French Enlightenment 'took its ideas from the English'

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The Independent Online
THE 'FRENCH' Enlightenment should really be called the 'English' Enlightenment, because nearly all its great ideas were first thought up in England, according to new research.

Until now, French writers such as Voltaire, Rousseau and Baron Paul d'Holbach have taken most of the credit for the new ideas of the 18th century - which form the basis of most modern political and philosophical thought.

But they drew their ideas - sometimes even their words and metaphors - from a group of largely forgotten English radical thinkers of the previous century, according to Dr Justin Champion of Royal Holloway and Bedford College, London.

The English radicals - John Toland, Charles Blount, Matthew Tindal and others - have been forgotten because they were 'written out of history' by the pro-establishment English historians of the 18th century, Dr Champion says. His findings have just been published in The Pillars of Priestcraft Shaken.

Their chief contribution to the Enlightenment was the view that rational thinking - rather than faith in religious teaching - was the proper means for ordering a 'just society'. They expressed it in pamphlets attacking the influence of the Church.

In France, similar pamphlets, which picked up and repeated the earlier English arguments, are now thought to have been a major cause of the wave of new thinking that led to the French Revolution of 1789, Dr Champion says.

Radicals first had to undermine the Church, he explains, if they wanted to undermine the rigid social order of the ancien


The English role in influencing this entire movement, however, has been forgotten, because of a deliberate cover-up in the eighteenth-century by historians and anti-republican writers such as Edmund Burke, he says.

'They wanted to create the myth that England had never had a radical tradition that you could appeal to,' Dr Champion says. French royalist writers of the time, however, directly blamed the English radicals for fomenting the revolutionary mood.

As a consequence of the cover- up in England, few academics today are working on English thought of the 17th and 18th centuries, assuming that there was nothing interesting going on, Dr Champion says.

The result is that the French are regularly given more credit than they deserve for inventing such ideas as those of human rights and individual liberty, and the scientific way of thinking.

Tom Paine, for instance - author of The Rights of Man, and England's most famous eighteenth-century radical - is usually (and wrongly) judged as having derived his ideas from the French, Dr Champion says. Instead, he fits firmly into the English tradition.

Dr Michael Hunter, Reader in History at Birkbeck College, London, agrees with Dr Champion. 'The concept of the Enlightenment has become attached to the form it took in France. But it is now becoming more widely understood that there was an English Enlightenment that predated it.'

The Pillars of Priestcraft Shaken; C U P; pounds 35.