Moral Philosophy

Ethics Part 8: The French Enlightenment and its Fruits


The 18th Century French Enlightenment represented a considerable range of ideas and temperaments. Insofar as the key thinkers, or philosophes, formed a consensus, there were thematic elements around which they gelled and which they vigorously debated among themselves and with their counterparts in other lands, especially in Britain, Benelux and the German speaking lands including Austria and Prussia. There was broad agreement on a few fundamental principles, the first being that superstition, and the fanaticism it engendered, was the worst. Accordingly, the philosophes agreed that toleration is good, especially when it comes to avoiding torturing and killing people because they don’t mouth the correct words, wear the right costumes or worship in quite the same way as you. For some, the rule of law and blind justice were of paramount importance, though there were variegated views on what this means in practice. Some held that justice and equality were at cross purposes, since it is just that nature distributes gifts unevenly and to enforce unnatural equality can only mean tyranny. There was a general spirit of anti-clericalism, with scorn heaped pretty much equally on Protestants and Catholics, who had spent the previous century butchering each other all over the continent and in Britain with an abandon never seen before and leaving eight million or more often horribly mutilated corpses in the wake of their frenzy. Liberty was a key theme, though there was disagreement on how free people ought to be and what that meant or how this played in a well-ordered society. There were ranges of viewpoints along spectra that included extreme materialism and proto-idealistic deism; optimism and belief in human progress versus pessimism and belief that the classical period or even primordial past may never be equaled; and conviction that individuals had both aesthetic and creative power to transcend their own limitations, over-against the belief that all were lost without being subsumed into a general will or group ethos. Some claimed that only an atheistic society could be moral, if only people could give up their need for the soporific of religious symbolism and observance. For others, a connection with the transcendent absolute was still the highest form of being, if only this urge could be purified of its basest elements and corrected by reason. But the age was not one in which all agreed that reason ruled the passions completely or should try to cancel them, as they had seen nightmares made real by such a naïve assumption. Rather, psychology and history both came into their own in this period as realistic correctives to any crystalline notion of the world or rigid view of the primacy of mentation in driving human behavior. If anything, the final form of consensus was around the notion of ever becoming and avoiding the temptation to create a rational system that could account for everything and into which all understanding would easily fit.  We will now briefly explore some of these themes and the philosophes associated with notable contributions and views. We shall be mindful that their cautions about hasty judgement are as apropos today as ever they were.

King Henry IV was France’s first and only Protestant ruler. Unlike many contemporaries, Henry tried to practice toleration and bring together different factions in a peaceful way. In 1598, Henry signed the Edict of Nantes to restore the lost rights of Protestants in then mostly Catholic France. This worked for a time and France was spared some of the worst of subsequent religious wars that in the next 100 years plagued the low countries (80 years war) and Germany (30 years war).  The Catholic “Sun” King Louis XIV of France rescinded the Edict of Nantes and tacitly resumed persecution of Protestants but with limited vigor, preferring imperial rather than religious wars and famously declaring in defiance of burgeoning libertarian sentiment, “I am the state,” which resulted in a long reign and France’s rise to preeminence among Europe’s powers entering the 18th Century. The complex Peace of Westphalia in 1648 effectively ended the religious wars on the continent, but not before massive genocide and suffering, as already indicated. Fighting continued between Spain and France for a time while in Britain, William of Orange invaded with a large army to retake the government in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. This action removed the Catholic faction that had regained power after the failure of Oliver Cromwell’s son, Richard, to maintain The Protectorate. The Restoration under King James II hadn’t lasted long but it resulted in an opening up of British culture after the austere days under the harsh moralism of the Puritans and Presbyterians. It is against this backdrop that the philosophical skeptic Pierre Bayle suggested that a society of atheists ruled by conscience would likely be more ethical than one run by those who presume that they are guided either by reason or scripture. It was game on for The French Enlightenment.

While some of the philosophes disliked the ancien regime, it would be wrong to assume they were all conscious fomenters of revolution. Voltaire for example wanted certain kinds of reforms but being proudly cosmopolitan; he circulated among aristocrats and had little use for the hoi polloi, viewing them as deplorables particularly if they lived in bucolic settings. This is not to minimize Voltaire’s significance, which was enormous across various disciplines.  Contrast this with Montesquieu, who adopted Locke’s views on toleration and liberty and augmented these with his observations on post 1688 British separation of powers as prerequisites to an open society. For Locke and Montesquieu, toleration and liberty both meant not depriving others of their right to think, speak and do as they please as long as they aren’t hurting anyone. The only intolerable view for them is that which exploits toleration to cancel it out in favor of superstition or coercive rule. The spirit of the laws as Montesquieu saw it is that civil law should conform to natural law and where it doesn’t, those laws are void and without force. Critics among the Encyclopedists and David Hume claimed that the so-called natural law is a chimera and is based on assumptions derived from fear-based behaviors of ancient origin. Nonetheless, Montesquieu’s idea formed the backbone of the U.S. Constitution and early jurisprudence. Discarding this “obsolete” 18th Century idea and passion for liberty over against despotism has always signaled a return to the barbarity it provisionally addressed. Contemporaneous nihilistic utopian dreams coupled with materialism were the source of much of what is now considered fresh thinking. Voltaire and others thought that educated gentlemen should be allowed to say and write what they want but nobody is allowed to create a disturbance in society. The French Enlightenment also gave birth to the ideas that freedom consists mainly in wanting to obey the law as given by civil authority or in Rousseau’s case, that the individual must accept the general will and if need be sacrifice himself to it. Rousseau was vague about how to determine what the general will comprises or what tribunal can sort how this might conflict with either individual rights or state prerogatives. This notion and corresponding vagueness were of critical import in the thinking and actions of the French Revolution in the late 18th Century and the development of Marxism in the 19th Century.

Voltaire and most of the French Enlightenment thinkers were heavily influenced by Locke, Newton and Descartes and they mainly used these three as touchstones. Voltaire was a deist (or as he preferred to say, a theist) for most of his life but as he aged he became more pessimistic both about human nature and the guiding hand of providence. Voltaire contributed to the Encyclopédie and then denied having done so when it looked like the association could be a liability. The first of its kind compendium of useful knowledge was edited by Diderot and D’Alembert and bankrolled by D’Holbach, who was the chief sponsor as well as a contributor. However, Voltaire was uncomfortable with the attendant controversy around hard-core materialism and atheism, at least until he changed his mind.

Diderot himself was brilliant though no systematician. His views were famously fluid and he evolved over time from deist to materialist-atheist. He left Descartes’ dualism firmly behind and with humor created a context for a naturalistic and evolutionary picture of the world we live in. Sapere Aude (L., dare to know) was Kant’s bon mot for the age. This applied more to Diderot than anyone, as he was fearless in his search for truth that would never be set in stone but would always be a choice to discover what was next. Diderot translated the work of Shaftesbury, whose British moral philosophy was set aside once his arguments for a moral sense were roundly dismissed by the science of the day.  Shaftsbury was no utilitarian and didn’t believe in an ethics of happiness or self-gratification. Rather, his vision of a moral sense for which he lacked adequate language was based on what he believed was inherent in the human breast and an esthetic form of judgement that was at once strongly individualistic and oriented towards virtue as a duty. Diderot did not adopt Shaftsbury’s views but threw them into the stewpot and came away with a position that was if anything proto-Darwinian. The moral sense is not like touch or smell, and while Locke was apparently right that we don’t have innate ideas, his own confusion over what an idea is does not help us toward an understanding of how nature, in a long and tortuous process, created in us the need to reach beyond pure selfishness and wired us for a kind of nature religion and fellow-feeling without making us zombies. That no church or social organization could see more than a piece of this at a time seemed obvious to Diderot. However, the essentially collegial and urbane nature of the Encyclopedists created its own problems of smug self-satisfaction and mistaking method for substance that would be critiqued by Rousseau and exploded by Kant.

The Encyclopédie featured works that ran the gamut from reactionary to revolutionary and evolutionary. The Salon of Baron D’Holbach also was enjoyed by such foreign intellectual luminaries as David Hume, Adam Smith and Ben Franklin. In The System of Nature, D’Holbach said that no a priori arguments should be admitted as evidence of anything at all.  He went on to say that there is no reason to assume that there is any kind of supernatural agency anywhere in the universe. Hume would pick up this theme and famously say, “If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”  This line of thinking made Hume of great significance to later anti-metaphysicians and so his importance in what they say about the 18th Century is exaggerated.  In his lifetime, Hume’s philosophical works were major accomplishments that were mostly unnoticed in his native land.  However, he also picked up the idea of philosophical history in his travels there, probably from Voltaire.  Hume’s multi-volume History of England became the definitive text on the matter and remained so for many years to come. Other members of the salon who were similarly inclined included Gibbon, who’s Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire was a monument to taking the critical approach to historical analysis that had begun as biblical scholarship and liberating it the way earlier generations going back to Averroes had separated science and theology. Montesquieu employed the same method, pioneered by Bayle and Buffon, with the result that his Spirit of the Laws became tutelage to statesmen throughout the Western World for generations. Montesquieu thought that a nation or polity could continue as long as it adhered to its principles. When noble Romans were replaced by a decadent mob and the government became a haven for cronyism, the game was over, though the rot took a long time to kill the body.  While Giambattista Vico spent his whole life in his native Naples, his New Science was perhaps the greatest example of The Enlightenment approach to historiography that went into great detail about its subject to eliminate error and create a comprehensive and objective view.

Assimilating the contributions of these and other Encyclopedists in other areas is beyond the scope of what can be accomplished here. One note of importance is that they took the work of the British Empiricists and shepherded it to its logical conclusion in all disciplines, the greatest statement of which was in the work of Hume, who arguably belongs more to their movement than he did to what was happening in Britain or America (more on that later).

Late in life, Voltaire wrote Candide, which is one of the best loved plays in all literature. In it he famously lampoons Leibniz in the character of Pangloss. The Leibnizian philosophy will be taken up again in a separate post on how Enlightenment (Aufklarung) took shape in Germany, but as regards the philosophes, his views were little appreciated.  Celebrated British poet Alexander Pope wrote in advance what might have been the best rebuttal to Voltaire’s cynical take on Leibniz and optimism after the Lisbon earthquake, as is played out in Candide. Pope’s take on nature was more in line with what was the spirit of age outside of the late 18th Century nihilist urge in France which culminated in the Reign of Terror and prefigured the positivism of Comte, dialectical materialism of Marx and Nietzsche’s eventual announcement of the resultant death of God as the prelude to the general madness and wholesale slaughter by totalitarian governments to follow in the 20th Century.  For Pope,

All Nature is but art, unknown to thee

All chance, direction, which though canst not see;

All discord, harmony not understood;

All partial evil, universal good:

And spite of pride, in erring reason’s spite

One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right.

Pope, Essay on Man, Epistle I, Part VIII

Rousseau was a difficult personality whom Hume described as a man born without a skin. His work from early to late comprises an odd amalgam of highly personal and individualistic aestheticism, consistent with his sensitive nature; and a growing vision, described in detail in his Social Contract, that people individually have wills and reason that are in disharmony but the general will can only be rational and it is in this that we must place our faith and hope for the future. Rousseau’s wide ranging work is both deeply personal and intellectually radical in that he challenged the leading thinkers of the 18th century and held a mirror up to them that showed their supposed high mindedness as vain power seeking. He has been accused of himself being nihilistic and wanting to tear down all institutions without having a better plan. There is something to this and his general will does prefigure the fetishization of the people as an entity and the state as a force, which was picked up by Immanuel Kant, the last and arguably the greatest of the Enlightenment thinkers, and developed further by Hegel before being famously turned upside down by Marx.  At the same time, Rousseau’s hope is not that the urbane elite would guide the vulgar class, but that the rising middle class would increasingly find for itself the group ethos that would allow it to challenge tyranny and find true liberty of mind and spirit through the application of will.  Being himself of passionate spirit, Rousseau was a key figure in the development of both Romanticism and Philosophical Idealism that in Kant, synthesized 18th Century thought and took it to the next level. Rousseau’s penchant for criticizing the leading lights of the day, along with his fidelity to the ideas of Enlightenment around fundamental human rights, liberty and progress, were picked up by Thomas Paine and others who were responsible for the radical transformation of social organization throughout the Western World.  He was, as Nietzsche would later put it, one who didn’t just invent new noise but invented new values.

To sum up the significance of the French Enlightenment for ethical thinking today:

  • The abuse of tolerance to create its opposite is a clear and present danger about which the old dudes in the 1700’s had a clue
  • Justice and equality are not the same and can be at cross purposes. The alternative to putting liberty first is not justice or equality but hell on earth
  • A legal system that favors special groups or those with special privilege and does not treat each person as equal is a perversion of nature’s law and will not stand
  • The rule of law depends on personal virtue; else it is just another name for tyranny. The open society is good at creating noble citizens. Lose this capability and you lose the thing that makes it worth saving
  • As de La Boétie said, all governments exist by consent of the governed. Lose what the Chinese call the mandate of heaven, which is another name for the general will of Rousseau, and the government has lost its basis for rule
  • Either there are natural rights or there aren’t. If you believe that there are, whether or not you are an atheist, then you have business in a society that is based on them being the foundation of our value system — otherwise you don’t
  • Urbanity and civility don’t take the place of virtue, and a legal system that favors cosmopolitanism over the value of life will be short lived

The 18th Century spirit of daring to know while also believing in the possibility of man’s self-improvement was the basis of for  Star Trek’s “to boldly go where no man has gone before,” Gene Rodenberry’s affection for pulp westerns notwithstanding. French Enlightenment ideas are baked into Western Culture but are largely taken for granted, which is unfortunate as we have all but lost the thread of what made them important.  I will review highlights of the German Enlightenment in a separate post, as it had a decidedly different flavor.  The next post will be about other thinking going on in Britain and The Colonies up to and including the period of The American Revolution, which was far more connected to French thinking in the 18th Century than German. That state of affairs would soon change and German Enlightenment and subsequent cultural movement would be of profound significance down to the present time.

By vitruvius1

Formerly an integrated marketing and customer experience consultant. Writer on moral philosophy and current affairs.

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