Dale Van Kley

The French Revolution and the Radical Enlightenment

A cautionary lesson for Christian historians.

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A decade and a half ago I put forward a counterintuitive thesis about the religious origins of the French Revolution. Although the book underscored the importance of a century-long controversy resulting from the Bourbon monarchy's attempt to suppress the "heresy" of Catholic Augustinians, or Jansenists, it did not argue that Jansenists made the French Revolution. Put briefly, the thesis was rather that the monarchy's repeated need for papal authority to condemn Jansenism as a heresy eventually put it on the unpatriotic side of France's Gallican liberties, which had long held the papacy to be subject to general councils and which Jansenists began to use in their own defense. By the mid-18th century—so the thesis went—a religious fight picked by the monarchy desacralized the monarchy in its own terms, sanctified the notion of national sovereignty in indigenous Gallican terms, and caused a schism within the Gallican Church that reappeared in more virulent form during the Revolution. It also produced Europe's most anti-Christian enlightenment, which of course also inflected the course and character of the Revolution. The point was therefore not to dismiss the role of the French Enlightenment in the Revolution, but to enlighten the longer-term religious and political parameters within which that enlightenment assumed its peculiar character and could make its force felt.

In contrast to such an indirect and structural attempt to factor religion into an account of the "causes" of the French Revolution, a more frontal and totalizing approach might have reduced all causes to religious ones on the grounds that, whether they knew it or not, the revolutionaries were still within the paradigm of the redemption of time originally established by the Judeo-Christian tradition, just as they were acting on the notion of human "rights" originally postulated in medieval canon law and scholastic theology. The notion that human beings have intrinsic worth is not after all a self-evident or empirically verifiable proposition; by the standards of human justice itself, humanity cannot be judge and party in its own cause. If no such attempt was made in that book, it was due not only to the desire not to press the evidence beyond the obvious, but also to be taken seriously by the entire community of professional historians.

In comparison to this argument, the case for the ideas of the French Enlightenment as the chief cause of the Revolution is much easier to make. That is the case that Jonathan Israel argues in his recently published Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from The Rights of Man to Robespierre. Although revolutionaries possessed no French term for the "enlightenment" now used to designate the intellectual movement thought characteristic of their century, many indeed acknowledged "philosophie" or the works of individual philosophes such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau or Gabriel Bonnot de Mably as their sources of inspiration. That revolution also culminated in a campaign to "dechristianize" France, the ideological inspiration for which could hardly have come from Christianity.

That books about the intellectual and even religious origins of the French Revolution can be written again is one of the long-term results of a veritable historiographical revolution on the subject of the French Revolution. Culminating simultaneously with the collapse of Eastern European communism around 1989, this rethinking undid a long regnant Marxian metanarrative of the French Revolution that had reduced the ideas of the Enlightenment to the subordinate role of an ideology of the bourgeois or middle class, which was thought to have triumphed in this revolution. By upending the Marxian interpretation of uniquely socio-economic origins and meaning of the Revolution, revolutionary revisionism cut ideas loose from their tight orbits around a socio-economic center of gravity, endowing them with independent movement as possible "causes" of the Revolution, even making them into worthy objects of study for other reasons.

One result of these developments has been an embarras de richesse in the form of studies of the Enlightenment and enlighteners high and low, central and marginal, in unaccustomed cultural and political settings. Another has been an analytic refraction of a single Enlightenment into an array of enlightenments in the plural. More faithful to 18th-century parlance that spoke of a "century of lights," the newly various enlightenments vying for places beneath the historiographical sun include "national" varieties such as Scottish and Neapolitan ones, and thematic versions such as a Catholic Enlightenment or an Arminian Protestant one. Even within the French Enlightenment, it is possible to distinguish civic humanist and physiocratic variants as well as the notoriously radical or "philosophic" one associated with Denis Diderot's Encyclopédie.

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