"Can you hear the people sing, singing the song of the French Enlightenment?" That's not exactly how it goes, but that's not really important. What's really important is that this is a song about the French Enlightenment (and so are several other songs throughout the play). 'Well, what's wrong with that?' you might ask. Well, nothing and everything. It is a play that has a great deal to do with the June Rebellion, so you would, of course expect such songs. However, the French Enlightenment in general was an incredibly problematic philosophical movement on nearly every level. It has very little to redeem it (although the good things it said were very important, just misunderstood and misapplied). Which is why I think it's kind of funny that this is one of everyone's favorite songs, when it represents such a horrible thought movement.
Ok, ok, what was so horrible about the French Enlightenment then? Well... pretty much everything, actually. It started out well enough. The people of Paris (and France in general) are miserable. The aristocrats are just absolutely ridiculous in terms of their lavishness and licentiousness while everyone else is starving and dying. So, in response to this the Enlightenment does make sense. But let me back up, and do a little background work.The Enlightenment, the French Enlightenment in particular, is a philosophical movement that began in the seventeenth century, right after the Baroque and Rococo periods, if anyone wants to place it artistically. It stemmed/ was inspired by the writings of Rene Descartes (although I'm not nearly as sure as they were that he would have completely supported their undertaking). The French Enlightenment was basically an attempt to free the world from the trapping and superstitions of the previous age (which they regarded as the Medieval Era, lumping the Renaissance in with themselves, which was completely revisionist and not really accurate). They, then, wanted to start over and build a new world founded entirely on human reason. If your idea could be rationally supported then it was completely ok. This had several not so surprising results. Christianity, the faith that France was built on? Superstition! The government? Well, since we rejected Christianity we have no need to respect those in authority over us. Rebel! Everything, and I literally mean everything, that people wanted to keep they were now scrambling to find rationalistic reasons for. There was no room for emotion (the stoic philosophies made a huge comeback), there was no room for God, no room for humanity really. This is clearly an incredibly truncated and simplified version of Enlightenment philosophy and effects. Clearly it was much more complicated than this, but I already wrote a report on it, and I'm not doing it again.
So anyways, yes. The Enlightenment was bad. By cutting all ties with both their historical and religious past the French people (because this became a people's philosophy) started to make some pretty terrible decisions. Things escalated quickly. At one point, and this is a true story to show you how much they elevated human reason during the Enlightenment, Notre Dame was taken over and where the altar was, they placed the goddess Reason who was personified by a whore. And basically all of this came to a horrific conclusion in the French Revolution. The Revolution was like the monster baby child of the Enlightenment, and so was the reign of terror that followed. Human beings can rationalize terrible things if they strip reason of its proper confines. Social Contract theory? Well, they tried that, and guess what it led to. Thank you Enlightenment!
Now anyways, this has become incredibly rambley I didn't mean for this to be an incoherent history/philosophy lesson. I really just wanted to say that 'Can you Hear the People Sing' is a song about Enlightenment Philosophy, and that, just like the French Revolution, the June Rebellion was a terrible idea. We may admire those bight eyed idealists like Enjorlas, but they were incredibly dangerous people. Nobody really wanted a second Revolution, at least not most of the people who could remember the first one. And also, the Middle Ages were awesome, and not Dark at all. Who started calling them the Dark Ages? Enlightenment thinkers. Boom. I'm not very good at streaming my thoughts into a coherent structure. To be fair I wrote a twelve page paper today, so I'm not that coherent right now, but hey, this is one more thing to check off my Spring Break to-do list. And, for the record, I do like this song, and I love this story. Just so people know. I only hate the Enlightenment, but there are plenty of reasons to hate it.