10th Grade: You Can’t Go Home Again

Greetings,

This week we put our main focus on the Congress of Vienna, where the nations of England, Russia, Prussia, Austria and France gathered to try and redraw the map of Europe in Napoleon’s wake.

Historians have debated many issues about this peace conference from the moment it met.

France

What do to with France?  Napoleon’s conquests discombobulated every nation in Europe, and perhaps as many as 3 million died in what we call the Napoleonic Wars.  Should France be punished?

Most give the Congress credit for realizing that taking revenge on France would not serve peace in Europe.  France weakened would wave the red flag at every other strong nation in Europe.  Soon nations might fight over French spoils.  Besides, during the Napoleonic Wars the other nations made it clear that they made war on Napoleon, not France.  France was not the problem in their minds during the war, they could not very well make France the issue during the peace.

The French too made the point that if other nations wanted to avoid another Napoleon, they needed to hand the recently re-installed Louis XVIII the keys to a nice car.   If he inherited weakness, the Bourbon dynasty would crumble once again, and Europe would revisit all the issues  brought on by events in 1789.  For example, one of the problems of the Weimar Republic in Germany in 1919 was that the new democratic regime came into being only because of Germany’s defeat in World War I.  That government lacked the psychological or cultural legitimacy to have a solid chance at success.  Louis XVIII was a nice guy, but didn’t impress like Napoleon.  He would need some help.

Louis XVIII

Napoleon on Horseback at the St Bernard Pass by Jacques-Louis David

The Congress of Vienna explicitly rejected the “Romantic” notion of expansive ideals transforming states and creating new national boundaries, and returned to the 18th century Enlightenment policies of security through interlocking and more or less equal parts.  Those familiar with Madison’s “Federalist #10” and his theory on democracy and political factions will see the same concept writ large on the European stage in Vienna.  In reacting against the French Revolution ideologically, they also returned to the pre-French Revolution methods of foreign policy.  The genie needed stuffed back into the bottle.

For the most part the countries involved agreed on these principles, but the practical outworking of meant a great deal of jockeying for position.  The map had changed so much so quickly, a lot seemed up for grabs.

Here is Europe in 1789, just prior to the French Revolution

Now Europe in 1800, just after Napoleon took power

Europe in 1807, after Napoleon’s victorious Peace of Tilsit

Europe in 1812, at the peak of Napoleon’s power

Europe in 1813, after his first exile

Napoleon’s success and the subsequent rise of Russia made the fate of Poland crucial to the peace process.  Their turbulent history get reflected in the many ways the map below reflects how their country got sliced and diced over the years.

Napoleon made it a point of policy to resurrect Poland to check the power of Russia, and also to limit the expansion of Austria and Prussia.  England, however, also waned a strong Poland to check the very same countries.  Napoleon’s conquests also demolished the tottering Holy Roman Empire, making a complete mish-mash of central Europe, sure to draw the attention of Prussia and Austria.

For a class activity I wanted the students to deal with the issues divided the class into five different groups, each representing the interests of their assigned country.  The winning group would be the one that got the best deal relative to their interests.

England

Wants:

  • To maintain its absolute dominance of the sea
  • To prevent anyone else from having the dominance on land that they enjoy currently at sea
  • The independence of the “Low Countries” (Belgium, Holland, Netherlands) to prevent any other major power from obtaining the coastal ports there.

Fears:

  • The rising land power of Russia – England likes the idea of Poland as a buffer to Russian power.
  • The possible westward expansion ideas of Prussia

Russia

Wants:

  • What it considers to be its rightful place in the sun given the fact that their repulse of Napoleon in 1812 opened the floodgates for all of Europe to overthrow him
  • The elimination of Poland, which Napoleon recreated to reduce Russian power
  • A weak Austria

Fears:

  • England using its economic whip to get its way on the continent
  • A strong Austria
  • A strong Prussia

Prussia

Wants:

  • Its rightful place in the sun considering their efforts in 1813 at the Battle of Leipzig, and at Waterloo in 1815.
  • The possibility of westward expansion if Austria were strengthened.  They would rather see Austria strengthened rather than Russia

Fears:

  • A strong Russia
  • French Expansion

France

Wants:

  • An extension of their borders to their “natural” borders near the Rhine River
  • Territory in the Low Countries, who speak French after all
  • A curbing of English naval power

Fears:

  • English dominance
  • Reduction to 2nd rate status

Austria

Wants:

  • To restore national honor, for no one got beat more often than Austria during Napoleon’s reign.
  • To prevent instability in central Europe, which would likely lead to a war they would lose

Fears:

  • The joint rise of Prussia and Russia.  Should those two ever fight, they would inevitably be drawn in as a second-banana ally.  No matter who won that war, they would lose

The actual Congress of Vienna decided on this. . .

Did the Congress of Vienna work?  Can we call it a successful peace conference?

By most measures we can answer “yes.”  The system started to break down after 35 years in 1848, and had broken completely by 1871.  Still, while so-called “small wars” popped up intermittently, Europe did not see another general war until World War I in 1914.

Critics of the Congress call it reactionary.  Those that thought they could truly put the French Revolutionary genie away deluded themselves, for it had roamed throughout Europe for 25 years.  They felt that they could smother the liberal democratic impulse to death, when really it turned out that they had created a pressure cooker instead.  When it finally burst in 1914, nationalistic impulses that had been held in check unleashed a conflict that essentially destroyed Europe.

I personally have a lot of sympathy with this latter view, but feel it may be too harsh on the participants.  Their immediate experience of French romantic nationalism saw France overthrowing religion, traditional values, and killing one’s fellow man over shades of political difference.  It would be quite natural for them to throw the baby out with the bath water, and they did not have the benefit of hindsight.   Maybe we can say the countries represented had high levels of competence and lower amounts of imaginative foresight.  Even so, on some level they wanted to pretend that the French Revolution never happened, that everything could go back to normal after 25 years of philosophical, cultural, and political upheaval.  The saying, “You can’t go home again,” proved itself true in this case.

Next week we begin to review for the final exam.  Many thanks for a great year,

Dave

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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.

 

 

Napoleon on Napoleon

Those who find themselves ill-disposed towards Napoleon (as I am on balance) should avoid reading the 25 page introduction of his abridged autobiography.  With crackling prose Napoleon gives us

  • An explanation of the success of his siege of Toulon
  • A concise theory of his rules of war
  • A demonstration of how Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar Gustavus Adolphus, Frederick the Great, . . . and he himself . . .  all followed these rules (he also makes sure to say how he fought in more campaigns and battles than many of those he lists).
  • An outline of recent French campaigns that failed to adhere to these rules and failed . . . neither of which directly involved him in any way (other generals made the mistakes).
  • An explanation of Charles XII failed invasion of Russia, told with no irony or self-awareness whatsoever.
  • A comparison of his wars and the wars of Louis XIV, in which he shows that the Sun-King’s wars did far more damage to France, and had far less legality, than his own campaigns (some estimates place French casualties in the Napoleonic Wars at around 1 million).

Such audacity and restless energy is hard to comprehend and one can’t help but admire it at least on some level.  He is the consummate NYC cab driver.  If this is the imagesman in exile at the end of his life (when he wrote his memoirs, ca. 1816-17), imagine how many secretaries he drove insane in 1805. His meteoric rise to power makes perfect sense in those first 25 pages. But for those who wish to dislike Napoleon, fear not!  Simply read a bit further and one grows weary of such energy, audacity, and his utter and complete moral blindness.  You begin to understand not just his ascension to power, but why he alienated almost everyone close to him and why those characteristics would inevitably carry him too far.

Napoleon shows his best side when discussing practical matters of policy.  In the beginning of his career at least he showed a keen political sense.  He criticism of the Assembly in the days preceding the Terror ring true:

[The Assembly] committed two errors, which might have produced the total ruin of the nation.  The first was to establish a Constitution at odds with the experience of all ages, whose mechanism contrived to restrict public power [during a time of uncertainty].  Great as this error was, it was less fragrant and had less deplorable consequences than the second — that or persisting in re-establishing Louis XVI on the throne after his flight to Varennes.  It ought to have sent commissioners to Varennes not to bring the king back to Paris, but to clear the way for him to abdicate; to have proclaimed Louis XVII king, and to have created a regency, to a princess of the House of Conde and a regency council composed of principal members of the Assembly.

Later he shows the same clarity in his analysis of the controversy between the Jacobins and Girondins (though also a touch of ruthless practicality):

The factions of the Girondins and the Mountain [Jacobins] were too violent in their mutual animosity.  Had they both continued to exist, impediments to the administration of government would have multiplied and France would not have been able to maintain her territory in the face of all Europe.  The good of the country required the triumph of one of those parties.  . . . Would the result have been the same had it been the Girondin party that gained the day and the Mountain sacrificed?  I think not.  The mountain party, although checked, would always have possessed great influence, in the popular societies and armies.  There was undoubtedly more talented and better men in the Girondin, but the Girondins had more speculative men, less resolute and less decisive.

Though this kind of analysis has its darker side (many worthy Girondins lost their lives unjustly in the Terror), Napoleon at least writes convincingly in these sections.  In his campaigns he insisted on a strict unity of command and clear lines of communication at all times.  His armies marched with great speed and yet avoided confusion in the ranks.  So too, his political analysis and his prose have the same distinguishing marks.  He maintains fidelity to his emphasis on practical results and his love of the simplicity of power.  He never leaves any doubt as to what he means to say.  This is a man soldiers would instinctively respect, a man easy to follow.  All such a man would need is an opening, and the French Revolution provided many such openings for Napoleon.

Napoleon has his charms, to be sure, and should not be regarded as a vicious monster.  But his ego led him to make almost absurd claims about his career.  Even a massively abridged version of his autobiography (in this case, 275 pages as compared to about 1200), even a very sympathetic editor, cannot hide this.  Nothing is his fault, and everything has an explanation.  The fall of Cairo goes on Kleber’s shoulders, the murder of the Duke of Engheim was England’s fault, and so on, and so on.  “I never committed crimes,” he writes.

I reached the summit of greatness by direct paths, without ever having committed an act that morality could reproach.  In that respect my rise is unparalleled in history — in order to reign, David destroyed the house of Saul, his benefactor;* Caesar kindled a civil war and overthrew the government of his country; Cromwell caused his master to perish on the scaffold.  I was a stranger to the crimes of the Revolution.

We may assume that by “morality” he means “political morality,” and not personal morality, for which he seemingly cared nothing.  But even so, what of the death of the Duke of Engheim?  His murder irrevocably turned Europe’s aristocracy against him.  It turned Tolstoy against him, years later.  Even Napoleon’s exceedingly practical Chief of Police, Joseph Fouche, said of the Duke’s execution, “It was worse than a crime.  It was a mistake.”**

Explaining away the Russian disaster no doubt called upon all of Napoleon’s skills. He first argues that, “If Moscow had not been burnt [most all agree the French army did not do this], Alexander would have been compelled to make peace.”  But he offers no argument as to why, and I at least can’t see why the czar would make peace.  Whatever the case, Moscow burned, and a practical man like Napoleon should cease wondering why.

The cold of the Russian winter was “premature,” leading Napoleon to admit that, ok, I “remained in Moscow four days too long.”  I believe that this is the only place where Napoleon admits to a mistake.  It seems unlikely that the disintegration of an army 1/2 million men strong could rest entirely on this mistake alone.  And indeed,

When the army was within two days march of Vilna, and no further dangers threatened it, I conceived that the urgency of affairs required my presence in Paris — only there could I dictate to Prussia and Austria.  Had I delayed the passage might have been closed against me.  . . . The [Imperial] Guard was then entire and the army contained more than 80,000 combatants . . .   The Russian army did not now exceed 50,000 men.  [Supplies] abounded at Vilna.  Considerable stores of clothing and ammunition had likewise been established.  Had I remained with the army . . . it would never have retreated beyond Vilna.  . . . It is from this period in particular that the great losses of the campaign may be dated.  Nothing was, or could have been more totally unforeseen by me than the senseless conduct adopted at Vilna.

Again, just as in Egypt, he, being a good father, left his children with every opportunity of success.  Leave it to his prodigal subordinates to ruin everything.

But still, Napoleon had and has his devotees.  You can see the blinding effect of Napoleon’s ego even on the editor of this abridged version of his memoirs, Somerset de Chair.  Chair writes regarding Napoleon’s recounting of the Moscow campaign,

Almost all historians have treated the Russian campaign as a unmitigated disaster.  Here Napoleon sets the record straight.  After defeating Russia at Borodin . . . Napoleon withdrew.  He experienced devastating weather conditions, but this does not alter Napoleon’s claim to have achieved what he set out to do.  [He sought] to teach Russia a lesson not to interfere in French affairs in the future when his son should become Emperor and to punish the Tsar for opening his ports to Britain.  [Napoleon’s] view that he left a defeated and humiliated Russia in his wake is hard to ignore.  It was, admittedly, a harassed return . . . it was not as if the French had intended to occupy Russia indefinitely.  If Hitler had succeeded [in Russia], where Napoleon did not ever intend to remain, it would have been a very different story.

I think we can agree with Chair that yes, Napoleon was not as bad as Hitler.  Score a point for hero-worship if you wish.  But to suggest that Napoleon achieved his aims in Russia by preventing Russia from challenging his son and heir is a gross absurdity.  His failure in Russia directly led to his first abdication and the impossibility of his son ever succeeding him, and led also to the rise (not humiliation) of Russia an an expansive, imperial power in the 19th century.

Napoleon’s life can be viewed as tragic even if we don’t call him a tragic hero.  Many of Napoleon’s top generals abandoned him and defected to the Bourbons.  This must have been a bewildering and devastating blow.  But I think that such men simply learned from their master that when a situation warrants it, find a way to survive.  For Napoleon, even on St. Helena, his memoirs stand as his final battle, his last attempt to conquer.  For me at least, his autobiography has a minor appeal as a kind of grand, doomed adventure — like that of Waterloo.  And they must fail, that Napoleon might possibly learn humility.***

Dave

*Certainly not true from any glance at 1 Samuel – 1 Kings.

**Some believe that Talleyrand said this instead.  Whoever said it, the difference is the same.  Both men devoted themselves to Napoleon’s practical morality and they saw the consequences of such an “ill-considered” action.

***Towards the end of the memoirs he blames the allies for violating the Treaty of Fontanblieu and sending him to St. Helena.  Again, he is either joking or willfully blind.  He tore up that treaty when he escaped from Elba.

Still, there is some evidence at the very end of his life he may have had a genuine religious awakening.

10th Grade: From Reality to Image

Greetings,

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

Greetings,

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.

Danton Democracy

I originally published this in 2013, and repost it in light of our study of the French Revolution.  Apologies for any dated information on the ACA . . .

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It took a while, but I finally came across an article on the ACA (also called “Obamacare”) that I resonated with.  Ross Douthat does not need to argue that the law will destroy civilization as we know it.  He admits that many will probably benefit from the law.  But in the final analysis (if coming to a final analysis even possible with such a ridiculously complex piece of legislation), he writes.

Now an effective levy of several thousand dollars on the small fraction of middle class Americans who buy on the individual market is not history’s great injustice. But neither does it seem like the soundest or most politically stable public policy arrangement. And to dig back into the position where I do strongly disagree with Cohn’s perspective, what makes this setup potentially more perverse is that it raises rates most sharply on precisely those Americans who up until now were doing roughly what we should want more health insurance purchasers to do: Economizing, comparison shopping, avoiding paying for coverage they don’t need, and buying a level of insurance that covers them in the event of a true disaster while giving them a reason not to overspend on everyday health expenses.

If we want health inflation to stay low and health care costs to be less of an anchor on advancement, we should want more Americans making $50,000 or $60,000 or $70,000 to spend less upfront on health insurance, rather than using regulatory pressure to induce them to spend more. And seen in that light, the potential problem with Obamacare’s regulation-driven “rate shock” isn’t that it doesn’t let everyone keep their pre-existing plans. It’s that it cancels plans, and raises rates, for people who were doing their part to keep all of our costs low.

You can find the full article here.

The article does not fully address my two ‘gut-level’ objections to the law:

  • Many well-intentioned government servants believe that they have found the ‘solution’ to problems that have heretofore eluded society.  Thus, they see only the positive and never realize the cost of certain kinds of legislation.
  • More specifically, the health care system already involved a great deal of physical complexity laid over top of a myriad of individual financial and moral choices.  Government action, almost by definition in cases like this, would almost certainly gum up the works and unintentionally create problems, even those they could not foresee.

I thought of the health care controversy as I read David Lawday’s enjoyable biography Danton: The Giant of the French Revolution.  Danton’s outsized personality stands in sharp contrast to the cold Robespierre, who eventually turned on Danton and had him executed.  Their faces tell the whole story:

georges_danton

 

Robespierre

Danton styled himself a man of the people.  He claimed to truly understand the people, for he (and not Robespierre) thought and acted like one of them.  He laughed, enjoyed food, women, and friends.  Thus, as he had a seat in government and understood the people, he naturally assumed that government action would work to benefit the people and help fulfill their wishes.  The video below may not reflect an actual historical meeting between  Danton and Robespierre, but it accurately depicts the different personalities of them both.

One can easily get drawn into Danton’s huge personality, but we should remember that he sanctioned horrible butcheries both before and after the fact, in the name of the people.  Danton was not a thinker.  He did not inscribe his speeches, he wrote few letters (that have survived at least), and so we know little of his motivations.  Lawday allows himself to make his best guesses, and paints a portrait of a man who had no love for violence per se, but believed he could successfully manage it once unleashed.  He later seemed to change his mind about this during the Reign of Terror, and this shift factored into his execution.

Unfortunately Danton’s greatest legacy to the Revolution was the Revolutionary Tribunal, the government’s supreme tool in legitimizing political murder on a mass scale.  Danton had some good motives in starting the tribunal.  He saw the random destruction engaged in by “the people,” and thought that direct government action would relieve the masses of the burden of imposing justice, or at least their version of justice.  This in turn would limit the violence that plagued the Revolution, for government would surely exercise more restraint and wisdom than the masses.  In a speech advocating for the establishment of the tribunal he reportedly said, “Let us be terrible, so they do not have to be.”

Tragically, the Tribunal simply gave legitimacy to the worst impulses of the Revolution, and the amount of deaths and imprisonments skyrocketed.  This same tribunal eventually tried Danton himself and found him guilty without allowing Danton to call any witnesses for his defense.

The ACA and the Revolutionary Tribunal remain vastly different things.  I hesitate to include mention of them both in the same post, for in 99 out of 100 ways they have nothing to do with each other.

But they do share one thing in common–they both spring from the mistaken belief that government can enter a complicated situation and with a wave of a wand make everything alright.  It usually fails to work, even with the best of intentions.

On the subject of good intentions, Marginal Revolution posted a link with this abstract. . .

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 many of us have 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’s de-sacralization campaign (which, as Azouf points out, involved “sacralizing” 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.