Like a colossus standing astride its threshold, the French Revolution presides over our age as its great seminal event. Taking Locke, Voltaire, and Rousseau for its prophets, the revolutionary National Assembly’s citizen-legislators established a new calendar and the metric system as if to recreate both time and space by returning to their genesis. This crusading national revolution was launched in the name of a liberated, classless Humanity: the restoration of Adam, the first man. Indeed, Rousseau, in a counterpoint to Augustine’s Confessions, had already presented himself as the model of a man in full, warts and all. The revolutionaries who adopted this project sought to make the old new again “without”—in the words of the great legal historian Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy—"the power which enables us to die to our old habits and ideals, get out of our old ruts, leave our dead selves behind and take the first step into a genuine future.” But effacing the past by fire falls far short of a redemption.
In Out of Revolution (1938), Rosenstock-Huessy’s description of the French Revolution’s literary inspiration had the character of myth: “As pure water—Adam’s ale—had existed before the refinements of wine or beer, so Adam himself was the natural man who existed before the original sin of division into classes; when Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” This familiar reversion to “’Adam,’ in 1789 was more than a figure of speech. He was the great symbol of unity that preceded the division of Jews and Gentiles. Adam became a great messianic figure standing for the end of time when all men should meet again.”
Rosenstock-Huessy traced the arc of a thousand years of western Christendom through a series of clerical revolutions, followed by increasingly secular ones. He presented an image of man pinioned upon a Cross of Reality, torn between the pull of the past and the future, the inside and the outside. Each insurrection recalled an earlier biblical point of origin even as it was propelled forward. Christendom took shape by baptizing Europe’s tribes into a loose-knit pantomime of Roman grandeur, forming and re-forming its institutional raiment. Then the great forward leaps of its progress were derailed into savage carnivals of violence driven by a volatile messianic impulse.
Kenneth Minogue notes in The Servile Mind (2010) that “Western politics . . . is marked by the imprint of theological doctrines. A reliable way of getting politics wrong is to ignore this connection.” Vishal Mangalwadi has taken an even more comprehensive view by describing the Bible as The Book That Made Your World (2010). From King Alfred’s law code to the common law, Magna Carta, the Mayflower Compact, and beyond, the Bible has been a great sourcebook of instruction in life and wisdom.
Rosenstock argues that “Christianity came to the nations as something old and distinguished as an indispensable equipment for their march on the high road of history.” Out of its crucible were poured the foundations of the modern world. The biblical faith offered dignity and the emancipation of individuals from “bondage to the elements of the world.” The resulting release of energy made medieval Europe into “one of the most inventive societies that history had known” (David Landes). Yet Christianity is “a faith so exacting that no pagan impulses were safe from its challenge. When this challenge of Christianity slackens, paganism immediately creeps in.” By now it should be evident that everything is up for grabs once this happens.
As the philosopher Stephen Toulmin tells the tale in Cosmopolis (1990): “Before the Reformation, the established rulers—the grand duchies, counties, kingdoms, and other sovereign territories of Europe—exercised their political power under the moral supervision of the Church. As Henry II of England found after the murder of Thomas à Becket, the Church might even oblige a King to accept a humiliating penance as the price of its continued support.” The Protestant secession into national churches and the 16-17th century religious wars brought this delicate balance of power to an end.
A century later, the rationalist philosophy of Descartes and the contemporary scientific revolution were in some measure a reaction against the Thirty Years War which followed just a few years after the assassination of Henri IV, the founder of France’s Bourbon dynasty. “After 1610, a tone of confidence is replaced by one of catastrophe.” Doctrine took leave of experience. A rationalist pursuit of mathematical certainty—based on reason without revelation—bred perfectionism. The protracted decimation of the population in large tracts of German territory—both Protestant and Catholic—ended at Westphalia with the construction of a thoroughly secular international system by the great powers of the day. “After 1648, the new diplomatic and political order relieved rulers of the European Powers of outside moral criticism. Modern Europe has no central focus of moral and spiritual authority.”
Perhaps this new order made the world safer for religious toleration, commerce, overseas missions, empire, and eventually democracy. But more to the point, it reinforced the Age of Reason spirit of abstraction, classification, and regulation—“a conquest by method”—which distinguished the subsequent mercantilist war-by-other-means. As Toulmin put it: “Soon enough, the flight from the particular, concrete, transitory, and practical aspects of human experience became a feature of cultural life in general, and above all of philosophy. . . . In politics, too, an impatience with the particularity and concreteness of ethnography and history encouraged the new style of ‘political theory’ of which Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan is paradigmatic.”
Administrative centralization in France required the services of an educated, urban middle class. A secular clerisy of abstract thinkers supplanted the humble clerics and monks who had once civilized warlords while fashioning a Christian civilization from the ruins of classical antiquity. The Third Estate’s political self-consciousness was stirred while chafing under the disdain of the privileged classes. A cadre of intellectual leaders was required to replace the Old Regime, as Rosenstock-Huessy observed. “Hence the desire of the French to become intellectual, their devotion to all the idealistic superstructure of society. . . . This new order of things was anticipated on the stage. The theatre became the hothouse for the ideas of 1789.” The poet was the progenitor of a new society and a new sensibility which soon turned the world upside down.
After years of delay, Beaumarchais, a playwright and banker who had helped finance the American War for Independence, overcame the King’s interdict to produce The Marriage of Figaro, a biting sequel to his satirical comedy, The Barber of Seville. It captured the public’s imagination as Louis XVI had feared and, as “the audience burst out in a frenzy of applause.” helped generate the critical mass to launch a revolution.