Monday, 2 March 2009

Quote of the day: La revolution est morte

Vive la revolution! La revolution est morte.

Not quite the same way round as The King is dead: Long live the King! But Chesterton suggests that we no longer have grounds on which to revolutionise anything. This certainly would explain the apathy on university campuses - only those with a systematic conviction or a lifestyle grudge ever do anything (which is why I'm sadly not a rash of secularist societies, despite Dawkins' encouragement). Anticipating current student culture by a full century, read GKC's argument:
The French Revolution was really an heroic and decisive thing, because the Jacobins willed something definite and limited. They desired the freedoms of democracy, but also all the vetoes of democracy. They wished to have votes and not to have titles. Republicanism had an ascetic side in Franklin or Robespierre as well as an expansive side in Danton or Wilkes. Therefore they have created something with a solid substance and shape, the square social equality and peasant wealth of France.

But since then the revolutionary or speculative mind of Europe has been weakened by shrinking from any proposal because of the limits of that proposal. Liberalism has been degraded into liberality. Men have tried to turn "revolutionise" from a transitive to an intransitive verb. The Jacobin could tell you not only the system he would rebel against, but (what was more important) the system he would not rebel against, the system he would trust. But the new rebel is a Sceptic, and will not entirely trust anything. He has no loyalty; therefore he can never be really a revolutionist. And the fact that he doubts everything really gets in his way when he wants to denounce anything. For all denunciation implies a moral doctrine of some kind; and the modern revolutionist doubts not only the institution he denounces, but the doctrine by which he denounces it. Thus
  • he writes one book complaining that imperial oppression insults the purity of women, and then he writes another book (about the sex problem) in which he insults it himself.
  • He curses the Sultan because Christian girls lose their virginity, and then curses Mrs. Grundy because they keep it.
  • As a politician, he will cry out that war is a waste of life, and then, as a philosopher, that all life is waste of time.
  • A Russian pessimist will denounce a policeman for killing a peasant, and then prove by the highest philosophical principles that the peasant ought to have killed himself.
  • A man denounces marriage as a lie, and then denounces aristocratic profligates for treating it as a lie.
  • He calls a flag a bauble, and then blames the oppressors of Poland or Ireland because they take away that bauble.
  • The man of this school goes first to a political meeting, where he complains that savages are treated as if they were beasts; then he takes his hat and umbrella and goes on to a scientific meeting, where he proves that they practically are beasts.
In short, the modern revolutionist, being an infinite sceptic, is always engaged in undermining his own mines.In his book on politics he attacks men for trampling on morality; in his book on ethics he attacks morality for trampling on men.

Therefore the modern man in revolt has become practically useless for all purposes of revolt. By rebelling against everything he has lost his right to rebel against anything.
- G K Chesterton, The Suicide of Thought in Orthodoxy [my formatting].

2 comments:

PG said...

fantastic - I'll add that to my "to read" pile!

Mary Jones said...

:) Chesterton phrases thoughts excellently.
Thanks.