By:Thomas Fleming | January 26, 2011
In the first book, AT confronts the mystery of the French Revolution, which no one seemed to understand at the time and which baffled the succeeding generation. In chapter two, he makes a twofold argument, that the FR aimed neither at destroying religious authority nor at weakening the central authority of the French state. He freely concedes that the philosophes and Jacobins hated the Catholic Church, but insists that this was not a central objective. It was the political and social aspects of Christianity that incurred their real hatred. The priests and bishops were the enemy not because they preached Christ's otherworldly kingdom but because they owned land and belonged to the ruling class. In the end the anti-religious campaign failed even as the Revolution succeeded.
Here, I think, AT is betrayed by his liberal side. He views the Church, remember, primarily as a social institution, and his travels in America had convinced him that religious freedom would actually produce an upsurge in religious practices. Let us agree, for the sake of argument, that there is something to this--though I for one do not at all believe it. It is of more than a little interest to Catholics and Calvinists, Jews and Muslims, which sort of religion it is that flourishes. He also fails to consider how the Jacobins, in making a trial effort at destroying the Church and replacing it with their own state cult, may have been premature but set an example that has been imitated ever since, and with far greater results. Anyone who thinks the USA today is a Christian nation--or even a nation of Christians--is not paying attention.
On the political question, he is certainly right. While there were anarchists and libertines who lent their talents and energies to the FR, the main thrust was always to build on the foundations of what the later Bourbons had accomplished: eliminate any rival authority (whether in the form of the nobles, the Church, the provinces) and strengthen the central state. Some of the argument goes back to Jean Bodin, who laid it down as a given that sovereignty was an undivided force. Thus the elimination of class distinctions could please both Bourbon kings and egalitarian ideologues.
In chapter three, AT distinguishes the FR from predecessor movements that aimed primarily at political change or shifts in power. The FR, by contrast, was more like a religious movement that aimed at transforming the whole of society. He is clearly right (though some of the extremists in the English Civil War could be viewed as predecessors), but he fails to connect this with his observations on the Church. If he had, he might have seen a bit more clearly that to fulfill their vision of a new society, starting out fresh from the beginning, the revolutionaries would have to destroy the Church, which (apart from any other claims) preserved ancient traditions.
After giving evidence that the French Revolution was a pandemic European virus and not a localized plague in France, AT returns to the basic question of Book I: What was the purpose of the FR? It was social and political revolution, he insists, and not the destruction of Christianity. I think one can agree with this proposition without accepting AT's earlier argument--contradicted elsewhere by his analysis--that hatred of Christianity was not a motive. He then concludes by arguing that the Revolution was, although radical, not especially innovative.
MORE TO COME