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Enlightenment and the French Revolution

Can we use the "Age of Enlightenment" to identify thought that developed among numerous people in Europe in the 1700s? I go with a Princeton University article ( titled "Age of Enlightenment." According to the article:

The "Enlightenment' was not a single movement or school of thought, for these philosophies were often mutually contradictory or divergent. The Enlightenment was less a set of ideas than it was a set of values. At its core was a critical questioning of traditional institutions, customs, and morals, and a strong belief in rationality and science.

I'm also with the philosopher Immanuel Kant who in 1784 wrote an essay titled "An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?" Immanuel Kant equated learning and thinking for oneself as growing mentally beyond childhood. He wrote:

Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why such a large part of mankind gladly remain minors all their lives, long after nature has freed them from external guidance.

He wrote that "enlightenment requires nothing but freedom," a freedom to question and to argue. He complained of military officers saying "Do not argue – drill!!" The tax collector: "Do not argue – pay!" The pastor: "Do not argue – believe!" Kant wrote: "We find restrictions on freedom everywhere ... the public use of one's reason must be free at all times, and this alone can bring enlightenment to mankind."

The French Revolution began five years after Kant wrote this essay, and it was crushed following Napoleon's defeats and with Germanic and Slavic soldiers occupying Paris. There were people blaming the French Revolution's excesses not only on the inadequate mentalities of those who contributed to the revolution but also on the ideals of intellectuals who preceded the revolution.

The continent's conservative diplomat and philosopher Joseph de Maistre (1754-1821) was one of those who described French intellectuals as instrumental in bringing about the Revolution. De Maistre's philosophical opponents y went back long before intellectuals of the 1700s. His philosophical opponents dated back at least as far as 300 BCE and Epicurus (Thomas Jefferson's favorite philosopher). De Maistre was supporting a tradition that held dynastic monarchy to be the best form of government – connected, as he thought the old French monarchy had been, to God. De Maistre, and other critics of the French Revolution, René de Chateaubriand among them, argued that people should reject the rationalism of pro-Enlightenment philosophers because those wayward thinkers believed in reason rather than the mysteries that were part of Christianity.

De Maistre described "man" as more brutal than the wolf and in need of being tamed by the awe inspired by the mystery that was part of Christian devotion. According to de Maistre, attempts to justify government on rational grounds (as John Locke had) leads to unresolvable arguments about legitimacy and leads to the violence and chaos engendered by the French Revolution.

Blaming Enlightenment intellectuals for what went wrong with the French Revolution is a stretch similar to describing Thomas Paine and Robespierre as one and the same person. (Paine was opposed the execution of Louis XVI and the terror and Robespierre was for these.) Enlightenment thinkers, moreover, were not especially fond of war or of suppressing dissent with executions as were Robespierre and his crew.

What did conservatives do following the military victory over France and the French Revolution? One of the conservatives was Pope Pius VII, pope from 1800 to 1823). As described by Steven Hause and William Maltby in Western Civilization, the Vatican was "a leader of the new conservatism" that followed the French Revolution. Pius, 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." (Hause and Maltby, p. 676, ISBN 0-534-54531-9)

A leader in the conservative reaction to the French Revolution was Austria's Prince Metternich, who believed that repression was necessary to hold the enemies of a new conservative order in check. As I see it, he put the Enlightenment under attack. 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.

These were conservatives who differ from 21st century conservatives in the United States. Among the latter are people who claim belief in the US Constitution's guaranteed liberties, and some are attached philosophically to reason – products of the Enlightenment. Some are fond of Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the line in the Declaration of Independence that claimed "all men are created equal (emphasis added), that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." The counter-Enlightenment and anti-revolution thinkers of the early 1800s disliked the French Revolution's motto: "Liberty, Equality and Fraternity." But they were on a losing course. They didn't kill the French Revolution: Liberty, Equality and Fraternity would return in the late 1800s with France's Third Republic. And there would be a Fourth French Republic. What was to die was monarchical absolutism, a belief in authoritarianism and the belief in censorship to which people like de Maistre and Prince Metternich were devoted.

Copyright © 2004 Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.