It is the year 1799 in France, a country that has undergone historical and trying times as social protests and political upheaval have thrown the country into chaos and instability. The French Revolution led to the French Republic, guided by new Enlightenment and democratic ideals, the political philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and the desire for change. For centuries, the French aristocracy along with the Catholic church had enjoyed privileges and became rich, while the poor struggled to survive and faced continuous oppression. The political vacuum led to the rise to power of Napoleon Bonaparte who continued to lead the Republic in a series of military conflicts on the continent. In this letter, I will transcribe the events that have happened in the last decade to spark the war.
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In 1762, the philosopher Rousseau published his work The Social Contract, in which he famously states, “man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains” (Ohana 385). This forms the core of his political philosophy wherein he argues for freedom, natural rights, and democracy. Rousseau believed that the solution to protecting all citizens’ life, liberty, freedom, and property is to create a “social contract” with the government.
In agreeing to this contract, some rights will be given up, not to an individual monarch, but to the government and community as a whole. The people will then exercise their will and influence the government to create laws that undergird the public well-being and maintain common support. Rousseau was an extreme democrat, showing disregard for even elected officials. He believed in a total democracy similar to that of city-states of Ancient Greece. To maintain citizenship, the individual should obey laws and support the government, creating a civil state where political power lies in the hands of sovereign citizens.
Rousseau died in 1782, before the beginning of the French Revolution. Even though his philosophy was vague, it inspired historical figures including Robespierre and other politicians in France. Robespierre strongly supported the poor and believed in equality per Rousseau’s belief that all men are inherently equal. The phrase “general will” was at the core of the revolutionary movement (Ohana 385). Furthermore, Rousseau’s ideology, that freedom and the true nature of man cannot be achieved if people are controlled by force and coercion by others as it was during the monarchial rule, fueled the revolutionaries’ fervor.
Rousseau strongly criticized politeness and civility in society, comparing them to shackles that restrain the true nature of men. According to his writings, politeness was largely enforced by social rules and commonly faked. Meanwhile, civility made people compare themselves to each other. In Rousseau’s perspective, modern men would be better off in their natural savage state because a savage man does not adhere to the rules passed down from the rules of others.
A savage is able to maintain a critical balance between self-preservation and pity, establishing an appropriate level of civility missing in modern man (Ohana 390). In the context of civilizations, man has lost the will for self-preservation.
As a political philosopher, Rousseau’s argument delved not only into the relationship between citizens and the government but also the moral state of society as well. Toward the beginning of the Revolution, the moral state of French society was deteriorating, with a basis of false “civility” where external appearances did not match the true disposition and nature of the people. Rousseau believed in European civilization and that its morals were formed based on logic and the sciences, decency, and perfection in arts and entertainment, and politeness of manners.
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However, closer examination reveals that corruption, a social divide, and political abuse to a degree that demonstrates France was quickly approaching the complete opposite of a moral state (Ohana 390). In Rousseau’s view, civility should be a matter of moral education and practice of citizenship and democracy that France lacked. As a result, the people chose to rebel against the status quo of the monarchy and sought to re-establish a balance for moral civility.
The French Revolution was characterized by a number of symbols that will go down in history. They were important drivers to the cause, supplying inspiration and leading to eventual victory for the Republic. In the early years of uprisings, one such symbol included the Bastille, a political prison eventually stormed by the peasants. The guillotine, a device used for the execution of those in disagreement with the monarchy, was another. During the Reign of Terror, these became symbols of oppression indicating the disconnect of the government from its people.
Revolutionary symbols included the tricolor cockade and Phrygian caps (also known as liberty caps) that revolutionaries wore to distinguish themselves. “La Marseillaise,” which became the national anthem, was the song that many revolutionaries sang. The revolutionaries even created and officially adopted a French Republican calendar as a symbolic gesture since the calendar effectively removed any religious or royalist holidays and references. Civic festivals were also established during the revolution as a replacement for religious holidays (Bickford 40-48). Secularization of the calendar became a symbol of the revolutionary de-Christianization of France.
The French Revolution resulted in a series of military conflicts known as the Revolutionary Wars, beginning in 1792. The political upheaval in France placed it in a vulnerable position as other European monarchs debated military attacks both to gain territory and to prevent the spread of revolutionary sentiments. France went to war with Austria, Spain, and Prussia, eventually achieving victory as part of the First Coalition. This empowered the National Convention to abolish monarchy as France had achieved military success for the first time in decades. In 1796, France began its campaign in Italy, defeating Austrian forces.
Led by the young general Napoleon, France continued winning, achieving territorial conquests as far as Egypt. For the Revolution, these were positive developments showing that the drastic social changes were making a difference in establishing France as a global power, leading to increased confidence in the military and resulting in mass conscriptions (Tucker 260-270. Furthermore, the wars helped to protect the sovereignty of this nation that was anticipating an attack in the midst of governmental transition.
The future for France in the 19th century may be difficult as there is a significant transition to secure the French Republic. Society is struggling from the devastation and chaos of the Revolution. Meanwhile, Napoleon has established himself in power and is displaying many of the same aggressive tendencies and control of power that monarchs before him did. It is possible that France will undergo further war and turmoil until everything settles down.
In the end, the transition to the French Republic was the correct move for the nation, liberating the people and providing both ideological and civil freedoms to express the general will and guide the country in the right direction in accordance with Rousseau’s teachings. It helped to eliminate the moral corruption and abuse of power in the highest levels of society. Despite many challenges, the French Revolution stands as a symbol for uniting the nation and demonstrating the true meaning of citizenship.
Bickford, Kiley. “Nationalism in the French Revolution of 1789.” Dissertation, University of Maine, 2014.
Ohana, David. “Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Promethean Chains.” Politics, Religion & Ideology, vol. 18, no. 4, 2017, pp. 383-408. Web.
Tucker, Spencer C. Wars That Changed History: 50 of the World’s Greatest Conflicts. ABC-CLIO, 2015.