The Enlightenment in 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.
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.
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.
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.