Sciences and enlightenment in the French revolution crucially impacted the unrolling of the of its prominent ideas that it tried to get across. Scientific methods empowered ideologies and artilleries, it shifted Politics, power, war, culture and the economy in 18th century France. Furthermore, it greatly impacted and shifted the world we live today. The involvement of politics in scientific advancement was the essential element that made the French revolution unique. In addition, the French revolution was a pointless mess of war and blood; it was terrible. To dive into a convoluted era, we must start from the beginning of the revolution which had ideas that changed the course of human history more than any other revolution.
The 18th century was marked with the efforts in Europe to extend reason and natural philosophy to improve society as a whole. This was called the age of enlightenment and it was referred to as the century of philosophy. More importantly this movement to advance the sciences fueled the war in France and ultimately lead to a violent political climate and brought forth the military dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte. The period also gave rise to artisanal guilds and specialized institutions where the craftsmanship and the singularity of products and ideas mattered. Cannons, armaments and in general all artillery saw a massive shift in terms of engineering and a transformation of the materiality. On the other mass production was in a fight against the artisanal production. The mass production objects were cheaper and can be practically fixed and reworked with new parts that are easily available everywhere, while the artisanal production demanded more engineering and part manufacturing but it all payed off to a product that is efficient, lasting and held aesthetic values. This process greatly influenced the design and ornamentation of cannons and artillery in 18th century France.
Furthermore, the engineers were involved in politics and were fighting for the regulation and manufacturing of better equipment that encouraged the guild to practice politics naturally and have biases to some politicians and the governmental chairs. This extension of natural philosophy to politics lead many scientists to have enemies. This perhaps was a major move that came during the French revolution. The French revolution reshaped history because even though the country had seen great advances in their prominent fields of expertise they failed to keep the nation together.
In 1788, the crown went bankrupt even though Louis XVI who was of part of the king of France in the period were the system of the country was called “Ancien Regime”. It basically gave the crown to the next child in an apologetic heredity system. And that regime allowed people with money not to pay taxes. King Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette were living a lavish, boring life of eating gold potatoes and wearing purple capes at a time when the country was extremely in debt due to its funding for the American Revolution. His efforts to shift the course of his country to save from bankruptcy weren’t bad. He tried to change the system and even thought about a democracy but those efforts weren’t good and enough to convince the rich. He then raises the taxes and makes the whole country goes crazy. A year passes and the people increasingly become angrier and more frustrated. They don’t have potatoes to eat or even a paying job to buy food and maintain support for themselves and their family. At a time where enlightenment was a crucial element and course of action for intellectuals and people around Europe, a German philosopher named Immanuel Kant wrote in his book “Answering the question: what is enlightenment?” a motto for the enlightenment “Enlightenment is a man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use ones understanding without guidance from another. Have courage to use your own understanding!”
Soon enough the country is bankrupt. Intellectuals and peasants lose it. The revolution ensues. The first action in the revolution was the attack on the Bastille prison most importantly to get weapons and free the only seven prisoners. This happened at a time where the country celebrated its enlightenment rationality and maybe that’s what lead them to the revolution.
The sciences in 18th century Europe had a huge impact on the way the French handled the revolution. Even though this coincidence wasn’t put into account or had anything to do with rise of the people to cause the revolution. Charles Coulston Gillispie book called “Science and polity in France: The end of the of regime” explore this unusual bond between science and the main drivers of the revolution. Gillispie writes “although natural science and formal knowledge in general had little or nothing expressly eto do with the opening events of the revolution the expectations of the participants are unthinkable except with the reference to the participation of science in forming, however ambiguously, the mentality of the enlightenment” Gilliispie links the main ideas of the enlightenment to that of the sciences closely created In the French revolution. This ideology of the science impacting the revolution can be seen in many of the revolution’s new production, from scientific theories and philosophy to the design of artisanal weapons and unequivocal artillery that gave the French a set of tools to invade and conquer lands. Engineering this connection was the pivotal event of the French revolution, not the war or the mess, but this unique relationship between science and the human nature. Gillispie writes “In no way was confidence impaired by the inconsistency, readily apparent in hindsight, between nature investigated by scientists, the repository of what is, and the nature invoked by moralists, the wellspring of what ought to be.” This ability for the revolution to exist in a vacuum where enlightenment and eurocentrism are apparent and advancing is focal for the doom of France. This manifested itself in many different forms for the French from advancements in scientific research and exploration to the design of French cannons.
Now to the art of weapons and artillery in 18th century France and the political aspect of artisanal and mass-produced craft. In a political climate filled with technocrats and engineers many of them advocated for the creation of well-crafted equipment that can withstand the hardship of the day rather than make weapons that are standardized and easily replaced with parts. This caused an uproar leading to the assembly of the artisanal guild. The artisanal guild are a group of people solely passionate about manufacturing craft that is assembled with great care and attention to detail, opposing that of capitalized production which is quick and replicable.
They were involved in the manufacturing of heavy and powerful weapons and technologies that greatly affected the war efforts. The engineers had to keep themselves away from the connecting themselves with politics and the revolution, so they held an apolitical stance. According to Ken Adler’s “Engineering the revolution” he claims that the engineers held this stance to keep themselves alive saying, “The revolutionary engineers denied that the war had involved them in politics. This was a perfectly understandable strategy. They detached themselves from politics in order to keep their heads attached to their bodies.” (300)
Nevertheless, engineers are a powerful and intelligent group of people useful and shape a society many of them held positions of authority public and private institutions. According to Adler “In the new republic, however many savants (including military engineers) were elected to the national legislature” (292) They were a small in numbers but they managed to effect the decisions being made the assembly and sat at the big tables. This is what is interesting, according to Adler “The more tractable and interesting question Is how scientists and engineers –including those with pronounced political views –have positioned themselves to achieve political results from a position of seeming neutrality. This strategy—what I call the “technocratic pose”—belies the diverse ways in which the technological life can be organized.” (293) This is pose is what seemingly the scientists stood for to protect themselves from the bloody political climate. But that pose by itself can be argued as political, rather than striding away from politics they involved themselves more in it. This caused ultimately caused some scientists and engineers to hold some sort of political favoritism to someone over the other and some of those scientists were targeted and killed. Scientists such as Bailly and Condorcet were killed because they were affiliated with a certain political party. Others managed to get across technocratic and ideas and revolutionized weapon and the implementation of design in the French revolution and those individuals developed a place for artisanal craft to oversee the capitalized and interchangeable manufacturing of parts.
Mathematics was an integral part of the French push to manifest enlightenment ideals. This connection bertween science and ideology is what makes the French revolution a monument of societal change and control; a way to develop reason through enlightenment philosophy. The Laplace transform named after its creator Pierre-Simon, was made more as an ideology rather than a mathematical expansion. According to P.P.G Dyke book called “An Introduction to Laplace transforms and Fourier series” is that “in pure mathematics an important concept is the idea of an axiomatic system whereby axioms are proposed and theorems are proved by invoking these axioms logically” this method were logic can be derived from proven scientific experimentation is the purpose of the enlightened mind. Laplace symbolically implanted enlightenment ideas by including that unproven theories need a mechanism to explain in the larger context of a vacuum is well as that pure reason can keep chaos at bay. P.P.G writes “The main area of pure mathematics needed to understand the fundamental properties of the Laplace transforms is analysis,”(44) These ideas allowed the scientists to win over the government and have a credible voice and the regime backed those ideologies as long as there was a benefit to the overall structure of the revolution.
A secret laboratory at Meudon, outside of Paris was a place for savants to research new technologies for warfare. The efforts included the creation of incendiary shells, balloons and semaphore telegraph. Those weapons were integral to the war and linked facilitated the communication between Paris and the battlefields. According to Adler “They also played the principle role in founding the post-revolutionary institutions of technical education” (294). Those institutions include the “Academy Of Sciences” which h received aid from the monarchy during the Ancien Regime but was closed down during the revolution which lead to what Adler calls “reevaluation between scientific and political realms” This detachment came from the uproar that savants and privileged people get hold of patents and claim individualized scientific production Adler write’s “Populists demanded that science be useful, and denied that elite savants could properly judge practical inventions and patents.” (294) Science wasn’t the enemy but rather the vacuum where science is practiced is filled with elitism and unequivocal privilege to the rich and wealthy who had enlisted themselves as enlightenment ideals and servants to technological advancement. After the abolishment of the Academy of science Lavoisier said this “Science is not like literature. The man of letters finds in society all the elements he needs to develop his talents…He depends upon no one. The same is not the case in the sciences. Most of them cannot be pursued with success by isolated individuals” Those enlightenment ideas didn’t just stand only for material objects but it extended to being an ideology. Scientific education became and ideology with likes of Gaspard Monge a founder of the descriptive geometry, which is the basis of modern technical drawing. He was in charge of the French navy and French colonies he hoped that his programs filled with technical knowledge would change the French workers old ideologies and help them understand the importance of geometric and mathematical for rational thinking and reasoning. Thomas Hobbes also advocates that people find reason in mathematical reasoning to guide them to the truth about the world. In principle, the design of a practical system to allow people to understand and cope with a scientific and radical ideology gave the opportunity for Monge to foster such ideas in an institution where his learnings can be passed down. Monge then founded Ecole Polytechnique in 1794. This gave him the opportunity to make science an ideology that can be taught and constrains the impunity of the unreasonable Gaspard Monge the founder of the institution, is a French mathematician who created descriptive and differential geometry whose methods still apply today in many fields of expertise and science such as Architecture and Space engineering for abstracting the physical object. These methods also revolutionized computerized production especially in the field of Architecture, computerized architectural modelling and unrolling of objects completely depends on the ideas that Monge invented.
Ecole Polytechnique was founded by the idea that reason and logic of understanding the universe and its abstractions like philosophy and science can be trained through a rigorous program of militarized intervention. Napoleon Bonaparte was also a crucial member in the development of the educational system, that is a rare instance where politics and the control of people ideas can be played with. The student body included the elite of the society while the entering student where put through meticulous tests to determine their intellectual state. This allowed for the elite who were accompanied by their enlightenment and scientific ideas to stay in such a school and made it harder for other lower-class people with lesser intellectual backgrounds to fail such tests. Students with sufficient backgrounds could enter if they passed the test and were given financial aid if they were poor. Nevertheless, his mechanism controlled the majority of the entered students and enforced the Napoleon and his followers, since most people with great values and educational esteem. The school focused most of its efforts in the studies that involved a career in engineering hoping that the graduating students would benefit the republic and the army. Students capable in math, physics and chemistry were likely to finish this program in one to two years. The students along with Napoleon and his hefty group of scientists led successful expeditions and discoveries south of France and into the African grounds increasing the school’s reputation. Mathieu Ayle’s book called “The teaching of mathematics in France: The setting up of the Grandes Ecoles” explores this connection between the strong mentality that the French had, were the leading elite combined both the sciences and strategical maturity to control the field of the battlefield. Myle writes “The reputation of the Ecole Polytechnique rose very quickly in France: the high-profile expedition to Egypt led by Bonaparte comprised a scientific mission of which most were either lecturers or students of the school.” The students also applied theoretical education on the design and craft of artillery, thus increasing the military stewardship of 18th century France.
Ecole polytechnique ethos and larger scale context to the political and military benefits as well as nationalistic symbol of unity can be compared to an American armory called Harpers ferry armory. Located West Virginia founded Robert Harper in 1751 intended as a ferry to cross Shenandoah river. It had a strategic location and enabled great ways to make business. Washington saw it as a place to depend less on imports and maximize capitalism production and made it the national armory. According to Merrit Roe Smith’s book called “Harpers ferry armory and the new technology: the challenge of change” he said that “Washington was a businessman, a firm believer in the ethos of capitalism and an unabashed prophet of economic progress.” While Napoleon envisioned the Ecole to be a necessary extension to the government’s regime and a way to involve science in the production of power, the harper is a similar case for the Americans were an armory is George Washington dream. Smith said “Like Jefferson, Washington envisaged “The Garden Of America,” but his conception of the pastoral life was more idyllic than real and certainly was never intended as a serious guide to social policy.” Napoleon unlike George Washington is that he saw the Ecole as a way to construct guidelines within the French people and that was his intention. The harpers ferry was a dream for the collectives of America.
What did the revolution amount to? Was the revolution successful at its paradoxical state between science and politics? Well the first thing that started the revolution was the need to reform the government and change the regime. Well, 10 years after the revolution napoleon Bonaparte was at the helm of the French and his reign was to some extent more of a monarchy than Louis XVI reign had ever been; it was nothing short of an absolutist dictatorship. And after Napoleon lost his reign the country was restored to a monarchy once again, and France had a king who was either a Bourbon or a Bonaparte but they weren’t as harsh as the old monarchs they were what the revolutionaries wanted all along and had a constitution that governed them. The catholic church also returned to its form without the annoyance of the enlightenment thinkers like Kant to bully them. And at the time the country wasn’t a democracy or a republic it was something different which makes it such a unique one. That is why this revolution can be seen from many different angles as either successful or just as a nice try for the people to influence the elite. the country did succeed in bringing up individuals that changed the world of science from the likes of Gaspard Monge and Pierre-Simon Laplace. The Ecole polytechnique specialization in a great array of fields to foster a specific skill or rather a symbol of an advanced civilization, is similar to the ideologies of modern schools that came after it like Bauhaus. The development of artisanal weapons and craft can be argued as the force of capitalism nowadays. The French revolution undoubtedly influenced other revolutions like the American revolution that came after it or even the Russian revolutionaries. It was an experiment that didn’t have any sufficient outcomes that justify it happening in the first place but it did have some sort of disruption in the fabric of science and the humanities, perhaps its just the time for the effects of the revolution haven’t come out just yet.
- Engineering the revolution arms and enlightenment in France 1763-1815, Ken Adler, Princeton University Pres, Princeton, New Jersey, 1997
- Science and polity in France, Charles Coulston Gillispie, 1980
- Conserving The Enlightenment: French Military Engineering from Vauban to the revolution, Janis Langins, 2003
- The Art of War of Revolutionary France 1789-1802, Paddy Griffith, 1998