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Blaming the Enlightenment

In 1815, people across Europe were sick of war and longing for peace. Disdain for social upheaval increased conservatism's appeal, and that appeal was served by a revival of religious devotions. Conservatives were blaming the French Revolution's excesses not only on the weaknesses in character and mind of revolutionaries but also the intellectual heritage of the Enlightenment, including the revolution's expressed ideals, "liberty, equality, fraternity." It was a false lumping together of many thinkers, including Voltaire and Rousseau. It was a blur of Thomas Paine and Robespierre as one person. Paine had opposed the execution of Louis XVI and the terror. Enlightenment thinkers had not been as enthusiastic for war or as nationalistic as many of France's revolutionaries, but no matter. Enlightenment thinkers were blamed for having rejected traditional God-appointed monarchism and the intellectual authority of the Church or church fathers. Immanuel Kant was among those singled out for criticism. He had insulted people who let authority figures do their thinking for them, describing them as children and calling on them to grow up.

On the continent of Europe the conservative diplomat and philosopher Joseph de Maistre (1754-1821) was one of the leaders expressing the idea that traditions had developed as they had because they were best. He saw monarchies as divinely sanctioned and the only stable form of government. According to de Maistre, attempts to justify government on rational grounds (as John Locke had) led to unresolvable arguments about the legitimacy and expediency of any existing government, and this in turn led to violence and chaos.

De Maistre described French intellectuals as instrumental in bringing about the Revolution, giving little credit to matters of economics and the kind of emotional outbursts of rebellion that had occasionally appeared in the world long before the French intellectuality he was criticizing existed. He led the charge that it was the rejection of Christianity by "rationalists" that was directly responsible for the French Revolution's disorder and bloodshed. For de Maistre, "man" was more brutal than the wolf and needed to be tamed by the awe of Christian devotion.

Another opponent of the French Revolution was Pius VII, pope from 1800 to 1823. Steven Hause and William Maltby in Western Civilization describe the Vatican as "a leader of the new conservatism." Pius VII, they write, "reestablished the Inquisition, and reconstituted the Index of prohibited books. Catholics were forbidden to believe that the Earth rotated around the Sun or to read Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. In the papal states, Pius annulled Napoleonic laws of religious toleration and reintroduced persecution of the Jews." note29

Pius called on Catholics to return to a religion based on faith and Christian mysteries. And there was the leading Catholic intellectual, René de Chateaubriand, who argued that people should reject rationalism because rationalism "rejected religious mysteries."

Fear of free-thinking among the masses led to suppression of newspapers. Austria's Prince Metternich believed that repression was necessary to hold the enemies of his new order in check. He viewed editors, newspapermen and university teachers with suspicion and students with hostility. He described "Liberty of the press" as a scourge. The Karlsbad Decrees of 1819, which Metternich helped create, put universities under state control and resulted in the firing of liberal professors and the closing of student clubs.

Britain remained more liberal than continental Europe in general. It's middle-class was more developed and had more political power than the middle classes in the Germanic and Slavic states. Some in Britain had described the French Revolution as a middle-class phenomenon. It was the execution of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, the Reign of Terror and the war against Britain that had caused Britain's revulsion. There was in Britain the Irishman Edmund Burke who was with de Maistre in his opposition to the French Revolution, but Burke was an "Old Whig," and the Whigs were followers of John Locke. Burke was interested in individual rights and complained that the French Revolution had left individuality out of its scheme. He derided those who spoke with fervor about benevolence for humanity in general but were in "want of feeling" for every individual with whom they came in contact.

In Britain, anti-revolution sentiments had arisen, expressed among other places by a Methodist statute that declared: "None of us shall either in writing or in conversation speak lightly or irreverently of the government." But in Britain were also pressures from those trying to stay alive by working fifteen hours a day.

In 1819 in England's city of Manchester, 60,000 gathered in St. Peter's Fields listening to a call for universal suffrage. A local magistrate sent a force to arrest the main speaker, Henry Hunt. A melee followed in which eleven of the crowd were killed and others were injured. This aroused opposition to the established order that eventually would be mitigated reform.

On the continent an opposition to the established order of monarchical conservatism remained. Liberalism there was not dead. Neither was nationalism. There were Italians, Hungarians, Ukrainians, Czechs, Poles, Romanians and other nationalities who wanted a better life and freedom from rule by foreigners. And rather than established order and obedience, rebellion was on the way in Greece and Latin America.

The founders of the Holy Alliance and others who wanted a return to past authoritarianism and privileges in politics and religion were riding on the defeat of Napoleon's armies, but their dream of maintaining what they had gained was to be challenged by more conflict.


"Age of Enlightenment," online at www.princeton.edu.

The Enlightenment," by Anthony Pagden, 2013

"Congress of Vienna," Wikipedia

"Treaty of Paris, 1815," Wikipedia

Western Civilization, Chapter 25, "The Defense of the Old Regime, 1815-48," by Hause and Maltby, 1999

"An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?" an essay by Immanuel Kant (online), 1784

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