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Culture in France


Charles Louis de Montesquieu
Charles Louis de Montesquieu

During the 18th century, literacy grew throughout France—faster among peasants than among urbanites. By 1789 roughly a third of the French nation was literate enough to sign their names, and demand grew for inexpensive editions of classics and new works. Publishers struggled to meet demand by using cheaper paper, smaller print, and flimsier bindings. Best-selling works that had been censored for religious, political, or moral reasons were often printed abroad and smuggled across the border.

The increase in literacy helps explain the emergence of the intellectual movement called the Enlightenment. At the core of the Enlightenment was the philosophes, a group of professional writers and scientists who advocated reform. They frequented salons and often worked under the auspices of the royal academies in Paris, which was gradually replacing Versailles as the cultural center of France. The philosophes wrote works both for the growing public and for state-sponsored publications and agencies. Their influential critiques of traditional knowledge and society were most fully developed in the multivolumed, multiauthored Encyclopédie, which became an international best-seller.

The politics of the philosophes were diverse, reflecting divergent interests and attempts to persuade different audiences. Their core political value was liberty, but they disagreed on how to best promote it. Some philosophes, like Charles Louis de Montesquieu, believed liberty would be best protected by maintaining the traditional rights of individuals and corporate groups and by expanding the role of the parlements. Others, like Voltaire, believed a strong monarchy was liberty’s best defense. On the margins of the movement were more radical thinkers, such as Jean Jacques Rousseau, who widened the political imagination by proposing models of democracy.

As reformers, not revolutionaries, most philosophes tried to strengthen the state by modernizing and liberalizing it.

But their vigorous assaults on religious and political orthodoxy offended conservatives. Their books were frequently censored, and occasionally a philosophe served a prison term. Without intending it, the philosophes inadvertently fostered the French Revolution by discrediting old authorities and pushing the pace of reform. "France" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.

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