Enlightenment Ideals that most Influenced the French Revolution

It is one of the ironies of history that the Enlightenment writers who called for a   “political order that would be secular, reasonable, humane, pacific, open and free”1 saw their epoch start and end in two armed and violent revolutions.(1) It is another of the ironies of history that the nation most affected by Enlightenment ideal, and the one that represented the best of those ideals, at its creation was also born out of conflict and war. But ultimate America came to political settlement that, in short, embodied “the central aspirations of the Enlightenment.”(2)

There is no doubt that the American Revolution inspired, indeed it can be argued directly caused the French.(3) Also it can be said that the same ideals that inspired the American Revolution also inspired the French Revolution.  At the start of the Revolution the primary Enlightenment ideal that activated both revolutions came from Montesquieu and his 1748 work: The Spirit of Laws.(4)  In this work Montesquieu describes what he see as the three kinds of governments; republics, monarchies and despotisms, and their various features. He also described what he considered their basis of government; the republic depended on virtue, the monarchy on honor and the despotisms on fear.   A great admirer of the British system Montesquieu went on to delineate how and why the three powers of government, legislative, executive and judicial can and should be separated.  He thought that the separation of powers was best for preserving the liberties of the citizens.(5)

In the later Revolutionary period, the more violent one, it was the writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau that took the lead.  Certainly, Robespierre thought of himself as a follower of Rousseau.(6)

Rousseau’s most insidious works; The Discourse on Inequity (1753), in which he decries private property as the root of many evils and The Social Contract (1762) in which he describes his ideas of “the general will” and used the phrase that a individual may be “forced to be free” and this could rightly been seen has having inspired the Reign of Terror.(7)

In conclusion, while the philosophes wanted a “political order that would be secular, reasonable, humane, pacific, open and free,” with the French Revolution what they got was blood, terror and tyranny.


1 Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: The Science of Freedom, (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1969), 397;  Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, The Rise of Modern Paganism, (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1966), 17.

2 Robert A. Ferguson, The American Enlightenment, 1750-1820 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 150.

3 Esmond Wright, Causes and Consequences of the American Revolution (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1966) 298

4Sylvia Neely, A Concise History of the French Revolution (Lanham, MA: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2008), 22.

5 Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, The Spirit of Laws, trans. Thomas Nugent. (1752) Book III, at http://www.constitution.org/cm/sol_11.htm#006 (accessed 18 September 2010); Ibid,. Book XI, section 6. .

6 William Doyle, The Oxford History of the French Revolution. (Oxford: Oxford University Press. New York, 2002), 278.

7 Neely, A Concise History, 23-24; Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, Trans. by G. D. H. Cole  (1762) Book I, at  http://www.constitution.org/jjr/socon_01.htm (accessed 18 September 2010).

David Hume and Skepticism

David Hume, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, is the most important philosopher to ever write in the English language.  He was also deeply influenced by thinkers from Emmanuel Kant to Jeremy Bentham, Charles Darwin and Thomas Henry Huxley. (1)   Hume was one of the big three of British empiricism, the other two being John Locke and George Berkeley.   Hume was much better known and better paid as a historian than as a philosopher in his own time.(2)  But it is his philosophical writings that continue to influence thinkers even today.  Recently, Hume’s “Of Miracles” was quoted and cited on a skeptical podcast.(3)

Without a doubt, Hume followed Locke’s thoughts as to the nature of human knowledge.  In short, humans are born as “white paper,” and that paper is written on by experience. (4)  For Hume, there are only two kinds of ideas: ontological ones, such as one plus one equal two, or “matters of fact,” such as the sun will rise.  For Hume, the ontological ideas are self-evident since we can’t conceive of them any other way, but “matters of fact” are less sure since they may be falsified either through misperception of our senses or simply not be true.  However, he still believed that our sensory experience was much more valuable than the second-hand experiences of reading or hearing about a phenomenon. In short, seeing the sun rise is a more important and truer experience than just hearing a description of it.

For the Enlightenment, perhaps Hume’s most important work is the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, in which he asserted:  “Even Mathematics, Natural Philosophy, and Natural Religion, are in some measure dependent on the science of MAN; since they lie under the cognizance of men, and are judged of by their powers and faculties.”(5)  What that means is that man is subject to the same laws of nature as any other part of the world and also that the laws of nature are only manifested through human understanding.

Further, a chapter in the essay “On Miracles” supports the general skepticism of religion and atheism of his fellow philosophers.  In its most telling phrase: “no human testimony can have such force as to prove a miracle and make it a just foundation for any such system of religion.”(6) Hume, at one swipe, destroyed the basis for all Western Religious belief.   In conclusion, Hume took to their logical conclusion skepticism and empiricism, resulting in atheism.


1William Edward Morris, “David Hume”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,  ed. Edward N. Zalta, (Fall 2010 Edition) at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/hume/  (accessed 13 September 2010)

2 John A. Taylor, British Monarchy, English Church Establishment and Civil Liberty, (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996), 48.

3 The Skeptics’ Guide 5X5 Oct 8 2008 at http://www.theskepticsguide.org/archive/ podcast.aspx?mid=2 (accessed 14 September 2010).

4 John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding Book II Chapter 2 (1690) at  http://www.gutenberg. org/files/4705/4705-h/4705-h.htm#2H_INTR (accessed 14 September 2010)

6David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), Section 10 http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext06/8echu10h.htm#section10 (accessed 14 September 2010)

Late Enlightenment Influences on Romanticism

The Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment overlapped in time: with the Scientific Revolution being roughly 1400 to 1800, while the Enlightenment was from 1698 to 1798.(1)  The Scientific Revolution inspired and influenced the Enlightenment throughout.   The primary influence of the Scientific Revolution on the Enlightenment was: “. . . not a fixed set of beliefs but a way of thinking, a critical approach . . . for constructive thought and action.”(2)

The ideals of the Enlightenment are best represented by the writing of the Philosophes. The Philososphes:  “celebrated the Scientific Revolution, accepted its findings, and imitated its methods.”  Further, throughout the Enlightenment many of the Philosophes followed a career pattern, if you will, of establishing a reputation as a scientist, or natural philosopher, to use the Enlightenment term, then would turn their minds and thoughts to social and political issues.  Lichtenberg, Kant, Cordorcet and Franklin, to name just four certainly, followed this pattern, as did others. (3) Other Philosophes, such as Voltaire and Diderot, to name just two, while not scientists themselves, spent much effort in popularizing science and associated with scientists on an equal and regular basis.(4)

Certainly scientific advancement and discoveries did not stop once the Enlightenment came to the front. For example, William Herschel identified Uranus as a planet in 1781.  Also, new sciences were developed by Philosophes, such as Adam Smith, who in 1776 virtually invented economics as a science with his work, The Wealth of Nations.(5)

However, as the 18th Century advanced some philosophes began to see science: “not a servant or ally but an embarrassment.”(6)  Jonathon Swift struck first in 1735. Using his typical dry satire, Swift skewers the vain and esoteric experiments of the Royal Society of his day in Gulliver’s Travels.  In his description of the Laputan scientist spending eight years trying to extract sunlight from cucumbers, Swift was hammering away at science that is sterile, useless and devoid of humanity.(7) Even at this early date, men of letters were becoming disenchanted with men of science.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau struck even harder at science when in 1750, in his Discourse Concerning the Arts and Sciences, he declared science had failed to make men happier and indeed had corrupted them and pulled them away from nature.  In this he prefigured many of the later Romantics thoughts on scientific advancement.(8)

In conclusion, it is fair to say that the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment were inexorably intertwined as both ran their courses; both in positive interaction through positive feedback and negative reaction through disenchantment and rejection.


1 Steve Fuller, New Frontiers in Science and Technology, (Maldon, MA: Polity Press, 2007), 14; Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, The Rise of Modern Paganism. (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1966),xi.

2 Thomas Hankins, Science and the Enlightenment, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 2.

3 Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: The Science of Freedom, (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1969), 126.

4 Ibid., 128.

5 Jacob H. Hollander, “Adam Smith, 1776-1926”, The Journal of Political Economy, vol. 35(2) (April 1927): 61-62, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1823420 (accessed  12 September, 2010)

6 Gay, The Enlightenment, 128.

7 Peter Stanlis, “Jonathon Swift: Satirist as Philosopher.”  In the Ignatius Critical Edition of Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathon Swift, (London, 1735) , ed. Dutton Kearney (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2010) , 429;

8 Jonathon Swift, Gulliver’s Travels (London, 1735) (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2010), 199.

The Philosophy of David Hume

David Hume, was and is one of the most influence writers and philosophers in the English speaking world.  His philosophy profoundly influenced other philosophers from Kant to Bentham and also scientists from Charles Darwin to Thomas Huxley.

In his own time Hume was far better known as an historian than a philosopher, producing a wildly successful multivolume   history of Britain. However it is his philosophical writing that continues to affect thought even into the 21st century.  For example, Hume’s essay “Of Miracles” was quoted on a recent scientific podcast.

Hume, along with John Locke and George Berkeley were the “founders” of the school of philosophy known as British Empiricism.   For both Locke and Hume people were born “Tabula rasa” or blank slate and that slate was written on by life’s experiences.  For Hume these experiences could be of two kinds: ontological or “matters of fact”.

Ontological ideals are self-evident since they can, in short, be only the way that they are.  Simple math is ontological; two plus two will always equal four. No amount of misperception may change that simple basic ontology.

“Matters of fact” however are not self-evident and maybe false through either human sensory error or maybe simply untrue. For example, a “matter of fact” is the sun will rise. That may and most likely will happen, but it may not. Also humans not be able to perceive it correctly. However, Hume still believed that human sensory experience while potentially faulty was far superior to second hand knowledge such as merely reading or hearing about an experience. In short, for Hume, seeing a sunrise while potentially misperceived was far superior to reading about or merely hearing about a sunrise.

Hume’s most significant work is without a doubt: “The Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding”.  In this in work, he declares that man is the measure of all knowledge:  “Even, Mathematics, Natural Philosophy, and Natural Religion, are in some measure dependent on the science of MAN; since the lie under the cognizance of men, and are judged of by their powers and faculties.”  In that humans are controlled by the same “laws of nature” that apply any other parts of the universe, but also that those natural laws are only discoverable through human understanding.

Further, a section of “The Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding” titled “Of Miracles” supported general skepticism of religion and could be read as a support for atheism.  The essay’s most significant phrase is: “no human testimony can have such force as to prove a miracle and make it a just foundation for any such system of religion.” Hume, in this one short sentence managed to throw into doubt the basis for all religious belief.


Hume,  David, A Treatise of Human Nature, Introduction, (1740) http://www.gutenberg.org/files/4705/4705-h/4705-h.htm#2H_INTR

Hume, David, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), Section 10 http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext06/ 8echu10h. htm#section10.

Morris, William Edward. “David Hume”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,  ed. Edward N. Zalta, (Fall 2010 Edition) at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/hume/

Skeptics’ Guide 5X5, The Oct 8 2008 at http://www.theskepticsguide.org/archive/podcast.aspx?mid=2