You Say You Want A Revolution.

There are two things I remember about the French Revolution. Well, more than two things, actually; even though I wasn’t there I’ve studied history quite a bit and the French Revolution is one of those big events that comes up regularly. Anyway there are two things I remember that my high school World History textbook said about the French Revolution, statements that apply well beyond France. The first is that revolutions tend not to happen when things are at their absolute worst but rather when they’ve started to improve. I suppose this is human nature. When people are at rock bottom they tend to creep along sideways; it’s only when they get lifted up a little that they start to look up and get impatient for what they only now see they’ve been missing. The second statement I remember was that revolutions tend to become the very thing they set out to overthrow. This was certainly true of the French Revolution which not only paved the way for Napoleon’s rampage across Europe but even before that had the Reign of Terror. Here I need to hand the reigns over to Mark Twain and his more eloquent comments on the same idea:

There were two “Reigns of Terror,” if we would but remember it and consider it; the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death upon ten thousand persons, the other upon a hundred millions; but our shudders are all for the “horrors” of the minor Terror, the momentary Terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the axe, compared with lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty, and heart-break? What is swift death by lightning compared with death by slow fire at the stake? A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by that brief Terror which we have all been so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over; but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by that older and real Terror—that unspeakably bitter and awful Terror which none of us has been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves.

Again I think this is human nature. The intent of every revolution is to overturn the status quo, but the only way to do that is to replace it with another status quo, or “Windows echo your reflection when I look in their direction now,” as was said by Status Quo, but that’s another story. People tend to fall back on the patterns they’re comfortable with, even if those are the wrong patterns.

It’s the tragedy of history that revolutions don’t learn from their mistakes or even the mistakes of previous revolutions, but then maybe that’s human nature too. Maybe it’s why, as Yevgeny Zamyatin said in his book WE, “Then how can there be a final revolution? There is no final one; revolutions are infinite.”

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  1. Gilly Maddison

    It is my belief that the slow and steady pace of evolution has always done far better than any revolution I have heard of.

    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Evolution does seem to produce more lasting results than revolution, but I think it’s a comment on human nature that often the only way for things to change is with dramatic action. Then again that seems to be the way with evolution too, at least if the punctuated equilibrium model is correct.

  2. Ann Koplow

    Thanks for an infinitely thought-provoking and revolutionary post, Chris.

    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Thank you for joining the revolution. Without people there can be no revolution since, as Woody Allen said, “In perpetrating a revolution, there are two requirements: someone or something to revolt against and someone to actually show up and do the revolting. Dress is usually casual and both parties may be flexible about time and place, but if either faction fails to attend, the whole enterprise is likely to come off badly.”


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