What is the Third Estate? Summary of Chapters 1 and 2

Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès was born in 1748. In 1774, he became a priest, but without a vocation. He held several important positions, but became truly famous in 1788, when he published theEssay on privileges, then especially the pamphlet what is the Third Estate? In 1789.

This last work was a resounding success, and remains widely commented on to this day. Abbé Sieyès played a profound role in the French Revolution, especially during the convocation of the Estates General on May 5, 1789, where he was sent.

What does Abbé Sieyès say in Qu’est-ce que le Tiers état ?

Abbé Sieyès himself gives the outline of his work in three striking formulas:

1° What is the Third Estate? – ALL.
2° what has it been up to now in the political order? -NOTHING.
Three° What does it ask? – TO BE SOMETHING.

Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès, What Is the Third Estate?

Sieyès’ objective is to show all the importance of the people in the kingdom. According to Sieyès, the people perform all the tasks of the kingdom, and the most arduous. Sieyès is then astonished that the people do not rebel against the privileged ones, who preserve without being disturbed their advantages. It is thus easy to measure the contestative scope of this pamphlet, and to understand the role that Sieyès could play in the French Revolution.

Summary of Chapter 1 – What is the Third Estate?

– First of all


Sieyès wishes to show that the Third State, that is to say the men without privilege, is the only one to be useful to the kingdom.

Sieyès for that starts by distinguishing the particular works from the public works.

The particular works are of 4 classes:

  1. works of the campaign
  2. works that add a second value
  3. merchants and traders
  4. care of the person

For Sieyes, these 4 classes all fall under the activity of the Third Estate.

The public works and functions are also of 4 kinds:

  1. Sword
  2. Dress
  3. Church
  4. Administration

For Sieyes, even these functions are performed by the Third Estate, in a proportion of 19/20th. In addition, the remaining twentieth of the activities are the least burdensome tasks, the Third State providing the most burdensome.

The noble order is alien to the nation in three ways:

  1. by its laziness
  2. by its civil and political prerogatives
  3. in its principle (it does not come from the people) and in its object (it aims at the particular interest instead of the general interest)

But the nation is the Third State.

Summary of the second chapter – What has been so far in the political order?

– The abbot Sieyès defines the Third State as the whole of the citizens who belong to the common order


The privileged are excluded.

But until then, the representatives of the Third State received privileges. This is not acceptable for Sieyès, the representatives not being anymore stemming from the Third State.

For all that, Sieyès does not advocate a leveling down. On the contrary, it is a question of extending the privileges granted to the representatives to the whole Third State.

Moreover, one speaks then in France of three aristocracies:

  1. The Church aristocracy
  2. The aristocracy of the sword
  3. The aristocracy of Robe

Far from refuting this classification, Sieyès approves it and even generalizes it to the whole regime. Since its beginnings, the Kingdom of France has been an aristocracy as a whole, except for a few moments when it was even despotic, notably during the reign of Louis XIV. It is the court that rules, it is the court that makes and unmakes the men in power, it is the court that is the head of the aristocracy in France.

The abbot Sieyès summarizes himself with his remarks, which announce explicitly the subversive and even revolutionary character of his observations:

Let us summarize: the Third Estate has not had any real representatives in the Estates General until now. Thus its political rights are null.

Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès, What is the Third Estate, chapter 2

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