire is very clear that the existing system needs to be abolished. “Representez vous le tier etat. Mais ce sont les paysans sur leur champs…les millions d’hommes qui travaillent, a cote des deux cent mille members du clerge ou de la noblesse qui ne travaillent pas.” This inequality is a major problem for Voltaire for, in his eyes, all men are born equally on the Earth and this inequality from birth poses a major problem in allowing the Third Estate to become enlightened. “Le tiers etat a lui seul est déjà toute la nation” Voltaire calls on the revolutionary masses of 1789 to look deeper and more closely at things and to question everything around them. “Fiez-vous donc a votre raisonnement, substituez toujours le concret, le defini aux affirmations indecises ou generales.” He explains how not every man is born with the ability to be a philosophe but that every man is able to become enlightened; “la faculte critique est quelque chose de positif en l’homme. C’est la joie d’etre libre de prejudges, de savoir que la raison est souverain en tout homme.” Voltaire wants every man to win the fight against superstition and false beliefs. Voltaire praises the other philosophes, for despite their differences, they are “honnetes gens…qui ne savent point ce qui est, mais qui savent fort bien ce qui n’est pas.” They have called the world into question and although they do not have answers to much of it they have created the foundations upon which the Enlightenment can be built. Although Voltaire’s philosophy may be interpreted as somewhat pessimistic in terms of  the insignificance of man in terms of the universe, he is also optimistic in that man does have the capacity to think about things outside his world – there is “la misere de la condition humaine” but also “les grandes pensees, le ciel etoile dans sa legalite invariable, l’eternite dont l’homem essaye de surprendre le secret pendant le court instant dure sa pauvre existence instable.” The philosophes need to join together and give their mutual support to one another in order to win the fight against the enemy that seeks to continue its domination over unenlightened man. But by what means could Voltaire’s notion of an enlightened nation be achieved? In a letter to the Marquis d’Argence de Dirac in 1764 he declares “il ne faut pas disputer avec les gens entetes…jamais la dispute n’a convaincu personne; on peut ramener les hommes en les faisant penser par eux memes, en paraisant douter avec eux, en les conduisant, comme par la main, sans qui’ils s’en apercoivent.” For Voltaire if all the philosophes were united in their philosophies and it worked its way peacefully through the masses then “la plus belle époque de l’histoire de l’espirit humain” would be born.

From the advent of Christianity Voltaire believes that history has only been formed through errors and mistakes. In opposition to Montesquieu, he proposes all existing laws to be forgotten so that humanity can be re-rooted in reason and enlightened thinking. For Voltaire there is nothing to be learnt from history – “la critique historique decouvre partout la deraison dont temoignent les actes et les lois faites par les hommes, depuis que l’Eglise a fat regner la superstition dans le monde.” Man needs to be enlightened from this absurd world, created by generations of man’s mistakes. Although on the face of it Voltaire’s analysis of the current situation could be interpreted as pessimistic he trusts that reason will prevail in allowing a new order to be created, as Groethuysen explains: “la raison conduira la passion…la passion devenue raison, la passion de la raison va posseder les hommes de la revolution francaise.”

Montesquieu and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were also arguably among some of the most important Enlightenment thinkers contributing to the French Revolution. In terms of laws Montesquieu believed that all men should conform to laws and that they “must begin by working to create worthy people.” Justice, for Montesquieu was “a harmonious relationship which really exists between two things. This relationship never varies; whether it is viewed from the perspective of God, an angel, or of man…even if God did exist, we ought always to love justice…justice is eternal and nowise dependant on human conventions.” Justice was an absolute standard and laws must exist because they are just. Montesquieu saw man as a product of his environment and felt that man should adapt himself as best he could within this environment. Unlike Voltaire, Montesquieu did not see the need to rid the world of all its existing laws; instead he declares “it is sometimes necessary to change certain laws, but such occasions are rare and when they arise one should only touch laws with a trembling hand.” This approach to the tampering with laws is not particularly revolutionary; however, he wanted all political societies to be judged on his absolute principles of justice and liberty. For Montesquieu the idea form of government took shape in a moderate government, however, he states that moderate governments are “a masterpiece of legislation that chance produces very rarely and men rarely allow prudence to create”

In de l’Esprit des Lois, published in 1748 Montesquieu discusses the legality of laws and how to judge whether a law exists for the good of man. He believes that laws should be made in order to better mankind and to transform the existing system. All laws need to be judged as to whether they correspond or contradict the rights of man. For Montesquieu every law needs to be based on moral principles and should guide man towards morality. “C’est dans les principes du droit que noud devons chercher la norme absolue qui nous permettra de construire une collectivite.” Montesquieu saw the intellectual world as a group of “collectivites.” The life of every individual is fundamentally conditioned by the community in which they live. A world of “collectivites” would create a new, happy people and man would achieve happiness in such a “collectivite.” It could be interpreted that Montesquieu sees France as a “collectivite.” “C’est la nation qui seule peut se donner la loi.” Montesquieu wanted to see a change in the law-citizen relationship; he wanted it to change from man being the object of laws to man becoming the subject of legislative power. Montesquieu wanted human reason to be applied to the reality in which people lived. However, Montesquieu’s philosophy does not sit well with the French Revolution because his ideals of universal and absolute reason are only applicable to the world at large and which must govern the world at large. As a result, if these laws were to be implemented, one would only be implementing ideas based upon legality within nature. Montesquieu believed that the legislative and executive powers needed to be separate so that the citizens could not be oppressed and would remain free.

For Montesquieu the main purpose of religion was to make better citizens; he believed that religious beliefs were a product of the environments in which people lived. Despite the fact that he believed that all religions strengthened the morality of the followers Montesquieu believed Christianity to be the most favourable in creating good citizens. Montesquieu’s de l’Esprit des Lois put forward the notion of liberalism in which liberty could only be secured through a “contrived equilibrium between the competing interests within society” Although Montesquieu’s message is not always clear within de l’Esprit des Lois he does not waver from his belief that governments should act in the needs of the people, as opposed to being the means to change a society, that institutions and beliefs are the result of the environment and the actions of generations in the past and that there are “moral imperatives” that transcend time and which bind all men together.

Fundamentally Montesquieu and Rousseau had conflicting concepts of freedom. As previously stated Montesquieu believed that freedom could be achieved in “collectivites.” Governments needed to respect the independence of these “collectivites” and vote in favour of the “esprit general.” On the other hand, Rousseau’s notion of “political freedom” consisted of allowing man to achieve all he wanted, which was obviously in the best interest of the community at large. This would be achieved through the liberation of man from his state of ignorance by abolishing all existing institutions and “denaturing” man. One legislator would ensure this “denaturing” and change his existence through changing the society in which he lived. Despite Montesquieu’s belief that governments should let people pursue their own interests, he wanted the governments to pursue both freedom and justice – it would be wrong to say to say that Montesquieu was not urging political action. Rousseau was urging for a regeneration of the current system, and as Hampson explains this concept of “regeneration was to become one of the most abused words of 1789.” Both Rousseau and Montesquieu had devoted a great deal of their time to political issues and had begun to challenge the existing political situation, however more writers needed to challenge the existing order but the influence of these philosophes in allowing revolutionary thinking and ideas to come into being cannot be understated.

Montesquieu and Rousseau’s impact in the years leading up to the Revolution took shape in numerous forms. There was constant reference to Montesquieu in the many pamphlets of literature of 1788 in support of the parlement’s challenge to the royal family. Lawyers were constantly referencing Montesquieu and De l’esprit des lois. Furthermore, Rousseau’s influence was also present with references to du Contrat social “the state of monarchy is only useful for corrupted nations.” Other pamphlets draw on Rousseau to an even greater extent; “man is born free, laws are acts of the general will, government is the agent of the general will and not a part to the social contract.” As Hampson further explains all the pamphlets shared “a common vocabulary…the subjects of the kingdom had been replaced by the citizens of the nation. Those of whom the writers approved were the enfants de la patrie and their opponents agents of ‘ministerial despotism'” This is a clear demonstration of the influence of Rousseau’s philosophy and his success in shaping revolutionary ideas through the use of this republican language. Billaud Varenne, was particularly influenced by the ideas of Rousseau and expressed his admiration for the “fine works of Rousseau, who describes so well the power of the Supreme Being” In Varenne’s Despotisme des ministres de France Varenne echoes many of Rousseau’s sentiments; “superior by our knowledge, our industry and our force, to every nation in the universe, when we could be second Romans, betrayed by our generals, strangled by our ministers, every day we risk being subjugated to foreign domination or becoming wholly enslaved to our own” Moreover, Montesquieu’s philosophy was also put forward by Varenne in this three-volume work “great agitation within a state should always be avoided as much as possible.” It is clear that the work of the philosophes had a major impact on the revolutionaries and fundamentally provided the intellectual stimulus upon which the revolutionaries could propose concrete changes contributing to the revolution of 1789.

The expression of the philosophes ideals in the French Revolution

Many modern day historians continue to argue that the link between Enlightenment thought and the French Revolution long pre-dated the revolution itself, claiming that many anti-philosophes were convinced that the philosophes were attempting to undermine and destabilise the already established order. Nonetheless, the revolutionaries claimed that the Revolution was a direct consequence of Enlightenment thinking; as Brissot boasted in 1791 “Our revolution is not the fruit of an insurrection. It is the work of a half century of enlightenment.” As Roland N. Stromberg explains “Those who tried to guide the Revolution never ceased to legitimize or rationalize their actions by appealing to the words of Voltaire, Rousseau ,Montesquieu, Diderot, and other intellectual heroes of the Enlightenment, though they might do so selectively and erratically”

Most damming in seeing the Revolution as the result of the Enlightenment is the fact that the majority of the remaining philosophes of the time did not agree with the Revolution. From the Holbach coterie, which included Raynal, Marmontel, Morellet and Grimm. With the onset of revolution, Raynal, who had written perhaps the most influential revolutionary piece of the 1770s, fled Paris. Morellet also declared that the French Revolution had created a state of “anarchy” and also left Paris. Further, Marmontel saw a “dangerous fanaticism” and “the spirit of licence, faction and anarchy.” Grimm, who had served a secretary of sorts to the philosophe movement also fled the country and returned to his native Germany and left his riches to be seized by the revolutionary government.  Alan Kors had named this group as the “radical enlightenment group” and argues that their opposition to the Revolution held true to their own Enlightenment views. The fact that the French Revolution had taken such an irrational and anarchic course went against their beliefs in “rational order and scientific method.” The philosophes favoured a far more gradual progression of the Revolution through reform and allowing the leaders and the population of France to come to understand the ideas of the Enlightenment. The Marquis de Condorcet, whose “pure” philosophy contributed a great deal to the Revolution still, on the Eve of the Revolution, believed that France could only solve its social and economic crises through the slow diffusion of Enlightenment ideas. His friend The Abbe Sieyes in the Societe de 1789, who essentially symbolised the Revolution of the Third Estate in 1789, also withdrew from politics in 1790 due to his disapproval of the path the Revolution had taken.  

Of the philosophes still alive in 1789 the Cercle Social still made attempts to allow the ideas of the past be realised in modern day France. The Cercle Social was later to become the Girondist faction of the Revolution. The group had its own printing press, published journals and placed major emphasis on education of the ideas of the philosophes. Condorcet and Brissot were key members of this group and were determined to make Enlightenment ideals become part of the new emerging world. They wanted to spread the ideas of the Enlightenment and create a “rational political institutions based on the ideas of the Enlightenment.” They believed that a sudden and aggressive move from one form of government to the next was not the way Revolution should be carried out, rather ideas needed to be understood by the everyday man so that his attitudes could be changed. The point that changes needed to take place on all levels of society is aptly explained by Foucault; “nothing in society will be changed if the mechanisms of power that function outside, below and alongside the State apparatuses on a much more minute and everyday level are not also changed.”

It was believed by these revolutionaries that France would become a nation devoted to the Revolution, in which Rousseau du Contrat Socials “civil religion” would become the “new moral cement.” Many of the revolutionaries began to see themselves as the “priests” of this new religion. These Girondists also believed that education could change human nature – an idea derived from John Locke and put forward by Condillac in France. The Girondists were adamant that this could be achieved – if the philosophes and revolutionaries were able to gain control of education they could “mold a new species of mankind.” The Jacobins were even more extreme in their views on education as they wanted to take children away from their parents and indoctrinate them in new Enlightenment ideas. As Stromberg explains “the philosophes had addressed only an elite, the next task was to expand this charmed circle to embrace the whole nation.” However, Gary Kates argues that the Girondists were not a bourgeois party but a party of those who had come to understand the Enlightenment. Despite their will to see the ideas of the philosophes realised within the Revolution they proved to be ineffective politicians and thus were defeated by the Montagnards.

Robespierrists felt that their enemies were far more educated than they were and attempted to confuse the masses with their complicated ideas of philosophy. Saint-Just declared that these enemies “tried to fool people with complicated intellectual arguments.” Robespierre himself was not an advocate of theory and declared “it is not necessary to search in the books of political writers, who did not at all foresee the Revolution.” Many historians have also questioned the extent to which Robespierre really was influenced by the philosophes given his suspiciousness of their ideas and many argue that he did not even have a very great knowledge of Rousseau, of whom he declared himself to have been greatly influenced. Brissot once called Robespierre’s speeches “unintelligibility posing as profundity.” The “down with the philosophes” slogan of the Jacobins is further evidence in proving the lack of respect that they had for the Enlightenment ideas of the 18th century. At this point it is clear that the ideas of the philosophes were no longer attached to the Revolution – the Jacobins were far more interested in politics than with the ideas of the Enlightenment and thus “the Revolution broke away from the Enlightenment.”

The Bourgeoisie and the Revolution

The bourgeoisie and the educated classes played a major role in the French Revolution through the summoning of the Assembly. Between November 1788 and the meeting of the Estates General over 2,500 pamphlets were published. The ideas of the philosophes which were now being forwarded through the revolutionaries became of great interest to the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie began to focus on how the current system could be changed and how their desires might become a reality. The system of government had been attacked and criticised for decades prior to the Revolution – the introduction of new ideas change to the existing constitutional and political situation had enlightened the bourgeoisie and fuelled their desire for change.


BernardGroethuysen, Philosophie de la Révolution Française, Page 82

Ibid, Page 133

Ibid, Page 135


Ibid, page 136

Lettre de Voltaire a d’Alembert, 26-XII en 1767

Lettre de Voltaire a d’Alembert, 26-VI en 1766

Lettre de Voltaire a d’Alembert, 26-VIII en 1766

Page 155, Groethuysen


Letter page 158

Page 161

Philosophie de la Revolution Francaise, page 166

Ibid, page 167

Cahiers, I/393 Grasset, page 119

Lettres Persanes, LXXXIII


De l’espirit des lois, V/14

Philosophie de la Revolution Francaise, page 128

Philosophie de la Revolution Francaise, page 130

Will and Circumstance, Norman Hampton, Page 24

Will and Circumstance, Norman Hampton, Page 58

Will and Circumstance, Norman Hampton, Page 60

Ibid, page 61


Le dernier coup porte aux prejuges et a la superstition, London, 1789, page 348

Despotisme des ministres de France, Amsterdam, 1789, 3rd Volume, Page 209

Ibid, Page 243

The Philosophes and the French Revolution, Some Reflections on recent research, Roland N. Stromberg, Page 323

The Philosophes and the French Revolution, Some Reflections on recent research, Roland N. Stromberg, Page 324

Ibid, Page 328

Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge

The Philosophes and the French Revolution, Some Reflections on recent research, Roland N. Stromberg, Page 329

Cobban, in Wasserman, Page 314