The intricate, yet complex relationship between science and politics is represented best through the French Revolution. Through this paper, I will examine the different scientific breakthroughs that occurred during the French Revolution and whether the revolution acted as a catalyst for scientific development. I will also throw light on the changing public perception of science and how it impacted society during this period.
The French Revolution (1789—1799) was a watershed event in European history wherein public discontent manifested itself in the political upheaval of the monarchy and radical social change—a complete redesigning of the political landscape. This period represented the power of the will of the people against oppressive power structures in society. It was also a period where science and innovation flourished. Today, the Eiffel Tower stands tall as one of the Seven Wonders of the World, but the hope that Gustave Eiffel, its chief engineer had was that it be a symbol of the scientific and technological brilliance in France that was paved by the French Revolution. The centenary of the falling of the Bastille was marked by the opening of the Eiffel tower in 1889. It represents the impact of science on society during the French Revolution.
The ideas of Enlightenment thinkers prompted revolution in America and France and restoration in England. Their ideas contested spiritual revelation— the idea of god guiding mankind. Two of the most prominent of these thinkers were Jeremy Bentham and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Reason, they claimed, enabled mankind to understand the world around them. They were greatly influenced by the mathematical brilliance of René Descartes and the experimental theories of Isaac Newton.
The Royal Academy of Science, in 1970 was asked to reform the system of weights and measures by the revolutionary established National Assembly. The metric system was established soon after. The National Assembly was replaced by the Convention, to establish a constitution for the country in 1792, soon after the upheaval of the monarchy. The Organization of the Committee of Public Safety that mobilized scientists to defend the new republic during the French Revolutionary Wars marked the tremendous influence of science in the realm of political affairs. Another example is when gunpowder was formed by the refinement of saltpetre through a centrifuge invented by Lavoisier.
The situation changed in 1793 when science was regarded as being principally undemocratic, so the Academy of Sciences was closed. This marked the end of the era of “aristocratic science, and consequently, at the time, research in France was in shambles.
It was in the year 1793, that the era of extreme violence known as the Terror began with the revoking of individual rights. At its conclusion, the Academy was reconstituted in a new form—the Institut de France. The principle of meritocracy, rather than accumulated wealth of the candidate that formed the basis for acceptance into the Institute.
The public perception of science underwent a major change— from being widely regarded as an isolationist field to becoming a tool for social use and benefit.
It became known as tool for social welfare. This change marked the beginning of science as a profession. One could now conceive a respectful and rewarding career path in the subject.
Echoing this sentiment, a structure of national schools was built that focused on mathematics as a discipline. As Hobsbawn mentions in An age of revolution, “the revolution transformed the technical and scientific education in the country especially with the formation of the the Ecole Polytechnique in 1794 to train engineers of all sorts to defend the republic. Mathematics and chemistry were taught by renowned teachers such as Pierre Simon de Laplace, Joseph Louis Lagrange and Claude Louis Berthollet. An important feature of the polytechnic was Systematic laboratory instruction, which was virtually unknown elsewhere in Europe.”
Under the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) control was centralized over institutions of higher learning that arose during the Terror. The manner in which the government of Bonaparte was structured was that it centred on strengthening the military and it streamlined funds away from laboratories and scientific research. This resulted in a setback for science.
Science in the 18th century, did not develop in vacuum— it was integrated into various forms of government in efforts to advance the economy of France as well as develop its military power. War production was carried out by a carefully crafted team of mathematicians and physicists including the eminent mathematician, Monge. Estimation of National Income was also the task of the famous and budding revolutionary, Lavoisier.
One of the most prominent men that this period produced was George Curvier, “the founding father of paleontology”. He was the first to establish the factual accuracy of extinction. Before him, extinction was regarded as a speculation among the scientific community. The second wasJean Baptiste Lamarck, a naturalists that made significant contributions to the theory of evolution inspiring and lending ideas to even Charles Darwin. The atmosphere during which their breakthroughs were made was not only a time of uncertainty and confusion but also a time that was both scientifically and intellectually stimulating.
The globally influenced Encyclopaedia was also published during this period. It was an example of Enlightenment influence compiled by Jean le Rond d'Alembert—the French mathematician and Denis Didero, the renowned philosopher.
With the advent of the revolution, the manner in which science was socially perceived changed. The Revolutionaries abolished academies and universities, along with corporations. Claiming to be working within the framework of the revolution, the Royal Academy of Sciences protested its closure. Eventually, after a difficult seemingly never ending debate, it was closed down.
Paris became a place of turmoil and of upheaval making it a largely complex place to conduct scientific research. Especially, with the e Academy and universities under attack, it is surprising that scientists like Lamarck and Cuvier even benefitted from the Revolution taking place.
Paris became the hotbed of political activity and also became increasingly difficult to transfer and create scientific knowledge with restrictions on research and a complete closure of laboratories. Despite the institutions of learning that promoted scientific and technological growth, being closed, the revolution was still tremendously beneficial to Curvier and Lamarck. The Jardin du Roi, which was a medicinal herb garden was reorganized to being a place of public dedication from being a testament of respect to the King. Although an institution like the the Jardin du Roi (later the Jardin des Plantes) being a medicinal herb garden may not seem like an overly political place, it was in fact greatly influenced by the Revolution and the politics of the citizens of Paris. So much so, Lamarck was forced to change the name of the garden from the Jardin du Roi (Garden of the King) to the Jardin des Plantes (Garden of Plants). This depicts the extent of the social pressures of Revolutionary Paris. The fact that Lamarck had to change the name implies that the influence of these social pressures was not solely confined to politics.
When trying to understand the relationship between the events of the French revolution and the scientific developments that took place, we tend to accord all developments to the friction caused by the French Revolution. This however, is untrue. The government’s antipathetic sentiment toward the Royal Academy of Science did not imply a denunciation of science, but rather a shunning of the elitism that these institutions were associated with. Certain other developments in the French Revolution such as the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens was instrumental in the advancement of the pace of innovation. This was because it enabled free speech and the freedom of association which made it possible for promotimg science through the publication of journals as well as collectivizing people in the formation of societies.
The chemist Antoine Lavoisier’s “The Elements of Chemistry”, which laid the foundations of modern chemistry, was published as the revolution began in 1789. Lavoisier's theories went against the mainstream, he needed to garner support for them. One way to do that was to try to organize the disordered nomenclature of chemistry into a single system of naming things. Based on the new discoveries and theories, and published in 1787, the work listed 55 elements-that is, bodies that could not be decomposed—among them oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen, carbon, and sulfur. Lavoisier by, debunking the theory of phlogiston and in establishing the value of quantitative measurements, he, elevated chemistry to science. His nomenclature brought order where chaos had reigned. He elevated chemistry to a science with the treatise he wrote on chemistry in 1789 that became a model for teaching the subject for many years. His discoveries changed perceptions of chemistry akin to how the French Revolution changed perceptions of monarchy and individual rights. Lavoisier was the creator of his own scientific revolution and a supporter of his country's. At the end of the Terror, Lavoisier was executed on the guillotine at the age of 51. At the news of his death, Lagrange is said to have commented, 'It took them only an instant to cut off that head, and a hundred years may not produce another like it.' This depicts the dark side of the revolution that killed off the country’s brightest minds.
According to Dorinda Outram's study of the Academy of Sciences during the Reign of Terror, six scientists who were members of the Royal Academy of Sciences were executed by guillotine during the French Revolution: Jean Sylvain Bailly, Jean-Baptiste-Gaspard Bochart de Saron, Philippe-Frédéric De Dietrich, Antoine Lavoisier, Guillaume-Chrétien de Lamoignon de Malesherbes, and Didier Mesnard de Chousy. Many scientists were subject either to murder or confinement during the heated moment of the revolution. Others, such as Bernard de Lacépède, and the chemist Antoine Fourcroy survived by going into hiding widening the disconnect between science and society.
The French Revolution served as a momentous period of scientific growth, but at the same time became a period of violence and a loss of valuable life. The real question the French Revolution seeks to answer is why the social sciences did not also prosper during this period. Social harmony, equality of rights among other objectives the revolution sought to attain never materialized. The end of the French Revolution marked the beginning of the scientific revolution and a wave of technological breakthroughs and innovation to come.
The evolution of science during this period also raised an interesting question as to whether innovation was stimulated only during periods of uprisings and revolutions. The answer to this is in the sense that revolutions and uprising mobilize the need for innovation and technology. It is not that innovation cannot be brought about without social friction, or that science is dependent on political instability, but rather the French Revolution made the application of these technologies and innovations more visible. This paper accomplishes to provide an insight to the scientific breakthroughs that occurred as developments took place during the French Revolution. It proves that science and politics are interdependent fields that need to co-exist and while science was redefined and developed during this period— the loss of life because of political turmoil proved to be a setback.