the enlightenment in france -- 6/05/18

Today's selection -- from A Brief History of France by Cecil Jenkins. The Enlightenment stemmed from the continued increase in publishing, the 17th and 18th century breakthroughs in science, and the increasing death and debt brought by war:

"In the France of the Enlightenment [in the mid 1700s] there was ... a whole new intellectual climate, fostered by greater literacy, an increase in the publication of books and newspapers, and of course the exchange of ideas through such famous literary salons as those of Madame du Deffand or the passionate Julie de Lespinasse. The serious discussion of ideas had also moved from the old university orthodoxies to a score of new académies, or provincial societies set up on the model of the Academie Francaise -- it was for a competition of the Academie de Dijon that Rousseau wrote his famous essay on the origin of inequality among men. 'Discours sur l'origine et les fondements de l'inégalité parmi les hommes'. Libraries were also being set up by rich individuals, while booksellers were renting out books by the day. And it was in this situation that an intelligentsia was arising, writers of often humble origin who were no longer dependent on noble protectors but could actually live by their work -- Diderot was the son of a cutler, while both Rousseau and Beaumarchais were watchmakers' sons. As such they were the voices of the new educated community which was excluded from political representation and which would ultimately provide a more profound challenge to the monarchy than the privileged parlement.

Discourse on Inequality

"Much of this activity was stimulated by the political tensions within the society, such as the religious intolerance dramatized by the execu­tion of Jean Calas, a Protestant merchant of Toulouse in 1762. Wrongly accused of killing his own son who, it was said, wanted to convert to Catholicism, he was condemned in a farcical trial and broken on the wheel while proclaiming his innocence. In protest, Voltaire opened up a famous debate on tolerance and had Calas rehabilitated posthu­mously. Another stimulus was the increasing awareness of the outside world and of the challengingly different customs of non-European peoples -- the cultural relativism exemplified by Montesquieu's satir­ical portrait of French society in his Lettres persanes (Persian Letters, 1721), as in Bougainville's Voyage autour du monde (A Voyage Around the World, 1771), which nourished the idea of the 'noble savage'.

An example of a French salon

"However, the catalyst for much of this intellectual ferment was doubtless the sense of a new scientific outlook, influenced by the empiricism of the English philosopher John Locke and by the inductive method and mechanics of Isaac Newton, offering the prospect of a new conceptual model of the world. In the monumental twenty­-eight-volume Encyclopédie (1751-72), intended as a 'collection of human knowledge', Diderot and his fellow philosophes sought to bring together all these strands into a coherent structure -- in effect a fusion of Cartesian rationalism and English empiricism in the service of a new view of the world and society."


Cecil Jenkins


A Brief History of France, Revised and Updated


Little, Brown Group


Copyright Cecil Jenkins, 2017


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