Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Two views of the French Revolution

How did contemporaries view the French Revolution? As the crowning glory of the Enlightenment or as the herald of a new dark age? The answer is both.

Look at the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, promulgated in the late summer of 1789. Note the optimistic Enlightenment language of the Introduction:
'ignorance, neglect or contempt for the rights of man are the sole causes of public misfortunes and the corruption of governments'.
The answer to misfortune and corruption is to instruct a potentially virtuous citizenry in its rights.

Note as well how the language of the Declaration is an amalgam of Rousseau's Social Contract and the American Declaration of Independence [italics mine].
'Men are born and remain free (Rousseau) and equal (Thomas Jefferson) in respect of their rights. Ibid.
Whereas the great British jurist William Blackstone had declared that sovereignty resided in the King-in-Parliament, the French revolutionaries were in no doubt that
'the fundamental source of all sovereignty resides in the nation'.
A year later however, the Dublin born British politican Edmund Burke surprised everyone when he broke with his fellow-Whigs and published his famous attack on the Revolution, Reflections on the Revolution in France. Burke begins with some embarrassingly gushing praise of Marie-Antoinette, couched in the language of chivalry and proceeds to attack the Revolution as the product of
'cold hearts and muddy understandings'.
This was an attack on what he saw as Enlightenment rationalism taken to extremes:
'On the principles of this mechanic philosophy, our institutions can never be embodied ... in persons, so as to create in us love, veneration, admiration, or attachment.'
In harking back to the age of chivalry, Burke was arguing for an organic society which, in the manner of an ancient tree, had grown slowly and changed gradually. He believed that people needed institutions that were rooted in history. The French revolutionaries, he argued, were vandals, seeing the constitution as a mere machine that could be tampered with.

Burke's book was mocked by many and produced eloquent replies from sympathizers with the Revolution, notably Tom Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft. But when the Revolution turned into terror, he argued that he had been proved right and had been extremely prescient.