Monday, December 2, 2013

Thoughts on de Tocqueville's "The Old Regime and The French Revolution"

History, it is easily perceived, is a picture-gallery containing a host of copies and very few originals. ~ The Old Regime and the French Revolution by Alexis de Tocqueville, Chapter VI

I would say I’m a pretty eclectic reader in general.  While fiction—particularly 1800’s British Literature—is probably my favorite to read for pleasure, I also enjoy poetry, drama (to a lesser extent) and nonfiction.  Of the vast nonfiction subjects I read, history would probably be the top choice.  Yet while I've read a great deal on ancient history, I've come to notice there are quite a few “blind spots.”  One of these blind spots is the French Revolution period. 

It’s a bit ironic, actually, that I haven’t read much nonfiction on the era that is just around the time people started writing the fiction books I love.  Most of what I understand about Regency England, for example, is from Jane Austen’s works.  However, I’m slowly trying to fill in the gaps, knowing that the reality of the world where Austen and my other preferred authors lived will inform me more about the fictions they created.

That’s why I picked up Alexis de Tocqueville’s The Old Regime and the French Revolution.  Part history, part sociology, and part philosophy, I recommend this book not only because it is a more “contemporary”* take on the French Revolution, but because as I read it I kept seeing parallels to our own time and to my own country.  Chapter VI in particular seemed a lot more relevant today than I had expected.  Now, I could easily go into a political rant about what I think is wrong with the United States government, but I think I’ll let the following quotations from de Tocqueville do it for me…

A marked characteristic of the French government, even in those days, was the hatred it bore to every one, whether noble or not, who presumed to meddle with public affairs without its knowledge. It took fright at the organization of the least public body which ventured to exist without permission.  It could brook no association but such as it had arbitrarily formed, and over which it presided….  In a word, it objected to people looking after their own concerned, and referred general inertia to rivalry.  

Nobody expected to succeed in any enterprise unless the state helped him.  Farmers, who, as a class, are generally stubborn and indocile, were led to believe that the backwardness of agriculture was due to the lack of advice and aid from the government.  

Government having assumed the place of Providence, people naturally invoked its aid for their private wants.  Heaps of petitions were received from persons who wanted their petty private ends serves, always for the public good. 

Just to be clear, de Tocqueville is referring to the failings of the Revolutionary Government, after the people had ousted the tyrannical monarchy.  According to de Tocqueville, there are two motivations for revolution: a love of liberty or a hatred of despotism.  When revolts are motivated by hatred, then once one despot is overthrown then the revolutionaries have no better option with which to fill that void in authority, and predictably another despot takes the first one’s place.  When the love of liberty is the motivator, however, those who revolt against tyranny will try to replace it with something better in order to preserve their newly-earned liberty. 

Maybe my seeing a connection between Revolutionary France and modern America is a little exaggerated.  Possibly there are other countries who fit that comparison even better.  But to me, reading history books like this is an opportunity not only to learn about the past, but to open my eyes about the truth of the world around me, and to expand my perception of my world beyond what the media or current books are telling me to believe.

*I’m using this word in the historical sense, meaning de Tocqueville was writing about it closer to the time it actually occurred than OUR contemporary history books written two centuries later.

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