Thursday, June 25, 2009

Voltaire & Rousseau: Thinking about the American Revolution

"The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said 'This is mine,' and found people naive enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From the many crimes, wars and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody."
— Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1754
Discourse on Inequity

Yesterday we examined the origins of the 'Social Contract' while today we will extend that examination to the French Enlightenment thinkers — Voltaire and Rousseau. While Voltaire was basically a rebel against the Catholic Church and most French institutions (monarchy, aristocracy, and bureaucrats). Rousseau examined what it means to be a citizen within a civil society. Voltaire was a strong advocate of social reform while Rousseau was an advocate of equality within society. Both of these thinkers gave the American Revolution and our founding fathers important concepts upon which to build a new form of government. This, in turn, contributed to the zeitgeist that enabled the French Revolution.

Voltaire (1694 – 1778)

"It is dangerous to be right in matters on which the established authorities are wrong."

— Voltaire

"The true triumph of reason is that it enables us to get along with those who do not possess it."
— Voltaire

Voltaire was an Enlightenment philosopher and a strong defender of civil liberties, freedom of religion and free trade. Although he lived in France at a time of strict
censorship laws, he was an advocate for social reform. He was especially anti-institutional — against both governmental institutions and the Catholic Church (He was a deist, not an atheist, as many have come to believe). This resulted in many run-ins with the authority and both imprisonment and exile to both England and Switzerland. His writing inflamed the monarchy and aristocracy in France as well as the ecclesiastical hierarchy of the church; he was seen as basically immoral and not accepting of his position in society.

"All men have equal rights to liberty, to their property, and to the protection of the laws."

— Voltaire

He was not an optimist. He saw abuses of the people by both the royalty and clergy, especially in terms of the impositions of 'superstitions' and intolerance foisted up on the populace. This drove him to become an advocate for social reform. During his three-year exile in England brought him in contact with Locke's conception of the 'Social Contract.' But he distrusted democracy which he saw as propagating the idiocy of the masses. He had been impressed with England's constitutional monarchy that had been established after the 'Restoration' of the King.

"All sects are different, because they come from men; morality is everywhere the same, because it comes from God."
— Voltaire

"Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities."
— Voltaire

His major contribution to our founding fathers was probably his indefatigable quest for civil rights. He was an especially strong supporter of fair trials and the freedom of religion. These rights were also held in high esteem by the founding fathers.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778)

"The passage from the state of nature to the civil state produces a very remarkable change in man, by substituting justice for instinct in his conduct, and giving his actions the morality they had formerly lacked. Man is born free, but everywhere else he is in chains. One man thinks himself the master of others, but remains more of a slave than they."

— Jean-Jacques Rousseau

The Social Contract
Unlike Hobbes, Rousseau believed that the natural state of man started with uncorrupted morals. He used a French term that was translated into English as 'the noble savage'; however, the French term used was 'sauvage' which actually meant 'wild,' not 'brutal'. Man responded against suffering that arises from the emotions of compassion or empathy. Man could become civilized, self-reliant, through careful education. This should be the goal of every civil society.

"The person who has lived the most is not the one who has lived the longest, but the one with the richest experience."

— Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Rousseau's concept of the 'Social Contract' defines a political social order within republicanism. By coming together as a civil society within this context and releasing one's claims of natural right, man can preserve himself and remain free. Man must be the authors of the law to have legitimate civil society. In his day, he saw the city state, such as his native Geneva, as the ideal model.

"To renounce liberty is to renounce being a man, to surrender the rights of humanity and even its duties. For he who renounces everything no indemnity is possible. Such a renunciation is incompatible with man's nature; to remove all liberty from his will is to remove all morality from his acts."

— Jean-Jacques Rousseau

So, What did our founding fathers see in Rousseau? He was able to assemble, adapt, and remold some of the features of the 'Social Contract' into a civil society that men need for achieving his best. This included the promotion of equality, a freedom of choice of religion, and the rule of and by the people in a republic. These became essential precepts in the emerging American society that became these United States...

Tomorrow: We will continue our exploration of the intellectual roots of the American Revolution through the works of David Hume and baron de Montesquieu, more properly Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu.


  1. I have never read the names of the philosophers of the Age of Enlightenment in the writings of the Founding Fathers. Perhaps I just missed the pages where the names are quoted? ;-)

    1. Or maybe you just are not considering the well-documented effect of Montesquieu on John Locke. Or, perhaps, you overlooking the fact that Jefferson spent 5 years in the Paris salons prior to working on the Constitution. Maybe it's that your imagination is not taxed to think that the ideas of Rousseau, Montesquieu, Diderot, and Voltaire, show up utterly intact in our Constitution--is merely coincidence, and has nothing to do with the fact that many of our founding fathers--Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams most notably--spent years in France prior to their work on the US Constitution.

      If the above are true of you, then we must part ways on our thinking.

    2. what the fuck is wrong with you

  2. Thanks!This was quite helpful and I really learned about who exactly each person was!

  3. I am new to actually taking time to study our Founders....for instance I recently read Thomas Paine's Common Sense, read about Blackstone (but not his Commentaries), have looked close enough at the Declaration of Independence to fully appreciate the amazing influence it has had not only to America, but also the rest of the world. Natural Rights.....given to us by God in our Created Being.....LIFE is a precious is it we just kill unwanted conceptions? How in HELL did we get here?