“May my blood unite the French! I forgive all…”
The phrase was never completed. The guilotine fell and its thud ended the life of Louis XVI, giving its place to silence. For some seconds.
“Vive la démocratie”
Cheers echoed across Place de la Concorde after the execution. A king had fallen. Democracy was born.
But is that so?
Seeing things from a different perspective and with the advantage of historical distance from the actual facts, allows us to answer No to that question. Nothing is as it seems. The following text will try to clarify some of the biggest misunderstanding regarding the French Revolution and why we should really be interested in it, since it still affects us.
Why are we interested in this?
But why Harmonia Philosophica deals with this? This is a philosophy portal is it not? It sure is. However history is also part of us and it formulates our philosophy is ways we not even consider. Knowing our history and its implications is crucial in understanding the history of philosophy as well and, thus, philosophy per se! The French Reovlution is a very important chapter of modern European history which shaped the way we think. From the modern hate towards anything religious to the almost unconditional admiration of logic, many elements of modern philosophy are a by-product of the events which started in France in 1789…
What is the goal?
The events that led to the Revolution are documented in great detail by many writers. I will by no means try to document them again here. Anyone interested in the subject can find many great resources on the subject in books or in the Internet. The goal of this article is to go beyond the events and try to reveal the true nature of the Revolution and what it means, along with the effects it is having until to-day.
The sources used for this endeavour are the following:
- Almbert Mathiez, The French Revolution.
- Marilyn Yalom, Compelled to Witness: Women’s Memoirs of the French Revolution.
- Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America.
- Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the Revolution.
- Οι μεγάλες δίκες – Η δίκη του Λουδοβίκου ΙΣΤ’ (Greek).
By having these sources as a starting point one can easily navigate safely through the ocean of sources available on the matter. They provide an initial full picture of the Revolution from a philosophical, political and human perspective that will help the uninitiated quickly gain some valuable insights on this important part of our history.
What did the Revolution accomplish?
Short answer: It managed to stir emotions and hatred.
Long answer: Read below.
Many people believe that the Revolution brought many innovations in the political scene of France and helped the state better organize itself so as to provide to its people freedoms they longed for. Yet, this is one of the biggest misconceptions regarding the French Revolution. Alexis de Tocqueville in his important book “The Old Regime and the Revolution” analyzed and showed how everything positive that we believe came from the Revolution was actually based on foundations laid by the Old Regime!
France failed to follow America’s example. The masses – who looked only to the egalitarianism they had learned from the revolution – turned to the state to support their expectations, making the latter the greatest threat to democracy. And as mentioned by Tocqueville in his other great work “Democracy in America”, despotism is one of the potential problems that a democracy can have if it is not properly manipulated.
All that was left of the Revolution were deep divisions that exacerbated the pathology of the society inherited from the Old Regime: leveling down and extreme individualization were prevalent, eroding not only social solidarity but also the regulatory sense of public spirit. The era of the Revolution was characterized by an inadequate awareness of the value of freedom for a healthy political community.
The French forgot the importance of freedom and were content with equality. An equality under a ruler, which turned all visions of rights into a farce. The solution, according to Tocqueville, would be to further establish freedom in France. France, however, did not have the preconditions for a liberal state like America. The French attempted something no other nation had attempted: to cut themselves off from their history. Their success, however, was far less than we believe and as much as they themselves believed at the time of the Revolution. France could not escape its history, which haunted it in every manifestation of its new political reality.Although many believed the opposite, the Revolution took place in conditions of improved living conditions and expanded prosperity as a result of changes already conducted by the Old Regime. Almost everything (if not everything) positive that the revolution supposedly produced was in fact a consequence of the Old Regime. The centralization of administrative functions – which the revolutionaries considered to be their greatest achievement (although as the same time this centralization was said to have been one of its causes, because of the inequalities it reproduced) – has existed since the time of Louis.Administrative justice and the independence of the judiciary system are also products of the Old Regime that the Revolution overturned. The administrative revolution of reducing the unlimited powers of the prefect through the establishment of provincial assemblies had already taken place under Louis. (It is worth noting, however, that the incomplete implementation of the reforms in all cases, made the existing injusticies for those who were not happy with the fruits of these reforms more intense, resulting in increased dissatisfaction)
The excessive fragmentation of land ownership due to the abolition of slavery, which allowed the peasants to own land, had already begun long before the Revolution. For a long time the landlord of each area was not the one who actually ruled the villagers – in his place there were now (during the Old Regime) public officials. In general, the nobles had ceased to exercise power in the parishes and cantons – all that remained was their (often provocative) privileges.The equality that had been imposed from above by the Old Regime, became a beacon in the vortex of the chaos of the Revolution between a blind leadership and an enraged people. The administrative practices of the Old Regime, the society that emerged from them and the political modernity that shaped it after the Revolution, did not lead to freedom but to the authoritarianism of the Second Empire. The state and its structures as they were before the Revolution, were used after it. And that became the basis of the despotism that Tocqueville warned about.
All in all, Tocqueville managed to touch a very sensitive subject and tried to watch at the Revolution from a more objective point of view, away from fanfare of the type “Revolution changed everything” or “Revolution changed nothing”. His analysis was to the point and based on data of the Old Regime which where reviewed by Tocqueville himself. In that sense, this work is of extreme importance reminding us of the obvious: Nothing is born out of nothing. Even the most democratic revolution can have fruits which were planted during the previoud totalitarian regime…
All we need to do is stay humble and look at history with a more open eye.
Note: This work is based on the “Ελευθερία ως Μοίρα – Η αποτυχία της Επανάστασης” (Freedom as Destiny – The failure of the Revolution) work which is unpublished.
Revolution and the ‘Philosophy of the New’
With the Revolution, people were found to hate the new because it is new or – vice versa – to love the new because it is new and only for that. And it is important to understand that with the Revolution, France went to the new by completely dissolving the old. Thus in the new situation it could not use what was useful to the Old Regime, as the general tendency was to question everything old. Old and respected traditions fell victim to a ruthless attack. The intellectuals, also blind, had convinced the people that religion (the pillar of old society) could not coexist with freedom.
This philosophy still affects modern way of thinking. By default what is modern is better than the traditional. By definition what is metamodern is better than what is modern. And the story goes on and on. Until we reach a dead-end. Not by reaching the end of the road but by not reaching any end! Modern man keeps on questioning everything and lives with a constant urge to ‘move forward’. Never feeling home, always pushing for something different, for something else.
- Culte de la Raison…
- Against Enlightenment: The Enlightenment was not light. The Enlightenment is darkness.
This is exactly the philosophy that Harmonia Philosophica warns its readers for years now. There is no way to reach your destination if your compass is always changing direction. There is an old saying in chess: “A bad plan is better than no plan”. The reason? Well, if you do not have a plan you simply make random moves (even moves which momentarily seem as good ones) which are incoherent with one another. A society cannot thrive with such random moves. A person cannot progress with constantly changing goals and ideals. Foundations laid on shifting sand as simply not foundations. It is hard to realize this, let alone correct it. Knowing though where this tendency of ours came from (i.e. the French Revolution and the hatred for the Old) could make the task of changing out set of mind more easy.
History is Philosophy and Philosophy is History in much more real ways than we can think of.
As in all things, perspective is important. If one sees the Revolution from aclose distance, we might see that at the end, the Revolution resulted in an even more authoritarian regime. If one however sees the picture from a larger distance, we can surely verify that the seeds of democracy had been laid but on a infertile soil. It would take many years for those seeds to actually produce healthy fruits, some of which we are only now starting to taste. We must take whatever is good from the Revolution but also try to dig out the weeds that started growing on Place de la Concorde that morning on 21 January 1793. As David Mitchell mentioned in Cloud Atlas “Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future”…