10th Grade: Reality comes to Roost


This week we set up the class for what will be our look at the fall of Napoleon early next week.

Napoleon loved speed.

I don’t know if he could have stopped moving if he wanted to.  Motion seemed ingrained into his being.  At this time, anyone in France who ate dinner in less than an hour would be considered a barbarian.  Most took about two hours to eat.  Napoleon routinely ate in less than 15 minutes, and his favorite dish–fried potatoes and onions–was in fact a dish he frequently had while on military campaigns.

On the battlefield, in politics, he practiced what he preached: he who acts quickly and decisively wins.  He had little patience for anything that would not move quickly.  This worked well for him in France on one level — it allowed to constantly outmaneuver his political opponents.  It certainly worked for him on the battlefield, and it translated, by 1810, into a considerable empire.

But his need for speed did not translate well in foreign policy.  He often used family members, for example, to rule large territories in his name.  This would be much quicker than patiently learning local cultures, courting local opinion, and adapting to it.   What he gained in time he paid for in many ways.  His policy was short-sighted for a number of reasons:

  • Napoleon claimed to bring the blessings of the French Revolution where he conquered.  Why then, did he think that conquered territories would accept a foreign ruler when he had exported the nationalism of the Revolution to their domains?
  • As puppets of Napoleon, his family would take orders from Napoleon, not from the people they ruled. How then, could these puppet rulers hope to hold the loyalty of the people to Napoleon?  How long until the people rebelled?

This in fact happened in Spain, a country Napoleon drastically underestimated.  To him Spain represented ignorance, sloth, military futility.  He dealt with them in his typical quick and summary fashion, but when he removed the Spanish royal family and installed his brother as king the people erupted in rebellion.  Spain became a nightmare of guerrilla war, for which Napoleon’s temperment had zero liking.  Goya captured the mood of the Spanish in his famous work, “The Third of May:”

Eventually the Spanish campaign pinned down 250,000 French troops.  But the presence of so many French in Spain alerted Portugal, who called upon England for help.  In both Portugal and Spain British general Sir Arthur Wellesley got invaluable experience fighting the French — experience he put to good use in Napoleon’s final battle at Waterloo, when he was then known as the Duke of Wellington.

But when people think of Napoleon’s missteps, they think of his invasion of Russia.

Why did he do it?

In many ways he felt he must because Russia had violated a treaty they signed with him and had traded with England.  If he let that go, then he would look weak, which would induce others to revolt as well.   Here Napoleon had, however, made his own bed.  He put tremendous stress on using his image to maintain his power.  He put his family members in charge of other nations, and so naturally did not have the loyalty of those he controlled.  So, he was right — his image was all he had left to maintain his power, and without it, it might collapse.  When Napoleon talked about the fact that losing one battle might end his reign he may not have been whining or exaggerating.  It may have been the truth, for even one defeat would shatter the image he had constructed for himself.

To invade Napoleon amassed a huge force that historians put between 475,000-600,000 men.  He wanted to use this army to quickly smash Russian forces and compel Czar Alexander I to surrender.  But Napoleon’s  usual keen strategic insight deserted  him here.  Who would fight an army that large?  Naturally, the Russians retreated inland, forcing Napoleon to follow and stringing out his supply lines.

What is victory?  Napoleon learned the hard way that victory comes not just by winning battles or capturing cities.  Victory does not come when you say it has.  It takes two to tango.  Victory only comes when your opponent, not you, thinks that he is defeated.  Battles, cities, crops — they meant nothing to the Russians.  But time did, and they used time to retreat inland and wait for winter.  They slashed and burned what they could — even the city of Moscow itself — and left Napoleon with nothing.

The Frenchman Joseph Minard made two classic visual aids, the first for Hannibal’s invasion of Rome, the other for Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.  Both tell the story of time, cold, and loss.

I think that Napoleon faced huge challenges when he assumed power in France.  He dealt with a country that had nearly destroyed itself during the Revolution, and felt that it needed security and stability above all else.  But he insisted on bringing that security by himself.  He never shared credit or delegated effectively.  He even took it upon himself to put the crown of France on his own head.

To establish his power, he fudged election results and removed certain civil liberties.  On occasion he imprisoned or even executed those who spoke out against him.  His image had to be preserved after all.  In the end, he complained that his friends deserted him just when he needed them the most.  He told the truth in the sense that after his failure in Russia, many did turn on him.   But his capacity for self-delusion may have been at work again.  He didn’t seem to be the type to make friends in the first place.

Many thanks,


The Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier

History comes to us in many forms.  Most historians try and make sense of their time directly, or perhaps try and 6314understand their time through understanding the past. In his diary, Jakob Walter only seeks to relate his own experience.  He doesn’t even really attempt to understand  his experience in context.  He has no comments on Napoleon and his policies, wars, and treaties.  His field of vision concerned himself only.

This certainly does not make Walter a selfish man, or even a narrow one automatically.  Walter came from Germany, an area conquered by Napoleon probably around 1807.  When his army got pressed into Napoleon’s service, his main concern became hoping that he and his brother (also a soldier for Napoleon) would stay alive.  He likely cared nothing for Napoleon himself or any grand moral or political scheme Napoleon may have had.  It was not his war.

So his narrow focus has no moral overtones necessarily, but this narrow vision of Walter’s writing has occasional parallels in his actions.  We know the invasion of Russia made for a hellish retreat for Napoleon’s army.  Walter lets us know that even in the initial months of advance into Russia supplies were scanty, at least for the “allied troops” like Walter.  This meant foraging, which the Russians made difficult by hiding and burning their own supplies.  Walter writes,

If they had voluntarily removed the simple covers [of their storage areas] much of their household furniture would have remained unspoiled.  For it was necessary to raise the floors and the beams in order to find anything, and to turn upside down anything that was covered.

Walter may have cared somewhat for Russians, but his argument boils down to, “If only they wouldn’t hide their food we wouldn’t have to destroy their homes to find it.”  He doesn’t concern himself at all about the larger picture, only the practical aspects of staying alive.  Limiting oneself to purely “practical” concerns will likely have moral consequences.

Most anyone with a vague familiarity of the Russian campaign will know of the terrible retreat. Walter’s details of Napoelon’s withdraw bring out the ghastly nature of his experience.  All semblance of unity and order broke down in the quest to stay alive.  I remember years ago reading Elie Weisel’s Night, a great book that should be read, but one I never wish to read again.  What made Weisel’s experience so tragic and terrible for me was not just the inhumanity of the Nazi’s.  Instead, Weisel’s descriptions of how the prisoners often turned on each other for bread or “good” jobs really devastated me.  Perhaps, I thought, had the prisoners united against the Nazi’s they could have redeemed the situation to some degree, but in Weisel’s account they rarely, if ever, did this.  Obviously the retreat from Russia is not the same thing, yet I was reminded of Night when reading how Napoleon’s army turned on each other, stealing food and horses from their comrades in arms with no hesitations.  Hobbes might say that this is what happens to human nature when the veneer of civilization gets stripped away.

Napoleon's Retreat

While Walter had a narrow vision some larger aspects of Napoleon’s empire reveal themselves.  The FrenchRevolution proclaimed “The Rights of Man,” at least in theory.  In practice it tended to mean rights for those who agreed with the Revolution’s shifting meaning of what it meant to be French particularly, not human generally.  After Robespierre’s execution much of this petered out, and Napoleon helped end it.  But though Napoleon was in some ways an ambassador of the French Revolution’s ideals of universal equality, the “French” emphasis made itself evident.  Whatever supplies Napoleon could muster from headquarters went first to French troops (especially his Imperial Guard), then to the “Allied” troops.  In the Russian campaign, supplies were scarce enough that there was never a “then” at all.  The sham flimsiness of Napoleon’s alliance gets indirectly exposed in Walter’s account.  That many of the “allies” Napoleon fought with in Russia in 1812 would turn on him in 1813 makes perfect sense.

So perhaps sometimes narrow keyholes can open up a vision of broader vistas.



Are you Bored?

This was one of my favorite scenes from The Great Muppet Caper:

I recently polled some of my students and gave them choice between a) Boredom, and b) A mild amount of physical pain, almost all of them chose the latter.  This might surprise us until we ask ourselves the same question.  Boredom can be excruciating, and physical pain would at least give us something on which to focus our attention.

In the poem “Waiting for the Barbarians,” C.P. Cavafy describes the hustle and bustle of a city in late Rome preparing for barbarians to menace them.  In the end, however, the barbarians for an unknown reason depart, leaving the people more confounded than relieved.  Cavafy concludes the with,

And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.

Cavafy wrote this work originally in 1898, though it was not published until 1904.  He speaks with a macabre prescience, for one can detect a latent nihilism in Europe at this time.  Many in Europe welcomed the arrival of war in 1914 though today historians endlessly debate the cause of the war, which seems elusive.  What exactly were they fighting for?  Perhaps the answer is more mundane.  Perhaps they preferred pain to boredom.

William Lee’s book, Blackbeard: A Reappraisal of his life and Times, raises some similar questions.  His book gives some interesting detail and good stories of the notorious pirate.  Lee attempted to write with precision and has an impressive bibliography of original colonial sources.  But what stood out to me most was that Lee could not quite help himself but admire the man.  Of course many in Blackbeard’s own day felt likewise.  I blame Lee for this, but not too much.  We have always had a hard time knowing what to do both physically and psychologically with men like William Thatch/Teach/something else (a.k.a., “Blackbeard”).  Pirates remind us of our tenuous relationship with civilization itself.  St. Augustine’s City of God  and his anecdote about Alexander the Great bring this home:

Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed on. If, by the admittance of abandoned men, this evil increases to such a degree that it holds places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues peoples, it assumes the more plainly the name of a kingdom, because the reality is now manifestly conferred on it, not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity. Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, What you mean by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, while you who does it with a great fleet are styled emperor.

As mentioned, Lee can’t quite help himself.  Blackbeard obviously had a certain dash and strong leadership skills.  We can admire his bloodless appropriation of supplies and medicine from the city of Charleston.  When we compare life in the colonial south and the life of pirates, we find that the pirates ran their organizations far more democratically than many of the colonies.  Ethnicity and religion counted neither for or against you on a pirate vessel, only achievement.  Add to that, officers could be subject to votes of “no confidence” from the crew at almost any time, and indeed some captains found themselves removed in this way. We can even find ourselves winking at some of his vices, i.e., he couldn’t stop “marrying” various women in the various ports he frequented.  Lee also points out that many of the stories of Blackbeard’s cruelty surely exaggerated for effect.

Blackbeard’s eventual death also raises questions on the rule of law and the nature of civilizations.  Pirates essentially made the claim that, “the sea is my kingdom, the land is your kingdom.  Who has the right to deny us?”  What right, indeed, can anyone claim to control or rule anything? If we believe that might does not make right, does consent?  There seems no ultimate reason why it should.

Blackbeard enjoyed hiding out near North and South Carolina waters for a few reasons.  First, the Outer Banks area posed many hazards for bigger ships with deeper draughts.  These same shallower waters and hidden inlets provided ready-made hiding places for pirates.  Secondly, these colonies had less organization and money, and thus posed less of a possible military threat to Blackbeard.  But eventually Governor Spotswood of Virginia had enough, and sent a fleet south secretly to do battle with Blackbeard and kill him.  Their success raised legal questions about jurisdiction and the legality of force.  Such questions soon quieted down, however.  After all, Blackbeard was a dangerous nuisance, and Virginia had taken care of him. Just as in the case of the pirates, nothing speaks quite like success.

They had many reasons for looking the other way with Virginia’s encroachment. Blackbeard clearly possessed a streak of violence and random cruelty.  He himself admitted to randomly shooting his 1st mate in the leg because, “Otherwise no one will talk about me from henceforth.”  In other words, he had to keep up his reputation.  No one disputes that he marooned most of his crew on one occasion in order to maximize his profits from a particular voyage.  He remained a violent, unpredictable man even with Lee’s generous treatment (which I suppose goes to Lee’s credit).  Of course everyone in Blackbeard’s own day knew this, and yet they had a hard time knowing what to do, despising, fearing, admiring, and possibly even envying him in equal parts.

In his Terror and Consent, Philip Bobbitt has an excellent treatment of the history of terrorism to begin the book.  He talks about the golden age of piracy and describes that it survived so long mostly because they piggy-backed off of the prevailing political ideology of the time.  In the age of absolute kings, monarchs had no real territorial limits on their claims to rule. States in that era defined power not by contiguous territory but by the extension of one’s person.  After both the Peace of Westphalia (1648) and the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), western states redefined power in terms of physically occupied territory.  The earlier understanding fit the pirates perfectly–the sea has no boundaries, and the pirates could extend their power with their personal presence, just like any other king.  Especially after Utrecht, this logic no longer applied and European governments had a much easier time now defining them out of existence and executing combined military action.

Bobbitt’s brilliant analysis sheds important light on the problem of piracy, but for all its insight, I don’t think it fully explains the problem.

As much as modern democracies may hate to admit it, consent-based societies have a problem when it comes to authority.  We base our civilization on the idea that we consent to it via a social contract of sorts, when in fact we do no such thing.  Most of us did not choose to live here, we were simply born here.  And all of us, from time to time, may disagree with particular laws or whole movements of society.  We lack a good rationale as to why we should go along with the crowd when we have a deep disagreement, other than perhaps, “this is better than the alternative–agreeing to disagree makes things easier and more profitable for you in the long run.”  But piracy found a fairly easy way to profit far more by not agreeing to disagree.  I find it curious that the golden age of piracy began just as social contract/government by consent idea started to emerge, and as mentioned above, most pirates ran their organizations more democratically than any other colony or country.

Of course piracy is not only a byproduct of the idea of consent.  Piracy existed long before such ideas.  My suggestion here is that the idea of the social contract may have created fertile ground for its resurgence.  And this leads to perhaps the root reason for most pirates throughout time.  Many have pointed out that those who are often most attracted to violence are not so much the poor, but the bored, and we can recall the fishwives of Paris in 1790 as an example of this, or the myriad of failed artists at loose ends in Weimar Germany that later comprised the bulk of Nazi party leadership.  It may not be coincidence that the Roman gladiatorial games expanded dramatically at a time when Rome had no more wars to fight, either abroad or at home.  Under the emperors they couldn’t even argue about politics anymore.  Boredom, our failure to dwell with ourselves, perhaps even one could say, our aversion to ourselves, may lead us to take out our frustration on others.


When the holy Abba Anthony dwelled in the desert, he was beset by boredom, and attacked by many sinful thoughts.  He said to God, “Lord, I want to be saved, but these thoughts will not leave me alone.  What shall I do in my affliction?  How shall I be saved?

A short while afterwards, Anthony saw a man like himself, sitting at his work, then getting up again to pray, then sitting back down again to plait a rope, then getting up again to pray.  It was an angel of the Lord sent to correct him.  “Do this and you will be saved.”

At these words Anthony was filled with joy and courage.  He did this, and was saved.

– From The Sayings of the Desert Fathers.











10th Grade: From Reality to Image


This week we looked at how Napoleon rose from literal obscurity to seize power and capture the imagination not just of France, but of all Europe as well.  How and why did this happen?

Human nature can tolerate chaos and disorder for only so long.  The French Revolution went through governments and constitutions at a rapid pace, never able to ultimately agree on exactly what they wanted to achieve.  Just as the civil wars and political violence of the late republic in Rome (ca. 100-30 B.C.) gave rise to Emperor Augustus, so too the French Revolution opened the door for someone like Napoleon.  We reflect God’s image in our need for have some kind of stability to make living truly possible, so it is natural that the French (and the Romans) would pay a high price to achieve that stability.  In the case of France, the price they paid involved giving up many of the democratic ideas espoused by many revolutionaries.  Was the price too high?  We will discuss this in the days to come.

Napoleon’s keen political opportunism, combined with a poetic military mind, gave him an excellent chance to have a shot at power in France.  The Revolution stripped the traditional ruling hierarchy in France from the 18th century bare to the bone.  Forget birth, forget status — anyone who could ride the tiger of French political forces could hypothetically seize power and keep it.  Napoleon had these circumstances in his favor, but Napoleon’s genius allowed him to coordinate the energy of the revolution and the culture created by the revolution and channel it into the military.

Like America, the French were inspired by a creed of universal values.  They had a “Declaration of the Rights of Man,” for example., just as our Declaration of Independence declared that, “All men are created equal.”  If much of the energy created by Romanticism caused destruction in France, Napoleon thought that showed the energy only needed properly harnessed.  Napoleon used this political culture to create a army that could go farther and faster than any other in Europe.  While other European armies still operated under the Enlightenment influence (emphasizing balance, order, proportion), Napoleon’s fashioned his army using the Romantic ideals of energy, spontaneity, and movement.

Napoleon had the insight to see that the values and culture of the French Revolution created a new kind of army for France.  The Enlightenment valued order, balance, and symmetry.  Enlightenment societies naturally created armies that focused on the same things.  Romanticism valued energy, instinct, “the deed,” and Napoleon’s personality and style fit right in with that mentality.  The French Revolution created a new society with new values, that would naturally lead to a new kind of army.  Not only that, the revolutionary events dispensed with large portions of the aristocratic officer corp that made up the Enlightenment oriented army of France’s past.

Military success involves many factors, and Napoleon knew how to put them together.  He often battled against superior numbers, but he knew that Enlightenment armies fear loss of equilibrium and balance above all things.  Furthermore, he knew that his army thrived on aggressive action.  He massed his troops at certain points on the field and made bold attacks totally out of character and practice for Enlightenment oriented forces.  Once he broke through at any particular point, the enemy would collapse, not just physically, but psychologically.  No one likes to face their worst nightmare.  Think of the opening lines of Beethoven’s 5th symphony smashing into a well ordered Haydn quartet and you can get the idea of the devastating effect French armies had under Napoleon.

Certain aspects of Napoleon are hard to like, but his story is certainly remarkable on its face.  Here we have a man from Corsica, a place no one cares about, rise up from utter obscurity to best all the big-wigs at their own game.  Even today, he can inspire excitement, as this 1796 painting shows:

But that youthful energy and charm diminished over time.  While the painting of him on horseback crossing the St. Bernard Pass still captures something of his dynamism, something is different.

What can account for the difference in how these two works strike us?

To my mind, Napoleon seems more remote, less human, in the second picture.  The event seems staged, which makes sense when we know that Jacques Louis-David, that arch-propagandist, painted it.  Napoleon did cross the alps to fight the Battle of Marengo, but he did it on a donkey, and certainly not in those clothes.  The expression on his face is a mask, and thus not particularly inspiring (at least to me). Napoleon drifted into becoming more of an image and less a real person.

From the above portrait, we need just a few steps and a few years until he crowned himself emperor.  His transformation from man to image seems complete.

But reality can be cheated for only so long, so there remained one final stage to complete the saga. . .

Next week we will see more of how this devolution of his person and power happened.

Many thanks,

Dave M

10th Grade: The Feeding Frenzy


This week we came close to wrapping up the events of the Reign of Terror.  During the terrible years of 1793-94 somewhere between 15-40 thousand people died and some 300,000 were imprisoned.  How did a Republic dedicated to “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity” descend into this barbaric nightmare.  Many theories exist, and here I would like to highlight a few we will discuss in class.

David Andress – The Terror & Outside Pressure

Historian David Andress wants us to consider what happened inside France in light of events outside of France.  England, Austria, and Prussia all tried militarily to oppose France, and all looked for the the fledgling republic to collapse.  The stress of war on an already fragile government heightened the stakes inside France, and they cracked under the pressure.

Edmund Burke – The Abandonment of Tradition

A contemporary of the Revolution, Burke warned back in 1790 that France would pay a terrible price for putting people in power who had no idea how to use it.  Having no political experience, France’s leaders would quickly grow frustrated, and then lash out in the most basic way possible: violence.  Burke would prove a prophet.

Burke may seem stodgy at fist glance, because of his strong emphasis on tradition and habit.  But in a paradoxical way, he believed that habits were the only sure foundation for progress in the world.  We make thousands upon thousands of decisions in a given day, and Burke sees these these habits as a path to freedom, giving us time to pursue new things rather than have to “rationally” whether or not to eat breakfast first or get dressed first.

In a terrible irony Burke predicted, those fired by the Enlightenment idea to apply the strong light of reason to all things would end up erasing habit and thereby condemn us to starting all over again, setting us back to a barbarian past.  The Revolution saw multiple constitutions over a short period of time, a change of calendar, a change of morals.  No one could be sure of anything, and in this environment, fear and violence would likely take over.

Burke applied the same thought process to the exercise of power.  We often make two mistakes regarding political power:

  • We assume that it is a kind of magic, reserved only for society’s wizards.
  • We assume that anyone can do it.

Burke believed that good use of political power functioned like many other things in life, as a matter of experience and training — a matter of habit.  Certainly we want intelligent people to hold office, but this intelligence needed training like anything else in life.  The problem with the revolutionary leaders was not their lack of intelligence.  It was not their wicked designs (we can grant that some of them, at least, meant well).  The main problem lie in the fact that no one really knew what they were doing, and so fell back on force as a last resort.

Simon Schama – Dangers of Ideology

In his great work Citizens, Schama took another approach.  He focused how the French defined what it meant to be a citizen of their country. Increasingly they defined citizenship in moral and ideological and not legal terms.  Frenchmen had rights, but only those truly “virtuous,” or dedicated to the Revolution were truly French.  Those not revolutionary enough could not be French, and so they had no rights.  They functioned as a cancerous tumor, foreign to the national body, and had to be excised.

All three of these eminent thinkers emphasize important aspects of the political context. But all three I think leave out some fundamental aspects of human nature.  I think this image of Robespierre, the head of the ironically named “Committee of Public Safety,”  speaks volumes.  Here we have a man who believed in his own virtue, and had a passion for enforcing his rules on others.  Imagine the ultimate HOA Board Member on steroids.

Robespierre believed in perfection and insisted upon it.  Unfortunately he more or less thought he had achieved it himself.  People called Robespierre the “Incorruptible.”  In all his dealings, Robespierre appears to have been that rare politician who truly did not take bribes or show favoritism.  It would have been better for France (and Robespierre).  Perhaps then he would not have been able to maintain his furious streak of self-righteousness, which led to so many deaths (perhaps thinking of Robespierre might help us to understand Martin Luther’s oft misunderstood “Sin boldly.  God can only forgive a hearty sinner,” line to his quibbling friend Melancthon).

A passion for moral and political purity destroyed France. One can think of a potter attempting to make the perfect circle.  It wouldn’t be perfect at first, and one would have to shave off bits of clay continually to get it just right.  Eventually, however, you would not have any clay left.  While they said they cared for liberty, they did not realize that the amount of liberty one can enjoy is the amount you are willing to have abused.  France found that it could tolerate no abuse of liberty, so in the end they had none at all.  As the Terror increased, even the Committee of Public Safety members turned on each other and many of them faced the guillotine.

The guillotine itself represents part of the tragedy of the Revolution.  Dr. Guillotin invented the instrument to make executions more humane.  In the past, death by beheading was actually a privilege reserved for the nobility.  Those of more “common” lineage might face execution through hanging, disembowling, or even being drawn and quartered.

The guillotine meant now that everyone would have the “right” to death by beheading, and the mechanism meant now that no executioner might potentially botch the job.  Instead, in an almost bizarre parody, the mechanical nature of the machine gave the state power to execute more people more quickly, and now indeed “the people” could all face death equally.

Emmett Kennedy, author of A Cultural History of the French Revolution makes a great observation about French Romanticism and its relation to violence.  If man is naturally good, he suggests, than grace becomes irrelevant.  But what can take the place of grace as a proper inducement to virtue?  St. Just, Robespierre’s lieutenant, had the answer.  Kennedy writes,

Sensibilite (right sentiments, for lack of a better word) impels a man toward virtue, it affirms his natural goodness; it does for him what grace does for Christians.  If “sentiments”  do not produce virtue, then [St. Just argues] terror must take its place (emphasis mine).

In a round-about way Kennedy hits at a central truth.  The doctrine of the Fall of Man leads us not towards cruelty but mercy.  The Revolution denied mankind’s nature, but this “liberation” from sin could only lead them to destroy one another in blind and merciless search for perfection.

10th Grade: The Gods Athirst


This week we continued to look at the French Revolution through a few different events.

As I mentioned last week, how the French defined the “people” of France would be crucial to how the revolution itself would take shape.  I asked the students how they would define who the “people” of America would be, and I got the following responses:

  • Anyone who lives here (but does this also include illegal immigrants, or people here legally on visas, green cards, etc.?)
  • Anyone who is a citizen (but would this include those who live here legally but are not citizens?)
  • Anyone who “believes” in American values and our way of life (but would this mean that someone living in Sweden could be part of the “people,” and would it exclude a citizen who did not believe in the American way?

The concept is obviously hard to define even for us, with a settled way of life and political traditions.  Imagine how much harder, then, it would be to define “the people” in the midst of internal upheaval and the threat of foreign invasion.  We sparked a good debate when I proposed the following scenario:

Imagine that America has undergone a major political revolution.  We have replaced our form of government with a divine-right monarchy that holds power tenuously throughout the country.  Of course, there are many who object to these changes and wish to see a return of the old ways.

Now suppose that China has decided to invade America with the express purpose of restoring the constitution and the president ousted by the revolution that replaced him with a king.  We can further suppose that the ex-president had good relations with China and the current king wants to alter all of our trade agreements with them.  Many oppose the invasion out of a sense of patriotism and/or loyalty to the Revolution, but many others hope for a Chinese victory and a restoration of the Constitution.

Which group would be more “American?”  The group that wanted to defeat China, or the group that hoped for a Chinese victory over American forces?

The question carries enormous weight, for only “the people” of France will get the rights due to the French people.

With this in mind, we can look at two key events.

1. The Storming of the Royal Residence: August 10, 1792

One of the keys to kingship working is the perceived mystical distance between the king and other men.  No one makes a king, kings are born.  He does not chose his life, God chooses him to rule by virtue of his birth.  As a man, a king is no different from anyone, but as king he takes on a different identity.

Royalty has always sought to maintain this distance through their dress, their manners, their homes, and so on.

At the start of the revolution many still wanted a strong king in France.  As the revolution progressed most slowly abandoned tat idea until Louis’ very existence threatened the revolution itself.  Finally on August 10 a mob stormed the palace, brutally slew many of the guards and servants, and might have done the same to Louis and Marie had they not escaped.  In one act, the people eradicated the perceived distance between the monarchy and themselves.  Louis had no power left.

2. The September Massacres, 1792

The events of August 10 did not cause the Austrians and Prussians to invade France all by itself, but it did propel those armies to greater alacrity in their attempt to restore Louis’ power.  As the armies moved closer to France, many feared that prisons in France (which contained ‘counter-revolutionaries’ after all) would be liberated to serve as “5th Column” to aid the foreign invasion.

From September 2-5 mobs went to various prisons, monasteries, and convents in France systematically butchering most of those inside.  The death of Marie Antoinette’ friend Princess Lamballe exemplifies France’s descent into paganism.  They cut off her head and paraded it in front of Marie’s prison window.  Then, according some accounts, they also cut out her heart and ate it.

3. The Death of Marat

Jean-Paul Marat failed at most things in life before he came to edit the tabloid “The Friend of the People.”  More than others he celebrated and encouraged the violence of the revolution, at one point calling for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of the “enemies of the people.”  A young woman named Charlotte Corday believed in the Revolution but also thought Marat a tyrant.  She gained access to him and plunged a knife into his chest.

Corday hoped that Marat’s death would quell violence, but tragically it had the opposite effect.  She hoped to end tyranny, but created a martyr.  It also served to confirm the paranoia of many other revolutionary leaders.  Who could you trust?  Corday posed as a revolutionary, but struck against it.  Anyone, in fact, could secretly be an enemy.  Marat’s death did not create the Reign of Terror, but it did help contribute to it.

If you have interest, Simon Schama has an excellent treatment of David’s famous painting of Marat’s death below.

One of the ways in which they attempted to smoke-out counter-revolutionaries was through the then equivalent of a modern day block party.  Usually attendance at such gatherings was mandatory, for they meant to celebrate the revolutionary oneness of the people.  It sounds harmless enough, but these “parties” terrified many.  You had to be careful not to stand out in the crowd.  The government had proclaimed the need to strike out against “fanaticism” and “moderation.”  If you showed too much enthusiasm for the Revolution, you probably were not being natural and so only sought to mask your true anti-revolutionary intent.  If you showed too little enthusiasm, you again showed your lack of zeal.  This is why these “parties” terrified so many.  You had to avoid standing out in the crowd.

What would you wear to such gatherings?  If you overdressed, you could be seen as “better than others.”  If you underdressed, you obviously showed no respect for the “people of France.”  What food should you bring?  Bring too little, you’re a cheapskate, don’t care about the people, etc.  Bring too much and you fall prey to the “you think you’re better than us,” suspicion, or perhaps others might think that you have secretly hoarded goods and hidden wealth from “the people.”

This fear of being labelled a hoarder proved especially potent.  The revolution had not improved economic conditions in France, contrary to expectations.  But with their Enlightenment beliefs, the removal of the bad monarchical institutions should have, by definition, fixed the problem.  The fact that everything did not work well showed that the Revolution must have been undermined from within.  Hence, the need to find hoarders, the secret enemies of the people.  Saturn had turned on his children — the gods athirst.

On Thursday I wanted the students to think about how the layout of the city can contribute to the possibility of a revolt.  Many in 1789 commented that few cities had a layout more conducive to revolution than Paris.  Here is an image of the city in 1788:

I then asked the students to redesign the city to make revolution less likely, which meant of course they had to think about why the city might be susceptible to revolution in the first place.

A few generations later Napoleon III wanted the city redesigned specifically to discourage the possibility of further revolution.  The map below indicates some of his changes, with the red strips representing broad thoroughfares, and the the darker blue representing wide public spaces.

Many thanks!

Dave M

Festivals of the French Revolution

The modern west, and certainly the United States, has a weird relationship with sports.  Many reasons exist for this, including the fact that sports involve great skill and entertain us.  One key to their hold on us, however, certainly involves the fact that our culture has no communal rituals and emotions.  Politics remains too divisive and negative to provide this.  Democracy tends to prioritize individual vis a vis the group.  Most forms of American Protestantism have no liturgies and no “physicality” to provide the necessary framework for shared experiences.  Sporting events can provide this.  Many fans have pre-game routines, rituals, dress–“liturgies,” in effect.  These routines come with the eating of certain foods, and so on.

All this to say, sports functions much more like a religion than many of our churches–at least in terms of visible manifestations.  Perhaps too, this explains the growth of round-the-clock, all year coverage of seasonal sports.  Our need for communal “religious” experience overpowers even our well-founded moral concerns about certain sports such as football.

Because non-liturgical Protestants formed the ethos of America nearly all of his little experience with religious communal celebrations.  Often they involve parades, food, music, and a physical embodiment of a particular belief or historical event.  Below, for example, is footage from the festival on the Greek island of Cephalonia, where the relics of St. Gerasimos reside.  On the saint’s feast day, one such embodiment happens when the body of St. Gerasimos “passes over” the town.

The French Revolution sought to transform all of French society.  To do so, the revolutionary leaders recognized that they needed to eliminate Catholicism from the hearts and minds of the people–easier said then done.  The church dictated the calendar and its rhythms, with a proliferation of festivals.  These festivals formed the habits, which formed the hearts, of the French.

They needed new festivals to replace the traditional Catholic celebrations.  Mona Azouf takes up this oft-neglected topic in her book, Festivals of the French Revolution.  

I believe Jaroslav Pelikan made the observation that Christian feasts all celebrate events that happened in observable time.  We celebrate the Incarnation, resurrection, and ascension of Christ.  We have days for remembering the Mother of God and saints of whose lives we have a record.  The only obvious exception to this is Trinity Sunday.  But the Trinitarian nature of God is not an abstract concept, but the concrete–though also mysterious–reality of the Universe.  Celebrations of actual things can have a “natural” atmosphere about them.

We can envision a joyous party for a team when they win the championship.  But what about a team that, during the season itself, had a banquet to celebrate “Victory”?  Things might get awkward quickly.

This challenge confronted France’s revolutionary leadership.  If they wanted wholesale change, then everything old would have to go.  They eliminated a great deal of the previous political leadership.  They transformed the military.  They killed or exiled many recalcitrant aristocrats.  They went farther than almost any other revolutionary group I know of and literally changed the calendar.  They understood that the Gregorian calendar, despite its mainly pagan roots, had been thoroughly Christianized and formed the unconscious rhythms of daily French life.  Some argued that the new France needed no celebrations.  Now that they had banished oppression, each day would have a moderate and joyous character.  But eventually even the die-hards realized that they needed to give the people holy-days (i.e. holidays) to create a new national liturgy.

The festivals for the new calendar attempted to change the concept of time.  They also attempted to alter the concept of space.  Most old Catholic festivals took place in the town near the church.  This meant that the majority of events happened within view of the cathedrals (always the tallest buildings) and in the town streets.  Of course having the church building silently governing the festival would not do.  But the narrow streets and the inevitable buying and selling of goods in the market, conjured up thoughts of secrecy, narrowness, “feudal conspiracy,” and the like.  Festivals of the Revolution often took place in wide fields away from towns and cities.  There they could escape the church building, and the open fields also aided their ideology of equality.  In addition the French Revolution’s obsession with “Nature” had its role to play.  Everything seems new and promising in a lush meadow at springtime.

So far so good.  Here is one contemporary description of the “Festival of Liberty:”

The procession began late, around noon; it was not that the people were made to wait, as by despots at court festivals.  The people turned up at daybreak in large numbers . . . but all waited until all had arrived.  They took pleasure in each other’s company; nonetheless it was time to leave.

On the site of the Bastille an inauguration of the Statue of Liberty was held.  Here more gathered, and it should be noted, they were favored with perfect weather.

There was no excess of pomp; no gold dazzled the eye or insulted the citizens’ humble and honorable poverty.  No soldiers dripping with braid came to cast a condescending eye on the poorly dressed crowd as they passed.  Here actors and witnesses merged, each taking part in the procession.  They had little order but a good deal accord with one another.  No one indulged in the vanity of the haughty gaze, no one set out to be a spectacle.  Boredom, that son of uniformity, found no foothold among the various groups; at each step the scene changed–everyone wanted a part in the Festival of Liberty.

The festival banished luxury, but notable commemorative objects had their role.  The procession opened with the Declaration of the Rights of Man, written on two stone tablets such as the 10 Commandments, though that is no match for the Declaration.  Four citizens proudly carried this noble burden, each reading aloud those immeasurable first lines: “Men are born free and remain free and equal.”

Four busts followed in like manner.  “Ah, there is Voltaire, that old rascal who made us laugh so much at the priests.  That other, worried looking individual [Roussaeu] loved the nobles even less and never sought their favor.  Who is the third?  It is an Englishman, Sydney, who put his head on the block rather than bend a knee to a king.  That old man there, we know him well.  It is Franklin, who can be more rightly called the Liberator of the New World than a certain fop who lives not far from here [i.e. Louis XVI].

The two coffins that followed threw a somber coloring over events as we remembered the martyrs of the massacre at Nancy [some soldiers refused to obey their royalist leaning officers and were shot].  

Preceded by their chains, suspended from trophies and born aloft by young ladies dressed in white, marched our loyal soldiers [loyal to the Revolution that is], with several regular citizen volunteers.  They in turn preceded the Chariot of Liberty, which used the same wheels as the chariot that served for the enshrinement of Voltaire at the Palace of Reason.  Let us not forget that philosophy gave us Liberty.

The chariot, modeled on the antique, was of imposing construction.  On one side David sketched the story of Brutus the Elder of Rome, himself sentencing his royalist sons to death for their disobedience to the law.  On the other he depicted William Tell, aiming a javelin, the target of which was an apple on his own son’s head.  But at his feet we spy another javelin, one that gave independence to Switzerland by slaying the Governor of Austria.  The Lady of Liberty rests on her throne, her hand at her side holding a club, with a gaze that would make king’s blush.   We should never forget that the sceptre of liberty is a bludgeon to her enemies.  It should also be said that six daggers formed the prow of the front of the chariot to threaten any despotism bold enough to impede the march of liberty.

With steady steps 20 democratic horses drew the chariot of the sovereign of the French people.  Their progress had none of the insolence of those idle coursers fed at the stables in Versailles.  They did not hold their heads high; their manes had no gold plait, nor were there plumes adorned.  They walked rather ploddingly, but they kept a steady course.  

Four hundred thousand citizens came to one spot with nary a mishap.  The soldiers on foot had no need to mark the route, none had need to go before the crowds with bayonettes to make way.  Words of peace contained this multitude, it fell into line at the sight of an ear of corn presented to it rather than a musket.

Even a breezy reading of this account reveals that the new foundation was not close to drying.

How do celebrate with the threat of force lingering?  We know of the many imprisonments and beheadings in general, but even here, “Lady Liberty” holds a club. Brutus kills his sons.  The chariot has daggers in the front, and so on. I have some sympathy . . . the only way to completely turn your country 180 degrees is by wrenching the wheel and holding on for dear life.  The question, remains, however . . . how much can you celebrate when you have the sword of Damocles hanging over your head?

A big difference exists between saying, “Everybody dance now!” and, “Everybody dance now.

No particular rhyme or reason exists for how the festival looks and proceeds.  Certain decisions will have to be arbitrary on some level of course.  Perhaps we understand, for example, that “democratic horses” would move “ploddingly” at a “steady” pace. But what if the choreographer had the horses hold their heads high and gallop down the causeway to show the “energy of liberty”?  Would that have been “democratic”. . . or “aristocratic?”

Many such confusions and differences in perception led to imprisonments and even death during the Reign of Terror.

Ultimately Azouf argues that the festivals served not as an emblem of the Revolution’s success but it’s failure.  One cannot invent out of thin air an embodiment of abstract ideals and expect everyone to go along with it.  Azouf herself comments that the revolution in general, and the festivals in particular, represented France’s attempt to reject the entirety of their history–tantamount to rejection of their very selves.  No one can sustain such efforts for long.

And yet . . . while the king eventually came back to France it did not take long to banish him again.  The cultural victory of the French Revolution de-sacralization campaign (which, as Azouf points out, involved a “re-sacralization” of different values) took a long time, but France’s subsequent history shows that the revolutionaries won the political battle.

We too have a similar inheritance as the French, having undergone our own radical break from the past at much the same time.  We in time developed some national festivals (the World Series, the Super Bowl, the 4th of July, Thanksgiving, etc.).  Time will tell whether or not this age of atomized individualism will wash those away.  If so, Azouf’s work testifies to the fact that at our core we need such celebrations, and even atomized individuals will find a way to create new festivals.