Revolution and Enlightenment in France

Simon Schama

  • The Business of Enlightenment: A Publishing History of the ‘Encyclopédie’ 1775-1800 by Robert Darnton
    Harvard, 624 pp, £13.00, September 1979, ISBN 0 674 08786 0

No walnuts, no Enlightenment, it seems. For, as Robert Darnton tells us in his epic chronicle of the Life and Times of the quarto edition of the Encyclopédie, it was nuts and resin from the Midi together with Paris turpentine and linseed oil which made the ink (six monstrous 250-livre barrels) which primed the type which printed the 36 million sheets which comprised the quarto which lowered the price which Spread the Word which overthrew superstition which disarmed the Old Regime and inaugurated the rationalist millennium. Or was it?

Historians have long been given to attributing the French Revolution and all its unholy works to the corrosive influence of the Philosophes. The counter-revolutionary Abbé Barruel saw the Revolution as a conspiracy hatched by malevolent acolytes of Voltaire: freethinkers and freemasons bent on subverting the authority of Christian monarchy. Less histrionically, Alexis de Tocqueville shared the assumption that the diffusion of Enlightenment scepticism had unfastened the ties of deference and order underpinning the Old Regime. It was characteristic of the fecklessness of intellectuals, he argued, to attack established institutions without much bothering about what might replace them.

For Marxist historians, this approach was unduly generous to thinkers and scribblers, investing, as it did, the world of ideas with an autonomy that was unreal. Since, in their view, the Revolution was a product of inexorably shifting social forces, the Enlightenment could be no more than an expression of that movement: in Ernest Labrousse’s awesome phrase, ‘la prise de conscience bourgeoise’. The Philosophes were correspondingly relegated to the role of window-dressers for the ascendant power of the bourgeoisie. One of the many satisfying results of Robert Darnton’s prodigious research has been to dispose of these hoary pieties once and for all. By painstakingly tracking down virtually all of the eight thousand-odd subscribers to the quarto, he has been able to show that a preponderant majority belonged to precisely those sections of the French élite that were the first to suffer from the Revolution: rentiers; office-holders; landowners with pretensions to cultivation; ‘enlightened’ clergy; Parlement lawyers. Many of these were noble; very few of them were engaged in anything that could be described as capitalist enterprise. Commercial travellers in pursuit of subscriptions found meagre pickings in the great centres of trade and industry like Nantes and Lille, where they grumbled of philistinism and avarice. In an ancient centre of administration and law like Besançon, though, the mixture of ennobled professionals and bien-pensant noble academicians yielded a bonanza for the purveyors of Enlightenment by mail order.

Both the anti-revolutionary and the Marxist views were, in any case, based on bald assertion rather than evidence. Both tended to extrapolate an ethos from an arbitrarily summarised version of the Great Texts, and then assign it significance or insignificance as their preconceptions dictated. But we are all contextualists now. Instead of ruminating in a documentary void on the social resonance of political philosophy, cultural historians look to political milieu and the currency of polemics, to routes and means of transmission and to the vulgarisation, rather than the refinement, of original texts, for clues to an understanding of their impact. While form seems to be of more interest than the interpretative scrutiny of content, and the printer’s bench has replaced the philosopher’s cell as the focus of attention, this should not be taken as a reaction of vulgar empiricism against the over-rarefied nature of old-style kulturgeschichte. At its best, and when not mesmerised by the nuts and bolts of ideology – the minute enumeration of column inches and censors’ pencil stubs – it is an authentically historical way of examining the process by which words become deeds; ideas animate action; and the heresies of one generation transmogrify into the orthodoxies of the next.

In this work of historiographical reorientation, Professor Darnton’s magisterial study stands as a major landmark. The measure of his extraordinary achievement is that, for all the countless volumes that have been written on the Enlightenment, his is the first to have understood it, and to have succeeded in describing it, as a social phenomenon. This he has done, not by pondering the exegetical niceties of manuscripts nor by tracing the distribution of the expensive folio edition, but by going directly instead to its ‘stepchild’, the mass-market quarto: ‘ragged, blotchy and unkempt’. Thus he begins where most intellectual historians lose interest: with Diderot’s ill-tempered refusal to have anything to do with a proposed revised version, in 1768. This was not because his editorial genius could not bear the prospect of alterations to the sacred text, but for precisely the opposite reasons. He now regarded the whole Encyclopédie as ‘un gouffre où ces espèces de chiffoniers jetèrent pêlemêle une infinité de choses mal digérées, bonnes, mauvaises, détestables, vraies, fausses, incertaines et toujours incohérentes’.

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