Although the first major figures of the Enlightenment came from England, the movement truly exploded in France, which became a hotbed of political and intellectual thought in the 1700s. The roots of this French Enlightenment lay largely in resentment and discontent over the decadence of the French monarchy in the late 1600s. During the reign of the wildly extravagant “Sun King” Louis XIV (reigned 1643–1715), wealthy intellectual elites began to gather regularly in Parisian salons (often hosted by high-society women) and complain about the state of their country. The salons only grew in popularity when Louis XIV died and the far less competent Louis XV took over.
Gradually, complaints in the salons and coffee shops changed from idle whining into constructive political thought. Especially after the works of John Locke became widespread, participants at the salons began to discuss substantive political and social philosophies of the day. Before long, cutting-edge thought in a variety of disciplines worked its way into the salons, and the French Enlightenment was born.
By the early 1700s, coffee shops, salons, and other social groups were popping up all over Paris, encouraging intellectual discussion regarding the political and philosophical status of the country. Moreover, members of these groups increasingly clamored to read the latest work of leading philosophers. These nontraditional thinkers came to be known as the philosophes, a group that championed personal liberties and the work of Locke and Newton, denounced Christianity, and actively opposed the abusive governments found throughout Europe at the time. As varied as they were, the leading French philosophes generally came from similar schools of thought. They were predominantly writers, journalists, and teachers and were confident that human society could be improved through rational thought.
A large part of the philosophes’ attacks were focused on the Church and its traditions. In matters of faith, many of the prominent philosophes were deists—they believed in an all-powerful being but likened him to a “cosmic watchmaker” who simply set the universe in autonomous motion and never again tampered with it. Moreover, they disdained organized religion and the Church’s traditional idea of the “chain of being,” which implied a natural hierarchy of existence—God first, then angels, monarchs, aristocrats, and so on.
The philosophes also raised objections against the decadent lifestyles of leading Church representatives, as well as the Church’s persistence in collecting exorbitant taxes and tithes from the commoners to fund outlandish salaries for bishops and other Church officials. What the philosophes found most appalling, however, was the control that the Church held over impressionable commoners by instilling in them a fear of eternal damnation. The philosophes may have had mixed feelings about the common people, but they had very strong feelings against the Church. As a result, they provoked the Church by challenging doctrines such as the existence of miracles and divine revelation, often disproving specific tenets with simple science. The Church, in turn, hated the philosophes and all they stood for.
Complementing and enabling the socially and politically active atmosphere was the dramatically improving literacy rate in France. Beyond just talking about revolutionary ideas, more and more French people, especially in Paris and its surrounds, were reading and writing about them as well. A symbiotic relationship developed as readers anxiously awaited more literature from the philosophes, and in turn the response that the writers received compelled them to write more. The scholarly atmosphere at the time also provided women of French society—albeit still within traditional roles as salon hostesses—with an opportunity to contribute to the conversation.