Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB

speedily realised as a principle of action in 1791, had free course until, on the 5th of October, 1795, Napoleon opposed to it those iron floodgates whereby it was, more or less effectually, held in check for five-and-thirty years.

This is the movement which, running subterraneously, but, in Royer Collard's picturesque phrase, “ with full stream,” swept away in 1830 the throne of Charles X. This is the movement which in 1848 subverted the monarchy of July, and which, thwarted for eighteen years by the Second Empire, and for five years more by the Marshalate, has since borne France victoriously before it. It is this movement-French, indeed, in its origin, but æcumenical in its influencewhich has shaken to the foundation the political order throughout continental Europe, and which aspires everywhere to re-make human society in its own image and likeness. The French Revolution of 1789 opens a new chapter in the world's history. How are we to judge of it by the experience of the century with which that chapter begins ?

It is a question of great pith and moment. To read aright the signs of the times is the problem which confronts each successive generation ; the ever-renewed Sphinx's riddle, not to guess which is to die. To know the phenomena of history profiteth little.

Rassemblons les faits pour avoir des idées,” says Buffon. The dictum applies as much to the social as to the physical order. Facts!

But ideas, rights-abstractions if

1.]

FACTS AND IDEAS.

3

you will—are facts too; and most potent facts; nay, strictly, the only real facts; the substance of those shadows which flit across the world's stage. If we would obtain that political instruction which Thucydides accounted the true end of historical research, we must discern ideas in their roots and relations and results. So only can we “from the apparent what infer the why.” It must, indeed, be admitted that we do not know, that we can but dimly conjecture, the secret reasons, the obscure instincts, the confused motives, whereby particular acts of any man were determined.

What man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of a man that is in him? And even a man's own knowledge of his own mental evolution is usually vague and imperfect. The Unconscious here counts for a great deal. Still, by attentive study of a man's deeds and words, we may infer, not unsoundly, concerning his affections, his affinities, his aspirations. Of a nation of men this is also true; nay, far truer, because the manifestations of national character are much more conspicuous and more instinctive—that is less reasoned—than are the manifestations of individual character. It is pre-eminently true of the French Revolution. For this was avowedly, in the words of Burke, “a revolution of doctrine and theoretic dogma, bearing a great resemblance to those changes which have been wrought on purely religious grounds, in which a spirit of proselytism bears an essential part. Human

وو

society reposes upon ideas. Aristotle pointed out, two thousand years ago, that it is not in man's choice whether he will philosophise or not; philosophise he must. He thinks; he believes; and therefore he acts. Without some faith—even if it be only in “ the inalienable nature of purchased beef”-he could not act at all. What then is the idea, the faith, the dogma, underlying the Revolution ?

Before answering that question, let us look a little at the public order which the Revolution found and destroyed. Corrupt and outworn as it was, it rested upon

certain definite principles. It had lived upon them for fourteen hundred

and owed to them such vitality as it still possessed. And at the very root of them lay this conviction : that man, naturally of imperfect inclinations to good and of strong propensities to evil, is encompassed by duties, divinely prescribed, and resting upon the most august and momentous sanctions. Take that venerable document which so well sums up the fundamental religious and ethical conceptions, unquestioningly received throughout Christendom, while Christendom was, the Catechism or Instruction prescribed by the Established Church of this country “to be learned of every person before he be brought to be confirmed by the Bishop.” Duty is the keynote of it. It is nothing

years,

وو

Y

But prayher hos some it hardenah riqueirlanders prescribed which were senctio ad by the

tereta b.canecorespod, sortisoo. ??

nood a winnad. of

[ocr errors]

monerete

1.) TIIE OLD CONCEPTION OF CIVIL SOCIETY.

5

but an exposition of what the neophyte is bound
to believe and to do." It takes the child in the
place in which it finds him; a Christian, and so
under religious obligations; a human being, and so
under obligations to his fellows of the race of man;
a member of a family, and so under obligations to
its head; a member of a body politic, and so under
obligations to those set in public authority; a
member of a social order, and so bound by the
obligations attaching to his place in the same.
Here is the fundamental doctrine of the old world
order which the Revolution found in its decadence
and decrepitude :/the doctrine of duty pervading
the whole of man's existence, dominating every
human being, from the king to the peasant. Of
course ethical ideas existed in Europe long before
Christianity subdued it. But Christianity wrought
a momentous change in them. Pagan antiquity
conceived of the citizen as appertaining wholly
to the State. But " the State itself had been
founded upon a religion and constituted as
church; the religion which had brought forth the
State and the State which maintained (entre-
tenait) the religion, mutually upheld one another,
and constituted but one homogeneous whole; and
these two powers, thus united, blended, formed
one almost superhuman power, to which body and
soul were alike subject." Hence the law of

a

[ocr errors]

* La Cité Antique, par Fustel de Coulanges, 1. iii. c. 17. I shall have to glance again at this subject in the next chapter.

[ocr errors][ocr errors][merged small]

society was the law of the individual, whence sprang his duties in every relation of life, and whence

sprang his rights also. For the only rights of which antiquity knew, were the rights of the citizen: of any abstract rights of humanity it knew nothing. Christianity changed all that by proclaiming another and a higher source of duty in the Divine Nature and the filial relation of man to it. This we may confidently affirm to be the primary, the essential dogma whereon it rests; and M. Renan is well warranted when he declares l'idée de Jésus .. fut l'idée la plus révolutionnaire qui soit jamais éclose dans un cerveau humain.* It was this idea which wrought slowly and imperfectly-for imperfection is the universal law of life —the greatest social revolution the world has ever seen ; which freed the consciences of men from the yoke of Cæsarism, which raised woman from her degradation, as the sport of man's caprice, to moral and spiritual equality with him; which struck the fetters from the slave; which made of the rich the stewards of the poor. For it was by speaking to the sovereign, to the man, to the master, to the rich, of the duties attaching to them as spiritual and responsible beings, that all this was accomplished. The public order which gradually arose throughout Europe, on the ruins of the Roman Empire, was a vast hierarchy of duties. Doubtless, in countless instances, they were grudgingly performed, or bru

* Vie de Jésus, p. 125.

« ZurückWeiter »