Lessons from the French Revolution – A Matter of Principles

I recently finished a biography of Madame Roland, a woman who played a key part in the 18th century French Revolution. I was familiar with late 18th century French politics but it was never an area that I studied deeply before, mostly looking at the time from the Royals and from the Americans’ point of view, as well as the Jacobin side. Madame Roland was a part of the Girondists, a more moderate faction of the revolutionaries than the Jacobins. Her life is fascinating, and I’m planning on reading her memoirs that she penned while in prison in the future.

Reading about Madame Roland and the revolution reminded me of the horrors of the mob, and also how the mob can be roused and utilized by individuals or small groups of people against others. And it also got me thinking again about liberty and the rights of individuals and morals and principles both in general and personally.

The brutality of a portion of the poorest people whipped into a frenzy in France was horrifying. The streets literally did run red in blood. So me being me, I immediately tried to put myself into that situation. Do you ever do this? Ask yourself – what would it take for me to be so angry, to dehumanize or blame someone so much, that I would relish in witnessing their public murder and be gleeful at the blood? Or what would it take to be swept up in the tide of a mob and how far would you let that tide take you, if there were rioting? We mostly want to think of ourselves as too civilized, too intelligent, too above the common herd to fall sway, but what if we were chronically on the brink of starvation and freezing to death?

And the flip side – have you ever asked yourself if you have a cause or a principle that you would be willing to die for? Or to try to manipulate people to achieve the goals of that cause? The Girondists really believed in the Grecian ideals of liberty and freedom for France, but the general population at that point mistook licentiousness for liberty, something many still do today. And that’s a point I think everyone really needs to reflect on. I do firmly believe in liberty and self-governance, but I also know that not everyone is ready for self-governance, so the best thing we can be doing is to help others become more aware of their power and responsibility over themselves as individuals because without that, society is pretty much doomed to keep repeating the mistakes of the past.

While I’ve been having all this swirling in the background of my mind that past week, a quote of Alfred Adler’s came up on a podcast I was listening to – “It is always easier to fight for one’s principles than it is to live up to them”. And that just kind of turned everything around and made me consider things even more. It is an interesting and instructive exercise to reach into the dustiest, darkest corners of your inner self, even when it is uncomfortable.

Anyway, I hope we never have to repeat something like the French Revolution, and that the revolution, when it does come, can be a more enlightened and less messy one.

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