Enlightenment and the French Revolution

Ignorance has often been blamed for problems that the society finds itself in. Strategies aimed at fighting social problems base their strengths in enlightening the society on strategies that can be employed to better lives. This has been going on for quite sometime and many are of the view that enlightenment was a key driver in the French revolution. Enlightened which involves propagation of ideologies is central to terrorism and modern day warfare where people are increasingly fighting for beliefs. Is it possible that enlightenment was central to the French revolution?

This paper analyses the role played by enlightenment in the French revolution to determine the extent of its effect on the revolution.

Role Played By Enlightenment Most revolutions in the 18th century were ideological and based on what most revolutionists described as reason. Reason was pushed for and took the role of determining the legitimacy of authority. France was central to the development of a reason oriented approach to leadership which spread across Europe and many are of the view that the Declaration of independence was chiefly motivated by enlightenment ideologies.

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This phase has increasingly been used in relating causes of revolutions in the 18th century which is also referred to as the age of reason. Most people describe the French revolution as a phase in the history of France that was characterized by social upheavals and radical changes. Changes included development of a new form of governmental whose basis was enlightenment principles . One of the reason as to why the French revolution is notable is the levels of success that it attained in changing the mode of governance and the French as a people.

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A look at its effects brings about the possibility that it was motivated by enlightenment principles. To fully comprehend the possibility of enlightenment being central to the French revolution one must understand the causes of the revolution. The French revolution like many other revolutions was chiefly motivated by factors that impacted on the society. Widespread famine and malnutrition, intentional starvation and an increase in mortality were social issues that the French were faced with before the revolution.

Though the famine was widespread and affected most parts of Europe, poor transportation systems complicated the problem in France. Louis XV was engaged in so many wars that the French economy was placed in a precarious condition . The financial system implemented was antiquated and failed in managing national debts which was also propagated by an inequitable taxation system. Other social factors that were central to the revolution include resentment for absolutism, dominance of some classes who has seigneurial privileges, anticlericalism and public anger towards the king's dismissal of advisor who were popular among the people.

Analysis Enlightenment age is descriptive of a phase characterized by increase in levels of awareness and questioning of social institutions. From a modern viewpoint, the French system of government had all qualities of bad governance. The society was segregated into classes where some people were more equal than others and decisions made by the government were not representative of the will of the majority though they bound the entire society. Governance in the period just before the French revolution was characterized by irrationality and emotionalis .

The role of religious leaders in propagating a system that was inequitable led to an increase in public resentment of clericalism. Resource were in the hands of a few members of the society and classes were developed in a manner that forced an individual to be in the class that his family in. Such a system obviously limits the levels of development that individuals can achieve. Fight for freedom and a system of governance that was democratic and respectful of the rights of all people was central to the French revolution.

Social upheaval and violence between classes is definitive of a society where some members are oppressed . The mere existences of social classes that have predefined privileges and a system of governance where the leaders must be from a particular family are a depiction of a system of governance that is undemocratic and limiting. This can also be seen in the taxation system implemented and the manner in which the King ran the government. Reason was non existent and Louis XV engaged in wars some of whose cause he did not even understand .

Lack of reason in the system of governance has in the recent past led to erosion of some developed economy and France was not an exception. The presence of these factors is enough to start a revolution however the impact that these factors had on the society especially famine and poor physical and social systems played a large part in igniting public wrath which led to the revolution. Most revolutions develop systems that are representative of what the society was lacking before the revolution.

The French revolution led to development of democratic systems of governance, abolition of some social system that were inequitable and the development of a French nation that was liberal, democratic and representative of the people . The revolution which was centered on the society and involved interclass conflicts and social upheavals was a depiction of a society that was at war with itself. The system developed thereafter is based on enlightenment principles of freedom, democracy and reason.

Conclusion A critical analysis of the French society before the revolution, the nature of the revolution and the systems developed after the revolution clearly shows that the society was fed up with its systems. Social inequities and undemocratic approaches to governance which impacted negatively on people were central to the revolution. It is worth noting that the system had been in place for a considerable period of time and there must have been some kind of awareness that led to social upheavals.

Irrationality and emotionalism were at peak in the 18th century and an increase in the levels of interaction between different societies in Europe led to an increase in the levels of awareness and it is this awareness or enlightenment on issues that the society was faced with that led to the revolution. Moreover, it is a known social principle that there is a natural balance between nature of governance and the state that the society is in. Poor governance is associated with increase in levels of dissatisfaction and instability which have an effect of increasing levels of injustice in a bid to oppress the people .

This relationship only exists up to a certain critical limit where the relationship breaks down resulting in upheavals and completes failure of the social systems. This may have been the point that the French society was in before the revolution and an upheaval was on card. In summary, the French revolution was more about enlightenment and this is why it affected so many facets of the French society thus enlightenment was central to the French revolution.


Brewer, Daniel. The Enlightenment Past: Reconstructing Eighteenth-Century French Thought.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Israel, Jonathan. Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man, 1670-1752. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. Jacob, Margaret. The Enlightenment: A Brief History with Documents. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2001. Martin, Xavier and Corcoran, Patrick. Human Nature and the French Revolution: From the Enlightenment to the Napoleonic Code. Plymouth: Berghahn Books, 2000. Levack, Brian. The Witch-hunt in Early Modern Europe. London: Pearson Longman, 2006.

Updated: Jun 05, 2020
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Enlightenment and the French Revolution. (2017, Jan 25). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/enlightenment-and-the-french-revolution-essay

Enlightenment and the French Revolution essay
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