A pamphlet ironically entitled The Fasts of Louis XV, for instance, described how the king’s agents regularly scoured Paris for girls to add to the royal “harem.”
The Age of Utopia: Christendom from the Renaissance to the Russian Revolution, by John Strickland
Two major revolutions followed the ideas of the Enlightenment. One, the American, seemingly a mostly successful one for human liberty, offered a system which didn’t last even one hundred years – and, in reality, not even that given the founding generation’s proclivities of violating their own Constitution.
The other, French. Unlike the American, there really is nothing good to be said for this one. Of course, not that there was no cause for which to revolt. And on one level, this is what Strickland examines here. On a deeper level, which is the larger theme for Strickland in this third book of his four-part series, there is the divorce from God. But in Strickland’s case, it is deeper still – a divorce from God and Christianity as understood by the universal Church until the eleventh century.
As it has been some time since I have commented on this book, a brief but relevant comment. I have not yet found Strickland’s larger view convincing. I am not speaking of the religious context, the doctrinal and theological differences that divided the eastern and western church. I am considering the governance structures that came out of each – and how these would inform a healthy individual liberty.
In the West, and despite what many claim, there was a constant tension between Church and king. Neither had complete authority over the other. In this space, individuals who felt wronged by one could always appeal to the other.
Certainly, each side would try to assume more authority, and the balance would shift often one way or the other. But until after the Reformation, such a monopoly was never achieved. It is for this reason that I find no reason to identify as a state any governance entity prior to the Peace of Augsburg in 1555 or, perhaps, even the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. There was no monopoly until these treaties, hence no “state” as we use the term.
Different in the East, where the governance idea was symphony – the emperor, a good Christian man, would govern as the ideal presented in places like Romans 13. The bishops, supporting and subordinate to the emperor, would offer Christian counsel, and the emperor would accept such counsel. Not surprisingly, it rarely worked out this way.
With this as background, I return to Strickland as his review of the French Revolution is worth considering. As indicated in the opening quote, the reputation of the French monarch and the monarchy was one of filth and debauchery. And, as if the moral issues were not enough, by the end of the eighteenth century, the finances were in crisis.
It is worth stopping to consider that in the case of the American Revolution and the situation of the colonies…the moral situation of the colonial leaders was not such – at least not in any sources I have ever read. Further, prior to the Revolution, the finances of the local colonies were not a mess (saying nothing of the mess created during and after the war).
In other words, for these reasons and others, the soil was different in America as opposed to France. And this difference helped lead to the different outcomes. Therefore, it is worth asking: what is the soil in the United States today? And what might this mean for us in our time and the coming decades?
And, again, after my detour, I return to Strickland – perhaps offering a glimpse to our future by considering the past of revolutionary France.
By the end of the eighteenth century, government finances were entering a state of crisis. Before the Sun King died, he had confessed in a moment of atypical diffidence that he had been “too liberal” in waging war.
His son and grandson would continue this tradition, the first in the Seven Years War and the second when he entered the American Revolution. By 1788 the treasury was spent. No more loans could be obtained without major concessions. Louis XVI would call together the Estates General: the clergy, the nobility, and everyone else (peasants, workers, and lower-level bourgeoisie).
Unfortunately for Louis and France, the times had changed. Enlightenment ideals had overshadowed the scene. Checks and balances, the system employed in the new world, were to influence the Old. New-found and reform-minded institutions such as Masonic Lodges would be formed to counter the influence of the clergy.
Society would be improved via rationalistic philosophy and science. New secret rituals to rival and replace those of the Church. Literary salons offered an avenue to discuss very modern and progressive ideas – their visions of Utopia. Through these, one would find the new “civil” society.
The most important, yet unwritten, rule: affirmations of the gospel were considered retrograde and barbaric. At minimum, in poor taste. Not unlike our world today, the more secular the better; the further divorced from objective truth, the better; the less God, the better.
The eighteenth-century heirs of the Papal Reformation would likewise [transform the world] in a state not of humility and repentance, but of indignation. It was this passion that Voltaire so well captured in his slogan “Crush Infamy!”
His target was the clergy.
It perfectly characterized the utopian transformation that was to come.
And, here we stand, on the same precipice. Our next chapter will be considered in light of the chapter that would follow in France. But that is for a future post.