Continuing our discussion on the French Revolution from Part 4, we now focus on some of the French philosophers that shaped the historical event. As was mentioned earlier, during the Age of Enlightenment, an idea was spreading that “the past must be wiped away”. Man was locked in a paradigm in which his rights were surrendered to a king. This philosophy had a unique way of redefining language – language that had been established for thousands of years.
Although I cannot go into all the new definitions, here is one: Man is born free. The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778) appears to be a major proponent of this thought. What is weird is that no one in history ever disputed this. Free Will is a key tenet of the Abrahamic religions. Yet, Rousseau argues that submitting to a king goes against free will. Laws are to be determined by every adult citizen voting on every single law – a Social Contract.
In the past, great thinkers would have said that no king can impose an unjust law. If a king required you to do something that was against nature or the social good, not only could you refuse to do it; but that it was your duty to oppose the king. The focus is keeping a healthy mind and body. Following an unjust law is not only bad for society but it is not good for any individual personally either. History is full of examples of people who opposed their king and got to live to a ripe old age.
The philosophy of Rousseau is described as “rational”. In actuality, it is materialistic. The Social Contract is addressing material problems only – not spiritual. In my opinion, spiritual problems can lead to material problems as well. The Age of Enlightenment philosophers see man as a reasoning animal; thus, he can think for himself. Again, no one ever disputed this. In any case, since these philosophers negate the spiritual, all that is left is the material.
Speaking of the material, Rousseau begins to reveal a scary thought that is beginning to circulate during this time frame: the abolishment of private property. This is a really scary thought. Rousseau says that if a man puts up a fence to protect his garden of lettuce, carrots, and onions, that this is a violation of the Natural Rights of Man. He asserts that the earth belongs to everyone and that no one can claim any land for themselves. This belief system is stemming from the feudal system that was dominant in Europe. The upper class held all the land and the poor had no choice but to live and work on that land. Today we see the same problem with American mega-corporations and mega-billionaires. The money gets all locked up by the big dogs and the little restaurant owner does not have a fighting chance. Nevertheless, it cannot be illegal for a person to guard his food that is reserved for himself and his own family.
The French philosophers who built the ideological framework for the French Revolution, and our own, are called (in French) Philosophes. In this group, are included names like Rousseau, Voltaire, and Montesquieu. To be honest, I never gave these guys much thought early in my life. I was much more drawn to Plato, Aristotle, and C. S. Lewis. I was greatly moved through such books as “I Am Third”, by Gale Sayers; “The Guns of Navarone”, by Alistair MacLean; and “1984” by George Orwell. Another book of interest to me was one about music theory, “Traditional Harmony”, by Paul Hindemith. In those days, anything else put me to sleep in class. Shakespeare? Bleh!
It was not until I was teaching university economics in my mid 30’s that I was forced to open the books originating from the Age of Enlightenment. You cannot understand capitalist economics without that background. Talk about some difficult reading – it is hard to read something when you disagree with every sentence, yet you are forced to read it because it is part of your job. Furthermore, the recent COVID pandemic, and the overpowering force used by the Federal Government to lockdown every aspect of our lives has forced me to rethink some of these “unenlightened” philosophies on which the French Revolution is based.
I will leave this topic today with a quotation from a book by T. Z. Levine, “From Socrates to Sartre: The Philosophic Quest”.
“Who developed these philosophic ideas which inspired the French Revolution? Strangely, no one who would ever appear on the list of the world’s greatest philosophers, such as Plato, Descartes, Hume, or Hegel. The significance of the philosophy of the Age of Enlightenment was spelled out in France during the middle years of the eighteenth century by a group who came to be called the philosophes, by which the Frence [sic] meant that they were not professional academic philosophers such as might teach at the Sorbonne in Paris, but rather that they were intellectuall types, opinion makers, political activists in the sciences or the arts, journalists, cafe philosophers. These were the people who popularized and disseminated the ideas of enlightenment to large and varied audiences throughout France.”