Mar 25, 2020 in History

How did the Enlightenment Influence the French Revolution?

Engaging Incident

Enlightenment is, first and foremost, the era related to the development of European culture. Its main ideals were faith in the power of scientific knowledge and rational thinking. The ideas of this movement first appeared in France approximately in the middle of the 18th century. Famous French scholars, such as J. J. Rousseau, Voltaire, D’Alembert, and Diderot, believed that the knowledge acquired by rational and atheistic can shatter the old order and start an accelerated process of historical and social change. As a result, their ideas have led to the French Revolution of 1789 – 1804. According to numerous historians, this period of history is believed to be destructive. The field of education in moral philosophy and civic education was considered to be the most important. Its main difference was the irreconcilable attitude to this worldview, as a religious, noble, and aristocratic one.

Thesis Statement

Therefore, the Enlightenment served as a prerequisite for the French Revolution by shaping the essential ideas of the Revolution and impacting the political, cultural, and social factors in process.


Literature Survey

The 18th century in France was meant to embody the Enlightenment policies that, unlike in England, became the country’s nation-wide character. Forrest and Middell are convinced that the French Enlightenment, which became the ‘philosophical revolution,’ mainly took place during the crisis of the feudal-absolutist system, which began in the era of the reign of Louis XIV. However, it would be wrong to undervalue the involvement of the representatives of lower class revolution (peasants, small artisans), the cause of which was feudal oppression.

According to Paine, the fire of the French Revolution was born in the minds of various categories of people. Therefore, it is impossible to deny that the multiplicity of its causes was connected not only to the Enlightenment, but also to numerous other factor. The main task of the Enlightenment in this process was a complete description of the prerequisites to social phenomenon, as well as identification of common patterns that can be entered into the analysis paradigm of modern society. By means of detailed economic situations and social conditions, the activities of philosophers and representatives of the leading parties of the revolution established the relationship between the phenomena of the various spheres of society for the formulation of the general laws inherent in such phenomena, e.g. the revolution in the history of mankind.

Slavin truly believes that the basis for this era was the pursuit of ‘natural person,’ criticism, and so on. Here, it is possible to distinguish between these two main provisions. First, a person is not an individual and unique person, Instead, they are a representative of a particular type of behavior and other traits already pre-determined by geography, climate, and the influence of other external factors. The author believes that aesthetics and art cannot be split, because they bring people and the ethnicity related to social class together. Second, internal state psychology should be reflected externally in humans. That is why art can reveal the inner world of humans, their so-called type. Such a vision of the Enlightenment had served as a basic reason for the French Revolution.


The first way the Enlightenment downplays its political influence on the French Revolution is on the grounds that it has not established a systematic political theory. Even the social contract established an influence on the revolution and had a very controversial impact during its course. Second, the majority of scholars believe that the political ideas of the French Revolution had their source in the Enlightenment. According to these scholars, the central idea of the political revolution was the principle of popular sovereignty. Of course, it was a new invention of the revolution, but it was not invented by the Enlightenment. In other words, enlightenment did not cause the revolution – it just stimulated certain processes. Rousseau had a similar idea and claimed that the sovereignty was not absolute. Third, the Enlightenment is a synonym for individualism. In contrast to the revolution, it had been the beginning of the era of nationalism. Liberal ideas of the Enlightenment can be sharply contrasted to revolutionary terrorism, and dictatorship of the oligarchy. Thus, such an approach once again justifies the Enlightenment. Finally, the Enlightenment was a premise of the French revolution which enriched the historical process with innovative and profound ideas. It is possible to recognize the political revolutionary ideology of liberalism, the presence of elements borrowed from Locke, humanistic ideas, and knowledge in the field of law. Hence, it is possible to claim that the basis of the French Revolution was sourced from in many ways, just as is in the style of any revisionism.

Thus, as numerous philosophical processes which were accompanied by a social and economic crisis happened, there was the problem of communication between the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. The essence of this issue was to downplay the influence of the Enlightenment on the revolution by minimizing the causal relationship between these phenomena and their opposition. The majority of modern historians disagree about the leading field of human life, which gave birth to the revolution. However, all of them called it an economic processes. On one hand, feudal oppression prevented people’s happiness. On the other hand, differentiation of the population contributed to the penetration of the nobility by persons of common origin, which, in turn, led to the spread of liberal ideas in the higher strata of society.

Therefore, the relationship analysis of the events should begin with the economic processes taking place in France of the 18th century. It should be noted that the speed and development of manufacturing technologies were of great importance. The rapidly developing textile industry was previously unthinkable, but the feudal relations were a serious obstacle to the development of mass production. The crisis grew between feudal lords, merchants, and the industrialists. The latter were unhappy with the privileges of the nobility, including the monopoly on the sale of certain goods. Based on the above data, it becomes obvious that the contrast of moods of the people who were the moving force behind French Revolution caused the negative shortcomings of the revolution. Economic developments fundamentally affected the social structure of society. Among the nobility of the period, there were supporters of class privileges, hostile to free-thinking and ideals of civil equality, and the followers of the ideas of the Enlightenment philosophers of the second half of the 18th century.

Another social process, which was caused by the Enlightenment and which had important implications, was the offset of the noble ideological orientations. Prior to the beginning of the 18th century, the only worthy occupation for a true aristocrat was military service. However, as a result of the replenishment of the nobility, third estate owners, tradesmen, miners, etc, joined the circles of nobility.

Representatives of the opposing movements pushed the power requirements, which satisfied some groups of the French population was detrimental to the others. That entailed contradictions supported by ideas of the Enlightenment philosophers. Moreover, it made it impossible to preserve the old traditions, namely, the absolutist system of government and the privileged class. The Enlightenment’s successes were possible only because the historical stage had another powerful social force: the bourgeois class, who played a dual role in the intellectual history of Europe. On one hand, the bourgeoisie, drawing energetic, enterprising, and intelligent people into its ranks, was the main sponsor of culture; on the other hand, by lending money, it promoted narrowly utilitarian, mundane goals and ideals, which often had to comply with the intellectual elite. In other words, the bourgeoisie supported the culture and economy at the same time. After the French Revolution, all this led to an environment, wherein a new type of culture – popular culture – appeared. Currently, it is often referred by historians as vulgar and bourgeois. However, it could not have happened otherwise: the aristocracy and nobility have long had their own culture known as the high culture. Common people had also created their own form of culture called folk culture, Only the bourgeoisie did not have anywhere to belong. Thus, it is possible to assume that the end of the Enlightenment was, from a culturological point of view, the beginning of mass culture. It should be considered a lower layer of the bourgeois culture.


In conclusion, the French Revolution is sometimes referred to as a bourgeois one, because its driving force was the desire to establish capitalism. However, it was based on the philosophical ideologies of the time. Scholars believe that the great people, who prepared people’s minds in France for the coming revolution, were extreme revolutionaries themselves. They did not recognize external authority of any kind. Religion, natural science, society, and political order had been subjected to the most acute and unsparing criticism; everything had to be brought before the court of reason and either justify its existence, or be eliminated. The impact the epoch of Enlightenment had on the French revolution manifested in the fact that philosophy served as the main prerequisite of the revolution, because of the innovation of ideas. However, the Enlightenment did not perform the function of the essential driving force of the French Revolution. Moreover, due to the Enlightenment’s impact on the French Revolution, the consciousness of people had been changed. This impacted the further development of France and denoted the way the country influenced other countries. The philosophy behind the French Revolution determined the way the French government and law system function today.


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