Philippe Égalité: A Son of the Enlightenment

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In the late 1700’s, the Age of Reason reached its peak in a time of terror and death: the French Revolution. The revolution became the stage for many fascinating heroes and villains and in this post I want to tell you about one of the villains:  Louis-Philippe-Joseph, duc d’Orléans, later known as Philippe Égalité. Like all villains, Orléans was driven by certain beliefs that made him the man that he was. One of the fathers of the French Revolution, he was a son of Enlightenment Thinking.

The Enlightenment

What exactly was the Enlightenment? To understand what drove Orléans, we need go way back in time to the Middle Ages. During the Medieval period, most Western Europeans believed in God and their beliefs and ideas of right and wrong were generally based on biblical teaching. From the 14th century onwards, however, things began to change as Europe moved into the Renaissance. The Renaissance was a time when people began to study the writings of Ancients Greeks and Romans and it was a time of great progress in art, music, literature and science. It was a time when man’s reason became a very important part of knowing truth.

For a time, man’s reason worked alongside his faith in the truth of the Bible. Great men like Isaac Newton and Johannes Kepler used their reason to work things out and discover them. However, they did this because they believed that the universe is created by an orderly God and therefore has systems and laws that are discoverable. Gradually, however, aided by the writings of philosophers like William of Ockham, Rene Descartes, Spinoza, and many others, human reason began to be seen as being above the authority of Scripture. This was the birth of the Enlightenment or ‘Age of Reason’.

An Enlightened Man

At the height of this Age of Reason, in 1747, Philippe-Joseph, duc d’Orléans was born.  As the Duke of Orléans he had an immense amount of wealth and power. Strongly influenced by the Enlightenment idea of ‘freedom’, he did absolutely whatever he wanted to do. In his pursuit of pleasure he squandered his wealth and in order to restore it turned his residence, the Palais-Royal, into a sort of market where all kinds of illegal activity took place out of reach of police.

Orléans passionately hated Marie Antoinette, the queen of France and used his abilities and power to influence the people of France against her through newspapers that went out from the Palais-Royal. Many of the stories about Marie Antoinette’s extravagance and heartlessness during a time when people were dying of lack of food are not necessarily true but are based on lies spread by Orléans. This hatred for the monarchy was one of the things that started the French Revolution.

The Climax of the Enlightenment

The French Revolution could be called the climax of Enlightenment philosophy. Based on the ideas of enlightened philosopher Jean Jaques Rousseau it sought to do away with monarchy and replace it with democracy. It aimed to abolish religion and essentially replace it with worship of the State. It’s motto was “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité – “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity” . “Liberty” was defined in The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, as “the freedom to do everything which injures no one else”.

Orléans supported revolutionary ideas whole-heartedly. He joined a group called the Jacobins who eventually became the driving force behind the revolution. In 1792 Orléans renounced his royal title and called himself Philippe Égalité, ‘egalité’ being the second word of the motto. It is said that Égalité even funded the first guillotine which was used to execute thousands of people during the revolution. In 1793 he treacherously voted for the execution of his cousin, King Louis XVI.

A Villain or a Hero?

Like many other historical figures surrounding the French Revolution, Philippe Égalité, a controversial character as there are some who see him as a hero rather than a villain. A person’s view of him and the other French Revolution characters really depends on their view of Enlightenment philosophy and the French Revolution. Ultimately, the very thing Égalité  lived for backfired at him. In spite of his support of the revolution, he began to be suspected of wanting to set himself up as the next king. When his son defected to the Austrians, who were enemies of the French, Égalité was accused of treason and was executed, ironically, at the guillotine he had funded. Sad as it is, the story of Égalité’s life and times dramatically demonstrates the impact that ideas, based on man’s reason alone, can have. It reminds us how important it is to find truth because only truth can set us free (John 8:32).



Some information in this post is from Dave Raymond’s Modernity course. (

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