Burke, de Tocqueville,123 and Taine124 agreed that the philosophers of France, from Bayle to Mably, were a major factor in bringing on the Revolution. Can we accept the conclusions of these brilliant conservatives?
All the prominent philosophers were opposed to revolution against the existing governments of Europe; on the contrary, several of them put their faith in kings as the most practical instruments of reform; Voltaire, Diderot, and Grimm maintained relations of friendship, if not of adoration, for one or the other of the most absolute contemporary rulers—Frederick II, Catherine II, Gustavus III; and Rousseau was happy to receive Joseph II of Austria. Diderot, Helvétius, and d’Holbach declaimed against kings in general,but never, in their extant works, advocated the overthrow of the French monarchy.125 Marmontel and Morellet explicitly opposed revolution;126 Mably, the socialist, declared himself a royalist;127 Turgot, idol of the philosophes, labored to save, not to destroy, Louis XVI. Rousseau advanced republican ideas, but only for small states; the Revolution accepted his theories and neglected his warning. When the revolutionists made France a republic they did so in terms not of the French philosophers but of Plutarch’s Greek and Roman heroes; their idol was not Ferney but Sparta and republican Rome.
The philosophers provided the ideological preparation for the Revolution. The causes were economic or political, the phrases were philosophical; and the operation of the basic causes was smoothed by the demolition work of the philosophers in removing such obstacles to change as belief in feudal privileges, ecclesiastical authority, and the divine right of kings. Until 1789 all European states had depended upon the aid of religion in inculcating the sanctity of governments, the wisdom of tradition, the habits of obedience, and the principles of morality; some roots of earthly power were planted in heaven, and the state considered God as the chief of its secret police. Chamfort, while the Revolution was in process, wrote that “the priesthood was the first bulwark of absolute power, and Voltaire overthrew it.”128 De Tocqueville in 1856 thought that “the universal discredit into which all religious belief fell at the end of the eighteenth century exercised, without doubt, the greatest influence upon the whole course of the Revolution.”129
Gradually the skepticism that had riddled the old theology passed to the scrutiny of secular institutions and affairs. The philosophers denounced poverty and serfdom as well as intolerance and superstition, and labored to reduce the power of feudal lords over the peasantry. Some aristocrats acknowledged the force of the satires that attacked them, and many lost confidence in their inborn superiority and traditional rights. Hear Comte Louis-Philippe de Ségur:
We were scornful critics of the old customs, of the feudal pride of our fathers and their severe etiquette. … We felt disposed to follow with enthusiasm the philosophical doctrines professed by witty and bold writers. Voltaire attracted our intellect, and Rousseau touched our hearts. We took secret pleasure in seeing them assail the old framework. … We enjoyed at the same time the advantages of the patriciate and the amenities of a plebeian philosophy.130
These conscience-stricken nobles included such influential persons as Mirabeau père and fils, La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt, Lafayette, Vicomte Louis-Marie de Noailles, and “Philippe Égalité,” Duc d’Orléans; and recall the aid and comfort given to Rousseau by the Maréchal de Luxembourg and Louis-François de Bourbon, Prince de Conti. This liberal minority, spurred by peasant raids on feudal property, led the seigneurs, in the Constituent Assembly, to renounce, for redemptions, most of their feudal dues (August 4, 1789). Even the royal family was touched by the semirepublican ideas that the philosophers had helped to spread. The father of Louis XVI memorized many passages from Montesquieu’s Spirit of Laws, read Rousseau’s Social Contract, and judged it “largely sound” except for its criticism of Christianity. He taught his sons (three of whom became kings) that “the distinctions which you enjoy were not given you by nature, which has created all men equal.”131 Louis XVI, in his edicts, acknowledged “natural law” and “the rights of man”132 as following from man’s nature as a rational being.
The American Revolution gave added prestige to republican ideas. That Revolution, too, took its force from economic realities like taxation and trade, and its Declaration of Independence owed as much to English thinkers as to French; but it was noted that Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson had been molded to free thought by the philosophes. Through those American sons of the French Enlightenment, republican theories graduated into a government victorious in arms, recognized by a French King, and proceeding to establish a constitution indebted in some measure to Montesquieu.
The French Revolution had three phases. In the first the nobles, through the parlements, tried to recapture from the monarchy that dominance which they had lost to Louis XIV; those nobles were not inspired by the philosophers. In the second stage the middle classes won control of the Revolution; they had been deeply permeated by the notions of the philosophers, but what they meant by “equality” was the equality of the bourgeois with the aristocrat. In the third stage the directors of the city populace seized the mastery. The masses remained pious, but their leaders had lost respect for priests and kings; the masses loved Louis XVI to the end, but the leaders cut off his head. After October 6, 1789, the Jacobins controlled Paris, and Rousseau was their god. On November 10, 1793, the triumphant radicals celebrated in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame the Feast of Reason. At Tours the revolutionaries replaced the statues of saints with new figures called Mably, Rousseau, and Voltaire. At Chartres in 1795, in the famous cathedral, a Feast of Reason was opened by a drama in which Voltaire and Rousseau were shown united in a campaign against fanaticism.133
Therefore we cannot doubt that the philosophers profoundly affected the ideology and the political drama of the Revolution. They had not intended to produce violence, massacre, and the guillotine; they would have shrunk in horror from those bloody scenes. They could properly say that they had been cruelly misunderstood; but they were responsible insofar as they had underestimated the influence of religion and tradition in restraining the animal instincts of men. Meanwhile, under those striking pronouncements and visible events, the real revolution was proceeding, as the middle classes, using philosophy as one among a hundred instruments, took from the aristocracy and the king the control of the economy and the state.