The Enlightenment aka The Age of Reason in Revolutionary France

An intellectual movement of the 18th Century led by philosophers/writers. Began to use reason to explain the world around them rather than looking to God.

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General Ideas

  • Sceptical about Catholicism, divine right, thought people should focus on life, not the afterlife.
  • Supported religious toleration, freedom of speech and press, free trade, uniform system of taxation and abolition of tax privileges.
  • Wanted a constitutional monarch, NOT A REPUBLIC.
  • Wanted a meritocratic system, rather than being decided by birth.
  • Condemned the wealth, corruption and intolerance of the Church.
  • Men should control their own destiny.
  • If favour of liberty over equality, but wanted this in front of the law.
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Appealed to...

  • ...People in towns and cities.
  • ...The educated: Urban bourgeoisie, liberal nobility, aristocrats, lawyers, artisans.
  • Ideas spread through writers and journalists in books (though rare), plays (took place on the streets), journals, drawings and newspapers.
  • The movement was supported by scaremongering (use of fear to influence opinions of others) pamphlets and cartoons attacking the monarchy, particularly Marie Antoinette.
  • There was nothing for rural workers, who had to get their information from the Church.
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Voltaire 1694-1778

  • Attacked the aristocracy, government and Catholic Church.

"Ecrasez l'infame" Crush the infamous (Church)

  • Spent time in England when in exile and learned of religious toleration, freedom of speech, scientific developments and workings of a constitutional monarchy.
  • Closely linked to Frederick II of Prussia, an enlightened absolutist.
  • Wrote ideas in 'Letters philosophiques'.
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Rousseau 1712-1778

  • The Social Contract
  • Citizens of a state must help to create ground rules upon which the state runs
  • Ideal society free from abitrary power- popular sovereignty: everybody is King

"Force men to be free if necessary in the interests of the General Will"

  • General Will: True will of every citizen-what is best for society and conscience as a whole
  • Influenced Robespierre during The Terror
  • Not in favour of Revolution
  • Attacked prejudice

"The best state of human nature is nature itself" 

  • Discussed in salons, informal meetings
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Montesquieu 1689-1755

  • President of the Bordeaux Parlement.
  • Condemned despotic monarchs.
  • Spoke out against noble power.
  • 'Spirit of the Laws 1748' advocates constitutionalism, separation of powers (Executive, Legislature, Judiciary), abolition of slavery, preservation of civil liberties and rule of law.
  • Political and legal institutions should reflect the social character of communities.
  • Did not accept literal interpretation of the Bible.
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  • Provided reason for criticism and change.
  • Attacked power of the King and the whole basis of the Ancien Regime.
  • Attacked the Church.
  • Gave foundation for language of the revolution- liberty, equality, fraternity, freedom.
  • Without financial crisis, wouldn't have led to revolution.
  • Some historians: didn't cause the revolution, but influenced ideas (Robespierre). 
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  • Parlements opposed tax reforms on grounds of protecting people's interests.
  • Assembly of Notables refused tax reforms as they thought the Estates-General should agree them.
  • Parlements question the 'divine rights of the King' after Royal Session.
  • Men joining the Church declined.
  • Complaints from 2nd estate increased, over the King's dependence on ministers.
  • American War of Independence provides basis for questioning liberty and equality of the French.
  • Cahiers (list of grievances) drawn up before Estates-General. 
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