The French Revolution was a singular and defining event in shaping the course of modern history from the late 18th century onward. Prior to the revolution’s inception in 1789 with the storming of the Bastille, French society was dominated by institutions such as the Catholic Church and an aristocratic political system largely unresponsive to the masses. Economically, France was slowly being crushed under the weight of debts accumulated through foreign wars and had in place a highly regressive tax system. The inefficiency of feudalism and bad harvests were also among a host of factors slowly ripening French society for a major structural shift but the changes in the ideological landscape are perhaps some of the most intriguing. Prior to the Revolution, the structure of society was seen as something given in a divine hierarchy; the aristocracy was positioned at the top of society by necessity and to overturn this order would require a fundamental change in the way reality was experienced. The harbinger of this change would be the ideology of the Enlightenment.
The Enlightenment and its basis in the scientific worldview brought a myriad of changes but primary for the French Revolution’s ideology was the shift to glorifying individual freedom, notions of progress, and placing the singular citizen as primary within the political and social world. Philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his writings on “the noble savage” portrayed society as being inherently corrupt and called on individuals to break free of the chains placed on them by decadent social orders such as one in late 18th century France. French citizens were increasingly framed within a rhetoric of democracy that placed the individual as sovereign and removed any philosophical necessity for an aristocratic elite dominating society. These same ideals can be found inherent within other major structural changes such as the shift from feudalism to capitalism. With its emphasis on economic and social stability being structured on every individual following their own self-interest, this economic structure is inextricably bound up with Enlightenment ideology. On August 4th, 1789, feudalism was abolished by the National Constituent Assembly in one of its first acts and we see that democratizing the economic sphere was to come right on the heels of the revolution in the political sphere.
Enlightenment ideology also seeped into the cultural world and the arts. Prior to 1789, artists were primarily patronized by wealthy elites and their works portrayed aristocrats enjoying leisure time or sport with the average French citizens existing only as a glaring absence. With the birth of Neoclassicism and such artists as Jacques-Louis David, art becomes centered on portraying heroic figures from the Greek and Roman eras that sacrificed themselves for service to their country and emphasized the obligation of each citizen to participate in the political realm. While it may be easy to characterize it as propaganda now, it was massively influential and another example of the penetration of Enlightenment thinking into all areas of French social structure.
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