The Philosophy of Abbe Sieyes Essay

The Philosophy of Abbe Sieyes

            French abbe and statesman Emmanuel Joseph Sieyes was one of the chief theorists of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era. He was likewise one of the writers of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen and the Constitution of 1791. Sieyes was well-known for his belief that the National Assembly should function as a single chamber instead of three separate Estates. Furthermore, he called for the distinction between “active” and “passive” citizens, restricting the right to vote to men of property in the process ( n. pag.).

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            Sieyes believed that taxpayers were “active” citizens – the taxes that they paid enabled them to participate in the building of society. In sharp contrast, women, children, domestic servants and foreigners were “passive” citizens – their inability to pay taxes rendered them unable to contribute to the building of society (Heilbron, Magnusson and Wittrock 71). He therefore concluded that only the taxpayers have the right to vote, as the government derived its funds from taxes. In the process, however, the right to vote would inevitably be restricted to citizens who had the economic capacity to pay taxes.

            Charles Dickens would tend to disagree with him. In his novel Oliver Twist (1837), Dickens criticized the moral hypocrisy of the Victorian Era when it came to the treatment of the poor. The Victorian middle class established poorhouses that were intended to take care of impoverished orphan children. But these institutions were notorious for starvation, disease and filth. In Chapter 2, for instance, it is revealed that Mrs. Mann never ensures that the children in her care practice good hygiene unless there is an inspection. Mr. Bumble, meanwhile, was a fat gentleman who urged the workhouse residents to observe a meager diet (SparkNotes n. pag.).

            The reason behind Victorian society’s shabby treatment of the poor is the belief that people from the lower classes were savages by nature. Certain vices were inherent to them and poor families promoted rather than discouraged these. By keeping the poor in institutions with abject living conditions, the upper classes are further convinced of their moral “superiority.” They enjoyed comfortable lives because they were morally “upright,” and the poor did not because they were “immoral” (SparkNotes n. pag.).

            Former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) would also disagree with Sieyes. He was well-known for the New Deal, a domestic program that was intended to alleviate the effects of the Great Depression. In order to create more jobs, FDR invested heavily in the construction of public infrastructures such as schools, roads and bridges. With a new source of income, the poor would be able to spend more and revive the American economy in the process (MSN Encarta n. pag.).

            Karl Marx, in sharp contrast to Sieyes, argued that the ruling class was responsible for the marginalization of the proletariat. The proletariat was thrust into poverty because the ruling class makes them work extremely hard in exchange for wages that would never afford them a decent living. Some members of the proletariat are therefore forced to resort to illegal activities in order to sustain themselves and their families. Should the proletariat become a burden to society, it is because the ruling class drove them to be as such (Marx 31).

            For Joseph Stalin, the poor were an integral part of industrialization and progress in Russia. Being the members of the proletariat, they were supposed to be willing participants in the country’s modernization process. This premise, however, resulted in terrible working conditions for laborers during the Stalinist era. Apart from very low pay, they had to work very long hours using substandard equipment. Complaints were punished with termination and or imprisonment – workers were supposed to endure a few years of hardship in exchange for a better society ( n. pag.).

            Sieyes would find the ideas of Dickens, Marx, Roosevelt and Stalin to be completely incompatible with his. For Sieyes, the poor were “passive” citizens and therefore had no right to take part in societal affairs such as elections. Dickens, Marx, Roosevelt and Stalin, on the other hand, believed that society should give special priority to the poor. Apart from providing them aid, they should also be included in community-building activities.

            I myself do not agree with the ideas of Sieyes. There will always be poor people in any given society. But then that is the reason for the existence of government – to ensure that everyone, rich and poor, would be able to have a chance at a decent life. Instead of condemning the poor for their state, they should be given opportunities for advancement. The government, after all, derives its power directly from the people – there is no distinction between the affluent and the impoverished.

Works Cited

“Abbe Sieyes: What is the Third Estate?” n.d. 7 June 2009


Heilbron, Johan, Lars Magnusson, and Bjorn Wittrock. The Rise of the Social Sciences and        the Formation of Modernity: Conceptual Change in Context, 1750-1850. New York:       Springer, 1998.

Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1848). The Communist Manifesto. In Emile Burns (Ed.), The     Marxist Reader: The Most Significant and Enduring Works of Marxism (pp. 21-59).        New York: Avenel Books.

“New Deal.” 2009. MSN Encarta. 7 June 2009             <>.

“Oliver Twist: Chapters 1-4.” 2009. SparkNotes. 7 June 2009


“Stalin.” n.d. 8 June 2009


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