Intellectual Enlightenment

Intellectual Enlightenment:

In the 18th century in France, people parted with conventional thoughts and began adopting the enlightened outlook at an intellectual level. Europeans were becoming enlightened. Rampant evils were exposed in the country. The cause of Enlightenment was translated into reality by prominent French Intellectuals like Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Quesnay, Tourge, and D’alembert. These thinkers (philosophers) infused independent thinking in people. The characteristic aspect of their thoughts was the establishment of a liberal, progressive, and ideal society. These thinkers hailing from the nobility or the bourgeoisie class organized many seminars (cells) in order to discuss the evils of the contemporary system. They supported the cause of laissez-faire, elimination of prevalent disparity in taxation, and approved of the rights of autonomy in administration. To a great extent, they were influenced by the British political system. They made several beneficial suggestions for the future government. By means of their thought-provoking writings, they laid bare inequality, exploitation, cruelty, religious intolerance, corrupt absolute monarchy, financial restrictions, agonies of the proletariat, and administrative and judicial demerits. They questioned the necessity of religious, social, economic, and political institutions which were founded on privileges and injustice. They undertook the great task of scouring old doctrines from the human mind. Writers were churning the discontent of French Society. They were inspiring the public, expressing their discontent, laying bare their complaints, and guiding them. Literary persons had become politicians in a country having no parliament. By means of satire and humor, criticism and comparison, scientific explanation, socialistic ideology, and candid contempt, they revealed the hollowness of the French Institutions.”

The intellectual movement of that time applied a scientific outlook on life. Optimism was the key attribute in the thinking of that time. Instead of becoming frustrated by the immediate adverse circumstances and their evils, people shone with a gleam of a bright future. The most remarkable aspect of the intellectual enlightenment in the 18th century was that man became the focus of serious thinking. Public welfare became the cherished aim. It was accepted that the state, the Church, and other institutions should strive for the good of human beings only.

It is a controversial question how far the intellectual movement launched by the intellectuals was accountable for the French Revolution. Generally, intellectual consciousness is called the soul of revolution and the credit of revolution goes to philosophical writers and the intelligentsia. Napoleon himself had avowed “There would have been no French Revolution if Rousseau had not existed.” It is obvious that the French writers and thinkers stirred the feelings of the masses against the damage caused by political, social, economic, and religious evils, otherwise various evils were rampant in the society from earlier times but no revolution did break out. In a volume entitled “French Revolution,” George Allen states that, “Agonies of people and cruelties inflicted upon them did not contribute to the cause of French Revolution but the thoughts of intellectual were responsible for it. The intelligentsia was sincerely committed to eliminating all disparities rampant in society, state, and administration.”

The noted French writer, poet, and novelist, F. R. Chautaubrain (1768-1848) maintains that “The French Revolution originated from the combination of intellectual movement and material misery. Intellectual movement resisted physical agonies vehemently.” Roughly speaking, philosophers gave birth to the revolution. On the contrary, some thinkers state that excessive importance has been attached to the contemporary intellectual thinkers in France. The intellectual movement of that time was aimed at achieving improvement in the administrative system and promotion of religious tolerance by way of curbing the powers of the King. The works of French writers gained popularity in royal families also in addition to the general masses. These facts prove that the intellectual writings did not evoke revolutionary change. The learned historian Hazen maintains that the French Revolution was triggered off by the evils of life, and the errors of governing bodies rather than by the intellectuals David Thomson has expressed his views in these words: “There is an indirect and distant connection between the philosophers and the revolution of 1789. They did not preach revolution. They were prepared to extend their help to any king who was prepared to protect them and follow their teachings. Further, their supporters too did not strive for revolution nor did they favor it. Many of them were capitalists, advocates, businessmen, and prestigious personalities who enjoyed a good reputation and comfortable life.

In respect of the French Revolution, the contribution of thinkers may be disputed but they had forecast the Revolution. Thinkers may not have fathered the doctrines of the Revolution but they were, undoubtedly, disseminators of the Revolution. Through their conjoint efforts, the writers promoted a mentality in the majority of people that whatever they experienced in France was inadequate and full of errors. They created a party of leaders and presented them with certain principles, idioms, and material for discussion. Besides, they kindled a strong hope in their mind and paved the way for their success. All demerits and evils rampant in the governing system of France were revealed so effectively by writers that people were constrained to rivet their attention to the factors of crisis and have a creative debate upon them with great enthusiasm. On the whole, it may be deduced from the above facts that if thinkers and writers did not become the decisive factors of the French Revolution, their provocative thoughts proved to be good incentives needed for the French Revolution. They were representatives of those driving forces which fretted the external layers of French life. The nature of writers was like the flaring heat that radiates from an erupted volcano and does not fail to transpire blazing heat into every object that comes into its contact. The fire of their thoughts consumed the ties that intellectuals held with the established authority and order.

Important Links:

French Revolution (1789)
Political Causes of the French Revolution
Economic Causes of the French Revolution
Beginning of the French Revolution
Functions of the Constituent Assembly
Unsuccessful Attempt of the Royal Family to Flee the Country
Phases of the French Revolution
Role of Philosophers in the French Revolution
Nature of the French Revolution
Correlation Between the Objectives and Achievements of the French Revolution
Do you agree that the French Revolution achieved far less than what it intended to achieve?
Importance of the French Revolution
French Revolution of 1848
The Foreign Policy of Louis Philippe