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The age of Enlightenment or Enlightenment was a philosophical movement backed by ideas that dominated not only the French in the 18th century but also entire Europe. Enlightenment was anchored on the notion of sources of legitimacy and authority which pushed for ideals such as liberty, natural laws, and separation of religion and state. The main agenda was the creation of modern democracies such as civil society and human and civil rights. It is worth noting that the current framework of sciences and academic disciplines is grounded in the age of Enlightenment (Deane, 2013). Numerous developments followed in parallel with European exploration and colonization & presence in Africa and Asia sparked the beginning of Enlightenment (Duane, 2013). The age of Enlightenment occurred in the 18th century, several decades before the beginning of the French Revolution. Despite the Enlightenment taking place earlier than the French Revolution, its ideas are profound to the Revolution. This paper focuses on various ideas of the age of Enlightenment and how they impacted the French Revolution.
The enlightenment era ushered in various changes in the French colony that led to Revolution. The primary ideas of the Enlightenment that greatly influenced the French Revolution include:
One of the most significant impacts of the French Revolution was the declaration of the rights of man and of the citizen (“Enlightenment ideas lead to revolutions,” n.d.). Adopted in the National assembly on August 26, 1789, the document was crucial because it challenged the monarchy under the authority of Louis XVI. Many idealistic Assembly members saw the American Revolution as a glorious example of freedom triumphing over tyranny. This inspired the French declaration, which grew out of the Enlightenment. It should come as no surprise, then, that the actual author of the Declaration was Lafayette, a defender of American rights who now wished to convey the same freedoms to his compatriots. Influential and critical thinkers of the Age of Enlightenment first articulated the principles of freedom and equality that would eventually be used to dethrone Louis XVI from power. The France revolution was primarily impacted by the works of John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Baron de Montesquieu. All three of these Enlightenment cheerleaders challenged the absolute power of the monarchy and fought against the strict social stratification that resulted from feudalism and the estates system in France (Davidson, 2022). They encouraged the revolutionaries and regular citizens of France to question authority and the government’s role. Many Enlightenment promoters’ ideas were regularly discussed and debated in French salons, where intellectuals and artists gathered to discuss the day’s issues.
On July 11, 1789, just three days before the Bastille fell, Lafayette first advocated the necessity for a declaration of citizens’ natural rights to the assembly. His proposal was strongly supported by fellow French veterans of the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783). There could hardly have been a stronger mandate for him to continue his work than the Storming of the Bastille, which bolstered the Revolution and put Lafayette in charge of the National Guard (Davidson, 2022). Additionally, the declaration of the French colony’s natural rights initiated various rights legally protected by law. The core principles that bound the declaration can be traced back to the ideas and arguments of great supporters of Enlightenment. The declaration is considered the first document that supported natural rights to be accorded to each citizen, a critical turning point in the history of the modern world(“Enlightenment impact on the French Revolution,” n.d.).
Social contract, balance of power, and separation of church & state
One of the main philosophical ideas behind the Enlightenment was the social contract championed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In the French Revolution, the social contract gave the citizens the right to overthrow monarchs (Mcphee, 2001). The social contract in the France revolution denied the monarch the divine powers to legislate. Equally, the social contract was bounded by the principles that the society was corrupting its people; it could be amended through achieving a true morality by governance under society-made laws. The concept of the social contract is usually considered the beginning of democracy and totalitarianism, which were the key foundation of France’s revolution (Mcphee, 2001).
The French Revolution led to the collapse of the monarchy through the separation of powers, a fundamental principle in the age of Enlightenment. According to Kent (2002), the France monarchy and the three estates were stripped of their powers due to abuse of the third state peasants by the first and the second estates. Equally, during the era of absolute monarchy, the church played a crucial role in governance and control of the people. The separation of church and state was a concept promoted by enlightenment philosophers, including John Locke. The concept underlined individual natural rights to choose their faith without state interference. In the France revolution, all citizens were eventually granted civil and political rights hence trumpeting their rights to worship as they please.
It is widely considered that Enlightenment laid the groundwork for contemporary French and generally western culture. Politically, it modernized the West by encouraging the development of liberal democracies that prioritized democratic norms and institutions. The cornerstones of France liberalism are the concept of natural rights, the balance of powers, and the adoption of civil and political rights, which paved the way for actions such as separating the church and the state in the French colony.
- Davidson, I. (2022, June 8). Declaration of the rights of man and of the citizen. World History Encyclopedia. https://www.worldhistory.org/article/2012/declaration-of-the-rights-of-man-and-of-the-citize/
- Deane, S. (2013). The French Revolution and Enlightenment in England, 1789–1832. In The French Revolution and Enlightenment in England, 1789–1832. Harvard University Press.
- Enlightenment ideas lead to revolutions. (n.d.). Students of History Teaching Resources. https://www.studentsofhistory.com/enlightenment-ideas-lead-to-revolutions
- Enlightenment impact on the French Revolution. (n.d.). HISTORY CRUNCH – History Articles, Biographies, Infographics, Resources and More. https://www.historycrunch.com/enlightenment-impact-on-the-french-revolution.html#/
- Kent, J. (2002). The Enlightenment. In Companion encyclopedia of theology (pp. 271-291). Routledge.
- McPhee, P. (2001). The French Revolution, 1789-1799. OUP Oxford.