French Enlightenment Thinkers

A Reading in the Salon of Mme Geoffrin, 1755. (Public Domain photo. Info can be found here)

When enlightenment ideas spread to France, the idea would spread quickly and become amazingly popular at all levels of society. Since France was the country with the strongest of the Absolute Monarchies, the people would quickly invite any ideas of spreading the power out to the people. The French people would develop debate clubs (called salons) that were often very informal but would allow for highly intellectual debate over the latest enlightenment concepts. France quickly became a HUGE market for enlightenment ideas because it was among the most literate societies in the world at that time.

French enlightenment ideas would often target the Catholic Church as often as the monarchy, in large part because of the sheer level of power the church enjoyed in the country. Priests in France at the time were often seen as corrupt, and could do nearly anything they wanted since they could easily threaten eternal damnation to anyone who resisted them. For this reason, many of the French elite would become known as deists instead of embracing Catholicism. Deists would be seen as similar to the current concept of agnosticism, in that they often believed that God didn’t involve himself in the day to day 

decisions of the world, but instead set the world on a sort of autopilot. To deists, the most logical way to proceed would be to learn the system so that it can be manipulated to the advantage of the people when needed. While this may seem strange to us now, it was a quite popular belief at that time period. In fact, many of this countries founding fathers professed belief in this at one time or another; although stating definitively how many, or who was involved, is hotly debated to this day.

Among the most well-known French philosophers was the Baron de Montesquieu (1689-1755), who would add to the works of Locke during his life. Montesquieu was most well known for his book Spirit of Laws (1748) in which he explains the concept of separation of powers in more detail. He believed that this was an important addition to any system, since it gave the country a system of ‘checks and balances’ to protect against tyranny. This theory would also be added to the U.S. constitution a few decades later as our founding fathers openly referenced their admiration for his ideas. He was not, however, a huge proponent of any particular type of system over another, and would often state that no single form of government worked in all situations. So his beliefs were that systems would have to be modified slightly to fit the situation in order to have the greatest impact.

François-Marie Arouet (1694-1778) is by far the most well-known of the French thinkers of the era, although he is better remembered for his pen name of “Voltaire.” He was among the more controversial thinkers of the enlightenment due to his strong belief in reason over what he believed was a culture of superstition and intolerance. His harsh criticism of anyone who held beliefs he disagreed with would cause him to be expelled from numerous countries during his life, and would nearly die when he attempted to “out” Frederick the Great of Prussia as a homosexual. Thankfully, for him, Frederick was a great admirer of his work, so he was allowed to simply leave the country for this perceived insult (which was likely true).

Despite his abrasive personality, Voltaire was (and is still) very popular for the wit that he displayed in his writing. He would often speak harshly against democracy, claiming that democracies were the “idiocy of the masses,” but would frame his thoughts with clever quotes such as “He would rather obey one lion, than two hundred rats of (his own) species.” His condemnation of democracies would earn him the respect of many of the Kings and conservative government officials of the era, but when employed as an advisor he would often fight for the political freedom of the people. The issues he found most important were civil rights for the people (including the right to a fair trial) and freedom of religion for all people,

Voltaire was, and is, often disliked by religious people for his blanket attacks on the concept of religion. He was a strong deist, who believed in God but hated organized religion, believing it was a glorified superstition that was made up to make people feel good. He would spend a great deal of time trying to disprove the validity of the bible and the idea that Jesus ever existed as an actual person. The quote that best personifies his satirical wit, and belief in religion, came when he was asked to renounce the devil so that he can go to heaven while he was on his deathbed. Despite the fact that he was near death, he never lost his humor, and replied with “This is no time to be making new enemies.”

While Voltaire is among the most well-known philosophers of his age, he didn’t have quite the political impact of some of his peers. In fact many would claim that he didn’t really have an impact, with the exception of spreading the ideas of others. The case could be made that this is, in large part, due to the fact that he represented a conservative view of religion in a time when many political ideas were changing. He did, however, end up inspiring many people into the deists movement and despite not agreeing with atheism, his words are often used to justify current atheist beliefs

One important concept to remember is that the mere ideas that were being developed during this time were HIGHLY controversial, and espousing these beliefs in public could lead to arrest or worse. The Catholic Church had just ended an era of public executions for anyone who had beliefs that differed from the official church teachings (heretics). So when Denis Diderot (1713-1784) attempted to catalogue all knowledge of the era into his Encyclopédie he was actually taking a huge risk. Over the course of 25 years Diderot would attempt to collect all human knowledge into what would become a 28 volume set encyclopedias that would require the help of many of the major writers of the era. While we don’t currently think of encyclopedias and ground breaking today, the idea of gathering all knowledge and placing it into a single set of books was highly controversial for the time period. His work was seen as an attack on religious beliefs because it described scientific beliefs that had not yet been accepted into official church doctrine, so it had to be done in semi-secrecy for much of this time. This encyclopedia would be historically important, not only for spreading enlightenment ideas around Europe, but also by increasing the literacy of the continent as people tried to read it.