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The Period of the Enlightenment in France

The Philosophy of Jean Jacques Rousseau

The vast intellectual movement which made its appearance at the close of the "Glorious Revolution" in England (1688) and continued until the French Revolution (1789) is called Illuminism, or the Enlightenment. The new culture, advancing under the aegis of "reason," launched itself in bitter opposition to all the past in general, and in particular to the Middle Ages. According to the Illuminati -- the exponents of the Enlightenment -- the Middle Ages, victim of philosophical and religious prejudices, had not made use of "reason," and hence they called it the age of obscurantism, or the Dark Ages. The new philosophy, on the other hand, was to introduce an age of enlightenment; it was to dispel the darkness of the past.

I. French Illuminism and the "Encyclopedie"

France borrowed Illuminism from England, the land of its birth. This adoption of Illuminism was brought about by the great admiration which the French world of culture felt toward all things English. French thinkers preferred Locke to Descartes because the former traced philosophical problems back to their original basis, sensation. They admired Newton's mechanism and the English Constitution. In a word, the cultured French created for themselves the English myth. Letters, ties of friendship, and frequent trips across the Channel by noted Frenchmen of the times, such as Voltaire, are manifest proof of this lofty esteem for things English.

However, French thinkers did not receive Illuminism passively. France was always the land of clear and distinct ideas (Descartes); and as soon as Illuminism made its appearance there, French philosophers were able and quick to elicit the extreme consequences hidden beneath the surface of Illuminist thought. Promptly divining the far-reaching conclusions that could be drawn from Illuminism, the French adopted it as an efficacious and speedy means of relieving France from all the evils that had befallen her after the demise of the Sun King, Louis XIV. Thus if England was the birthplace of the new philosophy of the Enlightenment, France was to become the classic home of Illuminism.

The French Illuminists placed full confidence in "reason," which they understood to mean common sense, a factor equally distributed among men. Neglect of the use of common sense has produced in the world class distinctions, differences in knowledge and language; it has fomented hatred and wars. Reason must undertake the task of abolishing or reducing these differences to a minimum; it must assume the office of formulating a universal knowledge and establishing a universal organization of peaceful peoples governed by universal laws.

Nature should be the starting point in the process of effecting this new organization. But "nature" for French Illuminism meant human nature devoid of all moral and religious restraint. French Illuminism was hence eminently anti-historical and naturalistic, and consequently tended to give rise to countless problems of both a doctrinal and practical nature, the solutions to which are most contrary to historical tradition and the teachings of Christian philosophy.

In the doctrinal field, Descartes, a Rationalist and spiritualist, was replaced by John Locke, whose empiricism was rapidly reduced to simple sensism by the French philosophers. Newton's physical mechanism took the place of traditional metaphysics. Not only is the world a self-made machine, but man himself is a self-moving machine with no dependence whatsoever upon any principle superior to matter. Julien Offroy de La Mettrie (1709-1751), author of L'homme machine; and more important still, Paul Heinrich Holbach (1723-1789), German by birth but French by education and author of Le Systeme de la nature; and Claude Adrien Helvetius (1715-1771), author of De l'esprit and De l'homme, were the most outstanding protagonists of this atheistic materialism.

Of course not all French Illuminists were atheists as were La Mettrie and Holbach. Many of them, notably Diderot, Rousseau, Voltaire, proposed Deism in place of atheism, if not for speculative reasons, at least as a support and foundation for moral activity. Belief in God, in the immortality of the soul, and in a retribution in the life to come were affirmed in opposition to atheism. Voltaire, who fought as ardently against atheism as he did against the Church, wrote: "If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him. But all nature proclaims that He exists."

In the field of religion, French Illuminism battled against the Catholic Church, its dogmas, its discipline, its hierarchy. The Church was judged responsible for all the errors of the past. In this bitter struggle against the Church, atheists like La Mettrie and Deists like Voltaire made common cause and cried out: "Crush the infamous!"

In politics, a new organization, English in pattern, was called forth to effect the reforms demanded by reason. This rational state was outlined by Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu (1689-1775) (picture) in his book L'esprit de lois (The Spirit of Laws), which was widely read and made a great impression on the thinkers of the times.

To spread and popularize these ideas, French Illuminism made use of a very powerful medium, the Dictionnaire Raisonne des sciences, des arts et des metiers, or Encyclopedie, as it came to be called. This work, which can be considered fundamental and which spread throughout France and the rest of Europe, was published between 1751 and 1780 in thirty-five volumes, including supplements, illustrations and indexes. The directors of the Encyclopedie were Jean Le Rond d'Alembert (1717?-1783), who wrote the famous Discours preliminaire as a preface, and Denis Diderot (1713-1784) (picture). However, many other Illuminists also contributed to the Encyclopedie, and for this reason this group of writers came to be known as the Encyclopedists. The most famous of the Encyclopedists were Voltaire and Rousseau.

The most prominent figure of French Illuminism and of European contemporary culture is Francois Marie Arouet, who took the name Voltaire (1694-1778) (picture). He was the author of many works, the most interesting from the point of view of philosophy being the following: Lettres anglaises ou philosophiques, Metaphysique de Newton, Elements de la philosophie de Newton, and Dictionnaire philosophique.

II. The Sensationalism of Abbe de Condillac

A typical philosopher of French Illuminism was Etienne Bonnot de Condillac (1715-1780), a member of a distinguished legal family of Grenoble. Although ordained a Catholic priest, Condillac never exercised the priestly powers. For about ten years he was tutor t the ducal court of the Infant Ferdinand de Bourbon at Parma. His most significant philosophical work is the Traite des sensations.

Locke had distinguished two sources of our ideas, sensation and reflection. Condillac accepted only the former, and considered reflection as an activity following upon and connected with sensation. Moreover, Locke presupposed certain faculties of the soul, such as thinking, remembering, reasoning, to be innate and did not investigate their origin. The task of Condillac was to show how these activities originate in sensation alone.

To this end he took as an example a statue, endowed like man with a soul, but deprived of any sensation ("tabula rasa") because the soul is enclosed in marble. The statue is first given the use of the sense of smell, the least important of the five senses. A rose is presented to the statue. The statue has the "sensation" of odor; indeed, it is entirely identified with the odor of rose. From this simple olfactory sensation, Condillac believed he could derive all the so-called spiritual faculties. Indeed, when the statue turns its entire capacity for feeling upon the impression of the rose, attention is achieved.

A faint sensation (produced when the rose is withdrawn) gives rise to memory; a vivid memory produces imagination. Through memory the statue can compare an actual sensation with a past one, and from this comparison arises judgment. The practical development of the spirit proceeds in parallel fashion with its theoretical unfolding.

From a pleasant or painful sensation the sentiment of pleasure or pain arises. The remembrance of a pleasant sensation gives rise to desire; a vivid desire produces passion; a stable desire is transformed into will. The statue acquires all these faculties with the use of one sense only. By granting to the statue the use of the other senses, the number of objects is extended, the quantity of the ideas is increased, but not the forms of activity by which it apprehends.

According to Condillac, neither olfactory nor gustatory nor auditory nor even visual sensations give to the statue the idea of spatial extent upon which our knowledge of the corporeal world is founded. Only touch is capable of giving the spirit an idea of the external world, of one's own body and the bodies of others, because of the resistance which our physical efforts meet in the exterior world.

It is to be noted, however, that this is not a proof of the reality of the external world; the statue still remains in the world of sensations, which are subjective modifications. The external world is dogmatically presupposed; we are face to face with metaphysical Skepticism.

III. Jean Jacques Rousseau

Life and Works

Born in Geneva in 1712, Rousseau ( picture) led an errant and tormented life. At sixteen, while apprenticed to an engraver, he ran away and wandered to Savoy. He found shelter, first, with the pastor at Confignon and later, in Annecy, with Madame de Warens, who remained his patroness for many years. In 1741 he went to Paris, where he was obliged to earn his living as a copyist of music, as a tutor, and a secretary. In 1750 he took part in an open contest sponsored by the Academy of Dijon, succeeded in winning the prize, and rose to fame in Europe.

Leaving Paris in 1756, he retired to Montmorency, where he wrote his two masterpieces, the Social Contract and Emile. Instead of bringing him the fame he expected, these two works evoked the opposition of civil and ecclesiastical authorities, and Rousseau was forced to go into exile.

He went first to Switzerland, and then to England, where he was a guest of David Hume. Estranged from Hume by suspicions and petty quarrels, he returned to Paris in 1770; he died of apoplexy in Ermenonville in 1778. A Calvinist, Rousseau was early in life converted to Catholicism, only to abandon it and to return to Protestantism.


Rousseau is truly the most original figure of French Illuminism, of which he was not only a protagonist but also a severe critic. He possessed the characteristics common to the Illuminati; namely, a great faith in reason, and a deep-rooted desire to bring history, tradition, and society to trial.

On the other hand, he was suspicious of the arts and sciences, of those very things which were believed to be the greatest achievements of Illuminism and considered the paramount factors of civilization and happiness.

As far as Rousseau is concerned, the growth of culture produces an increase of indigence and corruption. The source of true human values is not the intellect but sentiment, which is possessed equally by all. Hence his continuous refrain was: "Let us return to nature." But what does Rousseau mean by nature?

In his earlier writings Rousseau identified nature with the primitive state of savage man. Later, especially under the criticism of Voltaire, Rousseau took nature to mean the spontaneity of the process by which man builds his personality and his world. Nature thus signifies interiority, integrity, spiritual freedom, as opposed to that imprisonment and enslavement which society imposes in the name of civilization.

Hence, to go back to nature means to restore to man the forces of this natural process, to place him outside every oppressing bond of society and the prejudices of civilization. Rousseau developed these concepts in his two masterpieces, the Social Contract and Emile.

The "Social Contract"

This work contains Rousseau's political thought. The problem which he proposes to solve is this: Society implies distinction between sovereign and subjects, with the submission of the latter to the former. How is it possible, in a society so composed, to preserve equality and liberty in the subjects? Liberty comes to man from nature, and belongs to every associate of society as an inalienable right.

Rousseau resolved the question by distinguishing between "the general will" and "the will of all," giving to this latter a meaning opposite the former. "The general will" is the expression of the humanity immanent in every man, and for this reason such a will is inalienable, universal and uniform in every man. "The will of all," on the contrary, is the expression of particular interests, of egoism; it is the font of all inequalities. According to Rousseau, liberty consists in the spontaneous coordination of the "general will" and the "will of all."

Primitive man was free because, without being forced, he submitted his individualistic interests to the exigencies of his humanity. The social contract has not changed this condition, for men, making such a contract, intended to fuse the general of all associated persons by a "pactum unionis" (and not by a "pactum subjectionis," as Hobbes maintained), in such a manner that their liberty might be conserved even in society. It is this "general will," and not any particular group or person, which is invested with sovereignty.

Laws are just in so far as they express this general will. Thus every associated person, by obeying the general will and the laws that flow from it, does nothing more than obey himself. Hence hi is still free and feels his entire dignity as a free man, even in the society of which he forms a part.


In this work Rousseau offers an example of what he thinks education, in accordance with the spontaneity of nature, should be. He says that nature is good, and hence an education in keeping with the properties of nature will also be good, unless this process is destroyed by outside prejudices. The pupil has to feel himself free in developing his activities. The educator may never impose his will upon the pupil by precepts. His work should consist in preparing the fittest external conditions for the free unfolding of the activities of his pupil.

In keeping with his principle that culture and the sciences are causes of evil and corruption, Rousseau wants Emile, the hero of his work by that name, to learn only those notions that will be necessary to his practical life. Thus he will learn a trade, that of carpenter. Moral education must start with the burgeoning of reason, and its norms will be learned, not from the precepts of the educator but from the reflections of the pupil himself. Emile's religion will be a natural one, that is, belief in God as He reveals Himself in His works. Only when his education is completed can Emile enter society, for only then will he be able to avoid its dangers and enjoy its benefits.

Adapted from the book: "Modern Philosophy"

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