How I Almost Didn’t Obsess Over The Encyclopedie, the Enlightenment, and the French Revolution

This week, teaching classes has yielded more than one introspective moment. Yesterday, I learned that I am an innovator/achiever, according to a very popular psychographic scale that I discussed in class. Today, I had an even deeper moment of reflection. I realized that the French Enlightenment did not, in fact, result in the French Revolution. Well, it did, but things got complicated along the way to the Bastille.

Storming of the Bastille, July 14, 1789.

Storming of the Bastille, July 14, 1789.

In last night’s Media Technologies class, I surveyed some developments of early print and their impact on their cultures. It’s a very broad topic, ranging from different kinds of papers—bamboo, parchment, and cloth—to the spread of literacy and vernacular languages throughout Europe. While we do cover Gutenberg, his movable-type printing press, and his Bible, I was most interested in covering the big revolutions that print enabled, such as:

  1. Protestant Reformation
  2. Renaissance
  3. Scientific Revolution
  4. French Enlightenment and Revolution
  5. American Revolution

Since I am not an expert in eighteenth-century France, I drew on what I remember learning in my high-school history classes and in my first-year Western civilization course at UCSB. In the course of my extended public-school education, I first learned about Denis Diderot’s Encyclopedie. I was fascinated because the writing and publishing of that multivolume encyclopedia represented an early attempt by Europeans to collect the world’s knowledge and was a foundational text in the French Enlightenment.

In the context of a media studies class, the Encyclopedie represents a key example of print media resulting in an intellectual revolution. I connected the French Enlightenment to the French Revolution because that’s what I remember from my public-school education, and it’s not far from the conventional wisdom. For example, the Wikipedia entry on “The Age of Enlightenment” reads, “some of these [Enlightenment] ideals proved influential and decisive in the course of the French Revolution, which began in 1789.” Similarly, Maurice Cranston writes in History Today,” in the unfolding of the Revolution, what was thought, what was said, and what was advocated, was expressed in terms and categories that came from political theorists of the Enlightenment.” Even the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on “Enlightenment” concurs with this common wisdom: “Enlightenment thought culminates historically in the political upheaval of the French Revolution.” Where print helped spread the ideas of the French Enlightenment, those political ideas would in turn spark the French Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century.

To supplement my summary of The Encyclopedie, I recommended that students listen to an episode of the BBC Radio 4 history series, In Our Time, on Denis Diderot’s Encyclopedie.

As I listened to the program after class last night, they discuss the role that the Encyclopedie, specifically, and the Enlightenment, in general, had on the French Revolution. It challenged my thinking about the simple, direct connection between the Enlightenment and the French Revolution.

One of the panelists, Caroline Warman, says:

Certainly, the first stage—the 1789 stage—of the Revolution is the manifestation of Encyclopedie principles. It has to be… but then when it becomes and when it moves into the terror—when it becomes irrational, what will be called irrational—then I think it moves away from what we could ever call the Encyclopedie.

Host Melvyn Bragg then addresses the attack of the Encyclopedie during the Revolution, and Judith Hawley responds that “Diderot and d’Alembert would have been horrified by French Revolution. I don’t think they would have supported it all. They were horrified by violence.”

Even more surprising than learning that the Encyclopedie editors disapproved of The Revolution was how much it had turned against the ideals of the Enlightenment, Warman continues that the Revolution was “against reason. It was anti-intellectual elitism, too.” Warman recounts a story about one Encyclopedie contributor who “witnessed Robespierre’s parade [of terror], and this man reportedly dropped down dead in horror of what happened to Enlightenment ideas.” Not only that, but Warman concludes, “the Revolution killed scientists.”

So, it turns out that I was not completely right in linking the French Revolution to the French Enlightenment. While the early stages of the Revolution were informed by Enlightenment principles, it was, as these things usually are, more complicated than I had initially thought.

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