The Encyclopedists

The French Encyclopedia (from which the name “Encyclopedia” is derived) , had a great influence on the 1789 French revolution, and was essentially an atheist document. The Encyclopedists, led by Diderot & d’Alembert challenged religious authority. They doubted the authenticity of presupposed historical events cited in the Bible and questioned the validity of miracles and the Resurrection. The Encyclopedia was suppressed and banned by the Catholic Church. To shield themselves, the writers commingled articles that attacked the Church with ones that supported orthodoxy. Voltaire the atheist, stood with the Encyclopedists. He believed that the French revolution would begin by an attack on the priests (Écrasez l’infâme: smash the rogues.) The Encyclopedists, to varying degrees, criticized Thomas Hobbes notions of a selfish humanity that requires a sovereign to rule over it. Hobbes’s view of the “social contract” implied that, to escape the brutish ways of nature, individuals in society cede some rights for the sake of protection to a sovereign. This was quite contrary to the thinking of French enlightenment, which was a rebellion against a sovereign in the shape of the Monarchy. Montesquieu, whose views on the separation of powers are implemented in many constitutions, and a contemporary of the Encyclopedists declared that the pope was an “old idol to whom incense is offered from sheer habit,” and that the King of France drew his power from the “vanity of his subjects.” From history we see that religion and monarchy go hand in hand. A benevolent monarch of a Ram-Rajya goes hand in hand with an unequal caste based society of individuals, taught to inculcate a fundamental, religious outlook. Beaumarchais’s play written at the era of the French revolution, “The Marriage of Figaro” was a play against class privilage, which Louis XVI declared subversive. Figaro, a lowe middle class man says, “Monsieur Le Comte, to what do you think you owe your great privileges…to having put yourself to the inconvenience of being born to privilege? whereas I, with all my ability & force…am driven away from every occupation.” The atheist Charvakas and the authors of the French Encyclopedia were contrarians that opposed such a dogmatic religious world view.


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