In her ‘Unofficial Defence’ of Louis XVI, Olympe de Gouges concludes her argument with the following:
Louis Capet’s greatest crime, it must be conceded, was to be born a king at a time when philosophy was silently laying the foundations of the republic.
What did Olympe mean when she said that philosophers had laid the foundations of the republic? Though we often hear that Rousseau and Voltaire were great influences for the French Revolution, it often feels as if we’re reading them back into history while they probably weren’t all that significant. Why would a mostly uneducated people – those who took the Bastille, or marched to Versailles – know or care anything about the philosophers of the Enlightenment?
But if it is a myth that Rousseau and Voltaire had laid the foundations for the Revolution, it is not a recent one. In 1817, two years after the restoration of the Bourbon family on the French throne, the church issued a pastoral letter, to be read at mass throughout the country and posted on church doors.
This document denounced two new editions of the works of Voltaire and Rousseau and went on to argue at length that the works of these philosophers were mostly responsible for the Revolution:
Their writings have perverted public character and morals […] it is to the principles of incredulity, immorality and rebellion they present so seductively that France owes the first attempts of those who provoked its revolution, the prestige of so-called rights of the people, which led so many crowned heads to the scaffold, and threatened all nations with a universal upheaval, civil wars, an armed confusion, which, abandoned to its fluctuations will have been for humanity nothing short of a first hell, which would have continued, and grown more terrible each day, until the end of days.
(Mandement de messieurs les vicaires généraux du chapitre métropolitain de Paris, 9 Fevrier 1817. (20))
We might be tempted to dismiss this pastoral as an isolated eccentricity but it did not go unnoticed by the French people.
In March 1817 The popular satirical song writer P.J. de Beranger composed a song with the title of the edict: ‘Mandement des vicaires generaux de Paris to be sung to the tune of another song: Allez voir a St Cloud’. The song was reported and printed in L'Esprit des journaux franc̜ais et étrangers, Volume 468 April 1817 alongside a review of a volume of Voltaire’s complete works. (p266).
The song, which was still being printed 50 years later is composed of 20 verses of 8 lines each, with the refrain (in the 6thand 8thline): 'C’est la faute de Voltaire, C’est la faute de Rousseau' (It’s Voltaire’s fault, it’s Rousseau’s fault).
The song remained popular, and when Victor Hugo wrote Les Miserables four decades later, he gave a version of the song to his young hero, the street boy Gavroche.
Here’s a version of the song with the lyrics translated into English.
But the best version of this song was sung in 1980 by 12 year old Fabrice Ploquin, who played Gavroche in the original musical Les Miserables, by Claude-Michel Schönberg. (The lyrics were unfortunately lost in translation when the musical became a Broadway success)
This is where I live blog about my new book project, an intellectual biography of three French Revolutionary women philosophers.