How the Enlightenment Influenced the French Revolution

In 1789 crowds stormed the Bastille in Paris, kicking off a revolution which would topple one of the oldest monarchies in Europe and change the world forever. As soon as this happened, writers and thinkers around the world were quick to laud the French Revolution as being Enlightenment principles put into action. And while this doesn’t tell the whole story, it’s true that the revolutionaries took a lot from the Age of Reason.

An oil on canvass depiction of the storming of the Bastille.

An oil on canvass depiction of the storming of the Bastille.

The English philosopher Edmund Burke was among the first to link the Revolution to ideas of the Enlightenment. However, in terms of its actual causes, the roots were a little more simple. The mob were motivated less by ideological fervour than by poverty, food shortages and the sense that they had a King who either did not understand or care.

Once it was underway, however, it is clear to see Enlightenment ideas in practice. But while the American Revolution had held a unifying ideology, the French Revolution – like the Enlightenment itself – was a mishmash of different and often conflicting ideas.

The Revolution Becomes Radicalised

Montesquieu's vision of a constitutional monarchy was bad news for King Louis.

Montesquieu’s vision of a constitutional monarchy was bad news for King Louis.

The first chapter in the French revolution drew very much on the nobility and in particular the ideas of Montesquieu. He proposed a liberal constitutional monarchy in which power was devolved between different bodies. For many of the revolutionaries, however, he did not go nearly far enough. Montesquieu believed the bulk of power should be devolved to his own class, the nobility, but pretty soon it was clear that this did not go nearly far enough.

France was divided into three estates – the nobility, the clergy and the people. It was this third estate that comprised around 90% of the people, and in 1789 it was clear they wanted a much bigger slice of the pie. Montesquieu’s ideas were progressively supplanted with more radical teachings, and when the King fled Paris, the writing was on the wall. Constitutional monarchy was out in favour of republic.

A lithograph of Jean Jacques Rousseau, whose ideas were favoured by French republicans.

A lithograph of Jean Jacques Rousseau, whose ideas were favoured by French republicans.

Rousseau and the Revolution

The flight of the King convinced most that this was not the liberal monarch they had hoped for. Instead, they decided that the time had come to do away with the monarchy altogether, and for this they turned to the radical teachings of Jean Jacques Rousseau.

At a time when absolute monarchy reigned in France, he had been bold enough to talk of a world in which France was governed, not by a King but by a republic. For Robespierre and the other leaders of the revolution, this suited them just fine, and Rousseau would become the flag bearer for the new Republic. However, it would not be long before the ideas of Rousseau were being warped by Robespierre’s reign of terror.

As the death toll mounted, the philosophers of Europe began to change their mind. This was not the dawning of a new age of reason as they had hoped, but instead the triumph of despotism.

A statue to Voltaire whose vision of an Enlightened monarch was adopted by Napoleon.

A statue to Voltaire whose vision of an enlightened monarch was adopted by Napoleon.

The Age of Empire

However, the French Revolution was not done with the Enlightenment just yet. When Napoleon launched a coup d’etat in 1851, he also turned to Enlightenment thinkers. For him it was Voltaire and his theory of the enlightened dictator which most appealed. For him France was the new Rome, over throwing monarchy for republic and then transitioning into a new age of Empire.

The Enlightenment, therefore, did influence the course of the revolution. However, this was not the world which those thinkers had envisaged. Instead the various leaders – from Robespierre to Napoleon – simply cherry picked those ideas which appealed most directly to them and in a world of such wide ranging philosophical discourse, few things were easier.

Tom is a freelance journalist who studied history at Essex University. His work can be found in many different publications focusing on business and politics.