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The Age of Enlightenment as a Reason of the French Revolution

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French nobility had rather dynamic and wide shifting beliefs from the time leading up to the French Revolution till it had passed. These dynamic shifts in thought were caused largely by enlightenment which opened the eyes of some nobles to the realization that religion and government were in fact bearing heavily down upon man, and perhaps freedom would come as a product of the removal of such things from the lives of the people, a belief we see dramatically shift within the next few years. In the time leading up to the French Revolution many progressive nobles acknowledgedthe need for change to their government, one which would provide more freedom for their fellow man, and in this realization they sought election into the Second Estate of the National Assembly so that you might work to change things for the better, but what happened when the French revolution began would quickly and dramatically change the views of progressive nobles.

The age of enlightenment or age of reason as referred to by some historians brought with it a flood of philosophical thinkers, among them Jean-Jacques Rousseau and François-Marie d’Arouet (or his much simpler pen name Voltaire) shared the common belief that man was by nature born free, then imprisoned by the government, and deeper still the ownership of property. (Shank, J.B. “Voltaire.”) Though Rousseau seems to delve much deeper into these beliefs than Voltaire as illustrated by this rather lengthy excerpt in which Rousseau explains how the modern man is made a slave by “needs.”

““needs” result from the passions, which make people desire an object or activity. In the state of nature, human needs are strictly limited to those things that ensure survival and reproduction, including food, sleep, and sex. By contrast, as cooperation and division of labor develop in modern society, the needs of men multiply to include many nonessential things, such as friends, entertainment, and luxury goods. As time goes by and these sorts of needs increasingly become a part of everyday life, they become necessities. Although many of these needs are initially pleasurable and even good for human beings, men in modern society eventually become slaves to these superfluous needs, and the whole of society is bound together and shaped by their pursuit. As such, unnecessary needs are the foundation of modern “moral inequality,” in that the pursuit of needs inevitably means that some will be forced to work to fulfill the needs of others and some will dominate their fellows when in a position to do so.” (Spark Notes “JEAN-JACQUES ROUSSEAU (1712–1778).”)

Breaking down this excerpt we see a strong likeness to the beliefs of communism, but we also see into the minds of progressive nobles who read this in agreement. Nobles were compelled more so to side with this enlightenment knowledge than the poor lower class, as many could agree with the belief that needs equated to shackles which could tie a man down and will ultimately lead to the subjugation of lower classes to suit the needs of those classes above them. A seemingly endless cycle by which the rich desire more and more things shackled by their growing needs and the poor are shackled by their never ending work to satisfy the ever increasing needs of those above them thus making slaves of everyone. This was rather radical thinking for its time, and those progressive nobles who embraced it remained in France with a mind to change things for the better while those nobles who refused to believe the lower classes were deserving of any such freedoms either fled the country or remained up until the revolution officially began at which time they either fled for fear of the guillotine, or were captured by radical revolutionaries and beheaded.

With the start of the French Revolution came a large shift in power, where the third estate representing the much greater portion of Frances population declared itself the Sovereign National Assembly and with this declaration many members of the other two former estates switched allegiances to this new revolutionary group. The lower class French citizens saw their chance with this sudden shift in governing powers and quickly stormed the Bastille in search of weapons with which to fight their feudal contracts and eliminate their former landlords. As one can imagine, this quickly changed the minds of any progressive nobles who were forced to flee for their lives to other countries, or take their chances by remaining in France in constant fear of the now lawless lower class they once ruled over. Those who did not flee remained typically as members of the newly formed National Assembly. ((Spark Notes “THE FRENCH REVOLUTION (1789–1799).”)) This led to a drastic shift in the thinking of these progressive nobles, they were now being attacked by the lower classes who followed the philosophies of Rousseau, but interpreted his words to be a rally cry for revolution becamebloodthirsty revolution crazed animals. These “animals” were the result of the enlightenment teachings of Rousseau, and it was becoming abundantly clear that France could not be saved by the enlightenment philosophies of Rousseau fueling revolution and rebellion, but would instead cause the rise to power of several radical dictators. Bearing witness to this backwards seeming logic caused the few remaining nobles to fear for their own safety as witch hunts and mass executions swept throughout France.

Those nobles still in France at the time of the rise of Robespierre saw the creation of the Constitution of 1793 and under the direction of Robespierre France passed several new laws which worked to create economic stability while Robespierre’s army fought to remove the foreign invaders. For a brief time following these events it seemed as though France was on the road to recovery, but like many leaders do, Robespierre succumbed to the fear of counterrevolutionaries ironically leading him to a reign of terror in which 15000 people were beheaded in a mass witch hunt. These beheadings were quickly ceased with the capturing and execution of Robespierre which followed the removal of foreign invaders and the laws he put into place to stabilize the economy. (Spark Notes “THE FRENCH REVOLUTION (1789–1799).”) Most ironic of his demise is the fact that counterrevolutionary sediment was only increased by the mass beheadings of suspected counterrevolutionaries. How did the remaining nobles respond to Robespierre’s reign of terror? Well those that remained all agreed he had to go, but they did so rather quietly for fear that they would be next. The mass executions of “suspected counterrevolutionaries” may have been justified while foreigners were pressing deeper into French territory, and the economy was in shambles, but as soon as things in France stabilized this reign of terror was exposed to the public who radically changed from supporting Robespierre to fearing the consequences of a continuing reign of terror lacking any justifications other than paranoia. The class of nobles saw their opportunity with the change of public opinion and quickly took action against Robespierre.

Following the reign of terrors end with the death of Robespierre was a time of reconstruction, the French government was in ruins, and with lack of an official leader formed the Directory, a group with control over executive appointments and responsibilities, and despite lacking legislative powers the directory managed to become corrupt enough to rival the tyrannical rule of any of its predecessors. The directory sought to keep the whole of France under their thumb by furthering their own self-interests and using their army to overturn any elections they saw as a threat to their power. That being said the general lawlessness of France began once more as the Directory clearly lacked the knowledge of how to deal with criminals. (Brown, Howard G. pp 13-16)

In spite of the things brought about by the writings of Rousseau and Voltaire, the nobles turn to another philosopher of the enlightenment era, Burke. The ideas of Burke were very intellectual, and despite his opposition to the French Revolution, he also disliked the idea of a returning monarchy. Edmund Burke is known mostly for his response to the French Revolution as contained in quite the lengthy letter. His ideals are that which sparked modern conservatism and as such were rather easy for the nobility class to stand behind. Limiting the power and role of government was a strong message Burke had, but he did not advocate for a single form of government based solely on its validity/success in other countries. In spite of alluding to other governments in his writings Burke was a proponent of a custom system of governance for France as he believed that every country required a unique approach as not all countries have the same problems/governing needs. (Halsall, Paul. “Edmund Burke, Works, (London: 1867).”) This idea appealed greatly to the nobility of France who sought an end to crime and a return to their much safer lives as respected nobles of France.

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