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Role of Philosophers in French Revolution

In the 18th century French people gave up conventional thoughts and began adopting the enlightened views and outlook. The rationalism and the spirit of free enquiry reinforced by Renaissance reached its apex in the 18th century. Prominent French intellectuals carried the cause of enlightenment forward like Montesquieu; Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Quesnay, Tourge and D ‘Alembert. These philosophers infused independent thinking among the people. The French philosophers took a leading part in the exposition of the rationalist spirit of the age. They directed their free enquiry upon the existing institutions of France. Reason was the medium of their test. The philosophers exposed the defects of all institutions and customs found in their writing. The intellectual movement of that time applied scientific outlook on life. The main aspect of their thought was the establishment of a liberal, progressive and ideal society. They supported the cause of laissez-faire, elimination of prevalent disparity in taxation and the rights of autonomy in administration. They laid bare inequality, exploitation, cruelty, religious intolerance, corrupt and absolute monarchy, financial restrictions etc. They revealed the hollowness of the French institutions through satire and humor, criticism and scientific explanation.


The true intellectual revolution in France started with Montesquieu who exposed the privileges enjoyed by the French aristocracy and the corruption rampant in the royal court. In his book Spirit of Laws he openly attacked the absolute monarchy of France and pointed out that the shortcomings of political institutions and mental outlook of the people governed. He advocated constitutional monarchy that would serve the interests of the French people. He also preached that liberty of individuals could never be safe guarded without separation of powers of the government into three independent organs – legislature, judicial and executive. Montesquieu exercised a profound influence on the people. His criticism of the existing laws and institutions destroyed the prestige in which these institutions.


The foremost figure in the 18th century intellectual world was Voltaire. His imprisonment by the government converted him into a social thinker and critic. He examined the condition of contemporary society and highlighted the tyranny, cruelty and absurdities prevailing in France. He wrote a famous critical history named The Age of Louis XIV and also wrote numerous essays, tales and satires. The other famous work was the Philosophical Dictionary. He attacked the decadent customs and notions prevalent in the society. But his main target was the Catholic Church. He criticized the French Church as privileged nuisance, monument of bigotry and den of superstitions. He said that the church held human thoughts in perpetual bondage. He gave a battle cry to destroy it and criticized the government and society. His powerful writings attacked the citadel of tradition. He demolished its sanctity and prestige.


The French rationalist philosophy swung to a radical channel with the advent of Jean Jacques Rousseau. He scorned the dry rationalism of the philosophers and pointed that right feelings are important along with right thinking. In his writings he poured his contempt on selfishness and cunning way of the rich and the educated. In his essay- what is the origin of inequality among men, Rousseau showed how vanity and greed had corrupted men. Rousseau had an intense faith in the dignity and goodness of man. In his book- Social Contract, he investigated the origin of state and government. He adopted Lock’s main proposition of state of nature, the idea of contract and the sovereignty of the people. He declared that Government, Law and State were the outcome of a contract with people. The collective will of the people called the general will was the sovereign power. The king remained on the throne under the obligation to obey the contract. If the king failed in his duty, the contract was broken and the general could depose him will. The people had a right to revolt against a bad government.