Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man, 1670-1752

By Jonathan I. Israel | Go to book overview

27

The French Enlightenment prior
to Voltaire's Lettres philosophiques (1734)

1. THE POST-1715 REACTION TO ABSOLUTISM

An especially dramatic change in the structure of thinking in a given society, history suggests, is apt to follow a sudden change in the composition of power, after a long period of concerted, sustained ideological pressure in a particular direction. Hence, a crucially formative if rather neglected aspect of the French Enlightenment is the remarkably complex and far-reaching intellectual upheaval intervening between the death of 'Louis the great', as he was then called, in 1715, and Voltaire's emergence as the pre-eminent figure in the French intellectual arena in the later 1730s. In just a few years, from 1715, the closely supervised, rigid, cultural system enforced in France by an increasingly intolerant and autocratic king since the 1670s largely disintegrated.

All at once, the ideologically tightly compressed system of Louis's absolutism with its cult of divine right monarchy, aristocratic militarism, comprehensive ecclesiastical control of faith, education, and moral values, and heavy-handed repression of Jansenists, Huguenots, Jews, and freethinkers, besides tight regulation of teaching in colleges and universities, lost its credibility, fell apart as a working apparatus, and generated a powerful reaction throughout French society commencing incipiently even before the king's demise as his last terrible war dragged to its prolix diplomatic conclusion at the great European peace congress of Utrecht (1712–13).

With the end of the War of the Spanish Succession (1702–13), reopening of sealanes, and resumption of trade with the rest of Europe and the world beyond, came an easing of Louis's stringent tax, recruitment, and censorship regime, the beginning of a slow recovery of commerce, shipping, and industry and a rapid process of cultural, intellectual, and artistic relaxation. While the censorship regulations, control of printing, and ban on propagating Jansenist and Protestant theology were only marginally modified in theory, lack of zeal for upholding the censorship priorities of the previous reign, and the new regime's half-hearted retention of the antiJansenist, anti-Protestant, and anti-Jewish legislation of the 1680s and 1690s, soon produced a far more tolerant and flexible cultural atmosphere.1

1 Kreiser, Miracles, Convulsions, 26–7; Woodbridge, Revolt, 9, 12.

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