Reacting to the Enlightenment: The French Revolution, Liberalism, and Media

While active in overlapping and colliding waves across Europe, France served as the Enlightenment’s epicentre. Paris, the most heavily urbanized, populous, and wealthiest city of the period became a haven for the philosophes and a growing educated class. Writers such as Voltaire, Comte, Condillac, Diderot, and d’Alembert formed a loose-knit and often internally contradictory “family of philosophes,” who despite theoretical differences, approached the task of analyzing and understanding the epoch in similar ways. The philosophes of the Enlightement sought to do for the social sciences, the humanities, and cultural analysis what Newton had done for physics: unite disparate, complex and seemingly idiosyncratic historical events under universal models and formulae. As a result, France became a kind of test case for the tensions of Modernity, a living experiment in which the metaphysics and theology of the premodern were forced into a direct confrontation with sometimes aggressively secular theories and critiques. Even today, any tourist can observe history in progress in the city’s architectural and aesthetic diversity.

In many ways, John Locke’s Essay on Human Understanding was the central text of the Enlightenment, and so was immensely influential upon the French philosophes and the spirit of the nation at the time. Locke, in the Essay, asserted that all knowledge is gained through our engagement with our sensual world. We gather understanding, categories, and analytical distance only through experiencing the world first-hand. This radical idea broke with a long-standing assumption of inherent or innate knowledge, derived from the notion of the human mind as divinely inspired. Further, it placed the individual social agent at the centre of his or her own destiny. If humans are born with no innate predispositions, then we are forced to become masters of our own fate. Unbounded from divine predestination or some essential, universal, absolute morality, we engage with and come to understand the world through choice and the senses, radically breaking with a Platonic rejection of the physical that characterized Premodern metaphysics. Locke’s Essay, then, lays the foundation for a growing sense of individualism, or the belief that through experience, reason, and analysis, man can self-fashion, and as such, should be able to express and articulate himself as he sees fit. For an in-depth look at Locke’s epistemology, and its relation to the rationality and universalism of Newton, take a look at this lecture by Countenay Raina, speaking on Religion, Regicide, and Revolution:

Due to the rise of this individualistic spirit, tensions in France began to shake the autocratic rule of the monarchy, who still clung to authority through the now scathingly critiqued “divine right of kings,” which posited that God himself had vested power within the king to rule the nation. Eventually, these conflicts erupted into scattered urban and rural skirmishes, led largely by citizens demanding a voice in their own governance, and representation within the commanding heights of the national bureaucracy. This fighting slowly escalated, aggravated by the overwhelming power of the clergy and the monarchy, finally breaking into a full-scale civil war, The French Revolution, in 1789, a battle fought in the name of individual rights to expression, determination, and opportunity; it was a battle fought under the banner of Enlightenment ideals.

The impact of the French Revolution upon Modernization is easy to overstate, but certainly cannot be diminished. The conflicting ideologies of Liberalism, Socialism, and Conservatism emerge in force following the collapse of autocratic governance in France, and the negotiations between these ideologies deeply inform the keynote texts of the modern world, addressing everything from morality to economics. For a more in-depth history of the Revolution, and an excellent introduction to how new trajectories of language and ideology emerged from it, watch the lecture below, delivered by Lynn Hunt of UCLA History.

Important to note in Hunt’s talk is her mention of the notion of “public opinion” and accountability as symptomatic of a new social consciousness. No longer could a single authority figure claim, without challenge, sole decision making power. The French monarchy was forced, due to the influence of Enlightenment philosophy and its popularization through print, the news trade, and the incipient public sphere that developed alongside them both, into a confrontation with the people it administered. Governance by consent, in the interest of the people, becomes enshrined within Western political and social thought at this juncture.

The social reaction to the French Revolution, however, revealed deep divisions within European society. Those who championed its gains and adhered emphatically to the principles of free assembly and expression came to form the core of a new Liberal ideology. Others would look upon the revolution with disdain and decry it for its bloody destruction, forming a Conservative (and also a Romantic) critique of reason and Enlightenment theory, and others would attempt to radically rethink this binary by establishing an alternative union of structure and egalitarianism, combining the rationalism of Enlightenment philosophy, a belief in the equality of all men, a sympathy for the working classes, and a critique of the violence of market fundamentalism and industrial life to create a new Socialist ideology, articulated most clearly by Marx, whose ideas will be addressed in a later post.

The Liberal Reaction, Press Freedom, and Democratic Discourse:

The French Revolution and its ideals of republicanism, government accountability, and citizen empowerment (and in many ways the invention of the ‘citizen’ proper) agitated similar tensions elsewhere, including Britain. One thinker who championed the ideals of the Revolution in the United Kingdom (and later the United States), and also ideally demonstrates the important links between new discourses of Modern liberalism and the influence of the media, was Thomas Paine. In 1791, Paine famously published Rights of Man, in which he eloquently defended the French Revolution by asserting that all men, regardless of class-based, racial, or theological distinctions, were empowered by the same inalienable, universal rights, and when any government attempts to deny its citizens these inalienable rights, revolution against that government is justified. This text was enormously controversial and drew the ire of a number of Conservative critics (who we will explore in the next post), and continues to cause conflict between contemporary political ideologies, as Paine’s words are still variably appropriated by reactionaries, libertarians, progressives, and socialists alike. For publishing the follow-up to this text, Rights of Man, Part the Second, Paine was tried and found guilty of seditious libel by a deeply partial jury. At this trial, Paine was defended by Thomas Erskine, who, as Keane writes, delivered a now mythical four hour address justifying Paine’s work by asserting that the cornerstone of a just, accountable, and empowering society was a free press, and the ability to articulate and circulate one’s own ideas without repression. Erskine’s claim codified within the discourse of Liberalism and Western political thought the now seemingly natural link between democracy and an open media system.

The French Revolution had largely been fueled by the distribution of polemical pamphlets and propaganda, and the populism of the revolution itself would have been unthinkable without the advent of a thriving European news trade. The freedom from tyranny, noble and clerical privilege, and working-class burden promised by the French Revolution, then (what we might call the foundations of a Liberal ideology that celebrated the inalienable rights of the individual and his equality with all others, tantamount to his ability to self-fashion and determine his own destiny and participate in civil society), was inseparable from the battle for a free press. This Liberal reaction was one of the three main ideological branches that would inform the conflicts of Modernity. Watch this lecture by J. Ward Regan, professor of History and Philosophy at New York University on the legacy of Thomas Paine as an ideal example of what it meant to be a “liberal” in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries.

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