Sometimes when one reviews some old topic of interest with fresh new eyes – things suddenly appear a bit different. Watching a documentary about the French Revolution last night was one of these moments.
And in some sense, it really didn’t go that well.
Consider this: It was very bloody, very mismanaged, it introduced a new period of chaos and violence, and it led to more decades of tyranny, imperial disasters and return of the monarchies. Leading figures like Robespierre were just dreamy young boys with lots of romantic talk while chopping off heads. And the prime document of pride for the revolutionaries, the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen”, was done way better by Thomas Jefferson thirteen years earlier. While some might say that the French Revolution is the most important event in Western History, one could perhaps with some merit argue that both Athens, Rome, Florence and Philadelphia are far more important in both symbolics, originality, cultural impact and the role of being pivotal moments in time.
Moreover; the general thoughts about democracy and equality are probably tens of thousands of years old, as the normal and peaceful way of organizing big groups of people into communities and societies, even if history tends to skew the picture and focus on violence and problems. All of these basic principles and dynamics were written down beautifully by the Greeks some 2.500 years ago, while the ideas about the middle road and moderation are represented in variations in so many cultures and peoples throughout our written history.
So the revolts in 1789 might seem more to be a starting point of a long process towards a peaceful and representative democracy in France – but it could have been done so much better and faster. Without all this unnecessary violence and disruptive decades that followed. And the intellectual and philosophical substance of the movement is in some ways little more than some patchy and recycled snippets of Ancient Classics with perhaps a little French twist to it. But it is by no means new.
So what are the relevant lessons from all of this. Perhaps that decade-long supression and inequality could lead to self-destructive and uncontrollable revolts by the masses. That rapid change in society needs to be managed well to succeed. That chaos attracts and worships destructive personalities. And that renewal after decline and corruption is complicated and slow. But also, that societies often gravitate back to some sort of fair distribution of rights and resources among the population after an unhealthy concentration amongst a few over time.
We’ll see how this decade evolves.