Since 1789 a debate has raged amongst historians about how much impact the Enlightenment had on the outbreak of the French Revolution. In order to assess this issue, it is important to distinguish what exactly the main principles of the Enlightenment were and what exactly the 'philosophers' of the Enlightenment strove to achieve and why. Whether or not the French Revolution was the logical or indeed the inevitable outcome of the Enlightenment programme depends very much on what this 'programme' aimed to achieve and whether there were perhaps any practical alternatives for achieving their goals. The Enlightenment is often referred to as the 'Age of Reason'. This age saw the emergence of new ideas concerning reasoning and rational thinking. The Enlightenment philosophers supported and promoted the concepts of equality and tolerance within society and taught people not just to accept but to question tradition.
One of the main and central principles of the Enlightenment, which all of the philosophers began with and which sums up the whole of the political philosophy of the eighteenth century is, The principle that it was necessary to substitute simple and elementary rules based on reason and natural law for the complicated and traditional customs which regulated society in their time It was not a coincidence that this type of thought was becoming so popular at this time in France. France was the classic example of a society rife with, 'absurd and ridiculous privileges' favouring a minority. Hence, the philosophers were driven towards the notions of natural equality. The French philosophers therefore sought to rebuild society based on the principles they stood for; 'Liberty, Equality, Fraternity'. Thus the enlightened were reacting against the worsening social and political situation in France. These problems could however also have been responsible for the outbreak of the revolution alone.
I will therefore discuss the factors that can be seen as contributing to the French Revolution, and assess the extent to which they can be attributed to the Enlightenment. In so doing I will offer ways in which the Enlightenment can be seen to have given impetus to a population who were rising against an array of unsatisfactory social, economic and political conditions, yet suggest that an alternative peaceful solution may have been not only the more desirable, but also the more logical outcome of the Enlightenment programme in France. The different possible causes of the revolution can be categorised in to three groups: long standing factors; primary factors and immediate factors. All of the background or longstanding causes of the revolution, if they were dealt with sooner, would almost certainly, it seems, have prevented the outbreak of the revolution regardless of the impact of the Enlightenment.
Prior to the revolution the government order was an absolute monarchy. The Ancien regime was divided up in to three estates. The first estate consisted of the Clergy, and the second estate, the Nobles. The third estate made up the majority of the population, consisting of the Bourgeoisie, the Proletariat & the peasantry.
The first two estates enjoyed numerous privileges over the third estate and this caused great discontent within France. For example, the first two estates were exempt from paying taxes, even though they were the richest members of society. Due to the dire economic situation in France in this period there was a need for high taxation, hence the third estate were crippled with ridiculous taxation imposed upon them. There was a great need for taxation reform in France before the revolution and the failure to do so reflects the inadequate leadership of Louis XVI and the trouble surrounding the system of absolute monarchy.
Another background or major longstanding cause of the revolution was the growth of trade and industry. With this factor however the influence of the Enlightenment is more apparent. Business expansion within France saw prices rising steadily. The Bourgeoisie largely profited from this rise and they quickly became wealthier and more powerful. Their education levels increased somewhat and the growth of new critical ideas, prompted by the new 'Age of Reason's p read fast and made people aware of the political and social situation in France. The Enlightenment programme therefore strove to make people aware of the unfairness in the structure of society and the philosophical writings suggested different ways in which to reform society.
There were a number of intermediate causes of the revolution. Firstly and most importantly was the continually worsening economic disorder. Financial problems in France had been worsening for a long time before the revolution. Financial difficulties grew under Louis XIV and Louis XV as they embarked upon ambitious wars and extravagant spending on courts like the Palace of Versailles. The Seven Years War crippled France as she lost her colonies to Britain and was economically drained. France had always had a problem with finances and a monarch was yet to stand up to the upper estates and enforce taxation.
Instead, like every other monarch, Louis XVI carried on the constant loan cycle. This was all worsened by the expense of sending troops to aid the American war of independence. France felt the need to support America, even though she could not afford it as it gave her an opportunity to gain revenge against the British after the humiliation of the Seven Years War. As well as having a financial impact, support to America can also be seen to have influenced thinking back in France.
The new school of thought that was developing in France amongst the Bourgeoisie was aided by the transmission of revolutionary thoughts from American troops to French troops. Many came back from America inspired and encouraged by the war of independence. A revolution was now seen to be a realistic possibility. The ideas from America gave the Enlightenment thinkers an actual system that they could refer to in their writings and some ideas of a way in which they could go about achieving them.
It showed that the idea of a revolution was a realistic possibility. Once again therefore, the philosophers of the Enlightenment can be seen as an inspiration to those that led the revolution in France. In contrast the role of the king can also be seen as key. The character of Louis XVI was a large intermediate cause of the revolution. At this terribly turbulent time, France needed a strong leader to guide them through and make serious structural and economic changes. Louis XVI however was one of the most weak minded monarchs who let his foreign wife, Mary Antoinette over power and influence him.
Louis XVI is strongly criticised as he favoured personal interests over court interests and left important decisions to his advisors and ministers. Furthermore he was also strongly criticised for his incapability of taking decisive action, especially towards the upper estates. Had the King introduced mild reforms within France, and thus placated the discontent amongst the masses, it is unlikely that the Revolution would have happened. Louis XVI is also key to the immediate factors that brought the revolution to a head.
The calling of the Estates General was the fatal mistake made by Louis XVI and was the beginning of the end of the Ancien Regime. The Estates General did not truly represent France, as once more the third estate were not truly represented. Although they had twice as many delegates the voting was by order rather than by head, and thus the two upper chambers could outweigh the third. On the 17 th June, the third estate took decisive action by claiming its conversion to a National Assembly. After the King had locked them out of a meeting with the Estates General, the new National Assembly moved in to an indoor tennis court and made the 'tennis court oath'. This oath stated that they would not separate until they had been given a constitution.
Due to overwhelming support, Louis XVI was forced to accept the National Assembly. The third estate now held the majority in France under the new constitution. The revolutionary boldness of the third estate therefore was a contributing factor to the French revolution. We are therefore presented with a means by which revolution might have been avoided, not withstanding the new ideas of the Enlightenment. It seems clear that if any of these factors discussed were avoided then the French Revolution would probably not have taken place at this time. If Louis XVI had been a stronger monarch and made reforms than things would be different.
Similarly had the third estate not been so bold then again, the revolution may not have taken place. The question is however, how much influence the Enlightenment programme has on these different factors and events. Would, for instance, the third estate have shown so much courage if they had not have been educated by the philosophers of the revolution to what they could do and what they should be aiming for. It is clear that these individuals were heavily influenced by the Enlightenment as the 'Declarations of the rights of man and the citizen' which they drew up following the 'tennis court oath', contains many Enlightened views and the concepts of 'Liberty, Equality and Fraternity'.
Liberty consists in the ability to do whatever does not harm another: hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights. Hence, it is clear that the influence of the Enlightenment programme was strong. Social unrest was common during this time. Riots due to hunger and unfairness were numerous during the Eighteenth century and discontent and agitation amongst the masses was common. The reigns of Louis XIV and previous monarchs had seen this unrest and in fact the same discontent existed in France in the 1920's and 1930's, yet without ever ending in revolution. Thus, it seems there must have been another powerful mitigating factor enabling the revolution to occur at this time.
Additionally, France was not exactly stable in 1789 but compared to other European countries she enjoyed relative stability and economic prosperity. It is clear that, 'in order to revolt against ones lot, one must be aware of the bad circumstances surrounding him'. This therefore presupposes a certain intellect and means that one must have a clear concept of the reforms one would like to exist. Hence, it seems that the Enlightenment programme, which literally involved 'enlightening' people to their equal rights, heightened the tensions within society and taught the Frenchmen to find his position illogical and unjust. This created a condition where revolution was seen by the population as logical, and possibly even inevitable. On the other hand, the influence of the Enlightenment programme may only have been strong enough to have such an effect once the conditions for revolution had begun to take shape.
As we have seen, other factors with little relation to the Enlightenment, most notably those that are longstanding or intermediate must be seen as necessary to the revolution taking place. Similarly other countries equally influenced by the Enlightenment programme did not experience revolution due to the lack of other necessary conditions and factors. Furthermore it is important to remember that the philosophers of the time did not call for revolution, nor indeed want it themselves. Philosophers like Voltaire encouraged faith in progress and change and convinced Frenchmen that it was their task to increase liberty and equality. Rousseau, without consciously wanting a revolution had a great deal of influence on it, but importantly, only had a major influence once it had begun. Surely the logical solution would have been to make peaceful reforms within the structure of society.
This is in fact what many of the philosophers were aiming for. Generally, the idea of revolution was never an option to them. Perhaps therefore, the teachings of these philosophers might have suggested to the population that revolution was the logical outcome, without it seeming so to the philosophers themselves. In conclusion therefore it seems that the philosophers of the Enlightenment gave impetus to a population who were ready to rise against an array of grossly discriminating economic, social and political conditions. The extent to which revolution was the logical outcome of these teachings is however debatable, and the existence of other important contributory factors means it cannot be deemed inevitable..