The French Revolution and the Enlightenment


Like fire is glinted by a spark of light, some historians equally argue that certain glimmers also sparked the 1789 French Revolution. To a larger extent, they proclaim that the Revolution was inspired by the ideas of the Enlightenment which were spread within the French citizenry by critical philosophers at the time (Alpha History par. 1). Usually, it is not easy to justify the complexity of the French Revolution in regards to what was the exact cause of the Revolution in a flip of one course as its connotation continues to engage historians and philosophers up until now. For preciousness though, this paper will focus on the intellectual ideas of the Enlightened at the time to assess the extent to which extent they could have influenced the occurrence of the French Revolution.

The Connection of the Enlightenment Ideologies to the French Revolution

As it is known, the movement of Enlightenment thinkers at the time focused on challenges, the existent knowledge, and conduct of things at when they centered on challenging the archaic political thoughts of tyrannical governments. In France, it is supposed that the philosophers locally known as the “philosophes” who wrote the ideas of Enlightenment acted a great deal in inciting the French revolution. For instnce, Montesquieu in his publication “The Dpirit of the Laws”, which sought to substantiate his views of separation of power, contended that a constitutional monarchy accorded to the highest of freedom to its citizens as power would be divided between the parliament and the monarchy, allowing each branch to check the diplomacy of the other (Montesquieu 1). Ideally, the ideology Montesquieu believed in was largely borrowed from Britain, where the British king’s rule was being checked by both the court and parliament, the king’s misuse of power was shunned.

In fact, leading French revolutionaries such as Comte de Mirabeau had earlier on attempted to urge for the creation of a constitutional monarchy, even though their efforts fell in vain. The French king Louis XVI instead opted to flee to Varennes, which was a clear indication that he was indisposed to share power with the Parliament. Obviously, this, coupled with the views of Montesquieu, altered the French citizens’ view on the government, which in due course prompted them to revolt.

Jean Frank Rousseau was another French philosopher whose philosophical views inspired the occasion of the revolution. Noticeably, Rousseau’s works were largely contained within his ideologies of the social contract between the people and the government. Apparently, it is largely proclaimed that the majority of the statements which were contained within the 1789 “Declaration of the Rights of Man” were borrowed from his avowals. For instance, “men are born and remain free and equal in rights” in the Declaration of the Rights of Man comes from his statement in the Social Contract that “man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains” (Rousseau 14). Further in view of this, Rousseau extracted that “the problem is to find a form of association which will defend and protect with the whole common force the person and goods of each associate, and in which each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before. This is the fundamental problem of which the Social Contract provides the solution” (Rousseau 14). Anonymously, the philosopher was laboring to light on the disgusting state of affairs in France under King Louis the XVI and, perhaps, to enlighten the people over their natural rights.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man excerpted the philosophers’ views who argued that the existence of any particular political association is to conserve the imprescriptible and natural rights of humans. Rousseau marked these rights as liberty, protection of human life, property and resistance against repression. Unfortunately, before the Revolution, French masses were part of a subjected society with little or no freedom of expression. The Estate General or French community was subdivided into three groups: the First, Second, and Third Estates. The First and the Second Estates were comprised of the clergy and nobles who subjugated society and further repressed the rights of the Third Estate through the imposition of undue taxes on it (Rousseau 1). The Third Estate, on the other hand, comprised of the French commoners and the working class who were a mixture of a mass of peasants, urban workers, and affluent members of the middle class. Ultimately, Rousseau’s views amid these oppressions helped to provide the needed spark which begun the French Revolution and to oust the repressive French monarchy.

Every notable revolution is not only prearranged by profound economic and social processes but also by intense ideological proclamations. As such, in the movement which led to the French Revolution, the role played by the French philosopher François-Marie Arouet, also known as Voltaire by pen, cannot be overlooked, not because the philosopher was more radical but because his oral gift and prolific written works made the philosopher one of the commonly read and a prominent public figure during the time. From the array of his philosophical writings, “Candide” is said to have played a significant part in influencing the start of the French Revolution. In this publication, the scholar used both irony and wit to echo the cruelty and injustice of the French Bourbon monarchy (Smith par. 2).

Like Montesquieu, Voltaire partly lived in chosen exile in England, though while there, the philosopher became awakened by the British democratic system, which was in striking contrast with the French administration, and there he related himself with other radical political philosophers such as John Locke, Sir Isaac Newton, and Francis Bacon, whose views largely shaped his commentaries to the French revolutionaries (Alpha History par. 2). Suffice to say; the philosopher was profoundly impressed by Britain’s freedom of thought. Thereafter, Voltaire retrieved the works of John Locke, adopting them to suit his way of conveying information to the French revolutionaries in a way which could be read by even the commoners. Throughout his writes, the philosopher broadly heightened the need for reforms of social and legal structures in France. Particularly, in “Candide”, Voltaire criticized the political and social injustices, wars, and the religious intolerance in the French Catholic church.

It is worth noting that “Candide” searches through the hypocrisy which was prevalent in the French Catholic Church during the time. He scolds the inhumanity of the Catholic church, regarding the inquisitor acts of hanging his fellow countrymen merely because of their philosophical variations. In the write, Voltaire depicts church characters as sinful individuals undeserving of public respect and ones which society needs to disassociate with imminently (Smith par. 1). For that reason, Voltaire uses the example of Pangloss to impersonate the extremist characters of Pope Alexander. Therefore, it can be concluded that Voltaire’s ideological views were largely confrontational to inspire the French revolutionaries to proscribe the French Catholic church and its intolerant acts in French society.

Denis Detroit, on the other hand, extracted that “man has only one right to be happy” (Stoica par. 4). The philosopher used rational views to blame the French Bourbon regime. Detroit criticized the French monarch for causing dismay to the public and zeroed at issues such as confiscating the peasant land, bloodshed perpetrated by the clergy and nobles, and inequality, which he quoted as being contrary of a state that is supposed to enrich happiness to its population. As a result, the philosopher challenged the French monarch, who lived miles away from the demands of a government and the needs of its people. He, thus, accused the king as mostly disposed in the amusements of hunting and court life at the expense of attending to the needs of the grieving public (Stoica par. 2). At an economic scale, Detroit showed up that labor was supposed to be the only source of economic development and wealth in public, onto which he accused the royal court parasites, who, instead of working, squandered the peasants by imposing extreme taxes on them. The philosopher also influenced the public to rebel against the monarchy by revealing how it caused sadness to them.

Comparably to Montesquieu and Rousseau, John Locke, as part of his philosophical views, presented the idea of natural rights which he marked as liberty, right, and property (Montesquieu 1). In view of this, Locke proclaimed that it is the duty of any state government to safeguard its citizens’ natural rights. Provocatively, the writer further claimed that it is the responsibility of the state residents to opt to depose a government in case it fails to safeguard these rights. To John Locke, this was his simplest definition of the social contract. In fact, Locke’s enlightenments are quoted as having been monumental in influencing the American revolutionaries who largely drew to the philosopher’s views in drafting their Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson, the lead architect of the DOI document, borrowed from Locke’s views to substantiate the reason as to why the Americans were rebelling. In allusion to Locke’s views, Jefferson defended that the Americans were rebelling for the reason that their rights had been violated and, based on the above; they had the right to oust the government (Gordon 2).

The success of the American Revolution, which was actually based on the Enlightenment views exported from the French intellectual class, showed to the French masses that if Enlightenment ideologies are effected, they could bring about change. Moreover, a large mass of the French populace wished for the ideas of freedom and equality for all, the ideas that were time and again being preached by thinkers such as Voltaire and Rousseau (Gordon 2). Seeing that their ideas had successfully brought about change in America, French revolutionaries unhesitantly espoused these ideas onto which they based to molest the vulnerable democracy of the Bourbon Monarchy and to further demand their rights, which, in the end, culminated into the French Revolution.

All taken together, the works of Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Rousseau are further apparent in influencing the formation of limited democratic governments. It ought to be noted that immediately after the Bastille was stormed in 1789, the National Assembly was established, and the Declaration and Rights of Man and Citizens was created. Its views were not only inspired by the American Revolution, but more so by the Enlightenment views of the French philosopher Rousseau who frequently advocated for the establishment of an evenly represented government which cared for all the three estates of the French society (Gordon 2). The freedom to thought and worship were given too, which was drawn from the philosophical views of Voltaire. Ultimately, even as the majority of these ideas were encompassed in the new constitution, they were largely entrenched on the Enlightenment views of the two philosophers who enlightened the public on what an ideal government looks like.

While the creation of the National Assembly could have not been enough for the much anticipated philosophical views of Montesquieu, soon after the drafting of the 1791 Constitution, the National Assembly went ahead and formed a constitutional monarchy, not unlike that of England. Thus, the French monarch was retained, though the majority of his features were discarded. As a result, the Constitution declared France as a sovereign kingdom, where the powers of the general government were divided into the separate branches of the monarchy and the National Assembly (Third Estate Parliament), which helped to carry out checks and balances on the French king (Montesquieu 1). Without a doubt, this was another Enlightenment idea that the French revolutionaries embraced from Montesquieu who continually championed for the division of state power and further from John Locke’s thoughts on government.

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It is, therefore, sound to proclaim that the French revolutionaries were fundamentally influenced by the thinkers’ philosophical ideas, and the sense of forming a new government by the revolutionaries was stipulated on the vision of forming a government which represented the commoners and their welfare. In regards to his views on the government, John Locke, in fact, recommended for the establishment of a government which possessed more powers than the Bourbon monarch to allow the Assembly to maintain close checkups on the extravagant Louis the XVI.

Although the Third Estate formed a new government after the Bastille incident, this was way off from thrusting the inclusive needs of all members of the Third Estate as it only needed more philosophical enlightenments to achieve this. The government, which had been formed in observation of the philosophical ideas of Montesquieu, Rousseau, and John Locke, failed because it, in the long run, lacked prop-up. It was in evidence that members of the middle class became apathetic because the affluent had retrieved their political powers and got their businesses pacing again as they were acquitted of the unwarranted taxes, which the Bourbon monarch initially imposed on them as the poor got back their land. In as much as the vast majority of these felt satisfied, the poorest of the Third Estate group (Sans-Culotte) were left in dismay not until another group of philosophers emerged – the Grondists, led by Brissott, and the Jacobins, led by Robespierre (Linton 3). Contrary to the predecessors, neither philosopher advocated for a Republican form of government which would proffer a fair representation and further dispense parity to all the French citizens.

As a result of their advocacies in public, the National Constitutional Assembly was formed as a consequence and was backed by the ideas of Robespierre who advanced the idea of separating the state and the church. This was further followed by the ideas of Voltaire who compromised the authority of the church in state affairs and beliefs (Stoica par. 3). The opposition imposed on the church by the French revolutionaries, therefore, influenced the establishment of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, which in course censured Pope Alexander as the leader of the French Catholic church and also ceased the church’s influence in confiscating the people’s land. To the French, these Enlightenment ideas depicted equality, and they influenced the French citizens to the overthrow the monarchy in 1792, only for the first and only French Republic to be formed.

Whereas the works of the French thinkers can never be disregarded, lest one is to talk about the incidence of the French revolution, many other factors complemented the rage of the French revolutionaries to oppose the French monarchy and eventually incited them to topple King Louis XVI. Therefore, this particular section will examine the set of factors other than the Enlightenment views which led to the revolution.

The Financial Burden Suffered by France

All through the period of the 18th century, France was engaged in a series of unjust wars merely because of its long-term rivalry with Britain. In fact, the trend for this draws from King Louis the XVI, whose-long term rule that stretched from 1715 to 1774 was pervasive of an array of expensive wars with Britain that he all lost (Anirudh par. 2). Committed on this, the King drew plans to even the score for the loss by engaging in the anti-British coalition, and he further built a large navy to counter the British supremacy. Undesirably to the French state, this only mounted the national debts which were at worst to be footed by the already poor French taxpayers.

As if that was not enough, Louis the XV’s grandson King Louis XVI also picked up from his forefather, allying with America to fight against Britain as the Americans sought for their independence. Although the war was a success, France as a nation achieved little from the war and much in augmenting its debt. Rumors had it that France’s engagement in the war was indescribably expensive, costing the spendthrift with an estimated budget of 1.066 French livers (Anirudh par. 2). Unfortunately, this only deteriorated the economic conditions in France and hurled the country into the trenches of bankruptcy. Historians assert that by 1789, the living conditions in France were unbearable, especially for the members of the Third Estate; the situation was further made worse by the heavy taxes the nobles imposed on them, and a revolution intended to dispose the monarchy was in that case inevitable.

The Rise of the Bourgeoisie

In the Third Estate, there were the bourgeoisie who were to some extent affluent members of this repressed group. Prior to the French Revolution, the bourgeoisie emerged into a new caste with political aspirations and new agendas inclined on equality and based on merit (Anirudh par. 3). From the beginning, the bourgeoisie railed against the positions of the nobles and clergy which they chastised, arguing that it derived from their hustle. That said, the aspiration of the bourgeoisie to rid themselves of the royal and feudal intrusion of the first and second classes on their commercial prospects, personal liberty, and property ownership, prompted their involvement in the Revolution as they played a marked role in financing the revolutionaries.


As it flows from the above, the Enlightenment views of the French thinkers in relation to the French Revolution are remarkable. While it could have been true that the French masses were at the time already sickened of the French monarchy, the Enlightenment views were a spark for the rebellion against the regime as they presented to the citizens their rights and what a real government encompassed. Markedly, throughout their opinions, the French thinkers were more focused on the French government, laws, and the creation of a society that was based on merit, reason, and logic, and it is the views which they preached among the French citizens. However, despite the acclaimed works of the French philosophers, further factors like the French debts and the rise of the Bourgeoisie class can to some extent be related to the certain occasion of the French Revolution, even in the nonexistence of the French thinkers.


Works Cited

Alpha History. “The Enlightenment.” Alpha History, revolution/enlightenment/. Accessed 28 November 2018.

Anirudh. “10 Major Causes of the French Revolution.” Learnodo Retaino Newtonic – Mnemonics to Learn and Retain, Accessed 28 November 2018.

Gordon, Susanna. “Enlightenment’s Influence on the American and French Revolutions.” ACPSD,…pdf. Accessed 28 November 2018.

Linton, Marisa. “The Choices of Maximilien Robespierre.” H-France Salon, vol. 7, no. 14, 2015.

Montesquieu. “Montesquieu View of Separation of Powers.” Lake Gibson Middle,…/04/Connection_Cards_Civics_EOC_Students1.pdf. Accessed 28 November 2018.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. “The Social Contract.” Early Modern Texts, Accessed 28 November 2018.

Smith, Nicole. “Candide by Voltaire: In the Context of the Enlightenment.” Article Myriad, Accessed 28 November 2018.

Stoica, Gilda. “The Influence of the Enlightenment on the Revolution.” The Most Natural and Easiest Way of Learning History, Accessed 28 November 2018.

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