Robespierre, The Enlightenment and the French Revolution Essay
The direction, intent and the spirit of the revolution are amply evident in Robespierre’s address to the members of the National Assembly in 1794. The speech reveals many aspects of the revolution and it is not difficult to trace the ideas contained in it to the reformist literature of the Enlightenment period.
The most striking aspect of the French revolution was its bloodiness. Tens of thousands of people who tried to resist the changes were brutally guillotined. The majority of the victims belonged to the aristocratic and noble families as they are the ruling class. People loyal to the monarchy and sympathetic to counter-revolutionary forces were also not spared this fate. In what is regarded as an act of retribution, the victims were condemned to death without a fair chance to present their case. The following words by Robespierre would incite the members of the National Assembly towards implementing the Great Terror: “the mainspring of popular government in time of revolution is at the same time virtue and terror”.
The fundamental change that the revolution brought about was the overthrow of the French Monarchy and the installation of a Republican form of government in its place. The inclination to radically break with this tradition was so strong that even place names were changed. The traditional Christianity based calendar was replaced by a more universal and secular one. At the time, the streets of France reverberated to the cries of slogans like “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity”, which served as potent revolutionary symbols. Robespierre attributes a whole array of negative qualities to the traditional form of society and anticipates what the revolution would bring in their place. The following words capture that spirit: “all the virtues and all the miracles of the republic for all the vices and all the absurdities of the monarchy.”
The revolution overthrew the elitist rule and handed power to the majority of the masses for the first time in the history of mankind. The notion of liberty for all people in an egalitarian society was eventually implemented. The unraveling of the hold of fanaticism and religious superstition was another important aspect of change that the revolution brought on. The influence of the Catholic Church on the affairs of government had been profound until then. This condition was challenged and eventually the separation of state and church was achieved. Freedom of religion and common allegiance in a secular state culminated in the Festival of the Supreme Being, which served as a symbolic celebration. The separation of State and Church was officially decreed in 1795. The allusion to the principles behind those developments that would replace the monarchy and the Catholic Church are found in the following words from the source: “…enjoyment of liberty and equality, the reign of that eternal justice from which the laws have been engraved not on marble and stone but in the hearts of all men.” Here, ‘marble and stone’ is a reference to the Judeo-Christian belief in religious revelation to Moses in tablets of stone.
One core concept of the Enlightenment thought is putting an end to “fanaticism” in all its forms. This included religious dogmas and superstitions. Robespierre’s sympathy to this concept is clearly manifest in his famous speech. Another such indication of the influence of Enlightenment is found in his emphasis of equality and natural rights to all the members of the republic. Everyone was entitled to be treated in a way fitting their dignity as a human being. Accordingly, everyone had the right to equal justice before the law and a right not to be exploited by those enjoying power and privilege. And such sentiment is quite evident in Robespierre’s utterances during the time.
One could further trace the principles of the Revolution to the ideas of Enlightenment. The central themes of the Enlightenment culture were humanitarianism and rights for all human beings and such sentiments were expressed by Robespierre as well. In fact, the immorality of slave trade was discussed by most of the reformist thinkers of the period leading up to the Revolution. The principle had the support of such influential intellectuals as Voltaire, Rousseau and Hume among others. Consistently, he implicitly attacks the inhumane practices of religious oppression and slavery. Thus, the Enlightenment ideals prepared a climate of opinion which eventually ushered in the Revolution.
Doyle, William, Haydon, Colin (eds.) (1999). Robespierre. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-59116-3.
McPhee, Peter. Robespierre: A Revolutionary Life (Yale University Press; 2012) 299 pages