by Bill Nugent
The French Revolution was the result of a culmination of ideas. Philosophers introduced new ideas to the literate elite. The elite put those ideas into motion. It resulted in a period of radical social upheaval and genocide that changed the course of civilization. The mass murders and guillotining of people in the Vendee district of western France were unparalleled at the time and not to be exceeded until the genocides of the 20th century.
The French Revolution was a direct result of the philosophical period called The Enlightenment. Historians date the Enlightenment to roughly the middle decades of the 1700s. The major philosophical shift that occurred in the Enlightenment was a turning away from revelation (the Bible) as the authoritative source of absolute truth and the embrace of human reason as the source of truth. It is often called the age of reason although there was much illogic and anti-reason about it.
The Enlightenment philosophers embraced Natural Law as the principle way of understanding human relations. The philosophers believed in God but by rejecting propositional (Bible) revelation they limited themselves to revelation in nature. Natural Law is the concept that God’s laws are embedded in nature and if we just observe man in the primitive state we will see the behaviors that are universal among all people and we can enact laws based on these principles. That idea sounds practical but the way the Enlightenment philosophers pursued it was flawed from the start.
The fatal flaw of Enlightenment philosophy was that by rejecting the Bible they rejected the concept of original sin and this caused them to conclude that man is “basically good” and the reason for social vice is man’s corruption by civilization. This is the myth of“The Noble Savage”.
Prominent among the Enlightenment philosophers was Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). Ironically he was born to a Calvinist father. His mother died when he was an infant. Calvinism is very conservative Christian theology. Rousseau apparently rejected Calvinism from an early age. He gives details on his many extramarital affairs in his autobiography titled,Confessions. He had five children by one mistress and he abandoned all five into a Paris orphanage. This was at a time when conditions in orphanages were such that eighty percent of the children did not live to adulthood.
Rousseau’s major works were numerous and included Discourse on the Source of Inequality, The Social Contract and the novelEmile among others. His novel Emile is his philosophy of education expressed in the fictional story of a boy named Emile. This book got him into serious trouble because one of his characters in the novel is a priest who abandoned Christianity and embraced natural religion. The natural religion was essentiallyDeism which looks to nature rather than the Bible as the source of moral guidance. Emile was banned by the Parisian authorities and Rousseau was forced to leave France.
Rousseau’ writings were immensely popular and radically influenced a generation of thinkers and political leaders. Rousseau is considered one of the foremost Enlightenment philosophers yet in many ways his writings can be seen as anti-Enlightenment or postenlightenment. The Enlightenment purists confined their thinking about nature to viewing it as governed by laws of mechanics and mathematical principles. Rousseau viewed nature in a bit more of a subjective and fluid way. He did not confine himself to rigid logical reasoning.
. Rousseau in some ways could be seen as a Romanticphilosopher. Romanticism came along in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Romanticism rejected reason in favor of emotion. Its return to nature was more subjective, passionate and radical.
Rousseau died eleven years before the revolution but his writings greatly influenced the radicals who brought on the French Revolution and their attempt to remove Christianity from France. The revolutionaries took over Notre Dame Cathedral and displayed a French prostitute there as “the goddess of reason.” They also abolished the seven day week and instituted a ten day week with every tenth day as a day off. Their Reign of Terror in the early 1790s was a loathsome picture of human nature that had rejected Christian morals.
Rousseau had very little influence on the American Revolution which was raging at the time of his death. The founding fathers of the United States rejected the Enlightenment notion that man is basically good. The American founders quoted the Bible far more than any other source in their writings. They believed in original sin and wrote a constitution that separated the powers of government into three branches to prevent too much power being concentrated in one individual.
Rousseau greatly influenced Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Conservative Christian theologian R. C. Sproul has called Kant one of the most influential philosophers in all of world history. Kant really bridged the Enlightenment and the Romantics. Karl Marx, a political philosopher of immense and tragic influence, was also heavily influenced by Rousseau.
Rousseau’s legacy was a major contribution to the philosophical optimism that asserts that man, through the advance of science and art, can perfect himself and build a perfect society on earth. This optimism continued for more than a century until it crashed on the shoals of the World Wars, Hitler’s genocide and the abject failure of communism to succeed as a social experiment.
The Enlightenment rejection of the Bible has had tragic consequences that reverberate down to our own day. The Bible is God’s revelation to us. In the Bible God’s wisdom and truth is clearly stated. Furthermore the Bible is confirmed by more than 2,000 predictive prophecies that have been fulfilled or are being fulfilled down to our own day. No other sacred writing of any other faith has anything to compare with the Bible’s record of prophecy and fulfillment. The prophecies and their fulfillments give logical proof that the Bible is inspired by God.
The Bible gives clear guidance through commandments that lay the basis for orderly civil society. The Bible’s commands regarding family life are particularly wise and essential for protection and care of children. The social chaos of western civilization today is a direct result of abandoning God’s wisdom expressed in the Bible. I’m happy to say that many are returning to the Bible and receiving spiritual rebirth through Christ.