Biggest and Best Lessons Learnt from 6 French Philosophers


France is known to many around the world as a place where culture, art and philosophy can thrive. Maybe a little less so nowadays, but throughout the Middle Ages, the Age of Enlightenment, all the way up until modern times, philosophy was a major part of French culture and education.

Sometimes philosophy can seem like a pretty intimidating topic. But it doesn’t have to be! Keep reading to discover the biggest and best lessons learnt from 6 French philosophers.

1. Michel de Montaigne

Michel de Montaigne was born in 16th century, and is known as one of the most important French philosophers in history. Montaigne’s masterpiece is a collection of writings entitled Essais (Essays in English).

Montaigne was known as a sceptic, and he didn’t agree with the Renaissance belief that mankind couldn’t find fulfilment in their lives without the use of reason. Reason meant being able to use your minds and common sense to come to terms with inner troubles and questions involving human existence, here on earth and also after death.

Montaigne didn’t believe that everyone had the mental and emotional capacity to live like this. Montaigne wanted everyone to feel happy and fulfilled, no matter their level of education or critical understanding.

Michel de Montaigne

Michel de Montaigne – WikiCommons

This is why Montaigne got to work on Essais. He wanted to create an alternative way of learning, as he did not agree with the world of academia. He could recognise that philosophy especially was a difficult subject, and he wanted to make it more accessible to the common French person through his work with Essais.

One of the most important aspects of Essais is that Montaigne speaks in a language that anyone can understand, and even comments on his own, rather embarrassing, bodily functions. People could read his work and think to themselves, “I do that too, this means I’m normal.” Montaigne wanted to recognize the fact that all humans have the same drives and embarrassments, no matter their level of education.

2. René Descartes

Have you ever heard the phrase, “I think, therefore I am”? Well, you can thank French philosopher René Descartes for that.

“I think, therefore I am” – René Descartes

René Descartes

Portrait of René Descartes by Frans Hals – WikiCommons

For Descartes, when asked the question, “do I exist?” the answer was simple. If he was able to think, and recognize the fact that he is thinking, than this means that he exists. This lesson is an important one, as it is also recognizing the power of thoughts. Have you ever heard of the Law of Attraction? It’s along the same lines.

Descartes is considered to be the father of Western philosophy. And, he wants us to look within for the answers to any big questions about existence we may have.

3. Voltaire

The Age of Enlightenment occurred throughout the 18th century. It is also sometimes called the Age of Reason! A group of philosophers got together and decided that mankind could actually change through the use of rationality. Voltaire was a major figure in the Enlightenment movement in France. He also urged society to be freethinkers and tolerant.


Voltaire [at the age of twenty-four], by Nicolas de Largillière – WikiCommons

He was also obsessed with the idea of good vs. evil. Voltaire wrote about this at length in his short novel, Candide. According to this French philosopher, nothing in the world is truly evil, and is all a part of God’s greater plan.

Voltaire encouraged his readers to use reason to judge whether things are truly good or truly either, coming to individual conclusions rather than following what others thought, just because.

4. Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a French philosopher that was born in 1712. Rousseau’s main idea was that humans are not born naturally immoral, but rather moral. His writings profoundly changed the way that adults saw children.

“Men are wicked, but Man is good.” – Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Portrait of Jean-Jacques Rousseau by Quentin de La Tour – WikiCommons

Before Rousseau came around, children were actually thought to be naturally evil! That could explain the reasoning behind the severe punishments that children used to receive.

Rousseau felt that man could better exist in small, almost prehistoric communities rather than in the large towns and cities of the modern world. For Rousseau, utopia could only be achieved if mankind lived in a primitive society.

Rousseau was often criticized for his beliefs. He called for a state-run government, and in order for this to succeed the state needed to be small. He felt that in smaller groups, it would be easier to work together for the common good of all.

Rousseau once famously said, “Men are wicked, but Man is good.”

5. Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir 1955

Simone de Beauvoir in 1955 – WikiCommons

Simone de Beauvoir is probably my favorite philosopher on my list. Ironically, she didn’t even consider herself a philosopher!

De Beauvoir felt strongly that gender was a societal construct, and that their are no real differences between men and women that weren’t created by society and tradition. Her masterpiece, the critique, The Second Sex was a major influence on the social theory of feminism.


“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” – Simone de Beauvoir

De Beauvoir wants us to know that “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman,” and is therefore not the second, or lesser sex. Over the course of her life, de Beauvoir was a professor, attended feminist marches and rallies, and fought for better reproductive rights for women in France. Her works are still referenced in today’s modern feminist movement.

6. Michel Foucault


Michel Foucault – Filosofía, Ciencia y Técnica

Michel Foucault is the most modern French philosopher, as he was born in 1926. Foucault urged his readers to reexamine the use of power and authority over society. Foucault felt that power was something that was imposed on us, and therefore negative. But, he also felt that power was an ever changing and interactive construct. So, not all bad!

Foucault also spent much of his life writing about mental health and illness. He famously claimed that madness was a natural state, and that real mental illness only occurred when people felt alienated from society.

Foucault was passionate about fighting for human rights, women’s rights and equality. Foucault also thought that history played a really important role in philosophy and psychology. Foucault wants us to look back in time and study and analyze our thoughts and actions, before we can move forward.


I hope you have enjoyed this very brief overview of the biggest and best lessons learnt from 6 French philosophers! I say brief because I honestly could right an entire blog on each of the philosophers I’ve mentioned!

For me, France still is the country of culture, art and philosophy. I hope after reading this article, you feel the same! If you still need convincing, why not join one of our Paris tours to learn even more? Click here to see all of our awesome options of walking tours with local guides!

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