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Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau, the Encyclopedists and Nicolas de Condorcet


Baron Charles Montesquieu (1689-1755) had an inherited fortune and time to write. And he mixed with Parisian higher society, where he was a celebrated conversationalist. He satirized French society. He criticized France's monarchical absolutism and the Church, offending authorities but adding to his popularity. He was a Catholic who believed that people should think for themselves.

Montesquieu traveled through much of Europe to observe people and political constitutions. He stayed in England for eighteen months and praised Britain's constitutional monarchy. He was opposed to republicanism and disliked democracy, which he saw as mob rule. He saw government as benefiting from the knowledge of society's elite, and he saw common people as unfit to discuss public affairs. The masses, he believed, were moved too much by emotion and too little by reason.

In France, history was still being described as it had been in Medieval times, with supernatural causes, and Montesquieu defied this tradition. He was hopeful that reading history would divest readers of their prejudices and contribute to improvement in contemporary society. He wrote an essay titled "Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness and Decline of the Romans," which described Rome as the product of social, political and geographic conditions.

Montesquieu admired England's John Locke – the famous liberal and empiricist of a preceding generation. And he was influenced by Newton's physics and believed in a god that had made the laws that governed the physical world. But humanity, he believed, had a free will and God did not direct human affairs. A god who directed people as if they were puppets he thought would not have produced human intelligence.

Montesquieu believed that where government was more liberal and where people thought independently, society would be less devoted to religious ritual and more devoted to morality.

Pope Benedict XIV respected Montesquieu, but various bishops did not, and they placed on the Church's index of forbidden books Montesquieu's The Spirit of Laws, published in 1748. But independence of thought prevailed and the book was a success, going into 22 editions.


François Arouet, who became known as Voltaire (1694-1778), wrote poetry and plays, and for expressing his opinions he was twice sent to prison. He was in exile in England from 1726 to 1729. And, like Montesquieu, he developed an admiration for British institutions. Voltaire admired Britain's Tolerance Act of 1689 and its absence of censorship. He saw benefit in variety, claiming that if England had but one religion it would still be despotic, that if England had just two faiths those faiths would be at each others throat. But with thirty different religious groupings, he claimed, Britain lived as a happy land where the spirit of Greece lived on.

Voltaire had also been influenced by Newton and Locke. He disliked theories not supported by observation and experiment. But he spun such theories himself. In arguing against the Great Flood described in the Old Testament, he attempted to explain the presence of sea shells on Mt Cenis in the Alps. He claimed that "the earth has always remained as it was when it was first created" but that collectors of sea shells could have put the shells there, that small farmers could have dumped the shells with their loads of lime to fertilize the soil, or that the shells might have been badges that had dropped from the hats of pilgrims on their way to Rome.

Voltaire was awed by the grandness of the cosmos and saw the cosmos moved by immutable laws that could not be altered by prayer. Voltaire was a deist, and in one of his attacks on conventional religion he wondered why the god of the Old Testament had created humans with a capacity for pleasure and then damned them for using it. He wondered why Jehovah had created humans and then drowned them in His flood. He attacked the idea of original sin, wondering why children should be punished for the sins of their first father, Adam.

Voltaire didn't see original sin as an excuse. In his novel Candide he expressed annoyance at people massacring each other, and he described people as liars, cheats, traitors, brigands, weak, flighty, cowardly, envious, gluttonous, drunkenness, grasping, backbiting, debauched, fanatical, hypocritical and silly. Like Montesquieu he feared the passion of common people, and he too disliked democracy. But he also ridiculed the hauteur of aristocrats, and he thought himself the friend of peasants and serfs. He spoke with admiration for William Penn and the Quakers. He opposed all forms of slavery. He hoped that enlightened monarchs would rule above class interests and keep a firm but tolerant reign on society for the sake of all.

He was too pessimistic about humanity to formulate a utopia. He argued that the world would improve as ignorance and superstition were replaced by more knowledge, more reason, sympathy and more tolerance. Voltaire wanted more education, but it was not the poor and unskilled laborer he wished to educate; it was the middle class. "When the populace meddles in reasoning," he wrote, "all is lost." The lower classes, he believed, needed religion and needed to be preached to about virtue.

In 1731 Voltaire's History of Charles XII was published, a narrative written while he was in exile in England. Voltaire, it is said, tried to separate fiction and fact and tried to explain Charles – Sweden's war-making monarch and invader of Russia back in 1708 – as an extraordinary man worthy of respect.

In 1743 Voltaire was elected to England's Royal Society. In 1746 he was admitted to the French Academy. In 1751 his book The Age of Louis XIV was published. In 1756 he wrote his "Essay on the Manners and Spirit of the Nations." And in 1759 Candide was published.

Voltaire liked recognition and associating with celebrities and the powerful. Despite his belief in tolerance he railed against the Roman Catholic Church, describing it as the fountainhead and bulwark of evil. He had been put off by the Church's opposition to new scientific views, including those of Galileo and Newton. He believed that the kind of change he wanted was not possible without undermining the power of the Church. Then later in his life, to advance his career, he started a campaign to endear himself to Pope Benedict XIV. This was a Pope that had respect for some of what accompanied the Enlightenment, especially tolerance. Pope Benedict brought a storm of protest upon himself by his friendly response to Voltaire, including his calling Voltaire his "dear son" and sending him his "blessing."


Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) is best known for his line about people being born free but finding themselves in chains. His mother had died a few days after his birth. His father abandoned him when he was ten, leaving him with relatives and friends. He was brought up a Calvinist, and although he had no regular schooling he was encouraged to pursue his precocious taste for reading serious books. At sixteen he began homeless wandering. In the 1740s in his thirties he appeared in Paris as a writer of poetry, opera and comedy, and there he made friends with a few other writers, including Denis Diderot, a year younger than he, but formally educated.

In 1750 Rousseau won a prize offered by the Academy of Dijon for an essay on the question whether the arts and sciences had conferred benefits upon "mankind." His essay claimed that people were good and innocent by nature and had been corrupted by the arts and sciences. It expressed some of the values of his religious heritage and also his general dislike for the upper classes. Letters and the arts, he claimed, were the worst enemies of morals, for they created wants. Science and virtue, he wrote, were incompatible. Science, he wrote, had ignoble origins. Physics, he said, had risen from vain curiosity. He approved of virtue, but the study of ethics he described as having its source in human pride. He located the basis of ethics in emotions rather than reason.

Rousseau continued writing. In 1754 his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality was published. In it he described the invention of private property as a fateful moment in human history. He preferred the sharing that had existed among Stone Age communal societies, and he lauded the relative equality and the greater bond of affection with which he believed these people regarded each other. He recognized that modern societies would not be remade into the smaller societies of those former times, but in his novel Emile and in his work titled Social Contract, both published in 1762, he tried to explain how civilized society could be improved. Rousseau opposed slavery – which was still widely accepted. He believed in Locke's social contract. He was radical in that he believed in democracy, setting himself apart from Voltaire among others. Moreover, Rousseau put himself on the side of social revolution. Liberty, he wrote, was not to be found in any existing form of government, it was in the hearts of free men. He described existing laws as "always useful to those who own and as injurious to those who do not." And such laws, he wrote, "give the weak new burdens, the strong new powers and irretrievably destroy natural freedom."

In a society not based on private property, he claimed, individuals could join together to make laws that give expression to a "General Will," uniting people who share a sense of social responsibility. Instead of wanting to return to a Stone Age tribal society he wanted to create a civilization that was democratic and communal, a society worthy of humanity which would appeal to humanity's better nature and make humanity worthy of civilization.

Rousseau gave a boost to romanticism in the arts, believing as he did more in the emotions of the unlearned than in the reason of intellectuals. He had no use for Plato, Aristotle or the scholastics. He was for action rather than what the well-to-do called reason. With Voltaire he was for a time friendly, but Voltaire was anti-Romantic. Voltaire didn't trust emotions the way that Rousseau did, and he criticized Rousseau's admiration for Stone Age tribal society, writing to Rousseau that after reading his work, "one feels like crawling on all fours."

Rousseau had an independent approach to religion. Calvinists and Roman Catholics saw him as a "freethinking" heretic. But Rousseau believed in a personal god, in divine providence and the immortality of the soul. He saw morality and virtue as rising from the faith and hope of religious people. He differed with most Christians in his belief that it was not Original Sin that troubled humanity. He wanted to create a natural religion that rises from instinct, a religion that returns people to nature, with no intermediary priesthood between people and their god. He claimed that Jesus Christ was not the Redeemer but was a model for the recovery of one's nature.

In 1762, Rousseau was driven into exile – to Switzerland and England. In 1763, his book The Social Contract made the Catholic Church's index of forbidden books, and an order went out for his arrest. He was well received in London, but there he was overcome by feelings of persecution, and in 1767 he returned to France, where he was still wanted by the law. In France the authorities ignored him, and he died the following year, at the age of sixty-six.

The Encyclopedists

In 1751 in France the first part of a new encyclopedia was published – subjects that started with the letter A. The two men most responsible for the work were the writers Denis Diderot and Jean d'Alembert (pronounced zhan dah-lemBEAR), the latter a respected scientist and mathematician. The two men believed that knowledge would bring people more happiness, and they wished to combat what they believed was the ignorance, myth, dogma and superstition inherited from the Middle Ages. Some of their writing on subjects beginning with the letter "A" offended both government and Church authorities. The government banned the book, and the Church placed the book on its index of forbidden books and threatened excommunication on all who read or bought it.

In 1765 the encyclopedia was completed. It was twenty-eight volumes with hundreds of thousands of articles by leading scientists and famous writers, among them the Marquis de Condorcet, Montesquieu, Voltaire and Rousseau. And it included an article by Diderot against slavery and the slave trade.

In the 1770s, Diderot wrote an article on the Tahitians, drawing from a description written by the French explorer Louis Bougainville, who had visited Tahiti for ten days. Bougainville's comments about the Tahitians living together freely provided Diderot with an opportunity to criticize the institution of marriage. Diderot looked with disdain upon the morality of France's elite. He called the marriage he saw around him in France as immoral because it reduced women to the status of possessions or objects. Diderot complained of marriage as having created two unnecessary conditions: the plight of the fallen woman and the plight of the illegitimate child.

Despite the ban on the encyclopedia it was widely read and became an influence through much of Western Europe.

Marquis de Condorcet

Another Frenchman, Condorcet, born a half-century after Voltaire and around thirty years after of Rousseau, was one of the first to systematically apply mathematics in the social sciences. Behavior, he believed, could be quantitatively analyzed. But he also believed in diversity and individual freedom, independence of choice and people thinking for themselves – something a bit apart from Rousseau's General Will, foreshadowing the liberalism that was coming in the 1800s.

Condorcet was an optimist, believing that the lives of people in general could be improved. He believed in social justice and advocated free and equal public education, constitutionalism, equal rights for women and people of all races. He founded an anti-slavery organization, the Society of the Friends of the Blacks.

Opposed to authoritarianism, he was anti-clerical and, unlike Voltaire, he was also opposed to monarchy. In other words, he was a republican. His belief in liberty extended to free exchanges in the world of buying and selling, as did a Scottish contemporary, Adam Smith.

In his early twenties, in 1765, his first work on mathematics – on integral calculus – launched his career as a respected mathematician. In 1769 he was elected to the French Royal Academy of Sciences. In 1772 he published another paper on integral calculus which was widely hailed as groundbreaking. Condorcet was recognized worldwide and worked with famous scientists, including Leonhard Euler and Benjamin Franklin. He became an honorary member of many foreign academies and philosophical societies in Sweden, Germany, Russia and the United States.

Condorcet was one of those who believed that knowledge, reason and science would liberate humanity, and he took this belief with him into the French Revolution. He would take a leading role in the French Revolution from its beginning in 1789, hoping for a rational reconstruction of society. He was to be elected as Paris delegate to the Assembly, and he became secretary of the Assembly. He advocated women's suffrage for the new government. He opposed the death penalty for King Louis XVI. Hardline revolutionaries associated him with the revolution's liberal and traitorous faction. He was imprisoned, and in prison he died a mysterious death.


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