REMEMBERING THE FRENCH REVOLUTION
By Paul Stenhouse, M.S.C., Ph.D.
THIS month, on July 14, the French Nation along with many lovers of France and things French, celebrates the 200th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille and the beginning of the French Revolution.
The world, in its present frail economic and psychological condition, has much to learn from the French Revolution. Had its genesis been better understood then many mistakes made at that time would not have been repeated so often over the past 2OO years.
The French Revolution has the dubious distinction of having introduced the word 'terrorism' into the everyday language of otherwise civilised people. The 'Reign of Terror' lasted only l0 months (September 1793-July 1794) but during that time Robespierre and his approximately 2l associates were able to control a population of 27,0OO,000 by intimidation, denunciation and the guillotine.
Innocent people were massacred wholesale. Royal, noble and ecclesiastical properties changed hands, but almost always found their way into the possession of the middle-class with money to purchase them: hardly ever did they become the common property of the landless peasants in whose name they were seized.
40,000 prominent aristocrats, clergy and intellectuals suffered torture and death, but along with them died unremembered and unnumbered thousands of peasants. In the Vendee alone it is estimated that over 500,000 old men, women and children were massacred wholesale; their villages destroyed and their crops burnt.
For what? Mainly to help realise an impossible dream conjured up, it seems, by 'an interesting madman', to use the title author Paul Johnson gives the chapter in his recent book 'Intellectuals' describing Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778).
Rousseau wrote of a State where morality would be wholly dependent on Law; Marx was later to make it dependent on Economics. He believed in government, but only by the wise. 'The wise should govern the multitude, when we are sure that they will govern it for its own advantage and not for their own'.
Unfortunately the best and wisest do not automatically come to the top in Republics or Democracies, any more than they do in Monarchies or Dictatorships.
Johnson makes the point that Rousseau's idealised State 'anticipated the one the Pol Pot regime actually tried to create in Cambodia, and this is not entirely surprising since the Paris-educated leaders of the (Pol Pot) regime had all absorbed Rousseau's ideas.'
YOUR QUEEN, MY QUEEN
MONSIGNOR William Hemmick was among the better-known clerical "characters" in Rome. An American, he had money and was what is known as a priest in his own patrimony, that is, he made no financial call upon the Church. He was a canon of St Peter's Basilica, had an apartment in the splendid Doria Palace, right opposite Mussolini's old headquarters, the Palazzo Venezia, enjoyed his reputation as the best Manhattan maker ("You don't need gin, use vodka") in Rome, shot bores down with a caustic tongue and knew all the best people.
I was reminded of him by the death (September 15, 1973) of 90-year-old King Gustav VI Adolf, of Sweden, a noted amateur archaeologist and frequent visitor to Rome.
Hemmick ran into him in the street one day and fixed a time for him to come to his apartment for a drink. Later, the King phoned him and said, apologetically, that he had forgotten to mention that Queen Louise was with him. would it be alright if she came too?
"By all means bring her along you majesty", replied Hemick. "Any queen of yours is a queen of mine."
- Alan McElwain
Rousseau's dream depended on the total submission of subjects to the wisdom of the State: and this depended on their being brainwashed. Not that he used this sinister word of the Gulag Archipelago and the Korean War. He did however declare that 'those who control a people's opinions control its actions' which is brainwashing flying under a different flag.
Citizens are, according to Rousseau, to be trained from childhood to see themselves solely in relationship to the State. 'It will be all they have and all that they are'. 'Everything is, basically, dependent on politics'. Even virtue depends on good government: 'Vice belong less to man, than to man badly governed'. These ominous words led inexorably to the fanaticism of Stalin's mass exterminators. Adolf Hitler's Gestapo and Mussolini's Fascists.
For Rousseau, the secular State, and its principal lawgiver becomes the Chief Teacher of the flock, the Father of the people, the Saviour of the disciples. He is, again in Paul Johnson's words, 'the New Messiah capable of solving all human problems by creating New Men.'
Rousseau's reputation and influence, especially on the French Revolutionaries, makes one wonder about the claim that post-reformation, scientific man had shed credulity and superstition and was open to all truth and light.
Rousseau misled his followers by blaming the economic ills of France on the concept of property. He never appeared to notice the pivotal role of currency, or to denounce prices unjust to both consumers and producers.
Instead of being so quick to blame all France's problems on fuedalism, the monarchy and the Church, Rousseau and his followers could have had a hard look at the artificially spiralling prices, high interest rates, property speculation, and the issuing of paper money which depreciated in value as quickly as it was printed. Had Rousseau lived, he would have witnessed what the ill-fated Marat was to call 'the accursed brood of capitalists, stock-jobbers and monopolists' - all products of the Revolution, it should be noted - along with a new class of nouveaux riches whose wealth was the result of profiteering and the taking of the land of the nobility and the Church.
Before the Revolution, in the agitation that broke out among French peasants protesting at the dearness of food, the solution these simple non-readers of Rousseau sought was one dear to mediaeval Catholic economists: the idea of a Just Price. The peasants would seize corn brought to market for sale, and demand that it be sold for a Just Price. Their voice sadly was not heard.
Had different measures been taken to relieve the economic distress, then fuedalism might well have dropped away, 'like dead leaves from a tree'. As it was, the axe provided by Rousseau was put to the roots, and France, described by Pope St Leo III (795-816) as 'the eldest daughter of the Church' was set on her path towards 'liberty, equality and fraternity' in the peculiar sense Rousseau and many of his followers gave to these words.
Control of currency and exchange and prices of goods would have been a comparatively easy thing at the onset of change; but it became impossible as the country fell into chaos and the reign of Terror spread.
People who knew Rousseau well, leave no room for doubt that the Master's ideas were unreal, illogical, confused and unrealisable. David Hume (died 1776) declared him to be 'a monster who saw himself to be the only important being in the universe.' Denis Diderot (died 1784) described the Father of the Revolution as 'deceitful, vain as Satan, ungrateful, cruel, hypocritical and full of malice'.
It is not to be wondered at, that the fruits from such a tree should put on edge the teeth of all who eat them.
While the Revolution is being feted over the next few weeks, the words of Sophie d'Houdetot should be remembered. She survived until 1813 and witnessed the effects on French and European Society of many of Rousseau's ideas. He described her as his only love. 'He was ugly enough to frighten me, and love did not make him more attractive. But he was a pathetic figure and I treated him with gentleness and kindness. He was an interesting madman.'
PAUL STENHOUSE, M.S.C., Ph.D.
From "ANNALS AUSTRALASIA" July 1989
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