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liberty, equality and fraternityLike most everyone I could not help but be moved by the musical Les Miserables. It seemed a powerful story of redemption, and I even found myself feeling sympathetic to the young revolutionaries as they sang their final stirring anthem from the barricades.

I am afraid that is where my sympathy for the Jacobins ends. My antipathy to the French Revolution was brought into focus by Dom Gregory Pilcher’s observation while I was visiting in his Arkansas parish last week. Enjoying a grumble and a glass of beer, Father Pilcher said, “The problem is that Americans have replaced Faith, Hope and Charity with Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité.

It is a kind of secular heresy, for heresy is not a lie, but a half truth. Heresy is one truth promoted to the exclusion of another. Heresy is also one truth promoted above another truth to which it should be subject. Heresy lacks the proper order of goods and ignores the hierarchy of truth. Heresy is truth distorted and disordered.

When this happens even the truth that is espoused becomes deformed. Without Faith, Hope and Charity, Liberty becomes License, Equality becomes the destruction of those who seem superior and Fraternity becomes no more than indolent tolerance.

Echoing the anthems of the French Revolution, the progressives in America have embraced Liberty, Equality and Fraternity as the only virtues. Consequently Liberty now means every man must be allowed to do whatever he pleases as long as he harms no one. What everyone misses is that this is the motto of the Satanists: “Do as you please, but harm none.”

The obsession with equality has been become an aggressive attack on any person who in any way might just possibly be racist, homophobic, misogynistic or just plan unkind in any conceivable way. Such individuals must be isolated, ostracized, punished and persecuted by the crowd howling for equality. Equality has become, as it was in the French Revolution, not just a mob rule, but a mob rampage.

Fraternity is not the fond embrace of one’s fellow man, but an indolent acceptance of every other person without discernment of character or recognition of accomplishment. For the modern progressive “Fraternity” is an obliteration of personality, a dumbing down of individual ideas and a leveling of the population so that everyone becomes a cipher, a comrade, a drone and a drudge.

While these three impostors might be called “virtues” notice that there is little about them which an individual soul might work on to become more truly virtuous. “Liberty!” may be a stirring battle cry, but how do I attain this virtue except by demanding that I be permitted to do whatever I want provided that I allow everyone else to do what they want? If I am simply doing what I want how is that virtuous, for virtue, by definition demands personal discipline and self-sacrifice.

Notice how we always wish to be equal to those above us and not to those below. The cry “Equality!” must inevitably sound like “I am equal to you!” How then, might I obtain the virtue of equality without self-assertion and hubris? I might try to consider others to be my equal, but this virtue is hardly more than a good idea, and should I try to put it into effect I should be prepared to receive a good knock on the head from the person I was trying to treat equally, for in doing so I had proclaimed him to be my inferior and patronized him in the process.

Fraternity is not a virtue, but a vague ideal. I may wish all men to be my brother, but I am like Edna St Vincent Millay who said, “I love humanity, but hate people.” What is there to bring me together with another human being? A shared ideology and a shared goal might make me cast an arm around his shoulder, but sharing a goal makes me a team-mate, not a brother. Fraternity remains elusive for most attempts at brotherhood end as Cain and Abel’s did.

The theological virtues, on the other hand, balance and empower the lesser virtues of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. Liberty is balanced by Faith for Faith is the implicit trust and relationship with the Other while Liberty is the individualistic assertion of oneself. Hope inspires Equality because Hope longs for a future fulfillment of the self instead of grasping at a superficial equality that never satisfies. Charity balances the longing for Fraternity by replacing a bland, self-serving comradeship with bold, self sacrificial love.

The conservative sees what is good in Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, but sees within these secular virtues a deeper and more original good. The theological virtues are supernatural gifts that inspire and empower not the Liberty, Equality and Fraternity of revolution, but the true Freedom that comes from Faith, the Fulfillment of the Individual and the Fire of Divine Love that purifies and transforms both the human soul and human society.

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16 replies to this post
  1. It’s odd that while extolling America’s past over the French Revolution, how faith, hope, and charity played out in our treatment of those who were different, especially nonWhites, seems to be absent while the search for liberty, equality, and fraternity outside of a religious bedrock is proven to always be doomed by what happened in the French Revolution. And instead of asking why the search for liberty, equality, and fraternity so miserably failed during the Revolution, we assume that it was because search was secular thus implying without religion, such a search will always fail.

    But what is rarely examined when Americans compare the two revolutions are the differences in the then current status of and past abuses endured by those who revolted. In the American Revolution, the participants represented a cross section of economic classes as they rebelled against remote leadership. In the French Revolution, it was the 3rd estate, those who had the least economically, who rebelled as their concerns were almost always ignored by the clergy and the aristocracy. And the rulership was local rather than remote.

    In addition, because the participants in the American Revolution represented a cross section of economic classes, the abuses endured were different. We should note that many of the abuses noted in our history revolved around those suffered by the wealthiest and those could hardly be called abuses compared to what the 3rd estate suffered in France. Many in the 3rd estate were starving and a later decision by Louis XVI further shifted the tax burden from the aristocracy to the 3rd estate in a nation going bankrupt–the bankruptcy was partly due to the help France gave America during the American Revolution. And since the clergy sided with the aristocracy over the 3rd estate, how could one expect the 3rd estate to turn to the Church for help in addressing its grievances?

    So it seems that when some Americans criticize the French revolution, they tend to sound like the pharisee from the parable of the two men praying. And this is tragically ironic when the Americans offering the criticisms are Christians.

    • The third estate was not a unified block. Much of the impetus for the revolution came not from the peasantry or working classes but from the middle classes. At times the middle classes made use of the peasants and the working class, but the revolution was always led by the middle classes. Besides, the revolution was most especially a Parisian phenomenon. The Girondins and Jacobins made use, in turn, of the Paris mob to further their ends, but whether the mob was truly revolutionary, rather than a largely unreflecting tool for its leaders (one is reminded of Defoe’s witty comment “that there were a hundred thousand country fellows in his time ready to fight … against popery, without knowing whether popery was a man or a horse”).

      I have no doubt that when there were bad harvests and the like (as there had been recently in 1789), that the peasantry and populace often had it hard and some did starve. But this was often the case in most pre-industrial societies. I do not think that the Marquis St. Evrémonde was actually very representative of Ancient Regime in France.

      • That the third estate was not a monolith brings what to the discussion. That their grievances and needs were not addressed just as with the peasants did give them a common tie, they were the neglected and abused. In addition, clergy aligned itself with the aristocracy making the Church the enemy of the oppressed.

        The chief fault and sin in the French Revolution, which is common amongst those who have received the most abuse, is that of externalizing evil. It was the basic tenet of those running the French Revolution as much as it was the same for Marx’s proletariat dictatorship which was the other side of the coin of his times.

        The externalization of evil occurs most often among those most severely oppressed and by those who see themselves as being exceptional. That was what was practiced by the leaders of the Revolution.

  2. Actually the good father illustrates the effects of a movement in history that is both gnostic and, rather than grounded on reason (Nous) as our French friends oft boast, was grounded on a pathological and disordered humanist regime that ignored the theophanic experiences (revelation) on both the noetic and pneumatic contexts.Happily, for we American citizens, our revolution had the merit of being defined as a noetic act, an act of noetic differentiation, whereby the American polis successfully established a federal government that carried with it elements of both the transcendent/revelatory differentiation and reason/nous.

  3. I’ve always wondered if the French Revolution ideals of “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity” were based some how on the three religious virtues. They seem to mimic faith, hope, and chairty. As you say, fraternity is completely vauge, and once you have liberty and equality then fraternity is redundant. It’s only included because it wishes to echo and therefore replace the theological virtues.

  4. This article gets it wrong. I don’t believe left wingers (I refuse to call them “Progressives”) believe in either liberty or equality. Instead, they are both collectivists and elitists, favoring the “Rights” of society over the rights of the individual as well as believing that they are superior to the rest of us and thus the only ones fit to rule the rest of us. And their version of “Fraternity”, to the extent it has any meaning at all, is just another word for collectivism.

  5. Brilliant again, Father. Lately I wonder what institutions of revolution do when they win. Once gays can marry and everyone is cowed into silence, how do the gay rights jobs survive? In England, racist billboards were found to be posted by the government-funded anti-racism authority, allegedly to remind us of closet racism in our hearts.

  6. Mr Mendenhall is correct. The 24 hour revolt in Les Mis takes place in 1832. It is directed against Louis Philippe. The “ideals”of the earlier French Revolution had gone by the wayside, and a period of decay had ensued capped by a deadly cholera epidemic. A retired popular French General (Lamarque) sympathetic to “the cause” of the revolutionaries was killed and triggered the brief uprising which collapsed almost immediately.

  7. Excellent analysis Fr., our world today didn’t just develop in a vacuum.

    As to 1792 v 1832, I too always presumed it was the time of the Jacobins…and I’m a history major too! 😁

  8. Please note that in the movie, the barricades at the end were in heaven, so there is a more transcendental message than just earthly revolution.

  9. Hats off to Dr. Jim. Big difference between what resulted in the reign of terror and The Paris Uprising of 1832. I am not an historian but I read Les Mis 40 years ago.

  10. That’s just plain old Liberalism. Even if one mixes the liberty, equality, and fraternity with faith, hope, and charity, you still got plain old Liberalism with a coat of paint like a whitewashed tomb.

  11. Awesome! I’ve never met Fr. Pilcher but was a parishioner of Holy Redeemer from ’80 to ’85, recieved the Sacrament of Confirmation there. I hope some of the folks got to meet you. A rare treat, I’m sure, for this small community in the big woods. God bless!

  12. I believe that in this article, which is insightful and well-written, is the crux of the wrongheaded criticism of libertarianism that we see in the Church today. There is an assumption that if one aspires to Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité in the public realm that it is motivated solely to that end. Could it be that the modern day libertarian is in fact motivated by Faith, Hope and Charity?; which in good turn advocates for the secular values of Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité? This is not a blanket statement, as some mean to use devoid of morals, but broad brush strokes cover too much canvas.

    Nonetheless, be it the June Rebellion of Les Mis or the French Revolution, let’s not divorce the ideology from the historical context. The “Declaration of the Right of Man and the Citizen” was a foundational document of the Revolution in France when we saw codified natural rights that precluded the corrupted powers of State. We must remember, in our comfortable system of representative government, that the practice of political and social power was entirely in the hands of an oligarchy. This document was predicated on the concept of natural law albeit from a secular perspective.

    Saint Thomas Aquinas stated, to simplify here, that humans are capable of determining right from wrong because they have a conscience. Morally and ethically speaking, again from the Summa, ethical moral law must follow the Cardinal and theological virtues of Prudence, Justice, Temperance, Fortitude, Faith, Hope and Charity.

    I agree wholeheartedly that these so-called French Revolution values cannot stand without the infusion of moral virtue. The fact remains that this particular slogan has been the most popular, but it was not the only one of that time period. Others reflected a more virtuous leaning. Across the pond, the US Constitution and system of government found within it was created for a moral people as well and cannot stand without it. As John Adams wrote, ““Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

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