Monday, August 15, 2022

Ideology, Abstractions, and Terror

The French Revolution had been a catastrophe for Christendom.

The Age of Utopia: Christendom from the Renaissance to the Russian Revolution, by John Strickland

That the optimism of the Revolution unleashed a wave of terror in no way diminished the hopes and expectations of the revolutionaries. 

Perhaps an example of what we know to be true about our time.  The peaceful methods of pointing out the hypocrisy and lies of today’s revolutionaries have zero impact on the onward march of revolution, as we know.  Why would it, when even the bloodshed offered in the French Revolution did nothing to slow down the drive and fervor?

It took a decade, until 1799, for the revolution to spend itself.  By then, a group of moderates came to the fore.  They sought a figurehead.  What they got was a strongman.

In 1792, Napoleon Bonaparte would defend the borders of France against Austria and Prussia; in 1795, he defended against a Roman Catholic royalist insurgency in Paris – firing grapeshot into the crowds.  When appointed to the honorary position of first consul in 1799, he overthrew the government.  Dictatorship followed the decade of bloodshed that was supposed to deliver a utopian republicanism.

In his domestic policy, Napoleon proved an agent of secularism.

While not a fan of Robespierre’s inclination toward terror, he did share the Jacobin’s deistic convictions.  The Roman Catholic Church would not have the authority it had before 1789, however he would restore peace with Rome.  In 1801, Roman Catholicism was recognized as the religion of “the majority” of Frenchmen. 

Yet bishops were required to swear an oath of loyalty to him…after being appointed by him.  French Christianity would be subordinate to the government.

And this is where I keep coming up against my major objection to this work by Strickland and the idea of governance as offered by the Eastern Church – the idea that the ideal government is one where the emperor would rule in a most Christian manner, being guided by bishops who were subordinate to him.

It almost never worked out well, with the one or two exceptions touted so strongly such that they demonstrate the folly of such a scheme.  The emperor would use the bishops when it suited him, and would ignore the bishops when it didn’t.  It was that simple.

In any case…in 1804, Pope Pius VII would travel to Paris to formally recognize Napoleon as emperor.  With him, a replica of the crown placed on the head of Charlemagne.  Napoleon would seize the crown and himself placed it on his head.  Subordination to the Church would in no way be tolerated.

In 1809, he would invade Italy and seize the Papal States and take that same pope as prisoner to France.  He would invade Russia with half-a-million men in 1812.  Seventy thousand would die in Borodino in September, but still he marched on.  A week later, he would enter Moscow, only to see it had been burned by the fleeing citizens.  He would turn the Kremlin’s cathedrals into horse stalls.

Within a month, lacking food and supplies, he was forced to retreat.  His attempts at negotiating with Alexander met with failure – Alexander refused to negotiate with the man who many in Europe saw as the Antichrist until every invader was out of Russia.

By December, only twenty-thousand of his original five-hundred-thousand would make it back across the Neman River on the Prussian frontier on their way back to France.  He would lose more battles before being exiled to the island of Elba.  Escaping exile, he would go on to suffer his final defeat at the Battle of Waterloo.

In 1790, Edmund Burke would publish his Reflections on the Revolution in France, predicting the terror to come.  Terror was inevitable, he thought, when abstractions took the place of customs.  Justice and social well-being require tradition: social norms different in every state.

As an aside, given Burke’s thoughts, how so the ideology of the American Revolution?  One must deem it a relative success for avoiding (for the most part) such inevitable terror for four-score and seven years.  But terror did come, in a form and magnitude no different than that visited up Europe in the wake of the Bastille and the guillotine.


Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.  These were the ideals of the French Revolution.  Ideals not only in conflict with tradition and custom, but in conflict with each other. 

·         Liberty, setting the free individual out alone against the state – as if he could remain free in such a condition. 

·         Equality, inherently to make a hash of any supposed individual liberty – we are either free or we are equal; we cannot be both. 

·         Fraternity, impossible when one’s liberty butts up against another’s liberty to be equal – brotherly love goes out the window.

The birth of liberalism, socialism, and nationalism would follow – with such ideologies spreading throughout Europe.  This mix would explode in the several upheavals of 1848, first in France, then in Italy, Germany and Austria.  Of the major powers, only Russia avoided this fate (on this point, and this entire episode, consider the parallels today). 

The tsar was ready to take an army to crush these rebellions, declaring “Gentlemen, saddle your horses!  France has again declared herself a republic.”  Consider this sentiment weighed against the triumphal call of Benjamin Franklin when summing up the new constitution: a republic, if you can keep it.  History has judged the idea of republic, and has found it wanting.

Ultimately, it was only in France where the events of 1848 would have immediate effect.  Socialists would introduce a welfare system of state-run workshops.  Universal male suffrage was introduced.

And in 1849…a nephew of Napoleon would be elected as president of the Second Republic!


  1. What are the odds that a similar "terror" will commence in the United States and that strongmen will take over, supposedly to quell it? Judging by what you have written and the current state of events, I would say that would be a safe bet.

    Strap in and hold on. It's going to be a wild ride.

  2. The French Revolution , I opine, remains as a template for the essence of the revolutionary spirit of modernity. The Bolsheviks moved in a direction that imitated the Jacobins, but did not achieve the depth of their demonic praxis. I have been trying to bring myself up to speed on the events and actors of the French drama. Burke, of course, is helpful. Fire in the Minds of Men, by James H. Billington, explores the thinking of the theorists behind 1789 and of subsequent social revolutionary and national revolutionary thinkers inspired by that event. I found Nesta H. Webster's The French Revolution to be a most important, helpful description and analysis of the events and personae of the early days of the Revolution. Erick von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, in his Leftism, gives a graphic, troubling account of the inhuman nihilism of the 20th century heirs of the Jacobins.
    On a different subject, given the desire of our oligarchs to constitute the Executive branch as a Committee of Public Safety, why should we not begin to refer to our armed tax collectors as the Waffen IRSS?

  3. Solzhenitsyn said the same about how liberty, equality, and fraternity are contradictory ideals in his speech, 'A Reflection on the Vendée Uprising'. It's a great speech, short, and much recommended. Gabriel Marcel discusses the dangers of the abstract in his Man against Mass Society, which is neither short nor succinct, at least in English; however, it's a great work, and I highly recommend it also.

    1. An excellent talk - and, I swear, I did not plagiarize!

      The very last sentence: "And now, I think, more and more citizens of France, with increasing understanding and pride, will remember and value the resistance and the sacrifice of the Vendée."

      We can safely say that this "hope" has not panned out - not in France, not elsewhere in Europe, and not anywhere in the West.

    2. Maybe the key word here is 'citizen'. Those who still see themselves as citizens of France, not the EU, of Christendom, the west, not the world... He seemed also to have that strange virtue we call hope, which does not become a virtue until all seems lost and hopeless. His other speeches are worth reading, especially his 'Templeton Lecture', 'We Have Ceased to See the Purpose', and 'Playing upon the Strings of Emptiness' (AKA 'The Relentless Cult of Novelty and How It Wrecked the Century')

    3. Maybe if the public schools, mainstream media, and Hollywood started paying as much attention to the history of the Barbary slave trade, Vende'e uprising, and the Holodomor as they do the North American slave trade and the Shoa, Westerners will start to remember and value the sacrifices of their forebears. Fat chance, I know.