The Enlightenment in France

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The Enlightenment in France

The Role of Paris.

Paris was the home of the Enlightenment, and most discussions of the Enlightenment are actually discussions of its unfolding there. The French Enlightenment was characterized by the emergence of a group of thinkers, the philosophes, whose writings sought to give the Enlightenment everywhere both a rationale and an agenda. These philosophes met regularly in the afternoons at the homes of well-heeled patrons, where they would discuss events and ideas over elegant meals. These salons were the envy of European intellectual circles. The defining achievement of the French Enlightenment was the publication of the Encyclopédie, a multi-volume compendium of all useful knowledge that was to kick-start European civilization in the direction of progress. The philosophes were "men of letters," which, as Voltaire explained, meant that they were not scholars but explorers of all knowledge. This idea helps explain why so few of the philosophes offered original contributions to philosophy. Their ambition was not to come up with anything new in the way of ideas, but to put what was known to work in ways helpful to humankind. The archetype of the philosophe was Voltaire, who with some success tried his hand at almost every genre of writing. Philosophically, Voltaire had little to say, but he did perform an important service for the Enlightenment through his efforts to introduce Continental intellectuals to English institutions and ideas. Exiled from Paris, Voltaire spent the years between 1726 and 1729 in London where he studied the writings of John Locke and attended the funeral of Isaac Newton. Later, Voltaire published a series of essays in the forms of letters, the Letters on the English, or, as it is also called, the Philosophical Letters (1734). These made the case that governments and societies on the Continent should imitate English examples. Still later, Voltaire wrote a study of the ideas of Newton and together with his mistress, Madame de Chatelet, he published a French translation of Newton's Principia. Because of his penchant for insulting powerful people, Voltaire actually spent very little of his adult life in Paris, and thus he partook little of the city's salon life. There were several different levels of these weekly dinner parties, almost all directed by women. But at the height of the Enlightenment during the 1760s four salons sat atop the social and intellectual pyramid in the city: two run by men and two by women. On Mondays, Madame Geoffrin invited artists to her home to dine, while on Wednesdays she entertained writers. Tuesdays belonged to the philosophe Claude Adrien Helvetius (1715–1771). Thursdays and Sundays were the occasions for the salons held by another philosophe, the Baron D'Holbach (1723–1789), while Fridays were the days set aside for dinner at Madame Neckar's. Very few great intellectual moments may have taken place at these salons, but they did much to glamorize and romanticize the lives of intellectuals.

The EncyclopÉdie.

The men who wrote the Encyclopédie often congregated at Madame Geoffrin's house. This great project to summarize all science and wisdom in a single set of volumes was perhaps the greatest intellectual achievement of the French Enlightenment. Encyclopedic compendiums were certainly not new in the eighteenth century. Pierre Bayle's massive critical dictionary from around 1700, with its nine million words of text, had been just one of the many works that inspired the great French project that began in 1751. Originally, this new Encyclopédie had begun merely as a work to translate the Cyclopedia, or an Universal Dictionaryof Arts and Sciences (1728) by Ephraim Chambers. Eventually, the two editors of the French project, though, discarded the idea of a mere translation and began a massive work of compilation. What made the Encyclopédie a clear standout among the many such compendia published in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was that it was not written by experts, but by the philosophes. Eventually, the finished product totaled 28 volumes, as well as several supplements. Although such a large work did not present a single point of view, the editors Denis Diderot and Jean d'Alembert often chose like-minded intellectuals, and thus the tone of much of the writing was often distinctly anti-clerical and anti-religious, even as the text advocated reforms along the lines such Enlighteners favored. The text, too, was not aimed at a specialist, but a generalist reader, and thus it had a great impact in fashioning taste in later eighteenth-century Europe. The ultimate message of the project, though, was that which Francis Bacon had first expressed: human life could be made better through knowledge. By 1789, some 25,000 sets were in circulation across Europe, and the Encyclopédie had become one of the Enlightenment's great publishing success stories.


introduction: Voltaire intended his Philosophical Dictionary (1764) to be a questioning work that would subject many cherished beliefs to close scrutiny. In it, he also exhibited a keen, and sometimes ironic sense of detachment. In the following entry on the "Limits of the Human Mind," he styles part of his short essay on Montaigne, the mildly skeptical figure of the later French Renaissance. To Montaigne's own question, "What do I know?", Voltaire answers trenchantly: the limits of human knowledge lay at the end of the nose, that is, at the point where the eye's gaze falls upon the world. He thus celebrates empirical observation, rather than metaphysical theorizing, as the true end of human intelligence.

Someone asked Newton one day why he walked when he wanted to, and how his arm and his hand moved at his will. He answered manfully that he had no idea. "But at least," his interlocutor said to him, "you who understand so well the gravitation of the planets will tell me why they turn in one direction rather than in another!" And he again confessed that he had no idea.

Those who taught that the ocean was salt for fear that it might become putrid, and that the tides were made to bring our ships into port (The Abbé Pluche in "The Spectacle of Nature"), were somewhat ashamed when the reply was made to them that the Mediterranean has ports and no ebb. Musschenbroeck himself fell into this inadvertence.

Has anyone ever been able to say precisely how a log is changed on the hearth into burning carbon, and by what mechanism lime is kindled by fresh water? Is the first principle of the movement of the heart in animals properly understood? does one know clearly how generation is accomplished? has one guessed what gives us sensations, ideas, memory? We do not understand the essence of matter any more than the children who touch its surface.

Who will teach us by what mechanism this grain of wheat that we throw into the ground rises again to produce a pipe laden with an ear of corn, and how the same soil produces an apple at the top of this tree, and a chestnut on its neighbour? Many teachers have said—"What do I not know?" Montaigne used to say—"What do I know?"

Ruthlessly trenchant fellow, wordy pedagogue, meddlesome theorist, you seek the limits of your mind. They are at the end of your nose.

source: Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary. Trans. H. I. Woolf (1764; New York: Knopf, 1924): 194.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Of the many individuals who wrote during the French Enlightenment, one man stands out for the originality and force of his ideas. The work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) defies compartmentalization. There is some debate among scholars in fact over the question of whether he should be considered an exponent of the Enlightenment or a harbinger of the Romantic Age that followed it. Rousseau himself was a deeply enigmatic figure, one that seemed to march to a different drumbeat set by demons. The one thing known about his early life is that he was born in Geneva. The rest of the information about his youth has to culled from his autobiographical Confessions (1782–1789), written just before he died, which paints a Romantic picture of a young roustabout introduced to life, learning, and love by an older woman.


introduction: In book three of his Social Contract (1762), Jean-Jacques Rousseau explored the sources behind good government. In contrast to his earlier writing, Rousseau abandoned his faith in human goodness in the state of nature, even as he argued that governments must represent the general will of those that were governed, rather than the particular interests of a ruler or an aristocracy. The work scandalized many Europeans, even as it inspired many of the leaders of the French Revolution a generation later. It was subjected to censorship, although Rousseau was not punished. At the time he was already living in exile from his native France.

The question "What absolutely is the best government?" is unanswerable as well as indeterminate; or rather, there are as many good answers as there are possible combinations in the absolute and relative situations of all nations.

But if it is asked by what sign we may know that a given people is well or ill governed, that is another matter, and the question, being one of fact, admits of an answer.

It is not, however, answered, because everyone wants to answer it in his own way. Subjects extol public tranquility, citizens individual liberty; the one class prefers security of possessions, the other that of person; the one regards as the best government that which is most severe, the other maintains that the mildest is the best; the one wants crimes punished, the other wants them prevented; the one wants the State to be feared by its neighbours, the other prefers that it should be ignored; the one is content if money circulates, the other demands that the people shall have bread. Even if an agreement were come to on these and similar points, should we have got any further? As moral qualities do not admit of exact measurement, agreement about the mark does not mean agreement about the valuation.

For my part, I am continually astonished that a mark so simple is not recognised, or that men are of so bad faith as not to admit it. What is the end of political association? The preservation and prosperity of its members. And what is the surest mark of their preservation and prosperity? Their numbers and population. Seek then nowhere else this mark that is in dispute. The rest being equal, the government under which, without external aids, without naturalisation or colonies, the citizens increase and multiply most, is beyond question the best. The government under which a people wanes and diminishes is the worst. Calculators, it is left for you to count, to measure, to compare.

As the particular will acts constantly in opposition to the general will, the government continually exerts itself against the Sovereignty. The greater this exertion becomes, the more the constitution changes; and, as there is in this case no other corporate will to create an equilibrium by resisting the will of the prince, sooner or later the prince must inevitably suppress the Sovereign and break the social treaty. This is the unavoidable and inherent defect which, from the very birth of the body politic, tends ceaselessly to destroy it, as age and death end by destroying the human body.

There are two general courses by which government degenerates: i.e., when it undergoes contraction, or when the State is dissolved.

Government undergoes contraction when it passes from the many to the few, that is, from democracy to aristocracy, and from aristocracy to royalty. To do so is its natural propensity. If it took the backward course from the few to the many, it could be said that it was relaxed; but this inverse sequence is impossible.

Indeed, governments never change their form except when their energy is exhausted and leaves them too weak to keep what they have. If a government at once extended its sphere and relaxed its stringency, its force would become absolutely nil, and it would persist still less. It is therefore necessary to wind up the spring and tighten the hold as it gives way: or else the State it sustains will come to grief.

source: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract and Discourses. Trans. G. D. H. Cole (New York: Dutton, 1950): 82–86.

What is known for certain is that in 1742 Rousseau arrived in Paris hoping to make a name for himself as a musical theorist. He quickly became a friend of Denis Diderot and the circle of men writing the Encyclopédie; Rousseau wrote most of the articles in that work having to do with music. The first flashes of Rousseau's brilliance came in his debate with Jean-Philippe Rameau, the most powerful authority on music in France. The official topic of the debate was the relative merits of French versus Italian opera; below the surface the subject was really the superiority of rationality to emotion. In the context of this debate Rousseau put forward the idea that artistic creativity should take precedence over the forms in which it is expressed. In 1750 Rousseau won first prize in an essay contest sponsored by the Academy of Dijon for his Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts, in which he made the case that civilization has a corrupting influence on humankind. In 1755 Rousseau submitted another essay to the competition sponsored by the same academy, and his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality also won first prize. More importantly, it established him as a philosopher of merit. Taking up where the earlier essay had left off, this second Discourse argued for the existence of two types of inequality: natural inequality, which has to do with the fact that one man is stronger or smarter than another, and artificial inequality, which was the inequality imposed between individuals by society. As Rousseau explained it, man in the state of nature was solitary but happy. The need to procreate turned the solitary individual toward village life and prompted the evolution toward civilization. Each step forward in the evolution of society, however, alienated the solitary individual from himself, the crucial step being the invention of private property, which triggered the development of law and government to protect the claims of owners, a development that ensured the continuation of artificial inequality over generations. "Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains" is actually the opening line to The Social Contract (1762), the book Rousseau wrote to prescribe the way out of the situation described in The Discourse on the Origins of Inequality. As he outlined there, society must make explicit the pact or social contract that is implicit in communal living to find a way to salvation. Each society, each community has to be looked upon in the same way that an individual is examined—as the articulator of a specific will. To the extent to which the members of a society can shape and share that will, then those members will come to know liberty because they will have control over their own destinies.


M. W. Cranston, Philosophers and Pamphleteers: Political Theorists of the Enlightenment (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984).

R. Darnton, The Business of Enlightenment (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1979).

N. Hampson, A Cultural History of the Enlightenment (New York: Pantheon, 1968).

M. Hulliung, The Autocritique of Enlightenment: Rousseau and His Philosophes (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994).

S. D. Kale, French Salons: High Society and Political Sociability from the Old Regime to the Revolution of 1848 (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004).

J. Simon, Mass Enlightenment: Critical Studies in Rousseau and Diderot (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1995).

see also Dance: The Enlightenment and Ballet ; Literature: French Literature during the Enlightenment ; Theater: The French Enlightenment in Drama

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The Enlightenment in France

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