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The Intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment occupies an important position in the growth of Western civilization. How it totally affected society, especially French society is a subject of debate, from the beginning of the Revolution to today. In fact, two schools of interpretation are involved.

The first school is the conservative school, Edmund Burke is the best example. The second is the liberal school of which Thomas Paine represents.

Both were supporters of the American Revolution for varied reasons, however, when the French Revolution happened, Burke blamed the Enlightenment and the French philosophers for the problems and mistakes. Paine supported the French revolutionary cause and defended the Enlightenment and the French philosophers.

Their famous debate is available to us today, through collections of their works, both off and on the Internet. We shall take a look at these views and discover what the contemporaries of the French Revolution felt about the Enlightenment.

For Reference, check out Burke's dissertation on the French Revolution and Paine's opposing Viewpoint.

Edmund BurkeReflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke, 1790
Burke's main argument that the Enlightenment was a negative influence is best presented below. Compute your gains; see what is got by those extravagant and presumptuous speculations which have taught your leaders to despise all their predecessors, and all their contemporaries, and even to despise themselves, until the moment in which they become truly despicable.

By following those false lights, France has bought undisguised calamities at a higher price than any nation has purchased the most unequivocal blessings!... The Fresh ruins of France, which shock our feelings wherever we can turn our eyes, are not the devastation of civil war; they are the sad but instructive monuments of rash and ignorant counsel in time of profound peace.

Thomas Paine-The Rights of Man
Paine on the other hand sums up his argument that the Enlightenment was a positive influence below. The only signs which appeared of the spirit of liberty during those periods are to be found in the writings of the French philosophers... All those writings and many others had their weight; and by the different manner in which they treated the subject of government, Montesquieu by his judgment and knowledge of laws, Voltaire by his wit, Rousseau and Raynal by their animation, and Queenay and Turgot by their moral maxims and systems of economy, readers of every class met with something to their taste, and a spirit of political inquiry began to diffuse itself through the nation at the time the dispute between England and the then colonies of America broke out.

Burkes entire argument revolves around the English experience of the glorious revolution and the fact that the glorious revolution had a basis on precedent and the framework of law.

He used examples of the British constitution to condemn the French Revolutionaries for their doing away with the French precedents of change. He considered the blame to be squarely on the shoulders of the Enlightenment philosophers, Voltaire and Rousseau to him were the chief instigators of the violence and upheaval.

He thought that the French should have been more cautious when they implemented the changes. Burke, condemned them as presumptuous doctrinaires who misunderstood the true nature of political institutions and were sowing the seeds of anarchy and destruction. It was from this point of view that he criticized the Enlightenment and its influence in his Reflections on the Revolution in France.

Paine on the other hand, argued that the changes that took place where necessary, and that the precedents and laws of the past had no bearing on the issue. He used the examples of Natural rights and civil rights of man to show how Burke erred in his own judgment. He states that the past belonged to the past. The laws of old were dead because those laws only affected the people at the time these laws were enacted. They, were dead, so it follows in his reasoning, the laws died with them.

Paine, argued that the needs and desires of the living should prevail regardless of tradition, that the people were perpetually sovereign, and that government was for the purpose of implementing man's inalienable rights. He in essence accepted the Enlightenment philosophy and applauded its influence during the French Revolution.

External Websites

For more information on this topic, check out these websites on the Enlightenment.

Age of Enlightenment
This Wikipedia article gives you an in-depth overview of the Age of Enlightenment.  it includes information about the Enlightened monarchies and more.

The French Enlightenment, has a short overview of the French Enlightenment. 

Enlightenment on History
The History Channel website has some information about the Enlightenment.

Philosophies of the Enlightenment
This lecture lists the various philosophical schools of thought during this period. 

The French Revolution: Ideas and Ideologies
This article by Maurice Cranston , on the History Today website discusses the intellectual origins and development of the French Revolution.