Eighteenth century France was an atmosphere of rapidly escalating civil volatility fueled by unrest among sharply contrasted social classes. The French aristocratic class ruled with flagrant affluence, achieved largely at the expense of their socioeconomic subordinates. This distinction of status founded on privilege was certainly nothing new. However, there was a “perfect storm” of growth, awareness, and patrician indifference, which culminated in the violent backlash of people against their alleged oppressors. An evolving philosophical notion – that human beings shared equally the same value and importance, a belief that the human capacity for knowledge extended beyond the scope of the Christian Church, and an increasing faith in the goodness of man – began to spread throughout society. This budding humanist view brought to light the unjust relationship between the ruling classes and the proletariats who sustained their often extravagant traditions. Furthermore, it set in place the value structures that would lead to revolutionary thinking. Uproarious advancements of science, and technology – and, thus, of industry – would strengthen the working middle class and place in plain sight the inequity of the French social structure. Concurrent development of humanist philosophies, increasingly prosperous government, and brazenly overt socioeconomic disparity aggregated the active uprising of a people whose self-worth was championed in theory, yet trampled in actuality.
In 1751, Denis Diderot published – as a collective and collaborative work with thinkers of such distinction as Voltaire, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau – the first volume of the Encyclopédie. The seventeen volume archive, consisting mostly of 17th century discoveries, an exaltation of human knowledge in every respect, was organized alphabetically, rather than by categorical scientific and theological themes. This system, which was unorthodox at the time, effectively subverted the Church’s dominance by placing articles and subjects in egalitarian order, such that, for example, horticulture and iron ore would be primary in order to theology or religious practice. Diderot and his contemporaries thus attended to the humanist philosophies that would forecast the dismount of the Catholic Church from its position as the chief source of man’s knowledge. An historical and ecclesiastical wisdom – one based on mysticism and supernatural explanations, devoid of logical and critical exploration, and with no affordance for the human capacity – was no longer being accepted among scholars. These spiritualistic forces, which had long explained the natural world, were being displaced by a rational understanding, founded on a scientific method the predecessor to our own. The pages of the Encyclopédie, in calculated disavowal of religious dogma and fanaticism, swelled with information that was confirmed by measurement, observation, and experience – an exhaustive summation of the past centuries’ achievements and discoveries. Even more, the Encyclopédie was the fruit born of a system of thought rooted in Diderot’s insistence that “skepticism is the first step towards truth” (Diderot, Pensées Philosophiques, 1746).
Moreover, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s political theories glorified the virtues of human righteousness and dignity, and he decried the ruling class’ unmerciful capability for cruelty and mistreatment. His vehemently articulated ideas were reflections of the social order and its inadequacies, indeed, its utter heartlessness. In Social Contract, Rousseau asserted that man is naturally driven by compassion and goodwill, and that the greater influence of civilization is to be credited for man’s corruption. “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” Book one of Social Contract begins with, perhaps, Rousseau’s foundational precept: “Since no man has a natural authority over his fellow, and force creates no right, we must conclude that conventions form the basis of all legitimate authority among men.” Through the guise of “civil tranquility”, governing bodies subjugated the lower classes and committed subordinates to the will of the ruling class. Rousseau’s theories of government, though idealistic and difficult in practice, bespoke the archetypal attitude that would lead to revolution. These were philosophies that would sponsor an uprising of the people, but these philosophies had to radiate to have a worthy impact.
During the early 18th century, the countries of Central, Eastern, and Southern Europe began to develop into societies that, from a distance, seemed analogous to the Western Philosophes humanist utopian visions. In reality, nations such as Russia, Prussia, and parts of Germany – whose economies’ could not as heavily rely on maritime trade, as had their Western counterparts – sought internal reform as a means of maintaining economic prosperity. Their rulers desired a stronger, more secular government, a broader understanding of science and technology to drive their industry, and greater definition in the distinction between civilian and military populations. These rulers, who would come to be known as Enlightened Despots, also realized that war was bad for trade and economy, so long as the infrastructures of warring parties were continually destroyed – this is when war and battle began to come of age. Conflicts between nations became increasingly strategic and business oriented. Economic entities were acquired through war, rather than destroyed by it–collateral damage and civilian casualties kept to a minimum. Moreover, societal structure was increasingly rational and logical. During these times, streets began to acquire names, and residences were given addresses. Taxes were being systematically collected from all citizens, and stronger, more secular bureaucracies were unfolding. All of this new socioeconomic organization grew from the shrewd business sense that had been gathering among the Eastern, Central, and Southern European leaders. Yet, however energetic were their intentions, these rulers lacked the sociological prowess to exercise their ideas effectively at the national level. They needed the aegis of the philosophical minds to catalyze their ideals into practices. They called upon the humanist Philosophes of the West.
Diderot, Voltaire, Rousseau, Kant – these men were the sociologists of the 18th century, and what they saw in the Enlightened Despot was an embodiment of their own ideal ruler. The Philosophes eagerly accepted the patronage of these despots from the East. Frederik II of Prussia was said to extol his office as “the first servant of the people”, and Voltaire was an emphatic supporter of his vision of logical reform. Likewise, Denis Diderot was in correspondence with Catherine the Great of Russia, whose individualistic approach seemed to ensconce within it a particular sensitivity to the sufferance of the people of her nation. Yet, for all of the enlightened ambition of these rulers, their ends were fundamentally distinct from those of the Philosophes. These despots sought ration, order, social distinction, and civilian protection for the pursuit of wealth and industry. Their tendencies were far from humanist, and far from just. War, economic misappropriation, and civil injustice abound; the despots were, in reality, tantamount to the Western aristocracy that the Philosophes admonished. The most important ingredient in the relationship between Enlightened Despots and Philosophes was distance. The nations ruled by the despots were implausibly far for a time when travel was so arduous. Many of the Philosophes simply never witnessed the reality of these nations, and those that did travel were often welcomed into elaborate facades. Peasants were stationed in makeshift communities of most prosperous and pleasant accord. Entire villages were erected to beguile not only visiting Westerners, but the nation’s rulers as well. The most notorious of these, the Potemkin Villages, were constructed by Grigory Potemkin in an effort to mislead Denis Diderot and Catherine II. Refracted through travel-wearied eyes, into idealistic minds, these grand masquerades were remarkably effective, and their effect on the Philosophes was profound to say the least.
Once the Western philosophers beheld the splendor of these enlightened nations and their despotic rulers, the injustices that they fought at home, especially in France, grew evermore glaring. The belief that other nations were reforming in both principal and in practice fueled the Philosophes to assimilate, propagate, and disseminate their ideals with unsurpassed fervor. Yet, the untraveled masses had no truly contrasting vision to incite their engagement. What the Philosophes now needed was to close the distance between the disparaged people of France and the enlightened conditions of neighboring countries.
As it would happen, Eighteenth century England was marked by a tremendous surge of technology and industry; which, in effect, spawned a proportionate expansion of population and the development of a strong working class of people. The invention of the steam engine in 1712 by Thomas Newcomen, and its subsequent improvements and patents, propelled the manufacturing industry and drew greater populations from pastoral dwellings and agriculture to the industrial centers for labor jobs. Samuel Crompton’s mid-century invention of the spinning mule erupted the textile market, and, later in the century, iron production would reach a new apex with developments in the purification process. Such rapid and exaggerated expansion of industry created a vacuum in the labor force, and the people flooded in to accommodate the mounting needs of industry. People’s lifestyles were taking a sharp turn in Britain. No longer were the workers relegated to the outskirts while the ruling classes occupied the urban centers. Many more were living and working in the same environment, under the same social atmosphere. With a greater number of citizens filling the streets, there followed an increase in government employ. However, the British government lacked the bureaucratic, authoritarian design of the French. British government refrained from rigorous interference into the lives of its people, positing that this best served the efficiency of their economy. Additionally, the close proximity of different classes, with varying levels of education, within small urban areas, allowed more literature, news, and knowledge to reach a widening breadth of people. The humanists in France saw the social and economic developments in England, and the polarity between their ideals and their reality was further magnified. Their experiences and ideas were reflected in the literate aristocratic and philosophical circles; the bourgeoisie was beginning to take shape as we know it. The French aristocracy, as well as its strengthening middle class, were becoming sensitive to the unjust structures of their governing bodies, and the infiltrating notion that humans were all equal in stature, regardless of economic privilege, led to vast public dissatisfaction. This mounting sensitivity was propelled, in large part, by the humanities.
Eighteenth Century art saw the rise of the Rococo style, an expression of pleasure – frivolous, light, and exuberant. Visual art in the 18th century became effeminate, soft, and delicate; it lacked the sculptural strength and rigid proportions of the Classical and Neo-Classical arts that preceded it. The underlying importance of Rococo art to the attitudes of the people, aristocrats in particular, is worthy of some attention. This jovial and superficial art was the linchpin of a blossoming sensitivity. It was a reflection of the desire to avoid, if not entirely extinguish, suffering and pain. An escape from the inequities and injustices of daily life, Rococo emphasized the differences in the lives of the ruling class from those of the proletariat. For the aristocracy, Rococo was a veil – a shroud of pleasantry that tempered the increasing dissatisfaction of the majority. Regardless of its affect – eclipsing the aristocracy from the plight of the people – it ushered the perception that any suffering was deplorable and should probably be eliminated. Aristocratic enthusiasms for public execution, torturous interrogation, and human exploitation and slavery were steadily waning. The congenial and delightful style of Rococo was the foundation for an increasing humaneness that would be yet another springboard for revolution.
Justice and rights became paramount to social reform. The humanist ideals – that all men are equal and deserving of fairness, kindness, and opportunity – were being disseminated evermore swiftly and with indelible effectiveness. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen would later follow, with the help of the American revolutionaries, and in light of economic collapse and horrific agricultural yields. It was the delineation of reform, the voice of an oppressed people demanding that their rights to safety, happiness, and freedom be not only acknowledged but set forth as primary concerns of the nation. It was passed as such on August 26, 1789. Yet, the aristocracy remained insensitive, their lavish lifestyles even bolstered by the desire to shield themselves from their discontented public. Political dispute continued until September 20, 1792, when the National Convention was established to bring justice to the indifferent ruling class of France. What followed was dubbed the “Reign of Terror.” Three years of violence, bloodshed, and political strife ravaged the streets of Paris. The interjection of Prussia, Austria, England, and Spain was not enough to quell the explosive revolution. Ironically, it was a realization of the need for strong government, by individuals and organizations originally in favor of reform, which harbored enough potency to calm the fury of the revolution. A constitutional body, The Directory, was established. This, however, was a weak and unstable government in the wake of such turmoil, and in 1799 a dictator by the name of Napoleon Bonaparte would ultimately assume power over France.
What is most fascinating about all that had transpired was the sheer timing of all these elements that ushered the Revolution and their simultaneous convergence. Without the philosophy of the humanists to influence the artistic and political communities, there would not have been the notions of freedom and equality as given rights. And, lacking the frivolity and contentedness of Rococo art, the humane affinity for man would have remained dormant. Even with these ideals set forth, there had to be a community amongst whom they could be disseminated and contrapuntal societies against which to compare. And, given this especially savvy society, the necessity for interested, involved, and educated people would still remain. So, technology brought enough of the population close enough to each other to enmesh the educated with the uneducated, to weave the activists amongst the passive, and to advertise the haves in plain view of the have-nots. The learned, in turn, influenced and engaged the unlearned, and a community of awareness was cultivated. A few great thinkers spread their ideas among this community, who then largely adopted their optimistic view of humanity. The gathering steam of reform spawned the need for more political presence, thus accentuating the imbalance of the classes, and the dominoes began to tumble. Without any one of these elements, this great historical turning point could not have transpired. The orchestration of such a momentous event nearly raises the question of divine fate were it not for the overt rejection of such a notion that sparked the movement to begin with. Moreover, the emphatic sensitivity to human rights, and the violent, almost tyrannical methods of the revolutionaries in attaining those rights, seem to all but confirm the beliefs of 18th century philosophers and to affirm the concept that man’s corruption lies in the pursuit and production of civilizations–the virtues of the benevolent and righteous man, conflicted by the absolute abomination of which he is instinctively capable.
Cunningham, Lawrence S. Et al (2014). Culture and Values: a Survey of the Humanities. Boston, MA. Wadsworth.
Unknown Author. George Mason University. Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution. Retrieved from: http://chnm.gmu.edu/revolution/