Solution: Daily Problem Practice [World History: Week 15]- 24 January

Solution: Daily Problem Practice [World History: Week 15]- 24 January

Q. Critically discuss the role played by different French Philosophers in the French Revolution. [20 Marks]


Revolution originates in the human mind and so it is the intelligentsia and philosophers who unwittingly usher in this revolutionary spirit. The radical charges in the field of knowledge and political thought in eighteenth-century Europe is called the Enlightenment. It was none other than philosophers of this tradition, most of whom were born in France, who brought about the Revolution.

France was a country which excelled in philosophy and culture. The notable among the French philosophers were Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Mably, Lingnet, Quesnay, etc.

Montesquieu (1689-1755)

  • The most prominent of the exponents of Enlightenment thought was Montesquieu. He was an admirer of the state and social system of England.
  • His greatest work The Spirit of the Laws (De l’esprit des lois) came out in 1734. In this book he expounded his famous theory of the ‘separation of powers’. He held that distinct separation of power among the legislature, judiciary, and administrative wings of government was desirable for without which, it would be impossible to curb an autocracy.
  • But Montesquieu was no believer in republicanism or democracy and the constitutional monarchy of England was his ideal. Though his thoughts and ideology were characterized by revolutionary spirit, he was not in favour of revolution. He never spoke about the abolition of privileges of the Church and aristocracy and he also remained silent about the rights of common people.

Voltaire (1694-1778)

  • In the eighteenth century, Voltaire was famous for his multifaceted genius in the world of political thought. Like Montesquieu he too was an admirer of the English model.
  • The target of his attack was the Roman Catholic Church. For him Church was synonymous with religious bigotry yet far from being an atheist, he was a believer in God.
  • In terms of political belief he was a liberal but like Montesquieu he had faith in the institution of monarchy and his ideal form of government was ‘enlightened despotism’. He also neither supported democracy nor cared for the interests of the people.

Rousseau (1712-78)

  • The greatest thinker among contemporary French philosophers was Rousseau. His ideology and thought were more extremist and revolutionary in character than those of all other contemporary philosophers. His well known works were A Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, A Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, The Social Contract, A Discourse on Political Economy, Emile, etc.
  • According to Rousseau, man was honest and happy in his natural condition but it was society, which by way of creating division among men, became the source of unhappiness and disquiet.
  • Rousseau set forth this theory in The Social Contract. He held that the state and society should evolve out of a social contract between all members of that society and that sovereign power should lie not in the rights of kings, but in the ‘general will’ of the people.
  • Rousseau’s ideal political form was direct democracy. He believed that in order to ensure social equality and freedom, there was little alternative but to hand over power to the people.
  • Rousseau’s thoughts deeply influenced contemporary France and according to Napolean, Rousseau was responsible for the French Revolution more so than anyone else. But he too did not preach Revolution directly and he also said that his concept of state was idealistic and not possible in real sense.

The Influence of other Philosophers

  • Other notable philosophers who, in the age of Enlightenment, disseminated the fruits of scientific knowledge to common people, were Denis Diderot, D’Alembert, Holbach and others. Their initiative and enterprise helped in the publication of an enormous Encyclopaedia. Religion and transcendentalism came in for criticism in their writings and they also started writing against feudalism.
  • Physiocrats:
    • Francois Quesnay was the founder of the group called the Physiocrats. The Physiocrats comprised, among others, of economists such as Mirabeau, Turgot, Nemours, Gournay, and others.
    • Individualism formed the core of their thought. They fiercely attacked the contemporary economic doctrine of mercantilism, spoke in favour of free-trade, and sharply criticized the internal tariff policy.
    • Their thought is known as a liberal economic theory. They also held that land was the source of all wealth and that wealth increased only through the cultivation of land. For this, everyone should pay tax on land and so all the clergy, the aristocracy, and the bourgeoisie should pay land tax.
    • According to the Physiocrats, the king owned the responsibility for introducing these reforms. This group may therefore be described as supporters of Enlightened monarchy.

Differing views regarding the role of philosophers

  • Historians differ about the role of French philosophers in the French revolution. According to David Thomson, ‘the connection between philosophers ideas and the outbreak of revolution in 1789 is somewhat remote and indirect’. Historians like Mounier and Morse Stephens opined that the propaganda and theory of the philosophers was unsuccessful with the French people.
  • On the other hand, historians like Taine, Roustan and Dupont firmly believed that the philosophers, by criticizing the ancien régime, had in fact weakened the very foundations of the old regime, thereby ushering in the revolution.
  • It is hardly possible to reconcile the two contradictory opinions. However, most of the French philosophers did not live to see the French Revolution and so there was no question of their directly leading the revolution. Judged from this viewpoint, the role of the philosophers could lose some of its significance. However, it is undeniable that the critical and rationalist writings of the philosophers psychologically prepared the French people for the revolution and lent them the mental strength to bear the brunt of the struggle.


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