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The French Enlightenment philosophes ushered in many of the foundational ideas of modern
thinking and many of the philosophical aspects of international environmental law. The Enlightenment
birthed such modern principles as equality and liberty, the progress of civilizations and cosmopolitanism,
science and reason, and the beginnings of an exploration of law and natural systems. This principles lay
the groundwork for modern accomplishments such as liberalized economies, industrialization, and
democracy, and now global legal institutions aim to perfect these in confronting imperative environmental
problems. The following discussion is about the roots of these ideas and examples of how they have

The Enlightenment era spanned across Western and Central Europe and the area currently the
United Kingdom and the United States, and arguably from the 1600's through the 1800's. However,
some of the most prominent thinkers of this movement wrote from the 1740's into the 1790's and their
home base was Paris. Writers such as Montesquieu, Rosseau, Voltaire, the lesser known Holbach,
Diderot, Helvtius, and Condorcet, and several others in the fields of science, medicine, and economics
In the era in which these philosophers wrote, Western society was highly feudal, aristocratic,
and governed by the church. Thanks at least in part to the philosophes the French Revolution abruptly
and violently overturned the status quo. One of the key jurisprudential documents arising from the
revolution was the Declaration of the Rights of Man of August 1789 which demanded liberty and
equality for all men, fraternity and cooperation, secularism and reason in the government, and natural
law. This document culminates the centuries of philosophical discourse on these subjects upon which
the French Enlightenment thinkers focused their energies. It was inspired in part by the American
Equality and liberty are the strongest common thread throughout the philosophical writing of the
Enlightment. Early into the era, Montesquieu argued in his Spirit of Laws that civilization brings greater
equality among men. With greater progress of our civilizations, that people can enjoy more freedom and
less disparity between themselves and others. Helvtius wrote in his Essays on the Mind that there is
uniformity in the behavior of men. Later, Voltaire wrote in his Philosophical Dictionary that living in
nature have two main advantages, equality and liberty, but that both of which are stifled by the
uncertainty and violence of the natural world. Condorcet in his lifetime advocated for equality generally,
women's suffrage, and the abolition of slavery. His Progress of the Human Mind in a chapter on the
future redicted that one day every nation should arrive at a state of civilization and that all people will
enjoy freedom from prejudice and slavery, enlightenment, and intellectual liberty. In the twentyfirst
century, Thomas Keith in The New York Review of Books explains the position that the Enlightenment
The philosophes embodied liberty and equality by taking their ideas to the streets for a more
democratic dialogue. Before this time, philosophers mainly advised kings and priests, but the French
Enlightenment thinkers valued public participation. They met together in salons, cafs, coffeehouses,
clubs, and academies, the philosophical marketplaces of the time, and then published and distributed
their ideas to the general public in books and pamphlets. Diderot, Voltaire, and others wrote
encyclopedias of philosophical ideas which allowed the public more complete access to many ideas. By
disseminating their thoughts, the philosophes encouraged public response. Women participated in the
process by hosting the salons and one female writer, Dena Goodman, from the twentiethcentury
speculates that the hostesses were directors and arbiters of philosophical discussions. The philosophes
hoped to lead the public into modernity and shape the future with their visions. These actions and ideals
Another common ideal among the writers of this time was the progress of societies from
barbarism into a state of civilization. Progress was characterized throughout this era being technological,
artistic, scientific, jurisprudential, and philosophical development of societies. Montesquieu and
Rousseau led the way in looking back into history and at newly discovered cultures around the world to
explore the natural state of man before systems and institutions. Montesquieu believed that we could
derive perfect knowledge of the laws of nature by looking at our previously natural selves. Through this
retrospection, he ultimately concluded that human progress has been overall a positive force. Rousseau
agreed that progress has been good for humanity but also recognized some of the benefits of a primitive
lifestyle, a more peaceful existence primarily concerned with immediate needs. He believed civilization
had room for improvement, specifically that leaders needed to act upon the general will of the people
Holbach in The System of Nature wrote that all people have the potential to evolve into
civilizations and Voltaire continued this thought by declaring that men form civilizations for the purpose
of being happier than they were in a state of nature. Life in the natural world is dangerous and
unsympathetic, according to Voltaire. Wrapping up this era in 1795, Condorcet wrote a philosophical
overview of human history and unequivocally concluded that human progress is beneficial, constant,
never retrograding, and will not stop unless there is global upset or resource shortage. Both he and
Helvtius recognized the important role of agriculture in creating modern civilizations. Condorcet further
wrote that material progress, visavis the improvement of technology, has allowed man to progress
intellectually: he has more time to meditate and enrich his mind with new combinations of ideas. Material
A split with the ruling Church at the time allowed the philosophes' to more freely imagine human
progress. One twentyfirst century commentator, John Robertson in his book The Case for the
Enlightenment wrote that the Enlightenment abandoned the idea of the afterlife, freeing humanity to
focus on the betterment of the current world without having to worry about the next. While Voltaire
remained attached to some of his Catholic beliefs, he launched an attack on barbaric church practices in
his novel Candide. Many of the French Enlightenment thinkers were outspoken atheists, especially
Also, stemming from the ideas of progress, equality, and secularism was the development of
cosmopolitanism. Many of the philosophes gathered in Paris and some enjoyed the freedom of
intellectual pursuit provided by the city lifestyle. Voltaire wrote that when people multiply and
congregate in one place, everyone feels greater security and happiness. The philosophes realized that
the world was globalizing with great speed due to international commerce and believed that a world
society should be created and patriotism departed from. A citizen should have a greater loyalty to
humanity than to his own country. Diderot was committed to the principle of universal human freedom,
although he also valued cultural diversity. Voltaire studied Eastern religion and believed in tolerance and
the freedom of worship to some degree. Also, he believed in selfsufficiency and was a banker,
importer, poet, contractor, dramatist, capitalist, philosopher, moneylender, and pensioner. Maintaining
an open marketplace of ideas in a global society characterizes the philosophes new idea of
Cosmopolitanism fueled the secular revolution leading to the development of the scientific
method and an emphasis on reason. Early on, Helvtius believed that the human mind could know itself
through reason. He said that we have the potential to consider many factors, balance them and imagine
probabilities, and then form judgments. Ignorance, according to Helvtius, is the principle cause of our
errors and we need to prevent our passions from leading us to deception. Later, Diderot gathered large
amounts of scientific information and compounded it into his encyclopedia. From this information, he
drew conclusions about the evolution of man and his place in the world, attempting to view our species
Rousseau and Voltaire believed that through rationality man can realize his control over life's
contingencies. Holbach went further to declare that nothing was real except for pure observations and
everything else, like the law, economy, the church, and politics, was men's imaginary systems. From this
belief stemmed the idea that these systems could not control humanity's fate and there was absolute
natural determinism. However they viewed man's relationship with the universe, all of the philosophes
agreed that understanding, analysis, argument, and reasoned conclusions lead to truth and scientific
The philosophes then used this methodology for to understand nature for the purpose of
developing a more natural system of laws. As mentioned, Montesquieu and Rousseau researched and
reflected on the lives of less civilized men and both believed that we could derive perfect understanding
of the laws of nature by studying our previously natural selves. There was a split in Enlightenment
thinkers about whether plants and animals had any spiritual value, but at least they asked the question so
early on. However, there seemed to be a consensus that man was a superior being in many regards,
In considering our natural environment, Helvtius believed that climate does not affect the
behavior of man but that there was some uniformity across the globe. Voltaire in Candide mockingly
asserted that natural resources were put on earth merely for human consumption. A natural disaster in
this novel paralleled one that occurred in the author's real life and had a profound impact on his writing
and outlook. Rousseau believed that in his current environment of civilization, people experienced
inequality and vice, but in a natural state, they enjoyed at solitary and peaceful existence. Even though he
valued human progress and looked forward to future progress, he also realized the state of nature as a
model for our laws. Voltaire believed that the purpose of the law is to arrive back to a state of nature,
wherein man is provided with food, clothing, and shelter just as animals are. Holbach held that nature
provides a the only true moral code and understanding nature would dispel violence, greed, confusion,
Voltaire in his Notebooks wrote that nature has given us the capability of both selflove and
benevolence and implied that we can reciprocate this back onto nature. He views nature as one
universal system that is a prodigious work, so infinitely complex that it can never be understood. There
are millions of types of things in the universe, he asserts. Also, he believed that humans can interact with
our natural creator. Holbach declared that it was impossible to subdue nature and the enlightenment man
would understand and work with natural forces. Voltaire agreed in Candide that natural forces were
powerful but wrote in his dictionary that man can intellectually overcome many of nature's challenges.
Further, he wrote that our immediate needs will forever bind us to nature. Holback found the human
experience to be a constant conversation with and exploration of nature to discover its secrets and
convene with its spirit. Instead of superimposing our own ideas onto nature, we need to abandon those
that are incongruent with reality, says Holbach, and nature is purely matter autonomously in motion, it is
Thus, the Enlightenment philosophes stunted the modern exploration into equality and liberty,
the progress of civilizations and cosmopolitanism, science and reason, and the beginnings of an
exploration of law and natural systems. There is a lot of causeandeffect and overlap between these
four sets of principles and they all developed concurrently. Reason furthers progress and our
understanding of nature, progress furthers civilization and nature furthers us morally, a moral civilization

The four key sets of concepts emphasized in the French Enlightenment, equality and liberty, the
progress of civilizations and cosmopolitanism, science and reason, and natural law, all have parallels in
the goals of modern international environmental law: equal standard of living across the globe,
sustainable development, global cooperation and partnership, common concern for mankind,
Modern scholar Sumudu A. Atapattu in his book Principles of International Environmental
Law writes that one of the goals of IEL is to provide for all people their basic needs and a standard of
living comparable to others. Also, equality is inherent in man's interactions with the environment because
natural problems permeate national boundaries, the tragedy of the commons affects citizens equally, and
there are uniform natural and human reactions to pollution. Global environmental problems force us to
realize our inherent equality as members of the same species. Further, IEL recognizes that inequality,
both extreme wealth and extreme poverty, is the primary cause and effect of global destruction, and for
Liberty also stands out in IEL just as in the works of the philosophes. Laksham Guruswamy
writes in his treatise on IEL that sovereign states must have the freedom and autonomy to develop their
own legal regimes for managing pollution based on their unique needs and the will of their people.
Democratic participate becomes imperative, as the philosophes, realize in creating change in the status
quo. Today, hundreds of representatives, legal practitioners, judges, and citizen groups participate in the
democratic lawmaking process at large international meetings. Professor Richard Brooks in his book
Law and Ecology advocates for IEL to recognize the diverse needs of various countries and for
international institutions to specifically recognize the limitations of developing countries. Just as the
philosophes sought public dialogue by publishing their works, Brooks argues that the public must be
Enlightenment ideas about the progress of civilizations translate into the modern concept of
sustainable development which recognizes both the importance of material and social progress but also
the need to mitigate this momentum by realizing environmental limitations. The global community relies
on IEL to balance developing countries' needs to progress technologically using natural resources and
developed countries' imperative to reduce environmental degradation. While many environmentalists in
developed countries believe that all progress should be stopped and some value nature over humanity,
IEL's balanced approach retains the Enlightenment idea that the the goal of the law should be to
promote healthy, productive human lives that are in harmony with nature. In IEL just as in the
Another concept found in both Enlightenment thought and modern IEL is objective reasoning.
Environmental impact assessments are used by IEL to determine what type of development is
sustainable. This method aligns with the philosophes emphasis of using science and observation to make
reasoned decisions. Sustainable development requires rational planning by means of collecting,
organizing, and evaluating information, just as the Enlightenment writers amassed bulks of information in
Brooks writes in his book that scientists must actively participate in lawmaking and
governments must balance the risks and costs in the face of scientific uncertainty. Another author,
Anthony Pagden in his book The Enlightenment declares that intellectual society today is experimental
at least in part due to the philosophes and Brooks said that the legal regime must be flexible and allow
for evaluation and feedback during times of 'experimental jurisprudence'. Guruswamy writes in the same
vain that because of the complexity on international environmental problems, laws need to be responsive
and adaptable to change. Having a legal regime based on continuing scientific research and
Finally, secularism has a twofold impact on modern IEL. First, as discussed above science not
religion is used as a primary decisionmaking tool. Second, Enlightenment thinkers sought to free people
to better their current world by abandoning hopes of religious worlds to come. Similarly, IEL recognizes
the fact that the real world will still exist after the current generation passes and there is no
transcendental being that will deliver us from the destruction that we have imparted upon the earth. The
concept of intergenerational equity holds that future generations should experience environmental
conditions equitable to those today. It necessarily abandons the idea that humans can destroy the earth
without consequence in anticipation of imminent religious upheaval. Instead of basing environmental
Scholars of the Enlightenment believe that the work of the philosophes is not yet complete and
since international environmental law is so policydriven and already embodies many of Enlightenment
principles, this work could be channeled into the development of IEL. Advancing the notions of equality
and liberty, the progress of civilizations and cosmopolitanism, science and reason, and natural law