I am launching a series of commentaries today that discuss topics around the French Revolution. Of all the revolutions that I have read about, the French Revolution seems to be the most sophisticated of all, heavily supported by a framework of progressive philosophy. That philosophy has its roots in the Age of Enlightenment.
The exact period of the Age of Enlightenment is hard to pinpoint but it appears to be, more or less, from 1650 to 1850. There were a lot of revolutions during that time period. In a nutshell, the philosophy is an attempt to remove the social order of things of that age: top/down management, king, then nobility, then common people.
Throughout history, until recently, top/down management was the assumed system of the day. It did not matter where you lived in 1492, people believed in having a king. Ancient Athens and Rome are exceptions in the broad view of history. Most societies believed the king was also a priest, and even a God. Christian Europe changed that formula to king and priest.
The Age of Enlightenment is an attempt to show that Democracy is the most stable form of government, and the most equitable. The French Revolution is probably a better example of the gamble for Democracy than even our own American Revolution. So much of the philosophy for this seems to originate from France, and the French really had so many giant thinkers helping to spur the Revolution along. I do not think that the world really sees thinkers like Jefferson and Paine as being towering philosophers. Those thinkers are really more located in Europe.
As I mentioned, throughout history, people for the most part have believed in the priest-king-god form of government: Romans, Aztecs, Incas, many more. Although ancient Athens is the first known Democracy, two of our greatest philosophers come from Athens and they were stoutly against Democracy: Socrates and Aristotle. People today think that Athens was a secular place – it was not. Disrespecting the Gods was a capital offense. Socrates was executed on a false charge such as this.
As Christianity spread throughout Europe, the king was seen now as priest-king. Jesus is seen as God. Now, government and religion were tightly intertwined – the lines of division were blurred. However, it was all still based on ancient beliefs starting with Homer, Plato, Aristotle, St, Augustine, and St. Aquinas whose writings more and more supported the priest-king narrative of things.
Then comes the Age of Enlightenment, and the tables are turned. The foundation holding up that entire philosophy is (many of these terms were stated originally in Latin, so I am trying to translate) “clean slate”. In other words, the natural order of things as we have seen them around us since the beginning of time, is an illusion. We are trapped in a mental prison of the priest-king paradigm. The Enlightenment wants to wipe the surface clean and start with a “clean slate”. In essence, if we start with a clean slate then we can rebuild with Democracy – for all practical purposes that is imposing our mind on nature and making our own ideas a reality.
I am writing this because the recent political turmoil in Washington DC gives the impression that we are entering “dangerous waters”. I look at history as I saw my grandfather: a good old man imparting his years of wisdom to me. In this series of commentaries, I will research and explain the pillars holding up the institution of Democracy, with the French Revolution as a backdrop. But, just remember this, the French Revolution started with a financial collapse in France, 1788. Think about that as our debt soars to nearly $30 trillion.