The Philosophes: Pillars of the Enlightenment but not Democracy

The 18th century French philosophes are rightly respected for the key role they played in the development of the Enlightenment. They were ardent in their desire to spread knowledge, education, toleration and humane values. Diderot, the editor of the great Encyclopedia that was such a major influence in spreading not just the practical knowledge of contemporary arts and sciences, but also the ideals of the Enlightenment itself, wrote to Voltaire in 1762 declaring that their motto was ‘no quarter for the superstitious, for the fanatical, for the ignorant, for the foolish, for the wicked and for the tyrants’.1 Attacking the ignorance, corruption, injustice and fanaticism of contemporary society, the Philosophes were ‘informed, warm-hearted, tolerant, and humane; they fought obscurantism, bigotry, prejudice, and injustice. They believed that the world could be made a better place to live in, and that the sum of human happiness could be increased. They favoured equality before the law, humane punishments, the career open to the talents, proportional taxation, universal education.’ 2

 French Philosophes Not Political Radicals

The Philosophes weren’t democrats, however. Despite their implacable hostility to injustice and oppression, they did not advocate revolution or any major alterations to the structure of French government and society itself. While Voltaire and Montesquieu were ardent admirers of Britain, they did not advocate that British institutions should be imported into France. Indeed, the Philosophes were staunch supporters of the monarchy. The article on Political Economy in Diderot’s Encyclopedia declared that it was only the monarchy that had ‘discovered the real means of enabling us to enjoy all the possible happiness and liberty and all the advantages which man in society can enjoy on the earth.’ 3 There was considerable disagreement amongst the Philosophes on the best form of government and society. Voltaire denounced all privileged groups, like the parlements, clergy and aristocracy, for obstructing attempts at reform by a benevolent monarchy. Montesquieu, on the other hand, favoured reinforcing their power against the tyrannical power of the monarchy. Some of their ideas were also self-contradictory. Historians and philosophers examining Rousseau’s rhetoric have found arguments supporting both socialism and private property, democracy and authoritarianism, Puritanism and hedonism. ‘The Enlightenment was many-sided. It did not advocate any one doctrine – and certainly not the doctrines of democracy or rebellion.’ 4

 French Roman Catholicism as the Source of Political Discontent and Democratic Ideals

Instead, historians have pointed to the clergy and the parlements for promoting radical discontent with the French monarchy. Early in the 18th century, Archbishop Fenelon was particularly critical in his denunciation of the suffering inflicted on the French people by Louis XIV’s government. In his Lettre au Roi, written in Cambrai after Fenelon had retired from court politics, he bitterly attacked Louis’ massive accumulation of power at the expense of his subjects. Addressed to the king himself, Fenelon wrote

 ‘For about thirty years your principal ministers have shaken and overthrown all the former maxims of the State in order to heap up to its height your authority, which had become their because it was in their hands. They have talked no longer about the State or about laws, they have talked only of the King and his good pleasure … you have destroyed half the real power inside your State in order to make and defend vain conquests outside. Instead of drawing money from these poor people, you should give them alms and nourish them. The whole of France is nothing more than a great poorhouse, desolated and provisionless.’ 5

 The French Lower Clergy and Ideals of Spiritual Equality

Furthermore, despite Voltaire’s denunciation of religion, and particularly Christianity for promoting intolerance and oppression, one of the main sources for the growth of democratic ideals in France was the lower French clergy. The 60,000 or so vicaires and cures, who comprised the main body of the 18th century French Roman Catholic clergy were largely members of the middle classes, in contrast to the upper clergy who were exclusively composed of members of the aristocracy. The lower clergy resented the idleness and wealth of their ecclesiastical superiors, who consumed most of the tithes while they subsisted on a tiny stipend. 6 These clergy tended to support richerisme in their view of the location of spiritual authority in the Church, considering that God had not given this authority exclusively to the Pope or the bishops, but equally to all members of the clergy. 7 They were also largely Gallican in their attitude to the power of the papacy. While Ultramontane Roman Catholics, such as the Jesuits, viewed the papacy as possessing sole authority in the Church, The Gallicans, on the other hand, viewed the church as a kind of constitutional monarchy in which councils were superior to the papacy. 8 The local church played a major role in village life. It was the place where the villagers stored their timber and grain, and made their business deals. It also played a strong political role. The priest informed his congregation of government regulations through reading them out as part of his sermon, and the church was also the location for the election of the local tax-collectors. 9 Given the close connection between the French lower clergy and their congregation, it isn’t surprising that the lower clergy’s ideas of equality within the ecclesiastical hierarchy encouraged the development of democratic ideas in wider, secular society. ‘And if the clergy believed in democracy in the Church, it is not surprising that their flocks favoured equality in the state.’ 10

 Influence of American Revolution and John Locke’s Christian Ideas of Society on French Revolution

Lastly, one of the most powerful direct influences on the outbreak of the French Revolution was that American Revolution. By sending French troops to assist the Americans against the British crown, Louis XVI had demonstrated that armed resistance to the monarchy could be patriotic, rather than an act of treason. The American Revolution also provided a direct model for the French, by demonstrating that it was possible for a nation’s people to create a completely new form of government through a constituent assembly composed of elected delegates. It was a model for those who wished to completely recreate French government and society, rejecting both divine-right monarchy and the traditional opposing institutions of the French state. 11 The democratic ideas of the American Revolution were also strongly informed by Christian religious views of the nature of human society. John Locke was a major influence on the development of the American constitution, and the resounding statement of the Declaration of Independence that people are endowed by the Creator with the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and have the right to alter or abolish any government that destroys these rights, encapsulates the ideas of Locke’s Second Treatise of Government. 12 Although Locke was a Socinian, rather than an orthodox, Trinitarian Christian, nevertheless his ideas of the law of nature have been criticised by contemporary poltical theorists as being derived from orthodox Christian doctrine. 13

Influence of the American Great Awakening in the Development of American Democracy

Historians have also pointed to the profound influence played by the 18th century evangelical revival – the Great Awakening – in the development of American democratic ideals. The Great Awakening saw lower and middle class Americans turn away from what they viewed as the corrupt, aristocratic established churches to create new churches and religious forms of their own, based not on the idea that spiritual authority was invested and conveyed through hierarchies, but was available to each believer through the experience of God’s saving grace. Leading evangelical preachers, such as George Whitefield, troubled the established leaders of New England society because

‘they spread the message that God did not operate through the elite corps of learned clergy and their aristocratic allies. Rather, God worked through the inner light given to every man and woman regardless of their station in life, with lack of education or even slave status posing now barrier to achieving grace through the conversion experience. Whitefield challenged traditional source of authority, called upon people to become the instruments of their own salvation, and implicitly attacked the prevailing upper-class notion that the uneducated masses had no minds of their own.’ 14 The result of this more democratically orientated religious revival was that ordinary, working-class Americans created religious institutions of their own to satisfy their religious needs that were not being met by the established churches. One such working-class religious leader was Samuel Morris, a self-educated bricklayer who stopped attending Anglican worship and instead held religious meetings in a small ‘reading house’ that he built himself on his own property. This soon expanded into a network of similar reading houses established across the western counties of Virginia. Elsewhere in western Virginia, ordinary people held their unlicensed meetings in barns and riverbanks, with the result that authority was collectively relocated in the mass of the common people. 15 The Great Awakening thus provided a powerful model for the later American revolutionaries, as it created a mass movement that challenged upper class assumptions about social order and the duty of the lower classes to obey their social superiors. Its members broke away from the established church they regarded as corrupt to build new churches of their own, often without license. They demanded and achieved religious toleration, destroyed attempts to unite church and state, and by fracturing the existing churches threatened the social order. When the ministers of the traditional churches urged their congregations to ‘obey them that have rule over you’, following the commands of St. Paul, those inspired by the Great Awakening claimed the freedom, in the view of historians such as Patrician Bonomi, ‘to question and judge all and refuse subjection to every proper judicature’, thus creating a ‘pertinent and usable model’ for the later Revolutionaries. 16

Conclusion: Democratic Ideals of American and French Revolutions Created by American and English Evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholic French Lower Clergy, not French Philosophes

Thus, despite their strong opposition to the forces of intellectual and social oppression in France, the philosophes of the Enlightenment such as Voltaire were certainly not democrats. The democratic ideals that created the American and French Revolutions instead were based strongly on religious notions of equality amongst the French Roman Catholic lower clergy and English and American Protestant revivalism. In France this more democratic attitude amongst the clergy did not lead to the intellectual and religious toleration prised and championed by the Philosophes. The 17th century saw the vicious persecution of French Protestants and their eventual expulsion from France after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Nevertheless, it was the ideals of spiritual equality developed by the French lower clergy and American working- and middle-class evangelical revivalists that created the democratic ideals that eventually produced the American and French Revolutions, and so created the models for later democracies around the world.


 1. E.N. Williams, The Ancien Regime in Europe: Government and Society in the Major States 1648-1789 (London, Penguin Books 1970), p. 227.

2. Williams, Ancien Regime, p. 227. 

3. Williams, Ancien Regime, p. 231.

4. Williams, Ancien Regime, p. 231.

5. Williams, Ancien Regime, p. 195.

6. Williams, Ancien Regime, p. 224.

7. Williams, Ancien Regime, p. 194.

8. Williams, Ancien Regime, p. 184.

9. Williams, Ancien Regime, p. 170.

10. Williams, Ancien Regime, p. 224.

11. Williams, Ancien Regime, p. 240.

12. N. Warburton, Philosophy: The Classics, Second Edition (London, Routledge 2001), p. 91.

13. Warburton, Philosophy: The Classics, p. 97.

14. G.B. Nash, The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America (London, Jonathan Cape 2006), pp. 8-9.

15. Nash, Unknown American Revolution, p. 10.

16. P. Bonomi, cited in Nash, Unknown American Revolution, p. 12.   

14 Responses to “The Philosophes: Pillars of the Enlightenment but not Democracy”

  1. The Philosophes: Pillars of the Enlightenment but not Democracy | Politics in America Says:

    […] Chiara’s blog wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptIn his Lettre au Roi, written in Cambrai after Fenelon had retired from court politics, he bitterly attacked Louis’… […]

  2. Pierre Says:

    An update has been somewhat overdue =>

    Nice post as usual, though I haven’t reached the stage where I’ve had a look at the philosophes.

    I personally prefer a sort of monarchy minus the serfdom. No waiting around for ages while the politicians waste time arguing over usually inconsequential things, or just take way too long to make any sort of decision(and be sometimes inert as well!). Though you do have the problem of human institutions eventually falling and all. . .

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  4. Phil Gasper Says:

    I have to respectfully disagree with your thesis. In his very important recent books, “Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750” and “Enlightenment Contested,” the historian Jonathan Israel distinguishes two distinct currents in Enlightenment thought, a moderate one—represented by Locke, Voltaire, Montesquieu—and a radical one, tracing back to Spinoza (described by Israel as the “first major European thinker in modern times to embrace democratic republicanism as the highest and most rational form of political organisation”) and which included leading philosophes, such as Diderot.

    Here’s a brief summary of some of Israel’s key ideas, from a recent review of “Enlightenment Contested”:

    “[The Spinozists] starting point was a fundamental break with the old intellectual orthodoxies. They criticised strongly both the tradition of Renaissance ‘humanism’ that provided distorted readings of ancient Greek philosophy to justify the teachings of the Churches and the conciliatory approach of the Newton-Locke tradition. Their materialism led them to assert the fundamental unity of humanity, seeing the lower classes as having the same potential for intellectual development as their rulers, even if ‘education’ was needed to bring this out, and rejecting the notion that some peoples were intrinsically inferior to others. And they drew republican, democratic conclusions, even if they often felt these could not be put fully into effect until the mass of people had been educated away from the superstitious and obscurantist influences. So while Voltaire and Hume accepted some racist notion, Diderot rejected racism and not only opposed slavery and colonialism, but supported the rights of the slaves of the colonial oppressed to fight for their own liberation.

    “Not surprisingly, the proponents of the radical Enlightenment received a very different response from established society to the moderates. They faced recurrent bouts of repression, and were forced to either to disguise some of their ideas in print or to publish abroad under pseudonyms if they were not to face imprisonment or exile.

    “Events, however, forced the two currents together in the 1750s (just as the first volumes of the Encyclopédie were being published). By this time, both currents were centred in France. But French Catholicism was divided down the middle. As well as the relatively sophisticated Jesuit wing, prepared to accept some modern scientific notions in order to win people to the faith, there was the mystical Jansenist wing which relied on ecstatic ‘miracles’ for its mass following and therefore opposed both wings of the Enlightenment. It was able in 1750 to create what we would today call a ‘moral panic’ about the impact of supposedly Spinozist texts, forcing the Jesuits and the Royal Court to turn against not just the radical Enlightenment but the Voltairians as well. The Encyclopédie was briefly banned and Diderot got a short spell in prison, and even Voltaire no longer felt safe. It was in this period that he turned his magnificent polemical skills against the counter-Enlightenment, with his slogan ‘Ecrasez l’infame’ (wipe out the infamy, ie organised superstitious religion) and, in 1758, the publication of his brilliant and subversive satirical novel Candide. In the process the fundamental differences between the two wings of the Enlightenment could easily disappear from view, opening the way for them to be overlooked ever since and for the Radical current to be virtually written out of intellectual history.”


  5. beastrabban Says:

    Hi Pierre – thanks for the comment. I’m afraid I’ve been a bit busy these past few weeks, and so haven’t quite had the time to put things up. As for monarchy versus, democracy, yeah, democratic, representative government can be slow, with decisions held up by long debates, and opposition from opposing parties. However, it’s better than the alternative: Mussolini promoted his dictatorship as the solution to the paralysis in Italian politics supposedly caused by democracy by declaring that it was ‘quick, sure, unanimous’. In fact the deliberate concentration of power in the person of the charismatic dictator – Mussolini in Italy, Hitler in Germany, actually caused increased bureaucracy and organisational paralysis as the deliberately created, or allowed to develop, a disorganised network of competing state and party departments and bureaucracies intended to put an effective check on eachothers’ independence and effectiveness, so that all administrative decisions had to be referred to Hitler and Mussolini personally. The result was that at one point the Rome police department was virtually paralysed as Mussolini had left the city to go on holiday. One of the complaints was that despite the intense heat of summer, they were still in their winter uniforms, and could not receive their proper summer outfits until the decision had been personally approved by Mussolini.

    Regarding the popularity of the monarchy, somebody once remarked that Queen Victorian was able to make the monarchy as an institution far more popular during her reign than it had been under George IV partly because she and Prince Albert actually interfered very little in the process of government. They performed their state functions dutifully, and Albert in particular was very important in promoting industrial development. They also embodied the moral values of the emerging middle class, which made them immensely popular as suitable moral exemplars. But they did this without actually interfering with parliament and legislation, and so could transcend politics in performing their state duties and expressing what was considered as best and most admirable in British culture.

  6. beastrabban Says:

    Hi Philip Gasper – thanks for your kind and courteous comments. I’ve seen the book on Spinoza and his influence on the Enlightenment about, but haven’t actually read it. Thanks for informing me about Jonathan Israel’s essential thesis in the book. Here’s a few ideas on the central concepts involved and the book’s purpose as it appears to me.

    Firstly, Israel is writing to counter the negative view of the Enlightenment that has been current in some parts of academia since the War. The philosophers Adorno and Horkheimer were very critical of the Enlightenment as they felt that its concern with measurement and classification laid the basis for the scientific racism, and the measurement and classification of humanity that resulted in the scientific, industrial murder of the Holocaust. Now Adorno and Horkheimer in their turn have been strongly critiqued, and their conclusions rejected by historians of the Enlightenment. I’ve heard one history prof describe their books as ‘rubbish’. Nevertheless, amongst some of the writings of philosophes like Rousseau, Turgot and even Kant one can find comments on the nature of society and political philosophy that formed the basis for parts of the totalitarian regimes of Soviet Russia and the Fascist dictatorships of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Obviously, Rousseau, Turgot and Kant weren’t Fascists, and cannot be blamed for murderous regimes which I’ve no doubt they would have strongly denounced. Nevertheless, the murderous totalitarianisms of the 20th century were informed to a greater or lesser extent by Enlightenment political ideals, even if, in the case of the Fascist dictatorships, such as Nazi Germany, they also vehemently attacked the Enlightenment.

    It’s also the case that the idea of a radical Enlightenment as the triumph of rationality has also been criticised by historians on the grounds that much of the mindset that informed Enlightenment philosophy wasn’t terribly different from traditional, Christian ideas of the nature of society and politics. The philosopher Jurgen Habermas in Germany, for example, has pointed out just how strongly Enlightenment discourse – the debates and philosophical and intellectual attitudes at the heart of the Enlightenment – were based in Christianity. Now I have an idea that Habermas himself is an atheist, but he respects Christianity for the profound way Christianity produced and formed Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment society. Regarding the Enlightenment project of creating a perfect, rational society, informed by science and benefiting from scientific and technological progress, you can see very strong parallels with the ideal commonwealths suggested by radical Renaissance philosophers such as Patrick Harrington. Harrington’s view of the new, technological, scientific utopia can strike you as being very prophetic. At one point he declares that it will have street lighting and many other technological advances very, very similar to those today. Yet Harrington was strongly influenced by renaissance mysticism, and so definitely not a materialist.

  7. beastrabban Says:

    Indeed, historians have also pointed to the very strong role played by fringe beliefs, such as Mesmerism, in challenging the political, as well as the scientific establishment of ancien regime France. In the case of the Mesmerists, they developed, at least amongst some later adherents, a very strongly egalitarian, democratic political attitude in which people could be healed and gain supernatural powers without the intervention of a priesthood directly through the scientific channelling of the magnetic and electrical forces that they believed flowed directly from God. In the spread of democratic ideals, the historian Robert Darnton in his book
    Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment in France (Cambridge, Massuchesetts, Harvard University Press 1968) considered the Mesmerists far more influential than Rousseau.

    Now I’m sure you’re right about the influence of Spinoza, but historians hav stressed that the Enlightenment was not unanimously in favour of democracy, and that the philosophes themselves said different things at different times. E.N. Williams, in his book The Ancien Regime in Europe; Government and Society in the Major States 1648-1789 (London, Penguin 1970) states ‘The Enlightenment was many-sided. It did not advocate any one doctrine – and certainly not the doctrines of democracy and rebellion. ‘The progress of enlightenment is limited’, went the Encyclopedie , ‘it hardly reaches the suburbs; the people ther are too stupid. The amount of rif-raff is always the same … The multitude is ignorant and doltish.’ Now I’ve no doubt that you’re right in that not all of the philosophes were so contemptuous of the ordinary people. Nevertheless, they formed one element amongst other religious, mystical and fringe or pseudo-scientific groups promoting democracy.

  8. beastrabban Says:

    Regarding Spinoza himself, I also wonder about the extent to which his democratic ideals were actually based in his Jewish culture, rather than the ideals of classic philosophy and materialism, which he argued for. For example, Spinoza recommended that hereditary property should be abolished, and people should live by trade. Now this is effectively an attack on feudalism and the concentration of power in wealthy, landed aristocratic elites. Yet the Jewish people themselves had, since the diaspora, been largely excluded from acquiring landed property, though in Britain some Sephardic Jews that returned to England after Cromwell permitted their immigration, had acquired land and joined the aristocracy. Excluded from the aristocratic, feudal and quasi-feudal culture of Europe, Jews supported themselves through trade and had developed a number of democratic institutions.

    The Jewish scholar, Ben Zion Bokser, in a paper ‘Democratic Aspirations in Talmudic Judaism’ presented at a symposium on science, philosophy and religion and their relation to democracy from September 8-11, 1941, considered that Talmudic Judaism was strongly democratic in its conceptions of humanity and institutions. He cited the Talmudic tract in the Tosefta Sanhedrin, which states ‘Why did the creatior form all life from a single ancestor? That the families of mankind shall not lord one over the other with the claim of being sprung from superior stock … that all men, saints and sinners alike, amy recognise their common kinship in the collective human family’. 1 While the ultimate source of the law and its authority was the Almighty, the Talmud in the tracts Abodah Zarah 36a, Shabbat 88a traced the authority of the Bible ‘not so much to its divine source as to the consent of the poeople who fully agreed to live by it’. 2 Erubin 13b declared that majorities and minorities were equally the words of God, and so the Talmudists also preserved dissident opinions. 3 The elections of the Jewish town councillors were open to all those residing in a community for a year or more, and some decisions were reached in which the will of the people could be ascertained more directly, according to Megillah 27a. 4 Furthermore, even though some officials were directly appointed by the head of the Jewish community, the Patriarch in Palestine and tthe exilarch in Babylonia, nevertheless it was considered essential that those selected should have the approval of the people, based on the Talmud’s account of the election of Bezalel, the son of Uri, by Moses at God’s command, during which the Almighty told Moses that He should not just take God’s word on Bezalel’s suitability for office, but go and consult the people as well, according to Barakot 55a. 5 I’m not sure how far such influences can be traced in Spinoza, however, but it is interesting that a democratic ideal had informed Talmudic Judaism. I hope to blog on this possible influence in the development of Western democracy, whether through Spinoza or, as is more probable, through the basis of both Judaism and Christianity in the Bible.

    1. B.Z. Bokser, ‘Democratic Aspirations in Talmudic Judaism’ in L. Bryson and L. Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion: New York, The conference on Science, Philosophy and Religon in their Relation to the Democratic Way of Life 1942), p. 382.

    2. Bokser, ‘Democratic Aspirations’ in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion , p. 388.

    3. Bokser, ‘Democratic Aspirations’ in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion , p. 388.

    4. Bokser, ‘Democratic Aspirations’ in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion , p. 388.

    5. Bokser, ‘Democratic Aspirations’ in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion , pp. 388-9.

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  10. Feyd Says:

    Very informative Beast. These sneaky humanists, is there anything good they won’t try to claim credit for? Or any of the apauling consequences arising from their belief systems they’ll won’t try to weasel their way out of? lol

    Am looking forward to your blog tracing the development of western democracy!

    For me the single most seminal influence on the emergence of universal suffurage was this beautiful line from Paul the Apostles letter to the Galatians

    There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus

  11. leading class the enlightenment in 1750 Says:

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  12. beastrabban Says:

    Thanks for the appreciation, Feyd. In fact, I’m sure there were some elements of Enlightenment thinking that did contribute to the development of democracy, but there was also a very, very strong influence from Christianity and the Bible as well, particularly from the Biblical doctrine, expressed by Paul, that everyone is equal before the Lord.

    As for the article on the Biblical and Christian origins of democracy, there’s a lot of stuff there so that it might actually end up a series of articles, rather than just one.

  13. student Says:

    This is awesome. So many enlightenment ideas and philosophes in one!

  14. Chapsworth Says:

    I read this site everyday to get motivation so I am able to make it through the day.

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