Happy Bastille Day

Happy Bastille Day to all Frenchies out there. Anyone doing anything to celebrate?

Today two minutes of silence in many countries around Europe to commemorate the victims of the recent terror in London might put somewhat of a damper on things.

I always think about the French Revolution in comparison to the American Revolution. Sorry if that is politically incorrect or somehow culturally egocentric. The two revolutions do seem to provide an interesting case study in opposites.

Goethe and Schiller were both appalled at the terror and insanity of the French Revolution. The wholesale slaughter of people by virtue alone of the circumstances into which they were born was something that even the Storm-and-Stress genius Schiller couldn’t stomach, despite his frequent calls for freedom from tyranny and corruption in his earlier literature. Goethe disdained the French Revolution, not so much because of his aristocratic ties as because its method was truly repugnant to him. He firmly believed in the improvement and education of humanity through a harmonious evolutionary–and aesthetic–process, and not through a bloodlust-inspired reign of terror that replaces a tyranny of birth with a tyranny of ideology.

The murderous totalitarianism of the early years of the French Revolution fortunately do not live on in the latest French Republic. Life is very pleasant, and liberty reigns in many aspects of life in modern-day France. But some vestiges of the French Revolution’s paranoia remain, such as the misguided concept of laïcité, or the secular humanism that directs France’s policy toward religious freedom and the separation of Church and State, a policy that is openly hostile against rather than neutral toward religion and which disparately impacts religions other than Catholicism and mainstream Protestantism.

France, like Belgium, proclaims constitutional doctrines of religious freedom and state neutrality toward religion while at the same time maintaining official state-run lists of “dangerous cults” on which perfectly benign religions such as Latter-day Saints, Seventh-day Adventists, Hare Krishnas, and literally hundreds of others, find themselves. Religious freedom in France is similar to religious freedom in the Ukraine where that doctrine means you are free to belong to the Orthodox religion, otherwise you are guaranteed state persecution. In France, you are free to be atheist, Catholic, or perhaps Protestant, but if you belong to virtually any other religion, you will have to resign yourself to perpetual official religious persecution perpetrated by the state, any neutrality rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding.

So Happy Bastille Day, everyone.

5 Responses to Happy Bastille Day

  1. Anonymous says:

    This was a very strange “celebration” indeed. Whenever I think of the American Revolution, I am greatful for the French Navy and its decisive aid. Here  is one account.

    And despite some diplomatic backstabbing regarding UN Resolutions, let’s remember that France is doing as much to fight the war on terror as anyone, led by the indomitable Jean-Louis Brugiere

    Posted by Bill

  2. Anonymous says:

    This post has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Schiller referred to French Revolutionaries as “henchmen” or “oppressors” (“Schinderknechte ”). I can’t say that it is an unjustified or unduly aristocratic observation.

    In a letter to his friend Körner on February 8, 1793, Schiller wrote, “I really had already begun writing on behalf of the King, but it made me uneasy, and so that is where I have left it. But it’s been two weeks since I’ve been able to read a French newspaper–that’s how much these miserable henchmen disgust me.” [“Ich habe wirklich eine Schrift für den König schon angefangen gehabt, aber es wurde mir nicht wohl darüber, und da liegt sie mir nun noch da. Ich kann seit 14 Tagen keine französische Zeitung mehr lesen, so ekeln diese elenden Schinderknechte mich an.”]

    The French ships assisting the Americans in the American Revolution were not ships of the French Revolution. In other words, I am just as grateful as you are to those French ships, sent by France for its own self-serving reason of stabbing England in the side. In other words, the machinations of French foreign policy relating to England in the 1770s worked out well for us here in the United States. I also am not regretting the demise of the monarch in France; rather, I am looking at the French Revolution as the terror that it was (and that is how it was described even contemporaneously by intellectuals around Europe, even Kant who viewed the terror as a sort of necessary or at least unavoidable evil on the path of progress). That the royal family was toppled is fine with me; what is disturbing is that they were brutally guillotined in a blood frenzy whose only effect was to replace one tyranny with an arguably worse one for a period of years. That has all rectified itself now (and four Republics later).

    Bastille Day is what it is–a celebration of the act of storming the Bastille to start off the first proletariat revolution. There’s nothing amiss in looking at the immediate consequences of the revolution as well as how it was received by some contemporary thinkers for whom I have a lot of respect. One of those immediate consequences has perpetuated itself through the generations and became enshrined in modern French policy in 1905 in the doctrine of laïcité. Luckily, most of the other immediate consequences (such as slaughtering people because they were born to the wrong mothers) have been left by the wayside in the intervening time since 1789. 

    Posted by john fowles

  4. Anonymous says:

    John, ein bischen zu viel Sturm und Drang . A few quick thoughts.

    Yes the French revolution had some very bad days and it had many of them in a row for a very long time. However, as Americans I think we must be grateful for the philosophies of the French which were very influential in the idealistic founding of our own country. In addition, the example of the hyperbole of their revolution led Benjamin Franklin, as ambassador in France, to write home outlining the provisions and necessity of our future Bill of Rights.

    The French revolution was also as much a revolution against the church as against the king. The long term social fall out of this is still clear. On a more subtle note, medicine was radically redirected by the French revolution. Prior to the revolution there were a number of large hospitals, the largest in Paris. These were basically houses were paupers came to die. They were unable to pay for their medical care and were generally cared for by the church for minimal remuneration. As part of the revolution’s upheaval, the church lost control of these hospitals (if that is even the right word for them). There was a period of uncertainty, but physicians eventually won the right to direct the management and care of the pauper patients in these houses (that physicians should have this right was not at all self evident at that time). It was in these houses of the dying poor that physicians first began to work out pathophysiology: the correlation of physical signs and symptoms of disease with pathologic and anatomic changes. This occurred because the physicians dissected nearly everyone who died in the hospital. The paupers had no right to refuse the autopsy and the church no longer had the social clout to prohibit it. For the first time, large scale, accurate data collection began that could be used to understand the course and progress of disease, both in the clinic and in the patient – as viewed by autopsy. It is in these hospitals where the founding principles of physical examination are articulated and it is here that the principles of Galen’s humoral medicine finally begin to be questioned. From the time of the revolution until the late 19th century, when German laboratory medicine begins to supercede French clinical medicine as part of the larger Franco-Prussian Kulturkampf, France is the world’s leader in medical knowledge and medical science. And it is in no small part thanks to the revolutionary upheaval against the church.

    So, thanks to the French revolution, your freedom of speech on this blog is protected. You are also more likely to receive a good physical exam from your physician than a good blood letting.

    Viva la France

    John Welch


    Posted by John Welch

  5. Anonymous says:

    John, good to see you around here.

    That is a good lesson on looking at the bright side of things. Thanks! 

    Posted by john fowles

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