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Modern Western Civilization
Class 9: The French Enlightenment
The last two classes looked at the Scientific Rev and the rebirth
and development of philosophy.
We ended by mentioning the Enlightenment proper - a period of
publicization of the more austere thought of others by
men known as philosophes.
II. Where and When
Many of the most progressive ideas and developments had taken
place in England in the 17th Century.
- Science: Newton,
- Philosophy: Locke,
- Politics: 1688 the Glorious Revolution.
These developments had a real influence on the Frenchmen we discuss
in this and next class -
- Voltaire visited England and wrote letters in praise of it
- Montesquieu based his views on the separation of powers in
government on his (mis)understanding of the English Government.
So far we have been wandering all over Europe but all these knew
ideas came together and were popularized, especially in France.
The Enlightenment and liberal thought in general, with Voltaire
and Diderot leading the way, emphasized
- TOLERATION and
- NATURAL LAW,
- plus a confidence in modern man and his achievements
(emphasize they were tied to their times in ways they did not
know, for example in
- ABOVE ALL THEY PROMOTED THE IDEA OF CHANGE AND PROGRESS
AS GOOD THINGS. THIS HAS BECOME A VERY DISTINCTIVE MARK OF
THE MODERN WORLD.
The people who were the thinkers in France were known as PHILOSOPHES.
They were not on the whole original thinkers, but were great publicists
of the new ideas.
C. Social Context
The social context of the Philosophes was uniquely civilised:
a Salon society presided over by educated women hostesses. [Most
of the men were MCPs but this was a time when aristocratic women
did have a lot of power in society.]
[Advise class to see Dangerous Liasions for an interesting
representation of the society of 18th Century France]
IV. Voltaire (Francois-Marie Arouet) 1694-1778
1726-29 Visted England.
Spent latter part of his life as the Roi de Vernay, near Geneva.
Voltaire was the most famous philosophe and he was not an aristocrat,
rather a very rich bourgeois. (distinguish between a status society
and a class society. Ancien Regime France was a status society
in that its nobility was based purely on birth, at least in theory.)
He was above all concerned with human action and attempts to improve
human life. He was one of the very best French writers; read him
and you will see that he gets his ideas across in the most charming
and witty way possible: for example in Candide, an attack
on Leibniz's philosophy that all is well, is also extremely funny.
- Letters on the English 1733
- Lettres Philosophiques 1734
- Elements of the Philosophy of Newton
- Candide 1759
- Dictionnaire Philosophique 1764
- He promoted Free Speech, Civil Rights and Toleration.
- He was extremely anticlerical. Ecrasez L'infame, Remove
the infamy of Church bigotry and power from society. This anticlericalism
was inspired by the Calas case (a Protestant was falsely accused
and killed for killing his son to stop him becoming Roman Catholic.)
This is important in explaining the extreme anti-clericalism of
the French Revolution. It was not present in English thinkers.
- Note that Voltaire was not a liberal in many ways. He praised
Louis XIV and thought Enlightened despotism was the best government,
as a monarchy could keep down the Church and the aristocracy.
- He was also anti-Semitic, possibly due to equating Jews with
the Church, possibly due to problems he had with money lenders.
Neither is an excuse.
Discussion of Voltaire's Letter On Descartes and Sir Isaac
- How does Voltaire distinguish between the thought of Descartes
and Newton? What is the difference between a plenum and a vacum?
- Which thinker, Descartes or Newton, most impresses Voltaire?
- How would you characterize Voltaire's style as a writer? Is
he enjoyable to read?
V. Diderot and the Encyclopedia
Denis Diderot 1713-84, Jean le Rond d'Alembert 1717-83
A. The Encyclopedia 1751-72 17 vols
(vol 2 banned - made it very popular). Its aim was to include
all knowledge. All the leading philosophes wrote for it in signed
articles and so it shows many different views: for instance there
is a debates on Luxury - Voltaire thought it was good, but others,
looking to ancient Sparta thought it was contrary to virtue.
The Encyclopedia shows Philosophes/Enlightenment as part of a
process of publicity. They got their ideas into all the reading
publics minds. About 25,000 were sold, half outside France.
At Besancon [28,000 pop] 137 sets sold -
- 15 to clergy,
- 53 to nobles,
- 69 to lawyers, doctors, merchants and govt officials
The groups most criticised, nobles and clergy, actually bought
it more than other groups.
- It promoted ideals of toleration, reason and progress, equality
before the law (for all the 3 estates) -
- It saw the state as the agency for progress, opposition to
the Church and Faith.
- IT DIFFUSED THESE IDEAS AROUND EUROPE.
V. The Enlightenment, Deism, and Religion
This was not a great age for theology: there were it must be emphasized
movements of popular piety, pietism and Methodism, but religion
did not hold the intellectual leaders as it had during the Reformation.
Deism was idea that God set up the Universe as clockwork and then
just let it run. It proposed a non-ritual religion based on REASON.
In fact this was not as strong as Faith, as reasonable arguments
can be and are disproved.
Deists also attacked Christianity, especially Catholicism, as
Deism was the belief of many philosophes and was actually made
a state religion for a short while during the French Revolution
C. Age of Reason?
Note the contrast: One age, the Reformation, has Christ suffering
for humanity on the Cross as the image of God, the next has God
as a Watchmaker.
VI. Enlightenment Political Thought
One of most creative aspects of the Enlightenment was its use
of new philosophy in a practical way to discuss politics. One
of the most commonly asked questions about the French Revolution
is about the influence of these ideas - their influence on American
events is even more certain.
As mentioned in the last class the earliest of the new political
thinkers were Hobbes and Locke. The English political experience
of the 17th century and the visitudes of the Stuarts were a starting
point for political thought.
A. English Thinkers - Absolutism, and the beginnings of Liberalism.
a. Thomas Hobbes 1588-1662
- 1. An Atheist - 2nd son of a vicar. He was a late maturer
as a thinker. He was opposed to the English Revolution and had
gone into exile in 1640.
- Leviathan 1651, is his masterpiece.
It was based on the New Science and observation. He thought his
new subject of study was on a par with the work of his friends
William Harvey and Galileo. All he had to do was find the right
- He was, in the tradition of the Scientific Revolution, concerned
with the natural state of affairs. Machiavelli 1469- 1527, was
an obvious influence. He was also influenced by Thucydides. He
had translated the entire Peloponnesian War.
- His political science was based on reason not moralistic prescription
- this was to be future of this science.
- The Hobbesian View of Men -see Leviathan chap 13 "The
life of man is masty brutish and short". There is a need
for a state to control, althought the aim is the welfare of all.
Absolute power for a leader is needed.
- His theoretical basis was absolute materialism. Hobbes thought
that matter was all that existed: men where just part of conflict
in nature. For Hobbes the whole Universe including politics is
mechanical. Thus his ideas have a NATURAL LAW element.
- Hobbes wants a tightly ordered commonwealth, not a Tyranny,
ruled by law and order. His work shows in detail what powers he
thinks a state must have in order to do its job.
- Note here: Idea of Reason of State vs. Divine Right. [Hobbes
ahead of his time - Bousset and Domat wrote later, but Hobbes
was more influential in long run]
b. John Locke 1632-1704
Locke is part of the central tradition of western liberal thought
and even Republicans are liberals in these terms. Locke + Smith
= Classic liberalism.
- Political Works
Two Treatises on Government 1690
This was more or less written before the Glorious Revolution of
1688, but is often seen as justifying it.
Letter on Toleration 1689
Locke is less original than Hobbes but more influential. He opposed
Hobbes but was also influenced by Science, Newton, plus medieval
ideas opposing absolute power and supporting Natural Law. He referred
to the theologian Richard Hooker a great deal.
- Philosophical Basis of Locke's Views
Locke's psychology/epistemology shows his view of man: Man is
rational, born equal (one of implications of a tabula rasa at
birth). What motivates people is pleasure and avoidance of pain
(This was not questioned until Freud). Government should try to
mold behaviour with pleasure and pain: it should manipulate the
environment, and use education to make better people.
- Theory of Government
Man's NATURAL state was of harmony with each other and equality.
But without a government there are "inconveniances":
no law or judges.
People make a contract with government to protect their rights.
THIS WAS A RATIONAL NOT A THEOLOGICAL reason for government. The
people have a natural(= Divine) right to oppose governments that
do not keep the contract: an argument used by American colonists.
- Natural Rights and Civil Rights
Because Man is born equal he has rights: government exists to
protect these rights. Locke's theory was that there were NATURAL
RIGHTS - to "life, liberty and property"
His view was that people SHOULD have these rights to be fully
Natural Law is deduced, there was no empirical basis for it. Locke
has a rationalist not an empiricist approach to this aspect of
- Locke and Equality
As well as natural rights, Locke also stressed equality. By this
he meant not that all should possess, or be, the same, but that
all should be equal before the law. He doesn't really mean anything
Locke did not oppose slavery, just like the liberal founding fathers.
This must fundamentally be attributed to racism, since, for Locke,
a slave is not fully able to realise his/her humanity, he must
have thought that black slaves did not require it in the same
way as bourgeois Englishmen.
- The point to note that although his theories may be evaluated
by us as good or bad they also have a definite aim: to promote
the interests of the middle class, and black slavery was at that
time profitable to the English middle class.
|Class discussion of NATURAL RIGHTS
- Natural Rights are based on the idea of Natural Law, which looks to idea that Man is a rational animal: this has problems for modern non-rational ideas of Man.
- The Right to Life - but he allows capital punishment.
- Right to Liberty - This means being able to do what you want to do under the Law (this was also allowed by Hobbes).Most of life is not to be regulated: for Locke, you are free but on your own.
The Right to Property - the right to keep what you own, and for Locke this meant land. For Locke the right to property flows out of man's right to possess his body (liberty) and so to possess the fruits of his body(work). You are entitled to what you work for. This is the idea behind modern conservative opposition to taxes, but it is also a Marxist idea directed against capitalists. Locke also links the right to property with the right to a livelihood and so the right to life.
c. Adam Smith 1723-90 and Economics
- The Wealth of Nations 1776
- Smith founded the science of Economics,(cf Hobbes and Political
- He wrote in opposition to Mercantilism: the theory that a
positive trade balance should be promoted by government intervention
- He proposed an economic system that would be seen as "the
OBVIOUS and simple system of NATURAL liberty"
- The Theory
General welfare depends on allowing the individual to promote
his/her interest freely within the laws of justice. In this way
he will more effectually promote the interest of society than
if he actually tries to promote it. This worked by individuals
rationally calculating their chances in the MARKET.
The background to this idea was Locke's idea that people are motivated
above all by pleasure. Smith from this base proposed the existence
of laws of supply and demand. His theory of economics is based
on the idea of unintended consequences of actions. He explains
that all will be for the best with the idea of an invisible hand:
there is an element of faith here - the invisible hand fills the
position of Angels in explaining unexplainable movement in Middle
- Laissez Faire
Because of these views he thought government should not interfere
in the economy - This is the idea of Lassiez-Faire. He still gives
government a place in in the Judiciary, the Army, Navy and Police.
- Nature and Economics
Smith's ideas were based on idea of exploiting nature to use it
for man's enrichment. This has been dominant theme in modern western
history and theory, both capitalist and Marxist; now we are faced
with environmental problems.
- Smith was more subtle than this summary: but often complex
ideas get reduced to their bones and have their influence in their
He was writing at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution,
but his ideas were adopted for there theoretical usefulness to
the exploiting middle class as well as for their undoubted greatness:
they gave the new middle class the opportunity to believe that
greed was for the benefit of society and so escape the guilt that
Christianity had always attributed to greed.
C. French Thinkers
a. Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu
1689-1755. Montesquieu was an aristocrat in south-west France
and a president of the Parlement of Bordeux, a position he inherited
from his father; so basically he was an aristocrat who rejected
Absolutism and looking back to old aristocratic liberties.
- Persian Letters 1721
A way of dealing with censorship: censorship was less and less
pervasive in France after 1750, but still tended to make French
writer address things in an abstract, unconcrete manner. There
was by contrast very little censorship in England, although there
was always some.
- De l'esprit des lois 1748 The Spirit of the Laws
The Spirit of the Laws was written after 14 years study of laws
and thinkers, including Locke. It presents two main ideas.
---It classified goverments not on basis of location of power
but on the animating principle: Republics - virtue, Monarchies
- honour, Despotism - fear. No one system was suitable
everywhere. Montequieu was less hooked on systems than other writers:
he thought that allowance should be made for the traditions, economy
and religion of a country. He thought that despotism was suited
to hot climates where it was necessary to force lazy people to
---More influential was his theory of separation of powers: executive,
judical, and legislative. This was based on a certain perception
of English government, with its King, House of Lords, and House
---He wanted to use this principle in the politics of France:
he would give power to parlements, towns, aristocracy to
counter the monarchy. He was in many ways a political conservative
arguing in fervor of aristocracy: although he recognized that
the aristocracy of his day was corrupt, he thought this was due
to the corruption of absolutism.
- He influenced the framers of US Constitution 1787, more so
than the Declaration of Independence.
b. Jean-Jacques Rousseau 1712-78
Rousseau was born in Geneva of a lower class background. His mother
died as a result of his birth and he had a lot of hangups: these
are shown in his Confessions. He seems to have been paranoid,
and later in life he treated his five children very badly: he
put them in an orphanage.
In 1741, he moved to Paris and became friendly with the philosophes.
He became well know with his Essay on the Progress of the Arts
and Sciences in which he argued against progress as it
removed men from their natural state.
He contributed to the Encyclopedia.
- Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences
- Discourse on the Origin of Inequality 1755
- Emile 1762
- On the Social Contract 1762
3. Foundations of Rousseau' Thought
- The basic thrust of his thought was a concern with virtue.
Adam Smith wanted people to be prosperous, Rousseau wanted to
make them good.
- His view of property shows a horror of modern society, which
he said began with the first person put a fence around his land
and people were stupid enough to believe it.
4. Political Vision of On the Social Contact
- For Rousseau the Social Contract the basic law of society.
Liberty is obedience to the law you have accepted, and equality
means all are equally dependent on society and not on any other
- The Social Contact should be written by a legislator, Moses
or Lycurgus, who should then depart the scene - Forcing men to
- So Rousseau wants liberty and equality in society but denies
these are natural. Rather he wants civil liberty and equality,
that is he wants them granted by the state. The rights you have
are the ones you have in the community, to which you give all
your natural liberty and equality when you joined it.
- The social contract was not between government and people,
but between people themselves, therefore the best society was
a participatory democracy, like ancient Athens, Geneva, or New
- Rousseau's society depends on public spiritedness, compared
with Locke and Smith for whom the most important part of Life
was private. In general Rousseau is out of tune with individualistic
liberalism and greed.
- Sovereign Power and General Will
The people are the source of legitimate sovereignty. Sovereignity
then resides in the people, but how to express this in action.
Rousseau came up with the idea of a General Will.
- The idea of a General Will was the principle behind the validity
of the Social Contract. It is a very important concept: political
society is seen as involving the total subjection of every individual
to the General Will of the whole. The problem is discovering what
the General Will is: for Rousseau it is NOT the same as the wishes
of majority, rather it is what is in their best interests. That
is why Rousseau said some Legislator should point to the mandate
of heaven to get his law accepted. People should be "forced
to be free": the aim was to create a more virtuous human
4. Effects of Rousseau's Thought
- He was not much read at first. He first becomes influential
on the Jacobins and Robespierre. He is very important in later
- Rousseau's arguments for democracy and equality had a generally
liberal effect in the US and Britain
- But the idea of the General Will, which is not the same as
majority vote, has encouraged those who believe in Vanguards of
Revolution, and provides a framework for totalitarianism in its
modern sense. It has real totalitarian implications, especially
the idea that the people may not know their own will.
5. Rousseau and Romanticism
- Rousseau was also a forerunner of Romanticism, a sort of reaction
to both empiricism and rationalism that rejected reason as only
criterion of truth and which exalted feelings.
- This was Rousseau's greatest effect in his life time with
Emile, which encouraged parents to ove their children,
although of course Rousseau was no example of this.
- There was a sort of cult around Rousseau chez women readers.He
spread respect for feelings and the common people and, despite
way he treated his own children, people were inspired by his writings
to look after their own: in some ways he was the beginning of
- Rousseau also promoted the idea of the Noble Savage, in Discours
sur l'Origine de l'inegalite parmi les hommes - 1755. This
is. of course in contrast to his view in On the Social Contract
that you should try to make people better.
- EMPHASISE THAT ROUSSEAU'S IDEAS VERY OFTEN DO NOT ADD UP.
HE IS MESS OF CONTRADICTIONS
--- DEMOCRACY & TOTALITARIANISM
---NOBLE SAVAGE & NEED FOR EDUCATION.
VII. Did Enlightenment thinkers effect the French
Rousseau had an effect during the course - but in next lecture
one of the things to look at is the overall effect of these thinkers.
Their long term effect is pretty clear, we shall be looking at
short term effect.
VIII. America and the Enlightenment
A. American Thinkers
- Benjamin Franklin
- Thomas Jefferson.
B. America - The Enlightenment Project
C. The Constitution used many of the ideas above.
- Locke - "Life, Liberty and Property".
- The idea of just opposition to despotism.
- Montesquieu - The idea of separation of powers.
D. America was an example of practical freedom; the Goldene Medina.
This had a definite effect on Europe.
IX. Enlightened Despotism
As Enlightenment ideals spread through Europe, they affected a
generation of Monarchs. Raison d'etat rather than Divine Right
became the justification of their rule.
Maria Theresa 1740-1780
Joseph II 1780-1790
They centralized the state and there was and end to local diets.
This was a non-national state, but as yet there was little nationalism.
Frederick the Great 1740-1789
Frederick had low view of people. He ran the state as a military
regime. He seized Silesia for Reasons of state. He was a great
ruler, but left no trained successor and Napoleon was almost able
to destroy Prussia. However, Prussia was made so much stronger
than any other German state that it was to unite Germany in the
next century, and impose a sort of Prussian patina to the country.
Catherine the Great 1762-96
A German princess who deposed her imbecile husband. Russia was
still in most primitive condition and she kept serfdom.
D. The Division of Poland
These three monarchs divided Poland between them in 1772,1793
The Absolustist states succeeded - and older states - Poland,
The Holy Roman Empire, The Ottoman Empire faded.