The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters — The Dark Underbelly of the Enlightenment
The dynamic Age of Enlightenment, born of the struggles of the seventeenth century, flowered during the eighteenth before fading by the 1790s. As with any age and any movement, the start and end dates are not exact and do vary by location. The end of the Age of Enlightenment is often given as 1789 (the start of the French Revolution) or the turn of the nineteenth century (as Romanticism really took off). The point of this article will not be to adhere or promote a specific date, as that seems rather pointless. Rather, this article will focus on the dynamics at play in the closing stages of the Enlightenment, as a dark underbelly revealed itself. The pragmatic British Enlightenment — the Industrial Enlightenment — survived the worst abuses of Enlightenment thought because the political and economic systems proved stable and allowed for individual development through enjoyment of a great degree of civil liberties, development of a modern market economy and the classical liberal philosophy that went with it, and enjoyed political representation to a degree not seen on the continent. The British also managed to wrestle power away from the kings (thus preventing the rise of absolutism) while maintaining the monarchy and nobility (thus avoiding the dangers of demagoguery. France was an altogether different story.
The French Enlightenment ended up hitting the rocky shoals that the British were able to tactfully avoid. The French did not go through as painful a seventeenth century as had the British and most of the other major European powers. Indeed, the French were largely the beneficiaries of continental warfare. The French war machine under Louis XIV made significant territorial gains, such as Elsaß (Alsace) while also devastating the Palatinate. The central government in Paris ordered Ezéchiel du Mas, Comte de Mélac and his men to ‘burn the Palatinate down,’ and order he carried out with ruthless efficiency.
The absolutist state carried out a religious purge as well. At the end of the sixteenth century, an edict of religious toleration was passed. In France, toleration of religious minorities depended more on royal, rather than popular, support (in contrast to Bohemia). In 1685, King Louis XIV issued the Edict of Fontainebleau which revoked this earlier religious toleration.
“ We enjoin all ministers of the said R.P.R. [the Reformed Church], who do not choose to become converts and to embrace the Catholic, apostolic, and Roman religion, to leave our kingdom and the territories subject to us within a fortnight of the publication of our present edict, without leave to reside therein beyond that period, or, during the said fortnight, to engage in any preaching, exhortation, or any other function, on pain of being sent to the galleys.” -from the Edict of Fontainebleau (October 1685)
This lack of religious toleration meant a significant number of religious refugees leaving the country. These French Protestants, known as Huguenots, traveled as far as North America where they settled in places like New Paltz, New York. Lack of religious toleration would be feature prominently in Voltaire’s critiques of the French Government in the eighteenth century.
Under Louis XIV, the French court became a model for other monarchs to copy. The Palace of Versailles (essentially a seventeenth century Trump Tower) served as an elaborate political center where the king could keep his nobles under close watch. He also established a variety of rituals and promoted all sorts of ridiculous fashions to keep these nobles occupied.
Louis XIV kept France engaged in war after war, seeking territorial gains. He did make significant cultural contributions, such as the French Academy of Sciences. Unlike the British Royal Academy, this French academy was founded as part of the government.
The cultural flowering of Enlightenment in France can be roughly dated to the period between the death of Louis XIV in 1715 and the deaths of both Voltaire and Rousseau in 1778 (or one can push it right up to the eve of revolution in 1789). Louis XV ruled for 59 years, second only to his great-grandfather Louis XIV. Paris became an intellectual center. All of the major names of the French Enlightenment (as well as visitors from other countries) visited or lived in Paris during this time. The French Enlightenment centered around abstraction to a much greater degree than the Enlightenment in many other countries. While the practical British Enlightenment ultimately gave birth to the Industrial Revolution, the French Enlightenment centered on ‘great’ personalities interested in bolstering their own reputation. Foremost among these was Voltaire (1694–1778). While Voltaire is justly remembered and celebrated for his advocacy of religious toleration and freedom of speech, he was a vain and condescending elitist. Historian Philipp Blom recounts how Voltaire altered the atheistic memoir of radical priest Jean Meslier, making the latter seem more in line with Voltaire’s way of thinking. This was later exposed by atheistic thinkers associated with the Baron d’Holbach. Voltaire also had no desire to see France become anything close to a republic. He liked powerful monarchies and referred to the common people as ‘the rabble.’
Voltaire attacked religious believers with such fury which appalled the tolerant English historian Edward Gibbon. Gibbon later wrote of Voltaire:
“In his way Voltaire was a bigot, an intolerant bigot.”
Unlike in Britain, the French Government censored materials published and circulated in France. The French Government did not want people publishing anything critical of the king, the church, or ‘conventional morality.’ This led to an underground network of forbidden books circulating throughout the country.
Thinkers in France were increasingly concerned with ideals, to be implemented from the top-down. Genevan-born philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau promoted the idea of a governing general will for an ideal government in his Social Contract. Rousseau’s perspective on modern society was quite negative — he favored the establishment of a society free of the corrupting influence which he believed had contributed to the ills of eighteenth-century France.
“All that destroys social unity is worthless; all institutions that set man in contradiction to himself are worthless.” -Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract (1762)
Rousseau was a favorite among the revolutionaries in the 1790s. One of the most notable of his admirers was the politician and architect of the Reign of Terror Maximilien Robespierre. The ‘great’ men of the French intellectual circles were largely the equivalent of the ivory tower intellectuals of today. Their ideas were often not grounded in practical experience. Voltaire thought himself an historian, but he wrote histories to promote his political agenda with little regard for the people or events he discussed beyond that which supported his narrative. Gibbon, the father of modern historical writing, was quite unimpressed with Voltaire.
“When he treats of a distant period, he is not a man to turn over musty monkish writers to instruct himself. He follows some compilation, varnishes it over with the magic of his style, and produces and agreeable, superficial, inaccurate performance.” -Edward Gibbon
The faulty French Enlightenment blundered on throughout the eighteenth century, making only three notable contributions: Voltaire’s advocacy for religious toleration, Diderot’s encyclopedia, and the government providing aid to the American cause in American Revolution. Untried, problematic, abstract (and ungrounded) ideas came to the fore as intellectual justification for the revolutionaries as tensions came to a head in 1789. The revolution which followed was not contained within the country of France — it spilled out all over Europe. While the British were appalled at events in France, it was the French who seized the initiative and declared war first. Soon, all the major powers were involved in the warfare which came to dominate the continent until Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815. Among the turmoil of the 1790s, a Spanish artist (the last of the Old Masters) left us with an image which speaks volumes about the age in which it was produced — this is the image atop this article, the artist is, of course, Francisco Goya (1746–1828).
Goya lived long enough to see the zeal of revolutionary and Napoleonic France invade his home country. He produced some of the most evocative images of the victims of French oppression. Goya’s ‘The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters’ is just one of 80 prints he produced for a compilation called Los caprichos (published: 1799).
“Imagination without reason produces impossible monsters; with reason, it becomes the mother of the arts, and the source of its marvels” -Francisco Goya
While Goya, like his contemporaries, recognized the limits of reason, he also worried about the deleterious effects of fantasy with no relation to reason. Goya stood at a pivotal point in the history of art: he was the last of the Old Masters and the first of the moderns. He was also a man born of the Enlightenment who died two decades after the French invaded and occupied his country. His famous etching has spoken to generations ever since, though always colored by the political tides of the time. In Spain, the Enlightenment was much more disjointed than even in France. The Spain of the 1790s was a Spain in which the inquisition still had power. Goya was pressing against the pre-Enlightenment powers that dominated his homeland as much as he would later push against the French through his artistic depiction of French atrocities.
The dark underbelly of the Enlightenment is perhaps best seen in the history of France from the mid-seventeenth century through the post-Enlightenment Napoleonic age. Top-down government, abstract and impractical thought, government-based learned institutions, pre-modern economics, censorship, and elitist thinkers all contributed to an environment which was ultimately too polarizing for a moderate British-style Enlightenment to take hold. The French revolutionaries had high hopes but their ideals were hardly grounded in reality. The limits of reason and limits of political action were not well understood if one is to judge by the actions of the various French governments which existed from 1789 through 1800. The sleep of reason does bring forth monsters.