The influence of the Enlightenment on the Revolution
author Gilda Stoica, December 2015
The Enlightenment and its era, transformation of the monarchy, apparition of Deism, new political and economic values in society, Enlightenment personalities, public opinion

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The Enlightenment was a philosophical movement. Its followers considered that human reason is the only thing able to ‘light’ the way to reaching human happiness. The Enlightenment brought a move from theory to practice, from criticism to reforming action - in education, in household administration, in social reactions and in politics.

Lumières is the French notion used for this movement. It comes from the word lumière (light) and means ‘intelligence, knowledge and a clear spirit’.

After the crises of the 17th century, people were looking for stability. The final outbreaks of the plague had died out, and the last mass expulsion of the unconverted was over.

The Enlightenment was a reaction to the baroque style, to dogma and counter-reforms. The surviving currents in this period which favored the awakening of critical thinking were: humanism based on the thinking of Erasmus, the current of free speech and writing, and critical analysis influenced by Antiquity.

Society blamed the luxury and laziness of the parasites in the royal courts. These people had a very easy life, without having to work at all. They lived off the taxes collected from the principalities.

The monarchy was more and more given over to the amusements of court life and hunting, while neglecting state affairs. Many monarchs had purely representative functions. However, they lived far from the tasks of government and from the people who needed a leader. There had also been an intermarriage of thrones between the European royal families.

The king’s residence was changed, and the old castle in the capital was abandoned. The rulers wished to be able to move around freely, preferring the fresh air of the countryside to the stifling crush of the city. Thus, the French king left the Louvre Palace and moved to Versailles. The courts of these sumptuous residences were places of refined culture, but they were also the setting for shameful business deals and unhealthy plots.

Europe was dominated by royal crowns. The Bourbon dynasty had spread through Spain and in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Paris and Vienna were the uncontested great courts of strong nations. Most monarchs had already ceded power to their Prime Minister or even to his mistress, or, in certain cases, to their favorites. The situation was the same in France during the time of Louis the 15th, which could be called the reign of the Marquise of Pompadour.

It’s surprising that in this century, through the lottery of succession rights, women came to the throne in many monarchies, such as: Maria Theresa in Austria, Catherine the second in Russia, Queen Anne in Great Britain and Queen Mary in Portugal. Women have always played an important role in monarchies - as wives to monarchs, as their mistresses or as widow queens.

Entertainment became more refined. People drank less than in the previous century. Pleasure became more subtle; it was no longer just about play, but also about reading. There were educated princes and especially educated princesses. It was the fashionable thing for princes in this century to found academies.

The Enlightenment philosophers began to contest the dogma of the Catholic Church, which considered earthly life to be a simple passage towards eternal life. They challenged the teaching of the priests, divine revelation and Church traditions. The existence of one God, Creator of the Universe, was accepted, but His intervention in the history of humanity was rejected. “Creation submits only to the laws of nature” - is the concept known as ‘deism’.

Deism tried to minimize the Church’s role, which was considered to be a source of fanaticism and ignorance. To deists, God was involved only in the creation of the world, after which He left it to function according to its own rules.

The Enlightenment philosophers condemned the Catholic Church because it was rich, corrupt and intolerant. They borrowed Voltaire’s cry: “Crush the infamous!”, referring to the Church.

Religion was seen as a guarantor of social order. It was needed by ordinary people, who lacked a rationalist education, which would enlighten man’s mind and soul.

A literal interpretation of the Bible was no longer accepted. Everything which could not be explained rationally was rejected. For example, belief in miracles was discounted as superstition.

Diderot declared that “man has only one duty: to be happy.” The Enlightenment thinkers’ goal was to apply rational analysis to all areas. Although the philosophers criticized certain institutions of the Old Regime, they did not oppose the regime as such and did not consider themselves to be revolutionaries.

The constitutional monarchy should have been strengthened by the reforms proposed by philosophers and by the educated elite of society.

The most important principles which fundamentally changed conceptions about the exercise of power in a state were: the constitutional regime, the separation of power in state, the protection of people’s natural rights, private property and equality before the law and before justice.

The Enlightenment thinkers accepted two forms of government: the monarchy and the republic. They attacked monarchical despotism. This was triggered mainly by Montesquieu in his book The Spirit of the Laws. The monarchic state was no longer a state ruled according to the king’s whims, but must be ruled according to principles and rules of government.

The political emancipation of women began in this century. Women wanted to be as involved as possible in state affairs, and to be equal to men. Before this time, these rights were denied. Women were not allowed to be directly involved in political life - this was seen to be an exclusively masculine pursuit.

On the economic plane, labor was considered to be the only source of wealth and economic progress. Some thinkers considered agricultural labor to be the true source of wealth, and that landowners should have a privileged place in society. Others argued that society could prosper through the development of industry and commerce.

Francois Quesnay was a French economist who laid the foundation of physiocracy. This economic trend argued that agriculture is the most important branch of the economy.

Vincent de Gournay, French economist and minister of commerce, was the one who coined the famous phrase: Laissez faire, laissez passer. Through this, he expressed the necessity of economic liberty in a state. He was against mercantilism and state intervention in transactions between individual people.

In his work, An inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations, the Scottish philosopher Adam Smith formulated for the first time the law of supply and demand as the principle rule which must act on the free market of economies. Thus, he contributed to the apparition of the idea of capitalism and free commerce.

Thomas Malthus believed that poverty, sickness, wars and epidemics were positive factors for humankind. These guaranteed a balance between population levels and the quantity of the means of subsistence.

The Age of Enlightenment was marked by a series of cultural elite, personalities, so-called theoreticians of the Enlightenment ideas. Through their writings, they would influence the thinking of a new era and change mindsets.

Montesquieu was a nobleman and had been president of the Bordeaux Parliament. He considered that these institutions, as well as the States Provincial, had a special role in mediation between the king and his subjects. Their power prevented the king becoming a despot. The parliaments were enthusiastic about his ideas.

Voltaire was a conservative Enlightenment philosopher. He created a vast body of work. His writings were aimed against social inequalities, superstition and religious intolerance. He criticized the Old Regime and the Church. He fought for freedom of speech and thought, and for all men to stand equal before the law. He considered that the evils of society could be removed through the alliance of monarchs and philosophers. Voltaire was the theoretician of enlightened despotism.

In J.J. Rousseau’s conception, the republic was a society which appeared as a consequence of a contract drawn up between free and equal people. Based on this contract, the exercise of power was delegated to representatives of these people. General will was the political expression of a national community, representing the source of authority in a state. Thus, the idea of a representative political regime, as an expression of the people’s sovereignty, was founded.

J.J. Rousseau was a radical Enlightenment thinker. His works: Discourse on Inequality and The Social Contract express the aspirations of the minor nobility he represented. Rousseau considered private property to be the source of inequality and evil in society. As such, it should be limited. He also fought for the right of all citizens to participate in political life. The state must be organized in such a way as to ensure the sovereignty of the people.

The ideas of the Enlightenment spread mostly through books. Besides books, philosophers’ ideas circulated via the press, through scientific, literary and artistic societies, through study rooms, but also through Masonic lodges.

Enlightenment ideas spread through Europe and the American continent through brochures or large books. The Encyclopédie, coordinated by Diderot and d’Alembert, had 35 volumes. It contained scientific and technical knowledge of the time, philosophic, political, religious and economic ideas, an analysis of society and the idea of human progress.

The spread of Enlightenment ideas in Europe was favored by the fashion of using the French language. Both the intellectual elite and the wealthy social classes of almost all European states spoke this language.

The idea that there is a clear difference between public life and private life appeared. State authority together with administrative organization were considered forms of public authority. Social rules and order, gardens and markets were also considered public. Thus, public language is inaugurated, along with public conferences, and also the idea of public services.

Private comes to refer to all that is one’s own, in particular, which doesn’t involve any obligations or service rendered to others.

Societal problems connected with government, finance, economy, armed forces and international relations become the object of public debates. Up until this period, these issues were only discussed in the council of the monarch and in the ministers’ cabinets.

All kinds of people participated in the public debates: the intellectual elite, philosophers, scientists and the general public. They took place in libraries, coffee shops, clubs, Masonic lodges, in modern salons or in literary societies. In the name of public opinion, the general state of society was criticized, together with the king’s policies.

Societies for helping the poor and homeless were founded, carrying out charitable and philanthropic activities. The state also began to get involved, by creating institutions for the poor and for beggars.