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Enlightenment Ideas During the French Revolution Period Research Paper

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Updated: Nov 9th, 2021

Introduction

The age of Enlightenment is marked by drastic changes in the whole world’s political, social, and cultural ideas resulting in eternal and unforgettable masterpieces of art and literature, as well as tangible changes in politics, science, and economy. The supporters of this tendency promoted “the ideas of freedom, moral intention, and the power of reason and the heart” (Boeve 2006, 32). The scholars still find it hard to trace the origins of the Enlightenment and, thus, an exact time span which it covers. Though almost completely unaware of when the Enlightenment emerged, the scholars mostly agree in the idea that the French Revolution of 1789 put an end to the Enlightenment era. This has established approximate date frames of the Age of Enlightenment, namely the middle of the seventeenth -the end of the 18th century. Since this has been quite a long period of time, the Enlightenment ideas managed to influence the society of not only the eighteenth century, but of the beginning of the nineteenth century as well. The most evident effect of the Enlightenment ideas on the society can be observed in the French revolutionary period when the political, social, and cultural policies of the then French society have significantly changed.

Changing Political Policies

To begin with, politically, Enlightenment ideas have not only influenced but changed the political program which the French Revolution of 1789 was expected to follow. This happened due to the adoption of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen which was approved on the 26th of August 1789 and which promised legal equality and liberty to every citizen in the country (Censer and Hunt 2001). There were three main articles in this declaration that have produced a profound effect on the political life of France. Articles III, VI, and XVI present in the declaration disclosed such concepts as separation of power and sovereign nation. Montesquieu, a famous French political thinker of the period of Enlightenment, firmly believed that only the separation of power between legislative, executive, and judicial could make it possible for the government to control its power; the main purpose of such a separation was “to prevent intrusion of the judiciary into areas – lawmaking and the execution of the law – reserved to the other two powers” (Merryman and Pérez-Perdomo 2007, 17).

The then King of France, Louis XVI, possessed the right for a royal veto which allowed him to hinder the adoption of new laws or implementation of the new constitution, which further complicated the enforcement of laws and, thus, hindered National Assembly’s carrying out its functions. It was namely Montesquieu’s Enlightenment philosophy of power separation that has solved the problem of abusing the powers in French government,

Montesquieu and others developed the theory that the only sure way of preventing abuses of this kind was to separate the legislative and executive from the judicial power, and then to regulate the judiciary carefully to ensure that it restricted itself to applying the law made by the legislature and did not interfere with public officials performing their administrative functions (Merryman and Pérez-Perdomo 2007, 17).

This resulted in King Louis VI’s obtaining suspensive veto instead of the royal one. This kind of veto allowed him to take part in the political decision-making process but deprived him of the right to veto the legislation.

It should be mentioned that the concepts of republicanism and general will advanced by Jean-Jacques Rousseau also led to changes in political thought of the revolutionary France. Rousseau strongly kept to an idea that the governments are executive in nature; this being the reason, he denied the necessity of a monarchy. The government, according to his beliefs, should have been constituted by “a small elite of wise and virtuous men” (Viroli and Hanson 2003, 171) who could help to realize the republican ideal. Rousseau’s ideas have had a significant influence on French politics and, though Montesquieu’s beliefs about advantages of a constitutional monarchy were widely supported, already in 1792 France stopped being a monarchy.

Therefore, the Enlightenment ideas promoted by the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen first resulted in depriving the King of his right for royal veto and then eliminating the Monarch and changing the political system of France.

Changing Social Policies

Socially, France has experienced as many changes as politically. The greatest influence on the France’s social life was produced by the Enlightenment ideas which placed special emphasis on equality and liberty. For instance, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen has decreed that “The free communication of thoughts and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man. Every citizen may, therefore, speak, write, and print freely […]” (Censer and Hunt 2001, 46). Two main issues which the society became preoccupied with were national education and gender both of which led to considerable changes in the French society’s values and way of life.

The concept of national education attracted the attention of the Enlightenment thinkers due to the Declaration’s not even mentioning this issue. Progress started to be discussed in the society more often, which made the problem of education imperative (Chaplin 2007). Closer to the end of the 18th century National Assembly has proposed that national education should be equally available to all the citizens for it could help to evoke the sense of national unity in them. Educational establishments started to teach a vast range of subjects, which meant that the religion was not dominant in education. Thus, the Enlightenment ideas of liberty and equality made education accessible to all the layers of population.

Another issue which was widely discussed in the society was gender. Though before the revolution and Enlightenment era women were not seriously discriminated against, the ideas of equality gave them even more rights in the society. Some of the philosophers of those times refuted the idea of the husband’s authority in marriage claiming that this contradicted to the existing principles of natural human equality. Some thinkers of the 18th century even tried to eliminate the emphasis on men’s and women’s reproductive role integrating both the genders into common humanity. This all resulted in women starting inheriting property, while earlier they were completely deprived of this right; moreover, the divorce was made legal and a number of grounds for the divorce was significantly increased. Finally, though parental consent for marriage was not cancelled, the age in which the couple had to ask for consent was lowered for both the genders.

Thus, the Enlightenment ideas of liberty and equality raised education and gender issues in the French society, which led to changes in both these spheres of social life.

Changing Cultural Policies

The Enlightenment ideas have also led to powerful cultural transformations in the French revolutionary society. Perhaps the concept of national education advanced by the Enlightenment thinkers was critical for forming the French culture in the revolutionary period. Not only had the national education united French people, it has turned France into a civilized nation. National education has further strengthened French people’s belief in their civilization. This later resulted in France’s setting the rest of the Europe “a universal standard of culture – of language, conduct, and thought […] courts, aristocrats, and Hautes bourgeoisie of the period adopted French tastes, manners, and language” (Mah 2004, 1), which made French culture dominant.

Taking this into account, it can be stated that the Enlightenment ideas have shaped French people’s cultural identity and pride in their nation making the French culture exemplary to some extent.

Conclusion

The Enlightenment ideas have influenced Europe changing people’s values and beliefs. However, the strongest influence has been produced on France during the Revolutionary period of 1789-1825. The Enlightenment ideas, mostly the separation of power, liberty, equality, and national education have introduced tangible changes into the political, social, and cultural aspects of French people’s lives. In terms of politics, the separation of power between legislative, executive and judiciary limited the powers of the King and deprived him of his royal veto right, which resulted in his inability to veto legislation and subsequent elimination of monarchy in France. The ideas of equality and liberty, in their turn, have led to such social changes as promotion of national education and increasing the independence of French women with national education further leading to French society becoming more civilized and French culture gaining the status of the exemplary one.

Bibliography

Boeve, Lieven. 2006. Faith in the Enlightenment?: the critique of the enlightenment revisited. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Censer, Jack R. and Hunt, Lynn A. 2001. Liberty, equality, fraternity: exploring the French Revolution. University Park: Penn State Press.

Chaplin, Tamara. 2007. Turning on the mind: French philosophers on television. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mah, Harold. 2004. Enlightenment phantasies: cultural identity in France and Germany, 1750-1914. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

Merryman, John H. and Pérez-Perdomo, Rogelio. 2007. The civil law tradition: an introduction to the legal systems of Europe and Latin America. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Viroli, Maurizio and Hanson, Derek. 2003. Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the ‘Well-Ordered Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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