The modern political system of the European nations is a by-product of the enlightenment and political revolution that took place in the late eighteenth century in Europe. The mastermind philosophers of this enlightenment resided in France. The world before the enlightened political system seemed full of superstitions, irrationality, and naivety.
The church and kingship kingdoms had denied the right to contribute in the political decision-making systems, thus leaving the citizens under the authority of a few individuals. The French enlightenment was more radical in religious thoughts than its politics due to various reasons, but the major one was the fear of retaliation from the rulers for the rebellious subjects.
Hence, the enlightenment in France brought about a political revolution from the old regime to the modern political system.1 Interestingly, the French enlightenment and revolution were more radical religious thoughts than politics because religion was the most suitable avenue to promote the agenda.
Who Was Responsible For Causing The Revolution?
There seems to be a great controversy amongst many historians as to who was responsible for the French revolution. Many argue that philosophers were responsible, others believe that political publishers aggravated the public anger that led to the overthrowing of the monarchy, and others believe that it was an appreciation of philosophers’ ideologies by the wider social mentality.
However, the philosophers were the main sources of ideas some of which motivated political news writers to take great risks of revealing the monarchy’s bad images to the French public. According to Marisa in her article ‘The Intellectual Origins of the French Revolution’, there exists no centralised concept as to the origin of revolution greater than the public opinion.2
In addition, she argues that that concept was the creation of Habermas, a German Philosopher. Habermas argues that the eighteenth century gave rise to a new public revolution through enlightenment, and resulted to the development of the public sphere through the formation of today’s form of journalism and media freedom.
Public sphere indicates the intellectual vacuum that existed between state and the civil society, which had been denied the opportunity to participate in the political and government affairs by the monarchical regimes.3
Furthermore, Habermas referred to that kind of public sphere as ‘bourgeois’. The bourgeois class contributed significantly to the enlargement of the gap in the social class and gave room for the rising prominence of intellectuality in the public sphere. The public did not have initial political motivation at the beginning, but rather the feeling of being an emancipated social class in their own country.
Interestingly, people did not use media to communicate their common ideas; on the contrary, they did it orally for fear of aggravating anger in the monarchy, which could have suppressed their ideas in brutality.4
Hence, people took advantage of the growing social institutions such as salons, clubs, hotels, academies and societies, and other social places where they discussed ideas from the stories in the published journals and authorised gazettes. As time went by, the public voices continued to grow confident and articulate in raising opinions on political and government affairs.
Their voices grew louder in matters concerning engagement in wars, prominent court proceedings, and power disputes among the monarchy and other authoritative organs. However, the more their voices continued to be ignored, the more they become solid and took shape, which later developed into a universal public phenomenon until the collapse of the monarchy regime in 1787.
In addition, the political regime tried all it could to limit the public access to the political issues through enactment of laws of censorship of the publications, which included newspapers, journals, and others. Nevertheless, censorship failed to impede the ever-growing and solid public opinion as it was intended, but gradually it undermined the wishes of the authority.
Intellectuals used public forums to campaign for their political ideas and tribunes as it was the only communications channel that political regime could not have banned. Hence, it is believed that philosophers took advantage of the social forums as the most effective channels to influence the public opinion.
Unfortunately, Marisa argues that though public opinion is seemed to have been solidified, there were elements of divisions in the social classes, which could have contributed to some people taking advantage of others.5 She believes a few people had set their goals on leadership for they were social elites and hence opted to take advantage of the majority who were economically disadvantaged.
She points out on philosophers as intellectuals who most probably took advantage of the ignorance of the majority to have their wishes granted. Hence, the revolution cannot be said with certainty to be a result of popular opinion, but rather a result of ignorance, and abuse of the common people in the state.6
In supporting her arguments, Marisa argues that she had evidence, which indicated that the poor were of little significance to the intellectuals and hence were used to pose challenges to the existing political regime.7
In addition, the elites were better placed than the poor and illiterate were in understanding and judging the behaviours of a political regime. Hence, it is the elites whose quench was nourished by the revolution since both as writers and readers played a major role in the enlightenment.
The Political Revolution
The Natural Law Theory
The intellectual elites were of the view that political revolution would bring about a platform of shared ideology or common political beliefs, but that goal was never achieved. The initial motivation was to eliminate the old regime and introduce an unknown political system that to some, would have adopted either the English or the American political system.
According to the public opinion, the absolute monarchy needed to be abolished, as it seemed dictatorial, and adopt a new political system, which would allow public to contribute in the government and political affairs. The natural law theory is believed to have been developed by the French philosopher, Burlamaqui, and is one of the theories that influenced public opinions and rendered to the political revolution.8
It was an alternative theory to the theories of morality and political authority but legally based as opposed to the previous theories on the same subjects. That theory set out the government’s contractual theory, which implicitly and to some extent explicitly challenged the base on which legitimacy of absolute monarchy governance system was founded.
In addition, in 1751, Diderot wrote an article “Autoritepolitique” in which he gave a demonstration of the radical potential of the natural law theory. He wrote, “No man has received from nature the right to command other men…
Freedom is a present from heaven, and every individual of the same species has the right to enjoy it as soon as he enjoys reason.”9 This article was found offending and led to the suspension of the Encyclopedie, in which it had been published. However, it was an influential article to the public opinion and hence, it aggravated public demands for the demolition of absolute monarchy.
According to Marisa, Republicanism is also one of the concepts believed to have had a major influence in the political revolution of France.10 It had many themes and ideas, but one of the most influential was the idea of centrality of the civic virtues in the politics. This idea implied that a republican state ought to give its citizens the right to exercise public goodness.
However, the republican concept did not advocate for the demolition of the monarchical system of governance, but it stressed on the concept of every citizen being a subordinate to the public good, including the rulers. Hence, for the case of the old regime, the king ought to exercise the public goodness in his governance.
Unfortunately, the monarchical elites who were drunk with power and used to despotic leadership could not accept anything close to republicanism where the King would be subject to the public good.
Republicanism is one of the most ancient concepts of governance and to the French citizens, it was an old regime given that it was applied by a few city-states, though they did not exercise it to the extent at which it could have had influence across the entire nation. However, the American adoption and redefinition of the republicanism had a great impact on the French revolution and especially between the years 1776 and 1789.
American founders managed to prove to the world that republicanism was no more an old regime as it was assumed to be confined to, but a flexible and adoptable form of governance in the modern politics. The American republicanism influence on the French politics brought about a gap amongst the intellectual elites who had a great influence to the French revolution.
Some intellectuals like Mirabeau were of the idea of adopting the English republicanism, while others supported the French republicanism form of political governance.11
English republicanism was of the form of a constitutional monarchy that separated the powers of the executive and legislation to exclude absolute ruling. The influence of the two forms of republicanisms was exhibited by the adoption of the direct democracy that was embodied on the right to insurrection.
Application of Theories
Having theories and desire to adopt a new political system was not enough to bring about a political revolution to the French citizens without the taking of actions. Marisa looks into the Baker’s influential concept of the discourse theory. Baker illustrates the discourse theory to be a form of language that is powerful to give people access to power.12
The first discourse that had a significance influence is believed to the discourse of justice that demanded that the king should act according to the law, in the sense that he should not abuse his constitutional power.
On the other hand, it stipulates that the citizens should have limited powers within the constitution of the monarch. According to Marisa, Baker associated the discourse theory with parliamentarians and their supporters in the modern political systems.
The second influential concept of the discourse theory is that of willingness. Baker argued that popular sovereignty or in other words, the people’s will, was superior to the will of the monarch, and hence the French citizens had the rightful power to oppose it. The third concept of discourse was based on reasoning. Reasoning was a powerful discourse that demanded the enlightenment, as it is associated with wisdom.
Some French philosophers explained the need to have a governing system that would allow for enlightenment governance. Baker argued that discourse theory and especially the above three concepts had a great significance in the French political revolution for they moved people into action.13
On the other hand, hardly is there a theory that has no critics in the intellectual world. Some critics argue that Baker’s arguments that the political revolution was due to the words ‘power’ and ‘politics’ in the discourse theory were too shallow to define the revolution.
They argue other oppositional elements must have spurred people into action. They somehow continued to divide the elements of discourse into the classical republicanism, the religious critiques of absolutist policies, and the public opinion. Interestingly, the above elements are sub elements of will, justice, and reason, and hence the Baker’s discourse theory is seen to have had the greatest influence.
The Virtue Politics in France
Virtue is the most significant element of human behaviour. Hence, it was central to the political culture of the eighteenth century and was featured as a discourse in the French monarchy political regime. The political virtue implies an abnegation of individual’s self-interests in the exercising powers in order to achieve a comprehensive devotion of oneself to the goodness of the public.
The political culture of France in the eighteenth century was lacking the exercise of political virtue and hence the reason for the citizen outcry through public opinion for the adoption of new political regime and system.
According to Marisa, it is evident from the modern French politics that the political system of the eighteenth century had three competing and significant political discourses of virtue, whereby each discourse was used to satisfy a different source of political authority.
Looking into the political virtue discourses, the first one is the discourse of a virtuous king. By looking into the king as an individual, he lacked a good personal character capable of ruling diligently, which to some philosophers was a great risk to France and her citizens.14
Secondly, there was a discourse of noble virtue as it was attached only to the elite groups. There were individuals whose skills and prowess were used for state services but lacked the virtue to exercise their mandates for the goodness of the public due to high self-interests.
Thirdly, there was a discourse of civic virtue, which originated from the classical republics of Italy and Greece. In those republics, the civic virtue had been dispersed across all societies, where citizens laid claims on, and through it, they could freely make their case for political rights and justice. French citizens had a great thirst for the right to exercise civic virtue in their state.
However, philosophers added another virtue into the civic virtue in the mid-century. That virtue was defined as a natural virtue, which depicts the desire to care for one another in a brotherly love in an effort to ensure happiness to their colleagues.
The above four virtue discourses created an unwanted political environment to the citizens of France as they felt like they had been denied natural freedom according to Baker’s view of natural law theory, whereby nobody ought to deny another the natural freedom.
According to philosophers and other French thinkers, the French revolution aimed at bringing forth a political system and regime that would uphold virtues, and hence make French citizens virtuous citizens.
The French Enlightenment and Religion
French enlightenment is the root of the political evolution. According to Keiser and Kley, enlightenment is defined as the work of a few intellectuals and their followers.15
By looking into French political revolution, the entire process was initiated by a few philosophers who had a great influence on the French citizens to the extent of solidifying a common public opinion. In addition, through enlightenment, philosophers managed to take advantage of discourses, as described by Baker, that through them the public opinion was motivated into taking political actions.
According to the history of the French revolution, enlightenment was exhibited by the making of the common public opinion. The process was started by a few enlightened in society who passed on their views to the reading society and then moved to the social communication strategy of meeting at social places to share their ideas with people.
That process exhibited a great deal of enlightenment and especially through convincing the public through social forums to the extent of reaching a consensus.
Through the enlightenment, the political culture of the eighteenth century even though it had ancient political regimes, is seen to be having sources of the modern political evolutions and cultures. Enlightenment has a close tie to the religious view more than political view. The main goal of French enlightenment was to achieve a political goal and in so doing, there had to be a motivation of the public.
The intellectual elites had to take religious concepts and use them to convince the citizens in order to get them into action. Critics argue that philosophers, who were the intellectual elites of the eighteenth century, were schemers and thus they chose to take advantage of the ignorance of the majority in their effort to get their desired political regime and system.
They could only have taken advantage of the citizens by using religious perspectives in trying to convince them on the need to have a new governance system in France. In addition, the monarchy system did not deny people their religious rights and hence it was easier for the intellectual elites, who opposed the monarchy, to use religious platform to get the public into a uniform move.
The enlightened people of France in the eighteenth century were moved by the desire to have a change of the governance system from monarchy that did not allow for social freedom and freedom of citizens in the political and government affairs.
The majority of the enlightened people were philosophers, university students, and professors. Their great desire to change the governance system was challenged by the unavailability of communication channels that would get to the majority of French citizens. Secondly, the government did not allow for the freedom of speech as it the case in the modern world.16
The only option for the change pioneers was to use the books and other publications though they were thoroughly monitored by the government in an effort to protect its image and universal public reactions and demands. The intellectuals published their messages in the satirical passages that aimed at denouncing highhandedness and corruption of the few who were in power.17
In most cases, some publications were confiscated and to some extent, their licences revoked. Successful publication and distribution of the information were later boosted by sharing ideas and discussing such messages at social places, in an effort to win the hearts of the public in building a public opinion.
Evidently, the French political revolution relied heavily on the French enlightenment. Political revolution could not have been achieved without the intellectual elites who were capable of realising the weaknesses of the monarchical governance system. Unfortunately, the intellectual elites felt the adverse effects of the ills of the existing regimes, whereas the majority who were illiterate and ignorant did not feel such an impact.
Hence, the intellectual elites ought to work hard in trying to convince the public of the necessity of having political system and regime that would empower the public. The intellectual elites faced communication challenges for the monarchical political system could not allow them to advocate for the empowerment of citizens freely.
Hence, they had to use publications and social forums as the most effective ways of communication beside the great risks posed by the ruling monarchy. In order to convince the public and motivate them to take action, the intellectual elites had to take advantage of the religious views and use them to make the public feel the pain of their rights being held hostage by the few powerful people.
Religion was the most suitable vehicle to advance the elites’ revolution because the majority of people ascribed to a certain religion and the monarchical governance allowed people to associate freely with any religious affiliation. Therefore, the revolution and enlightenment inclined more to religious thought than its politics.
Dijn, Annelien. “The Politics Of Enlightenment: From Peter Gay to Jonathan Israel.” The Historical Journal 55 no. 3 (2012): 785-805
Doyle, William. The Oxford History of the French Revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Israel, Jonathan. A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy. Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2010.
Jones, Colin. The Great Nation: France from Louis XV to Napoleon. New York: Penguin, 2002.
Kaiser, Thomas, and Dale Kley. From Deficit to Deluge: the Origins of the French Revolution. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011.
Linton, Marisa. “The intellectual origins of the French Revolution.” In The origins of the French Revolution, edited by Peter Campbell, 139-159. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
Outram, Dorinda. The Enlightenment. London: Cambridge, 2013.
1Annelien Dijn, “The Politics Of Enlightenment: From Peter Gay to Jonathan Israel,” The Historical Journal 55, no. 3 (2012): 787.
2Marisa Linton, “The intellectual origins of the French Revolution,” in The origins of the French Revolution, ed. by Peter Campbell (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 141.
3William Doyle, The Oxford History of the French Revolution, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 148.
6Jonathan Israel, A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy (New York: Princeton, 2010) 67.
8Colin Jones, The Great Nation: France from Louis XV to Napoleon (New York: Penguin, 2002), 89.
14Thomas Kaiser and Dale Kley, From Deficit to Deluge: the Origins of the French Revolution (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011) 98.
16Dorinda Outram, The Enlightenment (London: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 65.
17 Ibid, 86.