Should one decide that they have heard or know all that there is to know about a topic, then it is true that one fails to learn, or at least, fails to allow learning to take place. Since there have been tons of things written about the Revolution in France, I thought that I would add one small piece…the Enlightenment.
I would submit that if the Enlightenment would not have occurred, the Revolution itself may not have occurred. I would go so far to say that it not only would not have been delayed, but it literally would not have occurred at all. As this particular topic could be used to write a book, I will briefly touch on it and hope that this will fuel your own investigation of the topic.
Let us take some of the barest facts that we know about the Revolution…
1. Enlightenment thought, from Locke to Hume, from Voltaire to Diderot fueled not only a revolution in thought, government and society, but they influenced kings and queens. It was the dispersal of these ideas over time that gave rise to the tacit if not overt undermining of the monarchies of Europe.
2. An outdated taxation system in France. This may have been the single biggest reason for the Revolution. Not only was the tax system outdated, but the tax structure was completely outdated. A disproportionate amount of land and wealth was concentrated in the hands of the First and Second Estate. This left the Third Estate with virtually nothing in comparison to the amount of people that made it up. Add to this the fact that the Third Estate was essentially financing the government and the recipe for an explosive powder keg was there.
3. Fully 50% of the money coming into the French government by the time of the Revolution was going toward payment of outstanding balances. Not only is this not right or proper, but when one adds in the fact that interest is also compounding on that outstanding balance, there was virtually no way for the French to pay it off…unless they chose to default on their loans. That particular case was not going to happen as the French had too much pride, so the French government was stuck in a rather untenable situation.
4. There was no leadership by the French monarchy. It can safely be said that Louis XVI was no Louis XIV in that he did not possess any qualities that would make an outstanding leader. Add to this that there was essentially a tacit reproach of his government, if not outright defiance, and we once again have a recipe for disaster. It cannot fit an absolute monarch to lack leadership skills and demand that things be done his way.
There is much more, but the point is served. By 1760, there was a growing resentment with the French monarchy among those that were in contact with it the most…the nobility. Primarily, the members of the nobility were becoming disenchanted with it because of the example of Britain (who by this time dominated the seas and trade) as well as the perceived ineptness of the monarchy under Louis XV. There just had to be a better way. The problem is that the monarchy was so entrenched and the ideals that it represented were so entrenched into French society that to dislodge it would take an act of congress…get the joke? People will resist change with all that they have unless it gets to the point of being totally destructive. Thomas Jefferson even made mention of it in the Declaration of Independence. On a side note, I would suggest that that particular document be read for those that have not either read it or had the inclination to read it. A remarkable document. The point here is that something needed to push the French over the edge, to force them to make a jump if anything was going to change. It would take a revolution.
It was going to take more than dissatisfaction in order to create the revolution on the magnitude that we are talking about. Ideals had to change, thought processes had to change. This is where the Enlightenment and all that it espoused was to fit in. From Baron de Montesquieu talking about divided government, Voltaire speaking on Tolerance and Reason and Immanuel Kant defining for us what enlightenment was, the path was being laid out for such a revolution. To be sure, John Locke played a rather significant role with his Two Treatise on Civil Government, and even Diderot with his Thoughts on the Interpretation of Nature become important as they both contributed to Enlightenment thought. The point here is that these men, and others, with their ideas which were quite revolutionary in their time, were to provide the kindle for the flame that ultimately became the revolution. They inspired, provided thought, and gave reason for what was to be the inevitable blow to the monarchy from all sides, not the least of which were the peasants of France. They were the ones that while openly abhorred the violence of the Revolution, supported the revolutionary ideals. It was they that gave the courage for action as it was they who provided the reason behind it. France was not to be the same again…and neither was the rest of Europe.
Please consider reading some of the works mentioned here. It will provide some perspective not only of that time period, but even now.