It has generally been asserted by some historians that the Enlightenment influenced the French Revolution.1 Postmodernist historians tend to go further and claim the Enlightenment directly led to the terror, and inspired subsequent totalitarian regimes also.2 Whilst the latter question is beyond the purview of this essay, we shall be exploring, on the other hand, the question of the Enlightenments role in the French Revolution if it indeed had one at all. The Enlightenment is an area that has perhaps been over-complicated by historians, and so we shall do our best to uncomplicate them here. Is there a relation between the Enlightenment and the Revolution? At first glance it may seem like a reasonable hypothesis. Yet the proposition that the Enlightenment caused (whether directly or indirectly) raises a number of questions. Not least of these being the question of how could a movement devoted to rational reform lead to such violence?3 Therefore in order to understand this question better, we need to look at the Enlightenment philosophes themselves.
It becomes clear once we get round to looking at the philosophes that they were no revolutionaries. Whilst the revolutionaries certainly appealed to writers such as Voltaire and Rousseau, the revolutionaries’ thinking “often proceeded in directions which would have horrified those whose names they used in order to legitimate their actions.”4 Stromberg notes that almost all of the philosophes that lived to the Revolution rejected it, and “virtually from the start.”5 The philosophes were very much elitists who believed in a hierarchical society with the ‘grands’ at the top, with Rousseau being the only exception. d’Alembert remarked that one did not a great deal of philosophy that societies, especially large states, needed clearly defined social ranks. Voltaire shared similar sentiments and believed that the masses should no be even taught how to read. This oligarchy therefore stands in stark contrast to the ideals of the revolutionaries who sought to enact a republic. Robert Darnton notes that by 1778 “the last generation of philosophes had become pensioned, petted, and completely integrated in high society.”6
Darnton cites the Archive Nationales, which contained a list of 147 “men of letters who request pensions” and ten dossiers on writers and their sources of support.7 The philosophes were very much dependant on sinecures and pensions, and NOT the sales of books. Of course, this raises further questions: to what extent did Enlightenment ideals filter down to the masses, and if not the Enlightenment philosophes what DID eighteenth century Frenchmen read? Robert Darnton, whom has already been cited, has made some considerable advancement in this regard. One such example is the Bibliotheque bleue, which were crude paperbacks carted about the countryside and were intended for semi-literate peasant communities. These works included mostly superstitious tales, medieval romances, and condensed versions of popular novels, not the enlightened philosophy of the philosophes.8 Furthermore, records by provincial publishers for ‘permission simples’ indicate that “educated provincials were about as far removed from the Enlightenment provincials as illiterate provincials.”8
Quite simply, books that later ages took be great “may not have been widely read under the Old Regime.”9 More than this, however, it seems as if there was an underground book market for “philosophical books” with particularly lewd title such as ‘Venus in the Cloister or Nun in the Nightgown’ and ‘The Woman of Pleasure.’ Darnton’s book The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France is devoted to this entire subject. The term “philosophical books” was used as a sort of codeword for books that would get publishers and shop owners into trouble, and were apparently in quite high demand. However, the chief impetus behind the revolution, Darton argues, were a group of writers wholly different from those of the Enlightenment philosophes. Darnton points to a fringe group of writers excluded from elite circles, men such as Carra, Gorsas, Mercier, Restif de la Bretonne, Manuel, Desmoulins, Collot d’Herbois, and Fabre d’Eglantine. In fact one of the writers named, Jean Marie Collot d’Herbois actually went to become a member of the Committee of Public Safety.
These writers generally passed into obscurity, with the exception of those named, and were referred to by the philosophes as the ‘excrement of literature.’ Voltaire placed them in a social class below prostitutes and referred to them as the ‘dregs of humanity.’ Whilst Voltaire claimed he attacked this group of writers to put aspiring youths off from aspiring to be a writer (and thus ending up either starving or scraping a living) those who were able to scrape a living by the pen, such as Mercier, took extreme offence. They were also indignant at their place in society, and Darnton notes how Phillipe Fabre d’Eglantine, Jean-Louis Carra, and Antoine-Joseph Carra precipitated the downfall Charles-Alexandre de Callone after he did not award them pensions.10 The central issue was privilege; the Enlightenment philosophes and these writers were not. As Darnton puts it: “They had knocked on the doors of Voltaire’s Church, and the door remained closed.”11As such, these writers generally produced ‘libelles’ attacking the “grande monde”; that is, the society of the high cultured philosophes. They attacked the salon, the academies, the aristocracy, the church, and even the monarchy. These were the successors of the philosophes and they made themselves heard.
Whereas the philosophes were mostly if not entirely limited to the upper echelons of eighteenth century France, the Grub Street hacks were pumping out pamphlets that were quite widely read in some cases. Darnton specifically references the “polemical genius” of Simon-Henri Linguet.12 Jeremy Popkin, in response to Darnton’s earlier suggestion of Brissot as the template for the hacks of Grub Street, likewise notes that Linguet fits Darnton’s hypothesis, but that even Linguet “spent much of his career closely associated with powerful figures in French politics.”13 Popkin notes that their feelings of resentment have perhaps been exaggerated by Darnton, and that they were simply poor intellectuals who wrote whatever sold and were more than happy to attach themselves to wealthy and influential patrons such as the duc d’Orleans. Of course, this does not do much to undermine Darnton’s hypothesis, and Popkin himself even admitted to the inherent plausibility of Darnton’s hypothesis.14 Darnton’s argument is that these writers influenced the revolutionaries, and not the Enlightenment philosophes.
However, the question of what motivated them is a more complicated one and one that Darnton has since answered. These writers had arrived in Paris expecting to be received as eminent writers and to rise up as Voltaire did, but instead they plummeted to the bottom and so had to do whatever was required to survive. Grub Street was no gentlemanly affair, but a “grim struggle for survival” that “brought out baser elements.”15 Whether they harboured the vitriolic hatred of the establishment as Darnton suggests, and thus merely hedging their bets, or if they were simply downtrodden opportunists who were radicalised by their life at the bottom rung, many of their writings were certainly nefarious and dark. One Charles Thevenau de Morande produced work of such ghastly degradation that its depravity caused Voltaire to refer to it in horror as “one of those satanic works… where the most atrocious and most absurd calumny spreads a horrible poison on everything one respects and loves.”16
One aspect, however, that Darnton has perhaps overlooked is the indirect role that the Enlightenment played in influencing revolution. Many of these men had grown up as youths really believing that the ‘republic of letters,’ in fact, really did exist, and that they could be the next Voltaire or Diderot. In this sense, the Enlightenment led these men to aspire to be writers, and thus led to them ending up as radical Grub Street hacks, doing whatever literary work was needed just as long as it got them food on the table and a roof over their heads. More than this, however, the Enlightenment can also be argued to have made revolution possible. The central thesis of T. C. W. Blanning’s book The Culture of Power and the Power of Culture is that the Enlightenment era saw the rise of a ‘public sphere.’ That is to say “[b]y exchanging information, ideas, and criticism, these individuals created a cultural actor – the public- which has dominated European culture ever since.”17 What then is the relation between this new ‘general public’ and the Enlightenment?
It easy enough to see where the Grub Street hack writers would have come in. With the growing emphasis on newspapers, and other (what we would call) media outlets, this obviously left a gap for them to fill. More than this, public life began emphasising public venues, such as the theatre, and Blanning notes the ‘Querelle de Bouffons,’ a controversy that broke out over the merits of newer Italian opera, versus the older French operas of Lully of Rameau.18 This quarrel is interesting in that it not only involved the ‘general public’ but also the philosophes. Weighing in against Rameau was none other than Rousseau, Grimm and men such as Diderot and d’Alembert. The lesson Blanning claims can be inferred from this incident is that the court culture of Louis XIV began to be seen as outdated.19 Interestingly enough, d’Alembert wrote a pamphlet entitled ‘On the Liberty of Music.’ In it he writes that the ‘great political figures’ who oppose those argue for liberty in music complain that liberty in music is inextricably and inexorably linked with liberty in feeling, followed by liberty in thought, liberty in action, ending in the ruin of states.
Blanning notes that this is probably not too far off the mark. With the advent of the new Bouffon style of comedic opera, Rousseau saw the success of his own comic opera Le Devin du village, which Blanning argues “looks very much like an exercise in social criticism.”20 Rousseau then wrote his famous ‘Letter on French Music,’ whereby he accused the French of having no music, and that if they did it would be so much the worse for them. Such a brazen attack on French music caused deep offence, even amongst Frenchmen who preferred the Italian operas of the Bouffons and many made their complaints heard via print. As Outram notes, some of the new institutions and organisations that sprang up in this era “provided ways in which many different social strata could be exposed to the same ideas.”21 It was these institutions and this interchange of ideas that led to the emergence of a ‘new public sphere.’
Whence did this public sphere come? It was mostly the result of socio-political changes in not just Western Europe, but America also. Outram notes that the eighteenth century “was a time of economic expansion, increasing urbanisation, rising population, and improving communications in comparison to the stagnation of the previous century.”22 However, as Darnton notes, the philosophes themselves were not widely read in the lower classes. This new ‘general public’ read mostly gossip, pornography, and just general smut, which is generally where the Grub Street writers come in. The Grub Street writers, as we have previously discussed, were men who had grown up believing in a “republic of letters” but found out the hard way that unless you made it in the system of privilege and patronage, then you would not go very far. The one possible contradiction in Darnton’s hypothesis is that these Grub Street writers themselves actually read the Enlightenment philosophes or at least became somewhat acquainted with them. In the same way a youth today might aspire to become, say, an actor or musician, these men aspired to become the next Voltaire, or Diderot.
Upon finding that they could not succeed at their ambitious aspirations of fame and glory, and subsequently forced to live in the grim reality of Grub Street, they dispensed of such quaint ideals. In essence, they were desperate, and so wrote whatever would get them money. However, this can more or less be attributed to the socio-political factors above. It was the heightened sense of public awareness that gave a market for the writings of Grub Street, and made public opinion such a powerful force. Although the link between the Enlightenment philosophes and the Grub Street writers is there, which can further be demonstrated in how the revolutionaries attempted to justify their enterprise. In fact, more than this, Stromberg notes that, of the philosophes that were still alive, there was one group that attempted to “mediate between the great ideas of the past, on which they had been raised and which has dazzled them, and the tumultuous events of the present which might be the realisation of those ideas.”23 This group, however, ultimately failed, losing to the Jacobin faction, but this group distinctive and even had its own printing press to disseminate Enlightenment ideals to the general public.
It seems then, then the only link between the Enlightenment one can demonstrate is, at most, indirect. As Roger Chartier notes: “…the revolutionaries constructed a continuity that was primarily a process of justification and a search for paternity.”24 It should be clear, however, that the Enlightenment and the French Revolution are not as inexorably linked as previously assumed. A much more convincing argument, on the other hand, could be made in regards to the relationship between the Enlightenment and the American Revolution, but that is beyond the bounds of this essay to discuss. The biggest contributing factor were the new socio-political changes, and whether or not these changes were caused or influenced in any way by the Enlightenment is a question that shall not be addressed here (although certainly a relevant one!) A growing sense of public opinion and public awareness combined with the writings of Grub Street are ultimately what led to revolution, and whilst the link between Grub Street and the Enlightenment philosophes is certainly there, what also needs to be shown is that the public dissatisfaction with the court culture King Louis XIV and his successors was a result of the Enlightenment.
Perhaps the strongest conclusion that can be reached is that the philosophes were no revolutionaries, and even supported the current order, so if a more direct link could be shown between the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, then it could simply be put down to a misuse of enlightened ideals, and not an intended outcome of the Enlightenment at all. Of course, whether a misuse of ideals is inevitable is a further question raised by all of this, and it seems that the philosophes themselves would be inclined to agree that it was, given their attitudes towards the lower classes. So, again, if there is a link between the Enlightenment and the revolution, it was because Enlightenment ideals filtered down to the lower classes too rapidly. Whilst Darnton has more or less shown that the philosophes were not widely read in the lower classes, it does leave the question of whether or not their ideals found their way to the lower classes anyway (in one form or another.) Whatever the answer, then it should not reflect too badly on the philosophes, given they were aware of such pitfalls themselves.
T. C. W. Blanning, The Culture of Power and the Power of Culture: Old Regime Europe 1660-1789, Oxford University Press, (2002)
Roger Chartier, The Cultural Origins of the French Revolution, Lydia G. Cochran, trns., Duke University Press, (1991)
Robert Darnton, The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France, W.W. Norton & Company, (1996)
Robert Darnton, In Search of the Enlightenment: Recent Attempts to Create a Social History of Ideas, The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 43, No.1, (March, 1971), University of Chicago Press, pp113-132
Robert Darnton, The High Enlightenment and the Low-Life of Literature in Pre-Revolutionary France, Past and Present, No. 51, (May, 1971), Oxford University Press, pp81-115
Haydn T. Mason, ed., The Darnton Debate: Books and Revolution in the Eighteenth Century, Voltaire Foundation Ltd., (1998)
Dorinda Outram, The Enlightenment: New Approaches to European History, 2nd Edition, Cambridge University Press, (2005)
Roland N. Stromberg, The Philosophes and the French Revolution: Reflections on Some Recent Research, The History Teacher, Vol. 21, No. 3, (May, 1988), Society for the History of Education, pp321-339
1 For example, Peter Gay.
2 The same historians also tend to deny that the Enlightenment had any influence and all, not to mention postmodernism denies the objectivity of historical research. This is an irony that they otherwise appear to be blind to.
3 Dorinda Outram, The Enlightenment: New Approaches to European History, 2nd Edition, Cambridge University Press, (2005), p126
4 Dorinda Outram, The Enlightenment, p131
5 Roland N. Stromberg, The Philosophes and the French Revolution: Reflections on Some Recent Research, The History Teacher, Vol. 21, No. 3, (May, 1988), Society for the History of Education, pp321-339, p323
6 Robert Darnton, In Search of the Enlightenment: Recent Attempts to Create a Social History of Ideas, The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 43, No.1, (March, 1971), University of Chicago Press, pp113-132, p119
7 Robert Darnton, The High Enlightenment and the Low-Life of Literature in Pre-Revolutionary France, Past and Present, No. 51, (May, 1971), Oxford University Press, pp81-115, p85-86
8 Robert Darnton, In Search of the Enlightenment, p127
9 Robert Darnton, In Search of the Enlightenment, p124
10 Robert Darnton, Two Paths Through the Social History of Ideas, from Haydn T. Mason, ed., The Darnton Debate: Books and Revolution in the Eighteenth Century, Voltaire Foundation Ltd., (1998), p253
11 Robert Darnton, The High Enlightenment and the Low-Life of Literature in Pre-Revolutionary France, p100
12 Robert Darnton, The High Enlightenment and the Low-Life of Literature in Pre-Revolutionary France, p101
13 Jeremy D. Popkin, Robert Darnton’s Alternative (to the) Enlightenment, from Haydn T. Mason, ed., The Darnton Debate: Books and Revolution in the Eighteenth Century, Voltaire Foundation Ltd., (1998), p110
14 Jeremy D. Popkin, Robert Darnton’s Alternative (to the) Enlightenment, from Haydn T. Mason, ed., The Darnton Debate, p108
15 Robert Darnton, The High Enlightenment and the Low-Life of Literature in Pre-Revolutionary France, p102
17 T. C. W. Blanning, The Culture of Power and the Power of Culture: Old Regime Europe 1660-1789, Oxford University Press, (2002), p2
18 T. C. W. Blanning, The Culture of Power and the Power of Culture, p357-360
19 T. C. W. Blanning, The Culture of Power and the Power of Culture, p360
20 T. C. W. Blanning, The Culture of Power and the Power of Culture, p363
21 Dorinda Outram, The Enlightenment, p12
23 Roland N. Stromberg, The Philosophes and the French Revolution, p327
24 Roger Chartier, The Cultural Origins of the French Revolution, Lydia G. Cochran, trns., Duke University Press, (1991), p5