The Enlightenment is most completely represented by the group of intelligentsia which called themselves “the philosophes” and organized the publication of the French Encyclopedia in the middle of the century. Their propaganda was directed above all against the Church and all forms of organized religion, and it was not primarily concerned with political change. But its unbounded faith in the unlimited power of reason to change human behavior and social institutions lies at the root of the whole program of legislative reform during the early years of the Revolution.Share
It is true that this belief in the power of reason was not confined to the philosophes alone, but was shared by the very influential group of the Economists, the disciples of Quesnay and Gournay. These were not irresponsible men of letters, but serious administrators and statesmen, and they were equally representative of the spirit of the Enlightenment in their unbounded faith in the possibility of the immediate transformation of society by radical reforms.
But the most important element in the revolutionary ideology had its origin not in the rationalism of the Enlightenment, but in the movement of democratic idealism which had many of the characteristics of a new religion and which in fact became for a few decisive years the established religion of the French Republic. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, its originator, was a typical example of that restless, perpetually dissatisfied class — the revolutionary intelligentsia. Like so many of his successors he was a man of religious instincts who had lost his religious roots, and who laid the blame for his own unhappiness and instability on the disordered state of the society in which he lived. He was a moral optimist and a historical pessimist, asserting the goodness of man and nature and the corruption of contemporary society. Yet at the same time he was ready to idealize the State and he was prepared to offer it unlimited homage, if only the will of the people could be substituted for the authority of the law, and the doctrines of the Churches replaced by the religion of nature and natural morality.
Yet in spite of this radical breach with historical Christianity, there is no doubt that Rousseau’s social idealism was a reaction against the secularization of the modern state and an attempt to recover that sense of spiritual community which Christian society possessed in the past. For Rousseau’s fundamental principle of the equality of man is a spiritual principle analogous to the doctrine of Christian fellowship rather than to the political rights of a citizen, and the related principle of fraternity is obviously derived from the Christian combination of Christian fellowship with charity rather than from the political relation of citizenship to civil behavior or public spirit.
It was Rousseau who transformed the natural religion of the philosophers into a religious cult which appealed to something deeper than reason in human nature. And thus it was under the influence of Rousseau’s ideals that the French Revolution was hailed as the regeneration of humanity, and the democracy of the First French Republic was felt to be more than a state — a spiritual community, the Church of the new humanity. (Read entire post.)