The French Revolution in Three Acts

The Rise of the Totalitarian State

Taken as a whole, the French Revolution, like any other historical event, may be understood in many ways.  Excluding material or circumstantial causes, I see it as a sort of drama, each act of which is performed by characters—sometimes the same, sometimes different—who all, driven by some idea, strive to achieve a certain goal that gives meaning to their actions.  I do not believe in the theory that men’s thoughts and actions determine their living conditions, for the very simple reason that no living condition is really unbearable to a man before he decides it is.  There lies the difference between man and animal.  Which is to say that the French Revolution and its course of events stem very simply from what men purported to do and persuaded others to do, even if, in the process, they fell victim to unforeseen consequences, including the logical outcome of their own ideas, to which they happened to be blind.  The French Revolution is a rare example of ideas being put to work, forcing their own followers to fall prey to their inner and progressively revealed logic.  Thus, the best historian of the French Revolution must also be a philosopher.

To put it in a nutshell, the French Revolution may be viewed as a lesson on the power of one of the most common of human vices: vanity, or the desire for social recognition—provided it is understood that lust for social standing is inversely...

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