Fire in the Minds Of Men

book cover James H Billington Fire in the Minds of Men Origins of the Revolutionary Faith

I just finished reading James H. Billington’s Fire in the Minds of Men: Origins of the Revolutionary Faith. It took me a while to get through as it is quite dense, and I took a break halfway through to re-read Neil Gaiman’s and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens after watching the Amazon miniseries as a little palette cleanser. But there is so much food for thought in Billington’s book.

As someone who drastically wants to change the structure of our society, and as someone who is so far from actually laying down her life for any kind of group cause (and is, in fact, exceedingly wary of group think), I find myself fascinated by the history of the revolutions leading into and during the Industrial Revolution in Europe. What drives people to an act of terrorism and violence, what it takes to direct others to violent acts.

It is also interesting to read Billington’s dualisms of intellectual/worker and nationalist/socialist. I had an interesting discussion with my husband about the split in the revolutionary spirit of those wanting social change and those rallying behind a national flag, and how difficult the two sides had in communicating with each other, and how that parallels a lot where we are in America today. We have those that fervently believe in the nation as symbolized by the flag and the idea of freedom and democracy being more important than actual freedom, and we have those that believe in social justice and equality even if it means dictating to others (as in a form of control and tyranny) to get there, and it’s these two extremes yelling the loudest and playing off one another.

As a musician and artist, it was especially fascinating to consider the role opera and music played in revolution. Billington discusses this and the role journalism played in both inciting and then pacifying/distracting the public.

I do disagree with Billington on his dismissal of the faith of the revolutionary that a secular order being able to overthrow traditional order. I just don’t think we as a species are necessarily capable of handling that level of responsibility yet. But that doesn’t mean that it is implausible or impossible.

If you consider yourself a revolutionary soul, I recommend reading this book, even if you aren’t used to reading histories. It’s well worth the effort for the amount of thinking it will make you do.