French Revolution
French Revolution

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French Revolution

7 Conclusion

7.1 The Enlightenment, the French Revolution, Britain and Europe

Je suis tombé par terre,

C'est la faute à Voltaire;

Le nez dans le ruisseau,

C'est la faute à Rousseau

[I've tumbled to the ground

thanks to Voltaire;

With my nose in the brook,

thanks to Rousseau]

(Quoted in Hugo, n.d., pp.204–5; trans. Lentin)

So ran a ditty popular after the Revolution, which blamed it on Voltaire and Rousseau. The idea was common among those hostile to the Revolution, including Catherine the Great. But the idea was also long shared by historians that the Revolution took place as a result of the writings of the philosophes, who, it is said, undermined confidence in the institutions of the Old Regime and paved the way for its overthrow.

Exercise 11

The nature of the relationship between the Enlightenment and the Revolution remains a complex and controversial question. Without going into it in depth here, you might usefully address a related but slightly different question: how far did the philosophes intend to bring about a revolution?


Your notes probably included some of the following points:

  • The philosophes, if not reformers themselves, pointed the way towards reform. They were convinced that their mission was for the benefit of their fellow human beings.

  • The Encyclopédie was intended to encourage a more informed, questioning and critical attitude towards existing institutions.

  • Such articles as ‘Inoculation’, ‘Fanaticism’ or ‘The slave trade’ in the Encyclopédie, and Voltaire's role in the campaign to rehabilitate Calas, exemplify the philosophes’ desire to lessen suffering, cruelty, injustice and unreason.

  • In such articles as ‘Natural equality’ and ‘Political authority’ the philosophes promoted notions of human rights and natural equality.

But ideas of equality as conceived by most philosophes were moral rather than political in inspiration. What was meant was that human beings, whether religious minorities or black slaves, should be treated with ‘humanity’ (for instance, by according freedom of worship to the former and emancipation to the latter), not that social or economic distinctions should be abolished. Few philosophes were social or political radicals, and they were mostly open-minded or eclectic about forms of government. Few were out-and-out republicans (though Rousseau expressed more radical ideas on the good society, characterised by republican virtue).

In your brief answer, then, you may have said something on the following lines:

Certainly the revolutionaries hailed the Enlightenment as the precursor of revolution. This was symbolised by the ceremonial transfer of the remains of Voltaire and Rousseau to the Pantheon. Whether Voltaire or Rousseau would have recognised the revolution that erupted 11 years after their death as their legitimate progeny is doubtful. Neither had called for the overthrow of the Old Regime, still less for terror or bloodshed.

Exercise 12

According to R.R. Palmer, the French Revolution ‘represented the Enlightenment in militant form’ (1964, p. 355). State briefly how far you agree with this proposition.


There are a number of possible ways of approaching this question. If you agree with Palmer's statement, you may have included something on the following lines:

The impact of the Enlightenment on the revolutionaries’ way of thinking seems undeniable, notably their confidence in the efficacy of legislation to bring about conditions in which human rights and human happiness might be realised. This is evident, for example, in Sieyes's What is the Third Estate?, with its grounding in Enlightenment assumptions, or in the rational principles underlying the replacement of the provinces by the departments, or in the introduction of the metric system.

Broadly, Voltaire may be said to have influenced the first, reformist, liberal phase of the Revolution epitomised in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, while Rousseau's faith in mankind's innate goodness and his ideas of the regeneration of society both enhanced this general optimism at the outset of the Revolution and also affected leaders like Robespierre, attuned as he believed himself to be to the ‘general will’, during its more radical course after 1792.


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