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Paul Halsall
Modern Western Civilization

Class 9: The French Enlightenment

I. Introduction

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

A. England

Many of the most progressive ideas and developments had taken place in England in the 17th Century.

These developments had a real influence on the Frenchmen we discuss in this and next class -

B. France

So far we have been wandering all over Europe but all these knew ideas came together and were popularized, especially in France.

III. Definitions

A. Enlightenment

The Enlightenment and liberal thought in general, with Voltaire and Diderot leading the way, emphasized

(emphasize they were tied to their times in ways they did not know, for example in


B. Philosophes

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

A. Life

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.

B. Works

C. Thought

Discussion of Voltaire's Letter On Descartes and Sir Isaac Newton

  1. How does Voltaire distinguish between the thought of Descartes and Newton? What is the difference between a plenum and a vacum?
  2. Which thinker, Descartes or Newton, most impresses Voltaire? Why?
  3. 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.

B Publicity

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 -

The groups most criticised, nobles and clergy, actually bought it more than other groups.

C. Ideals

V. The Enlightenment, Deism, and Religion

A. Introduction

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.

B. Deism

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 superstitious.

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. 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.
  2. 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 method.
  3. 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.
  4. His political science was based on reason not moralistic prescription - this was to be future of this science.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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

  1. Introduction
    Locke is part of the central tradition of western liberal thought and even Republicans are liberals in these terms. Locke + Smith = Classic liberalism.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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 human.
    Natural Law is deduced, there was no empirical basis for it. Locke has a rationalist not an empiricist approach to this aspect of his thought.
  6. 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 more.
  7. Slavery
    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.
  8. 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

  1. The Wealth of Nations 1776
  2. Smith founded the science of Economics,(cf Hobbes and Political Science).
  3. He wrote in opposition to Mercantilism: the theory that a positive trade balance should be promoted by government intervention and tariffs.
  4. He proposed an economic system that would be seen as "the OBVIOUS and simple system of NATURAL liberty"
  5. 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.
  6. Background
    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 Ages.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. Smith was more subtle than this summary: but often complex ideas get reduced to their bones and have their influence in their unsophisticated form.
    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

  1. Life
    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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 work!
    ---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 of Commons.
    ---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.
  4. He influenced the framers of US Constitution 1787, more so than the Declaration of Independence.

b. Jean-Jacques Rousseau 1712-78

1. Introduction

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.

2. Works

3. Foundations of Rousseau' Thought

4. Political Vision of On the Social Contact

4. Effects of Rousseau's Thought

5. Rousseau and Romanticism

VII. Did Enlightenment thinkers effect the French Revolution?

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

B. America - The Enlightenment Project

C. The Constitution used many of the ideas above.

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.

A. Austria

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.

B. Prussia

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.

C. Russia

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 and 1795.

The Absolustist states succeeded - and older states - Poland, The Holy Roman Empire, The Ottoman Empire faded.