The Enlightenment in France

Pre-Enlightenment France

     In order to understand the French Enlightenment it is important to know the history leading up to it.  In the late 16th century through the end of the 17th century France was plagued by religious wars between the Catholics and the Protestants.  These wars would initially turn the French monarchy upside down.  The growing power of the nobility in France caused a threat to the monarch.   This caused the monarchs over the next half-century to side with either the Protestants or the Catholics in order to keep their own political security and the peace in France.  Eventually, these wars would come to an end with the Catholics controlling most of the power and with the Protestants given a sufficient amount of freedom and an important role in French society.

   The ascension of Louis XIV changed the role of each religion in France once again as the absolute monarch gained power.  Absolutism was the new form of government brought on by the religious and civil wars of the previous centuries.  Louis XIV was the model for such an absolute monarch as he instituted a centralized government and centralized national bureaucracy.  He also gave reign to the Catholic Church and recognized it as the national religion of France.  The further confrontation between Catholics and Protestants, which saw the domination of the latter by the newly recognized national religion and the lack of freedom of citizens due to the strong centralized government, gave rise to the French Enlightenment.  The Enlightenment, which was already underway in England, was born in France after the death of Louis XIV in 1715.  Many French Enlightenment philosophers had visited England and returned opposing the old authority.  Although monarchies had changed in France over the previous centuries the entire power in France had seen a cycle of power shift between the monarchy, the nobility and the Church.  The French Enlightenment philosophers sought to bring and end to this.

Louis XIV,

The French Enlightenment

     French Enlightenment philosophers had visited England and had learned and developed their own thoughts on the English natural sciences, mainly the universal physics of Isaac Newton and the natural philosophy of John Locke.  Through the natural sciences and natural philosophy a great confidence was given to idea of natural law.  Natural law said that man had certain natural rights.  This view was backed up by another, which saw man as a rational animal.  There was an increasing faith in human reason. The belief in natural law and the faith in human reason can be seen as a graduation of thought, which led to opposition to authority.  France was dominated by a hereditary aristocracy and a dogmatic, fanatical Church, which attempted to control the lives of the French citizens.  The French Enlightenment philosophers used natural law and human reason as a way to dethrone the old authority.

   The French Enlightenment philosophers became known as the philosophes.  The philosophes used criticism and rejection of the old authority, along with a desire to explain manís role in the universe, and in society to reshape the world in which they lived.  They attacked many topics like morality, politics, economics and religion to design their new world.  Along with natural law and human reason the philosophes emphasized toleration, especially religious toleration and progress.  There was a great confidence in modern man and his achievements in technology and understanding the natural world. 

England and the French Enlightenment