Sep 7, 2013

The Impact of Enlightenment

As French urban society grew wealthier, it also became more literate. In academies and salons, where social distinctions among the wealthy ceased to be made, nobles and bourgeois began to debate philosophy and science with each other. Even artisans joined reading groups and began paying attention to the newspapers then cropping up all over the country.

This was the height of the Enlightenment, when a group of French writers known as philosophes spread the values of free inquiry and open debate throughout France and later across the rest of the Western world. At the core of their belief was the idea that reason was the basis for all human improvement. Inspired by the many advances recently made in science, they wanted to apply the same rational method to all forms of human endeavor, including political philosophy.

Because the phihophes despised irrationality, they frequently attacked the mysticism and religious intolerance of the Catholic Church. In 1762, for example, Voltaire (1694-1778) launched a public campaign to free Jean Calas, a Huguenot being put to death by the Languedoc parlement for allegedly murdering his son to prevent him from embracing Catholicism. Voltaire used the trumped-up Calas case to demonstrate the extent to which French public institutions had become infused with religious bigotry, but he couldn't save Calas.

The philosophes also offered a sophisticated critique of ancien regime economic policy, pointing out the irrationality of France's protectionist tariffs and outmoded seigneurial agricultural system. Technological innovation and free trade, they argued, were the keys to future prosperity. So long as France retained its traditional forms of industry and agriculture, so long as social status continued to be accorded on the basis of privilege rather than merit, individuals would continue to fill below their full productive potential.

As for their political beliefs, most philosophes condemned absolute monarchy as arbitrary and oppressive. Voltaire and Denis Diderot (1713-84) both argued for a more "enlightened form of monarchy in which the king used his power to rationalize society. Montesquieu (1689-1755), who considered personal liberty the primary goal of any government, proposed a system of checks and balances to limit oppressive rule. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) went farthest of all: He argued that, because sovereignty rested ultimately with the people, the ideal government was a republic - that is, a government elected by the people – in which the citizens themselves acted for the public good. (Most of Rousseau's philosophe colleagues found this utopian idea a little too radical.) (‘The Bedside Baccalaureate’, edited by David Rubel)