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What Made Rousseau's Philosophy And David's Paintings Attractive During The French Revolution?

1309 words - 5 pages

The causes of the French Revolution are so complicated that a debate still rages among historians regarding its origins, causes and results. In general, the real causes must lie with the increasing discontent various members of society had for the rigid social structure of the Ancient Regime. As it had been for centuries, French society was divided into three Estates or Orders. The First Estate consisted of the clergy and the Second Estate the nobility. At the bottom of this hierarchy was the vast Third Estate, which meant every one else. The King ruled as absolutemonarch and there was no parliament. This social structure was based on inequalities which were sanctioned by the force of the law.There is no evidence to suggest that either Rousseau or David helped in causing the French Revolution. Certainly, Rousseau's philosophy did not advocate violence. However their political ideas, displayed through Rousseau's philosophy and David's paintings, questioned the established order and supported a democracy. As celebrated figures, they helped to create what could be called a revolutionary mentality.The essence of Rousseau's message was that society was corrupt but capable of regeneration. His Social contract, 1762, opens with the slogan, "Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains."(Block 3, p96). The chains are the binds of society, but he was not talking about braking free from society, but rather considering how it can be right to live in society when the natural state is to be free. His conclusion; "we can be both free and ruled only if we rule ourselves." (Tutor's notes p2). This idea ofdemocracy would have been attractive to wealthy members of the Third Estate, who, although rich, were trapped in the system and could not get any of the power or privileges available to the Nobles. It would also have appealed to the peasants who were suffering from poverty, starvation, and heavy taxation whilst the King and the aristocrats lived in luxury. In a democracy they could vote for a leader who they thought would sympathise with their plights.However, Rousseau's democracy was far more complex than a simple system of one man, one vote. According to Rousseau the general will decides who should rule. The "moral infallibility of the general will, which reflected the true values of society as a whole, meant that opposition was not merely factious but wicked." (Hampson, 1975, p46) If someone forced a dissident not only to abstain from opposition, but also to agree that he had been wrong, they were simply forcing him to be free. This idea was attractive to the Revolutionaries as once the general will was established that they no longer need the King, his refusal to abdicate and accept the people's sovereigntyjustified his removal by force.The decision making process to be followed in order to reach the true conclusion for the good of the general will was fraught with philosophical problems. Theoretically,individuals would not vote for their personal will,...

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