Philosophy and Revolution: The French Revolution Revisited

Examine the role the French Revolution played in philosophy and vice versa. It will begin with Rousseau and move to Burke and Wollstonecraft. We will analyse Walter Benjamin’s Theses on History as well as Kant and Hegel’s framings of the Revolution. Further, we will explore what the Revolutionaries themselves said, including Robespierre.



  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Rousseau provided the basis for the Jacobin revolution. The French Revolution was not a singular revolution, but involved many revolutions. The Jacobins would draw on Rousseau.
  • Robespierre: This lesson will examine the much misunderstood and slandered revolutionary Robespierre. Robespierre’s discipleship of Rousseau will particularly be explored as well as his staggering predictions about the unfortunate fate of the French Revolution. We will analyse his opposition to the death penalty, but why he felt it was so necessary for the Revolution that they nevertheless make use of the death penally. We will analyse his predictions of a military dictatorship and his opposition to the war-hungry Girondins—the Girondins almost being prototypical of the Iraq-War supporting neoconservatives.
  • Predictions of Horror: Edmund Burke’s prophecy. Edmund Burke was the father of philosophical conservatism, Burke’s disdain of the French Revolution created a philosophical basis for conservatism that sought to modify and reform rather than revolutionise.
  • Mary Wollstonecraft: Aghast by Burke’s criticisms of the Revolution, Wollstonecraft sought to defend a philosophical revolutionary spirit that saw custom as nothing more than prejudice. Her opposition to a basis in nature for custom led her to oppose gender norms.
  • Kant, Hegel, Walter Benjamin, Zizek: The revolution lives on in philosophy. Kant and Hegel both praised the French Revolution and their ideas survive, however sublated in Marxism. Examining Walter Benjamin and Slavoj Zizek, we will approach how revolutionary thought relates to philosophical notions such as necessity.
  • Future Horrors: Heinrich Heine, the great German 19th century poet and essayist warned that the French Revolution would seem pallid in comparison to the bloodshed the twentieth century would bring. Friedrich Nietzsche, an admirer of Heine, similarly distrusted the Revolution in critiques that prefigured contemporary understandings of totalitarianism. Today many thinkers see the French Revolution as the progenitor of 20th Century totalitarianism, rather than a liberating force. Indeed, some thinkers argue that the idea of emancipation itself leads inevitably to totalitarianism.

By the end of this course, students should be able to:

  1. Understand philosophical ideas through the French revolution.
  2. Describe the key ideas of Rousseau, Burke, Robespierre and Wollstonecraft,.
  3. Discuss questions of totalitarianism in relation to the French Revolution.