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The Fall of the Bastille

More than 220 years after the Bastille went down, we are still trying to figure out what happened and what it meant.  For most people around the world the French Revolution remains the revolution par excellence; the English speaking world talks about 1688 and 1776, but most of the world entered modernity through traumatic meltdowns like the French.

Anyway, for your holiday reflections, five takes on the French Revolution:  Charles Dickens, Maximilien Robespierre, Albert Camus, the Marquis de Lafayette and your Via Meadia host.

Charles Dickens:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Maximilien Robespierre:

If virtue be the spring of a popular government in times of peace, the spring of that government during a revolution is virtue combined with terror.

The two opposing spirits that have been represented in a struggle to rule nature might be said to be fighting in this great period of human history to fix irrevocably the world’s destinies, and France is the scene of this fearful combat. Without, all the tyrants encircle you; within, all tyranny’s friends conspire; they will conspire until hope is wrested from crime.

What is the end of our revolution? The tranquil enjoyment of liberty and equality; the reign of that eternal justice, the laws of which are graven, not on marble or stone, but in the hearts of men, even in the heart of the slave who has forgotten them, and in that of the tyrant who disowns them.

We wish, in a word, to fulfill the intentions of nature and the destiny of man, realize the promises of philosophy, and acquit providence of a long reign of crime and tyranny.

Albert Camus:

The French Revolution gave birth to no artists but only to a great journalist, Desmoulins, and to an under-the-counter writer, Sade. The only poet of the times was the guillotine.

Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de LaFayette:

When the government violates the people’s rights, insurrection is, for the people and for each portion of the people, the most sacred of the rights and the most indispensable of duties.

WRM summary:  Revolution: you can’t live with it and you can’t live without it.

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