French Enlightenment

In the 18th century there were marked changes in the thought and philosophy of European people. The Enlightenment writers believed that they were casting off the age-old shackles of ignorance and authority, and were entering an epoch enlightened by science, reason and humanism. In many respects, France was the center of this intellectual movement. It was carried on by writers and philosophers like Montesquieu, Diderot, Rousseau and Voltaire, who were known as philosophes. A number of general trends can be seen in the Enlightenment; for example, there was a radical opposition to authority. England was at that time more liberal and the political ideas of free thinkers like Locke influenced these thinkers greatly. These ideas led to a mass reaction against the government and ultimately resulted in the French Revolution.

François Marie Arouet, more known by his pen name Voltaire, (1694-1778) was the leading voice of the Enlightenment. So much was his influence in the movement that Will Durant praises him by saying, “Italy had a Renaissance, and Germany had a Reformation, but France had Voltaire.”[1] Voltaire was a great proponent of the freedom of speech and press. “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” is a remark often attributed to him. Although he never said these exact words, they certainly reflect his idea of freedom.

Voltaire is one of the first few thinkers who attempted to apply philosophy to history, and his work laid the basis for future historians like Gibbon. “History should be written as philosophy,”[2] he maintains. His history does not deal with kings, wars and revolutions; his history is an account of human culture and civilization. He is concerned with social and economic conditions in different eras and the development of arts and the progress of human mind. His rejection of kings from history was characteristic of the humanistic spirit of his age. Another feature of his history is that it considers Europe as a part of the world in which there are many other cultures and civilizations. Voltaire produces an unprejudiced and impartial account of the cultural history of the rest of the world.

In the 1760s there were a number of appalling occurrences of persecution of Protestants in France. Voltaire was infuriated and enraged, and devoted himself to an intellectual battle with the Catholic Church in particular, and religious fanaticism in general. He used his philosophy as a lethal weapon and Church found itself in a losing fight with one man, who once and forever broke the power of priesthood in France with his famous motto ‘Écrasez l'infâme!’ [Crush the infamy!] . But Voltaire was not an atheist. He was a believer in God, and advocated a simple Deism[3], while rejecting the complex and intricate doctrines of Christianity. His line “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him” has become more of a proverb. He makes the distinction between Religion and Superstition and includes all organized religions in the latter category. “Religion, you say, has produced countless misfortunes; say rather the superstition which reigns on our unhappy globe.”[4]

Voltaire himself did not believe in democracy. He preferred a strong and enlightened monarch, advised by philosophers like him. However, his views on political freedom contributed a great deal to the development of democracy.

The second most important philosopher of the Enlightenment was the Swiss philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-78). He had an intense dislike for authority and social institutions of all kinds. He rose to fame in 1750, when he won the first prize on an essay competition by the Academy of Dijon on the topic: “Has the Progress of the Sciences and the Arts Contributed to Corrupt, or to Purify, Morals.” Rousseau gave the answer in negative and concluded in his essay that science and arts are the worst enemies of humans. Progress in these fields has created more wants and has made man more of a slave to them. They have made governments more powerful and crushed individual liberty. They promote idleness and result in political inequality. He maintained that the natural state is morally superior to the civilized state. Although, he admits, there exists a natural inequality among individuals, yet he believes that most of the inequality is artificially created by political institutions and society. Savage humans, like animals, are naturally well-adapted to their surroundings and relying on pity and love for each other, have no need for this man-made morality and consequently, they live a far better life. Rousseau believes that the basis of the civil society can be found in private property. He proposes that the only way to undo this evil is to abandon civilization because man is by nature good, and is corrupted only by exposure to society. Rousseau abhors all things connected to reason and praises natural emotions as the guide in life. “I venture to declare that a state of reflection is contrary to nature; and that a thinking man is a depraved animal.”

Philosophers before Rousseau had believed in God on the basis of different logical arguments, but reason was against religion in Rousseau’s time. Hence, Rousseau despised reason as a basis of belief in God, and declared like Pascal[5] that reason was too limited to comprehend the existence of God. Rousseau maintained that the feelings of awe and fascination produced by observing nature were sufficient for him to believe in the existence of God. However, Rousseau dismisses all organized religions and complicated theology. He believes in natural religion, which has no need of revelation. This natural religion claims to find its principles written deep inside the heart by nature, and we need only to follow our natural feelings to be virtuous. “Nature never deceives us; it is we who deceive ourselves.”

Rousseau’s political ideas have been elaborated in The Social Contract. It is different from other books of Rousseau, because here he is not advocating a reversion to primitivism. It begins with an impressive piece of rhetoric: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. One man thinks himself the master of others, but remains more of a slave than they are.” Although the ideas presented appear to be in favor of democracy, when extended and analyzed, they tend to lead to a totalitarian[6] state. By democracy, Rousseau means direct participation of every citizen. Representative democracy is nothing but elective aristocracy for him. “The English think they are free. They are free only during the election of members of parliament.” He prefers City States because it is where his democracy is workable. Democracy is best in small states, aristocracy in middle ones, and monarchy in larger ones. Rousseau is in favor of the small states, as they existed in ancient Greece.

Rousseau begins with an emphasis on freedom as a birth right of man, and declares that no man has any natural right over any other person. Hence, slavery in all forms is unjustified. In Rousseau’s hypothetical account, men, in the state of nature, must have reached a point when individual abilities were not enough to maintain their state in opposition to different obstacles. The problem was to find a kind of association which will protect the interests of each citizen and yet, each member will freely obey himself alone. The solution is the Social Contract. Rousseau’s idea of Social Contract resembles that of Hobbes. In this contract, each citizen transfers all his rights to the community, and because the same conditions apply to everyone in the community, no one has any interest in making the terms and conditions very harsh. The people are the members of and the collective owners of the Sovereign power. Sovereign is more or less a metaphysical entity and represents the legislative capacity of the community. According to Rousseau, the alienation of one’s rights to the community must secure the unity of all in a desire for what will most benefit the whole, expressed through ‘general will’. The idea of general will is of importance in Rousseau’s political philosophy. It is the collective interests of all citizens of the community. Each individual has his own individual interests regardless of the community. We can imagine that after the social contract these ‘individual wills’ of citizens cancel out, and what remains are the interests common to all members; this sum of differences is the general will. [As an analogy, we can use the idea of the resultant force, the force remaining after the cancellation of all the different forces acting on the body.] The state is directed by the general will only, and is always right and in public advantage. For the proper expression of the general will there should be no political factions within the state, so that each citizen should think only his own thoughts.

Rousseau was one of the first few modern writers to attack the idea of the private property. The state is the master of all the the goods, and, hence, these goods are possessed by the whole community. Rousseau is therefore considered an early advocate of socialism and communism.

[1] Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy, Pocket Books, page201
[2] Voltaire, Letters, 31 Oct. 1738
[3] Belief in God as the creator of universe and that He is manifesting only through natural laws
[4] Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary, God
[5] Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing” [Pensées]
Pascal is also famous for presenting ‘Pascal’s Wager’, which is supposed to be reason to believe in God. The wager says that if you believe in God, and God doesn’t exist, then you lose nothing, but if you don’t believe in God, and God does exist, then you risk going to hell. Hence, the wager says, if you want to stay on the safe side, you should believe in God. The wager has been subject to much criticism. First, it assumes that God would prefer this selfishness over intellectual honesty. If God is omniscient, he would see through this deception of the believer. Secondly, this argument presupposes a distinct Christian God. What if there is a God, but this God values intellectual honesty over beliefs. Such a God would reward an atheist for being intellectually honest and would punish a believer who believed in God just because he wanted to save his skin from hell.
[6] State in which no parties or groups in opposition to the government are allowed