The Influence of Rationalism on the French Revolution

Ben Jorgensen Professor Wakefield English 5 3 April 2013 The Influence of Rationalism on the French Revolution What was the driving force behind the French Revolution? Many people may say it was financial, or political, and while I would agree that these things were part of the force that propelled the French Revolution, I would assert that the philosophies of the Enlightenment were the dominant force that blasted late eighteenth century France into revolution .
In his article, “The French Revolution: Ideas and Ideologies “Maurice Cranston of History Today articulates that the Enlightenment philosophies were pivotal in the revolutions inception. He writes that: “The philosophes undoubtedly provided the ideas. ” Cranston goes on to write that: “…the unfolding of the Revolution, what was thought, what was said, and what was advocated, was expressed in terms and categories that came from political theorists of the Enlightenment. While many of the Enlightenment concepts contributed to the revolution, I would propose that the philosophy of rationalism was foundational to the French Revolution because of its reliance on reason, and its opposition to superstition. Rationalism in its epistemology is defined by the Online Oxford Dictionary as: “A belief or theory that opinions and actions should be based on reason and knowledge rather than on religious belief or emotional response. The Online Encyclopedia Britannica adds: “Holding that reality itself has an inherently logical structure, the rationalist asserts that a class of truths exists that the intellect can grasp directly. ” There are many types and expressions of rationalism, but the most influential expressions of rationalism pertaining to the French Revolution were in ethics and metaphysics. The first modern rationalist philosopher was Rene Descartes (1596-1650).
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states that: “Descartes is known as the father of modern philosophy precisely because he initiated the so-called epistemological turn that is with us still. ” Descartes interest in philosophy stemmed from a fascination with the question of whether humans could know anything for certain. Descartes desired to create a philosophy that was as solid as say the concepts of algebra, or geometry, a philosophy based purely on quantifiable reason and logic.

In this way, Rene Descartes laid the foundation for philosophies built on reason as opposed to superstition, chief among them: rationalism. While Rene Descartes defined the terms and laid down the agenda for the philosophy of rationalism, Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) and Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716) completed the triad for the chief philosophers of rationalism. Spinoza and Leibniz took the terms and agenda of Descartes philosophy of rationalism, and developed their own views on rationalism, both publishing a number of books, and journals on their rationalist philosophies.
Although these early modern philosophers of rationalism did not directly influence the French Revolution, it cannot be doubted that their general epistemological philosophy of rationalism helped create a new way of thinking in which man was not ordained by God to rule over other men, but that it was through reason of the mind that man chose to be ruler or subject. The French Revolution began between the years 1787 and 1789.
It is no wonder that the revolution occurred at this time when the Enlightenment was in its prime, shining light onto the social and political issues of the day with new philosophies like rationalism that challenged the old feudalistic and monarchist regimes of Europe that were built on irrationality and superstition. William Doyle, in his book, “The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction,” conveys that the French Revolution was: “…triggered by King Louis XVI’s attempt to avoid bankruptcy. (19) However, while the trigger was financial, the social and political rumblings of the Third estate is what shook, and toppled the old regime under Louis XVI, afterword which came to be called the ancien regime by the French people. Author William Doyle says that: “In political terms pre-revolutionary France was an absolute monarchy. The King shared his powers with nobody, and was answerable for its exercise to nobody but God. (21) The ancien regime government lacked reason, but was bursting with more than its fair share of divine laws and rights that the “creator” had set in place in order to insure social stability. In fact, as Doyle points out in his book, this concept that God had set forth a divine law to be followed was directly stated in a document that parliament wrote: “This social order is not only essential to the practice of every sound government: it has its origin in divine law. (24) The document goes on to say that: “The infinite and immutable wisdom in the plan of the universe established an unequal distribution of strength and character, necessarily resulting in inequality in the conditions of men within the civil order…” (24) This document summed up the ancien regimes ideology: God has placed the king the clergy, and aristocracy above the common people and that is how it is, because that is how it has been.
The words irrational, divine, and superstitious come up many times when describing the ancien regimes government and society; in fact, these things were actually integral to the maintenance of government and society in France during the ancien regime. Indeed, you could not have this form of government without divine law, irrational organization, and superstitious beliefs. The rumblings of the French Revolution began as rates of literacy increased.
With the rise in literacy, the French people demanded more newspapers, and books, and as much as the aristocracy and Church tried to filter what the public read, the French people began to read the writings of philosophers like, Leibniz, Spinoza, Descartes, Voltaire, and Montesquieu. With this increase in literacy, and thus knowledge, the French people became more involved in politics than they originally had been. Now Louis the XVI was scrutinized for his actions, for his mishandling of his citizens finances.
Now the people of France came to expect their King to act for his people in observance of laws, as a representative of the people, instead of a man who had divine superiority over them. William Doyle writes that: “ in the eighteenth century these expectations were reinforced by the widespread conviction that since nature had herself (as Isaac Newton had shown) worked by invariable laws and not divine caprice, human affairs should also be conducted so far as was possible according to fixed and regular principles, rooted in rationality, in which the scope of arbitrariness was reduced to a minimum. To have a government and society “Rooted in rationality” was what the French revolutionaries so passionately fought to attain. In his book Europe in Retrospect, Raymond F. Betts writes that “It must be remembered that the French Revolution was the first major social revolution, of far greater dimensions and of deeper purpose than the American Revolution that had preceded it. Betts continues to explain in his book that the ideology of the French Revolution was unique for its time in what it sought to accomplish, and what it stood for: “To sweep away the old and begin the new was the liberal solution; it was predicated upon the assumption that human nature was essentially good, mankind essentially rational, and the purpose of life the ‘pursuit of earthly happiness. ” The assumption that humankind was rational was a belief that the revolutionaries espoused, but I would also say that the French Revolution was built on a belief that government, society, and the individual were all capable of thriving on reason, in part on the philosophy of rationalism. Although many events that took place during the French Revolution were controversial, and at times the actions taken by the revolutionaries were irrational, the French Revolution originated from a place of enlightenment.
Indeed, more specifically, from the philosophies of the Enlightenment, and while many of the philosophies of the Enlightenment contributed to the inception of the French Revolution, the philosophy of rationalism contradicted so much of pre-r revolutionary French society that to subscribe to rationalism at that time was a revolution in itself. Steven Kreis of The History Guide. com summarizes the eventual results of the Revolution eloquently stating that: “Man had entered a stage in human history characterized by his emancipation from superstition, prejudice, cruelty and enthusiasm.
Liberty had triumphed over tyranny. New institutions were created on the foundations of reason and justice and not authority or blind faith. The barriers to freedom, liberty, equality and brotherhood were torn down. Man had been released from otherworldly torment and was now making history! ” Works Cited Cranston, Maurice. “The French Revolution: Ideas and Ideologies. ” History Today. History Today, 1989. Web. 2 Apr. 2013. Doyle, William. The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: New York, 2001. Print.
Kreis, Steven. “Lecture 11: The Origins of the French Revolution. ” Lecture 11: The Origins of the French Revolution. The History Guide. com, 30 Oct. 2006. Web. 02 Apr. 2013. Lennon, Thomas M. , and Shannon Dea. “Continental Rationalism. ” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Fall 2012 ed. N. d. Web. “Rationalism Definition. ” Oxford Dictionaries Online (US). N. p. , n. d. Web. 02 Apr. 2013. “Rationalism”. Encyclop? dia Britannica. Encyclop? dia Britannica Online. Encyclop? dia Britannica Inc. , 2013. Web. 02 Apr. 2013

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