The Influence of Rationalism on the French Revolution

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Ben Jorgensen
Professor Wakefield
English 5
3 April 2013
The Influence of Rationalism on the French Revolution
What was the driving force behind the French Revolution? Many people may say it was financial, or political, and while I would agree that these things were part of the force that propelled the French Revolution, I would assert that the philosophies of the Enlightenment were the dominant force that blasted late eighteenth century France into revolution . In his article, “The French Revolution: Ideas and Ideologies “Maurice Cranston of History Today articulates that the Enlightenment philosophies were pivotal in the revolutions inception. He writes that: “The philosophes undoubtedly provided the ideas.”

Cranston goes on to write that:
“…the unfolding of the Revolution, what was thought, what was said, and what was advocated, was expressed in terms and categories that came from political theorists of the Enlightenment.” While many of the Enlightenment concepts contributed to the revolution, I would propose that the philosophy of rationalism was foundational to the French Revolution because of its reliance on reason, and its opposition to superstition. Rationalism in its epistemology is defined by the Online Oxford Dictionary as: “A belief or theory that opinions and actions should be based on reason and knowledge rather than on religious belief or emotional response.” The Online Encyclopedia Britannica adds:

“Holding that reality itself has an inherently logical structure, the rationalist asserts that a class of truths exists that the intellect can grasp directly.” There are many types and expressions of rationalism, but the most influential expressions of rationalism pertaining to the French Revolution were in ethics and metaphysics. The first modern rationalist philosopher was Rene Descartes (1596-1650).The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states that: “Descartes is known as the father of modern philosophy precisely because he initiated the so-called epistemological turn that is with us still.” Descartes interest in philosophy stemmed from a fascination with the question of whether humans could know anything for certain. Descartes desired to create a philosophy that was as solid as say the concepts of algebra, or geometry, a philosophy based purely on quantifiable reason and logic. In this way, Rene Descartes laid the foundation for philosophies built on reason as opposed to superstition, chief among them: rationalism. While Rene Descartes defined the terms and laid down the agenda for the philosophy of rationalism, Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) and Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716) completed the triad for the chief philosophers of rationalism. Spinoza and Leibniz took the terms and agenda of Descartes philosophy of rationalism, and developed their own views on rationalism, both publishing a number of books, and journals on their rationalist philosophies. Although these early modern philosophers of rationalism did not directly influence the French Revolution, it cannot be doubted that their general epistemological philosophy of rationalism helped create a new way of thinking in which man was not ordained by God to rule over other men, but that it was through reason of the mind that man chose to be ruler or subject. The French Revolution began between the years 1787 and 1789. It is no wonder that the revolution occurred at this time when the Enlightenment was in its prime, shining light onto the social and political issues of the day with new philosophies like rationalism that challenged the old feudalistic and monarchist regimes of Europe that were built on irrationality and superstition. William Doyle, in his book, “The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction,” conveys that the French Revolution was: “…triggered by King Louis XVI’s attempt to avoid bankruptcy.” (19) However, while the trigger was financial, the social and political rumblings of the Third estate is what shook, and...
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