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The Effect Of The Enlightenment On The

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French Revolution Essay, Research Paper

There are many ways in which the Enlightenment affected the course of the Revolution, however there are three interrelated facets of Enlightenment theory that gave the Revolution the might it needed to survive. These three ideals brought the middle and lower classes into the Revolution, a feat that would otherwise only come about in times of an intense depression. The first theory was that all ideas are universal and cosmopolitan, a theory that placed the peasants on an intellectual plateau with the aristocracy. The second idea was that the only worthwhile knowing was utilitarian knowledge, something on which the working classes had a virtual monopoly. The final change in thinking was a skepticism of religion, which weakened the clergy and ultimately caused the downfall of the king.

The belief in universal ideas was the first of many steps that laid the path for revolution. The idea that all thoughts were cosmopolitan, and understandable by all, leveled the intellectual playing field for the working classes. The peasants and the growing middle class had always believed that the aristocracy unwarrantedly thought they were smarter and then the philosophes began to say it was true. In the minds of the common people, a more dramatic step was being taken, in that if the princes were of the same intelligence as the paupers, then why should the aristocracy be exulted from birth, when the peasants were born with nothing. If the ruling class was the as smart as the masses that they ruled, then why could the people not govern themselves? Why could the people not take back what the government had taken from them?

First the intellectuals leveled the playing field; the knowledge of the blacksmith became equal to the knowledge of the bureaucrat. The scales were then tipped in favor of the common man; the utilitarian knowledge of the blacksmith was valued over the unproductive knowledge of the nobility. In the further attempts to create an egalitarian society the philosophes put a value on utilitarian knowledge. With the adoption of this ideal, suddenly the working class became superior to the aristocrats. The people had to work to make a living. They had to do things with tangible results, whereas the aristocracy had nothing to do except argue about abstracts. The government became suddenly intellectually inferior, and the common worker was placed at the masthead of intellectualism. The production, and ultimate success, of books such as The Encyclopedia illustrated to outside observers that the Enlightenment was succeeding in its goals to raise the station of the common man. All it would take was one more step to bring the French monarchy down.

The last step on the road to outright rebellion was the removal of the source of the monarchy s power. During the Enlightenment era, the nation of France was under an absolutist monarchy. God gave the King his authority to rule. In the final step to revolt, the Enlightenment thinkers removed the people s faith in God. Until this time most of the populace was still devoutly religious, but with the widespread acceptance of Deism and Atheism as replacements for more established religions, the people began to move away from the Christian God. As more and more flocked to other religions, some began to question the King s profession that his power came from God. If the King received his right to rule from a God that did not exist, did the King actually have a right to be on the throne? With a resounding cry the people said NO! With men such as Robespierre leading the fight, the populous rose to the occasion and removed the King s crown from his head, and, eventually, his head from his body.

In any country, the road to its revolution can be summed up in a word or phrase. The American Revolution s motto was Taxation without representation. In other countries the rebellion was against tyranny, or despotism. In France, it was Enlightenment, and once the heads fell, the revolutionaries realized, however briefly, the goals of the Enlightenment, egalitarianism.

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