The most searching and dispassionate analysis will yield the irrefutable conclusion that summer is by far the worst season. Both presently and historically, the months when the northern hemisphere faces the full force of the sun are months of turmoil and destruction. Locally, a man will notice his powers suppressed by the sun, his energy running out with the flow of sweat from his skin. Internationally, this summer has yielded conflict in the Ukraine, as the slumbering beast of Soviet nationalism has stirred. In the Middle East, a faction of the Muslim religion has raped and plundered the once-great city of Mosul. The crescent is doing all it can to crush the Cross. In Israel, the conflict ever ancient, ever new, once again spills blood on the ground where Christ trod. The fires of this war are visible from space, as the dying cry out to heaven. Oh yes indeed, summer is a most dreadful time.
This seems to be a recurring problem. For the event which I accidentally found myself studying this summer, namely the French Revolution, experienced its worst atrocities during the months of humidity and heat. The Bastille fell during the summer. The Reign of Terror reached its apex during the summer. Curiously the two works which are the subject of this essay do not make mention of the summer’s effect upon national discord. I suggest, humbly, that this is a slight oversight on their part.
The fun had only just begun when Edmund Burke published his famous Reflections on the Revolution in France. The Reign of Terror and the collapse of the National Assembly still lay in the future. Maximilien de Robespierre was still known as a romantic idealist championing Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s new religion of mankind. Mr. Burke’s work retains its prestige, despite the developments following its publication, because his thesis remains pertinent so long as men seek to govern themselves. His concern was foremost “revolution,” with the predicate “in France” being secondary. Revolution is a constant threat to civilization, and the events in France occasioned the opportunity to defend the true rights and responsibilities of man in the face of their enemies. For all philosophy is at once urgent and eternal, or else it has no claim to be called philosophy. Mr. Burke’s criticism is actually a proposition; a vision of order and beauty, justice and truth.
Considering the historical scope, Christopher Dawson’s lesser-known The Gods of Revolution is a much larger work. Here, as in Mr. Dawson’s entire cannon, the spiritual and intellectual currents, which flowed through the revolution to our present age, are on display. Mr. Dawson gives definite shape to the “philosophers” and the new “metaphysics” criticized by Burke. It was the radical liberalism of the philosophers which yielded the atrocities of the French Revolution. The movement of ideas was “wider and deeper in France than in Russia [during their revolution] and had a far greater influence on the course of events.” Those contemporary defenders of the “ideals of the Enlightenment” face an extraordinarily difficult task, for “to deny the influence of liberalism on the French Revolution, we should have to deny the influence of communism on the Revolution in Russia.” Curiously, Mr. Dawson makes no mention of Mr. Burke’s Reflections in his bibliography, citing instead the later Thoughts on the Prospect of a Regicide Peace. As one might expect, Mr. Burke makes no mention of Mr. Dawson’s able analysis.
Mr. Burke’s Reflections are at once an attack upon the revolution in France and a plea to prevent a revolution in England. The book is at times descriptive, at other times satirical, at times cool and dispassionate, at other times seething with righteous rage. It exposes the evil of what has already past. It proposes the good that will secure what is to come. In other words, Mr. Burke’s book is philosophy, for philosophy that cannot weave together all the fibers of human life is no philosophy at all.
This is the sin of the revolutionaries. They could not grasp the value and the varieties of human life. In their attempts to form a more humane and stable government, they formed a frothing pot of chaos. In their attempts to secure the value of currency, they destroyed all that was of value including the currency. In their attempts to remedy the mild inconveniences of monarchy, they inflicted the cruel punishments of flimsy governance. “Nothing turns out to be so oppressive and unjust as a feeble government.” The revolutionary government was founded on an idea, abstract and airy, which could not meet the concrete and fleshy needs of a population starving for food. “The prattling about the rights of man will not be accepted in payment for a biscuit or a pound of gunpowder.” But darn it if the National Assembly did not try. The first resort of the incompetent is violence, and where the King could control the realm; the National Assembly could not. “We will send troops,” came the reply to the problem of governance. “The last resort of Kings is always the first with your assembly,” remarked Mr. Burke.
The crime of Catiline, which sparked the rhetorical revenge of Cicero, was the attempted destruction and upheaval of Rome. That was before the time of Christ, who promised not peace but the sword. Seventeen hundred years after his resurrection, the promise of Christ was realized. The sins of Catiline became the “salvation” of France. Usurpation of power became patriotic. Slaying of the king became virtuous. In our own day the values of progress, upheaval and a brighter future are praised to such a degree, that Catalina could, if alive, run for President, perhaps bringing the promise of “hope and change.”
For his part, Mr. Dawson proposes that the problem of our time is to reconcile unity with freedom, for the revolution set these two against each other. In the person of the king of France, with the attending formalities of feudal culture, unity and freedom were wedded, though perhaps imperfectly. Under Louis XVI, reforms had already begun before the revolution. It was the royal government that abolished the parliaments, the guilds and the Jesuits. The king lacked the will to see reforms through to the end, but lacked nothing in good intentions, intelligence or wealth. The revolutionaries overthrew this government and established in its place insecure and impermanent committees and assemblies. These collections of vicious men disproved the boring truism that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Even before the world had met Stalin and Trotsky, suspicion and suppression of fellow comrades in the revolution became the standard practice of Jean-Paul Marat, Louis Antoine Saint-Just, Maximilien de Robespierre and others. The Reign of Terror was an attempt to scare the political enemies of the Jacobins into submission, and was far more brutal than anything deployed by the King to keep law and order.
At the beginning of this period, executions in Paris numbered about 60 to 70 per month. March saw 122 beheadings; April 259. In May the number climbed to 346. June almost doubled the count with 689 executions and July provided the filling for 966 graves. An execution every hour of every day would not reach the number of executions of July 1794. Robespierre himself ascribed to these deaths a sacrificial and religious character. In his “On the Relation of Religion and Morality to Republican Principles,” Robespierre offers this torrent of blood as a sacrifice to the “Being of beings.”
Thus the religion of the rights of man does not merely occasion certain violent outbursts, as happens with over-zealous defenders of Christianity, but rather prescribes them. “To Robespierre and his followers there was no contradiction between the Reign of Terror and the religion of humanity. The guillotine was as much an emblem of the Jacobin ideal as the Tree of Liberty.” The Christian faith is founded upon the willing sacrifice of one man for the forgiveness and salvation of many. The religion of humanity was founded upon the unwilling sacrifice of many for the temporary preservation of abstract and undefined “rights.” The deaths in France cannot even be counted as a sacrifice for a homeland or a king. They are a sacrifice to an idea, and thus occasion the birth of ideology.
The French Revolution gave way to “a continual struggle between conflicting ideologies,” the result of which has been the scientific revolution. Mr. Dawson here offers his concluding analysis of the progeny of revolution. “The application of science to life by technology meant a vast expansion of wealth and power which broke down the traditional social standards and undermined the traditional moral values.”
Despite the divergence in their experience of the revolution in France, Mr. Dawson and Mr. Burke both cautiously avoid limiting their writings to merely a critique. The events that unfolded in France between 1788 and 1796 are an episode, an important episode, but not the whole story. Ideas are both urgent and eternal. Mr. Burke wrote his work on the revolution in France. The spirit and substance of revolution was his subject. Mr. Dawson wrote of the gods of revolution. The metaphysics of revolutionary ideas was his subject. The events in France provide an entry point for discussion of these larger matters, but the larger matters are the focus. What must be taken from these writers is a sobering account of the birth of the god of progress. Idolatry is not limited to the past. Atrocities are no respecter of the calendar. At the height of “the age of reason,” the specter of progress was given a royal welcome.
For the congealed blood and matted hair of all those who died at the hands of the revolutionaries formed a wide red carpet, upon which the god of progress was invited to tread. Then, and now, this slow-thighed beast marches on, surrounded by a cohort of rationalists and free-thinkers; men who champion all that is unreasonable and are free to do anything but think. These guardians of the god suppose that they are the keepers of its chained collar, not realizing that they themselves are the ones being led. The sight of the beast fills their vision and keeps their eyes up-turned, lest they realize where they walk: upon the spent lives and severed heads of their own brothers and sisters.
Mr. Dawson spends the last chapter of his book tracing this march from its start in Paris to its current place in our world. His analysis dies where he does: in the second half of the twentieth century. However, extending our eyes but a little farther, we shall notice a shift in the parade route, perhaps even a new cast of characters. Curiously, in our age, the worshippers of progress have morphed from the established order’s enemies into its most ardent defenders. By some bizarre twist of language, the revolutionary spirit has become enshrined in (of all things) the institution of American government. This presents the conservative with a bizarre task. Mr. Burke formed his prose against those who would destroy the power of government. Mr. Burke’s students now form their prose against those who would expand the power of government, and the difference is critical. ‘Tis plain that it is modern liberals and progressives who embody the greatest threat to the ancient institution of the family, yet ‘tis equally plain that it is certain modern conservatives who embody the greatest threat to the institution of government. The seeds of revolution are to be found in much of the rhetoric currently hurled at the President, which Mr. Dawson and Mr. Burke would remind us are the seeds of anarchy, chaos and nihilism. Without a concept of government as a good, many conservatives may seek to destroy it as a means to cure what ails them.
Roger Scruton has made this point with his usual profundity and poise in the ecumenical journal First Things. “American conservatives,” he writes, “are in danger of appearing as though they had no positive idea of government at all.” “They seem to be losing sight of the truth that government is not only natural to the human condition, but an expression of those extended loyalties over time, which bind generation to generation in a relation of human commitment.” Even a society of saints would still need traffic laws and taxes. No matter how deep the wounds of excessive government are felt, conservatives must still acknowledge the government as a human good. President Reagan was wrong when he said, “Government is the problem.” Bad music in no way discredits good music. Ugly paintings in no way discredit beautiful paintings. False government in no way discredits good government, or the fact that government is necessary for human flourishing. Sadly, the reader of First Things, or for that matter of this fine publication, is not likely to fall into the trap of throwing off the entire political order as a way to remedy the abuses of Barack Obama or Kathleen Sebelius. Yet among the wider population of persons self-identified as “conservative,” such a mistake is a real possibility and a real threat.
Herein lies the cost of our collapse in education. Without a basic theology, Sarah Palin cannot tell the difference between baptism and torture. Without a basic philosophy, Matt Walsh cannot distinguish between “absolute truths” and his opinions. Without a basic anthropology, progressives have no idea of the purpose of sex. Without a basic history, certain conservatives run the risk of repeating its mistakes. Those who would throw off this government to remedy its abuses would do well to crack the spines of Mr. Burke’s and Mr. Dawson’s books. The question that must remain central for the reader is this: Do I have more in common with the author or with his subjects?
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.