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The Impulse from Philosophy

"We should not therefore contradict the assertion," Hegel once wrote, "that the [French] Revolution received its first impulse from philosophy."[6] By philosophy in this context it is clear that Hegel is referring to that movement in modern thought that goes under the name of Enlightenment. Although modern scholars have debated whether the Enlightenment is to be understood as a one or a many, a period of skepticism or of dogmatism, the birth of secular humanism or the last gasp of an age of faith, it seems to me central to understand its aspiration as revolutionary in its essence. The Enlightenment set itself the ambitious task of liberating thought from the "kingdom of darkness" in order to make men into the masters and possessors of the world.

From its inception the Enlightenment thought of itself as initiating a total break with the past. This, at first sight, appears paradoxical since the concept of Revolution originally implied a return to first principles as indicated by the syllable re- in the Latin word revolutio .[7] For the Greeks and Romans, revolution was understood as part of a cyclical pattern of history in which birth, growth, decay, and regeneration were conceived along naturalistic lines. The Greek term metabolé was used to indicate either change or corruption, the inevitable fate that awaited all things.[8] In human affairs, just as in the cosmos, a few invariant forms followed the same irresistible force as the stars follow their paths in the heavens. This pattern constituted a revolution in the original lexical sense of circulation. Thus Plato's cycle of regime transformation in books 8 and 9 of the Republic was followed closely by Aristotle's theory of constitutional change in the Politics .[9] For Aristotle, who gave the classical conception of political change its canonical expression, there can be no such thing as a new beginning, for "practically everything has been discovered on many occasions—or rather an infinity of occasions—in the course of time." [10] The same cyclical pattern was taken up in the Histories of Polybius who uses the concept anakuklosis politeion to indicate the sempiternal recurrences into which human affairs are driven as if by nature. The cycle was a physis , a natural process, through which regimes were bound to pass unless by a stroke of good fortune they were able to escape this fate.[11]

The original meaning of the term revolution , then, implied a return to some previously occupied position and not an overturning of all that has gone before. At the outset of modernity Machiavelli could still speak of revolution as a ridurre ai principii , that is, the periodic revitalization of civic life that can only come through a return to its original principles.[12] In the same vein Hobbes could write of the events in England between 1649 and 1660 that "I have seen in this Revolution a circular motion of Sovereign Power."[13] And Locke in the famous nineteenth chapter of the protorevolutionary Second Treatise of Government could describe the "dissolution of government" as a return of the legislative power to its original hands. For Locke, as for Burke later,


revolution properly signified a restoration of the original constitution, a retrieving of ancient liberties, so that he could call King William the "Great Restorer" and describe the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688 as glorious precisely because it lacked what in the modern sense we call revolutionary. Revolution meant for these thinkers the very opposite of the idea of "irreversible change" or "total change" with which the term later came to be associated.[14]

The concept of revolution made its way into modern European vocabularies through the language of literary criticism to describe the changes in fortune of a character from one state to another.[15] Its later use signified a process of development or acceleration toward new and therefore unpredictable states of affairs. Revolution in this sense implied a capacity for novelty and an openness to change that were often seen as the root of the modern Enlightenment. In the decades before and after 1789 the term was expanded by thinkers to apply to areas as diverse as law, morality, religion, economics, and politics. The author of the article on "Revolution" in the Encyclopédie could define the term rather blandly as "a considerable change in the government of a state."[16] But by 1772 Louis Sebastian Mercier could observe that "Tout est révolution dans ce monde,"[17] and Robespierre at the height of the French Revolution could announce: "Tout a changé dans l'ordre physique; et tout doit changer dans l'ordre moral et politique."[18] From then onward the term acquired overtones of an almost irresistible movement that would inaugurate a new era of human happiness in which autocracy would be exploded, superstition banished, and republican government established as the only political system rational in theory and tolerable in practice.[19]

Here, as in so many matters, German philosophy accurately depicted the mood of the times even while it failed to participate in the leading events.[20] Kant has rightly been called "the philosopher of the French Revolution" not only for his uncompromising insistence on the freedom and dignity of man but for his rejection of all authority that does not stem from man's own critical rationality.[21] According to Heinrich Heine, Kant was "the arch destroyer in the realm of ideas [who] far surpassed Robespierre in terrorism." In both Robespierre and Kant one finds "the same stubborn, keen, unpoetic, sober integrity . . . the same talent for suspicion." The only difference is that "the one directs his suspicion toward ideas and calls it criticism, while the other applies it to people and entitles it republican virtue." By denying legitimacy to everything that was merely customary or traditional, Kant, the deicide, completed the work only half-heartedly carried out by Robespierre, the regicide. Accordingly, the Critique of Pure Reason was "the sword with which deism was executed in Germany."[22]

Even allowing for some degree of poetic overstatement, Kant continually identified his philosophy with the Enlightenment and especially the events unfolding in France after 1789. In the Preface to the Critique of Pure Reason he


identified his age as one of Kritik to which everything must submit. Henceforth nothing—neither politics nor religion—was to remain exempt from "the test of free and open examination."[23] Although Kant's views on the French Revolution constitute a study in themselves, his clear preference was for a policy of republican government at home combined with a federation of republics to govern international affairs abroad. By a republic Kant meant a form of government that requires the maximum degree of participation in the shaping of public decisions. Thus Kant could maintain that if we think of the commonwealth as a concept of pure reason "it may be called a Platonic ideal (res publica noumenon ) which is not an empty figment of the imagination but the eternal norm for all civil constitutions"[24] or as he put it in the Rechtslehre , a republic is "the only enduring political constitution in which the law is autonomous and is not annexed by any particular person."[25]

The same attitude is evinced in Kant's last published work, "The Contest of Faculties" (1798), in which he claimed to find evidence of a moral tendency toward progress evinced in "an occurrence in our times":

The revolution which we have seen taking place in our own times in a nation of gifted people may succeed, or it may fail. It may be so filled with misery and atrocities that no right-thinking man would ever decide to make the same experiment again at such a price, even if he could hope to carry it out successfully at the second attempt. But I maintain that this revolution has aroused in the hearts and desires of all spectators who are not themselves caught up in it a sympathy which borders almost on enthusiasm, although the very utterance of this sympathy was fraught with danger. It cannot therefore have been caused by anything other than a moral disposition within the human race.[26]

This event, the French Revolution, proved to Kant that moral factors did play a part in history, however small. This moral tendency could be discovered in the enthusiasm provoked by the spectacle of revolution. That Kant could descry the execution of Louis XVI as a sin worse than murder but still congratulate the principle of revolution by which that action was carried out tells us something about its power. From Kant onward the concept of revolution acquired an almost transcendental significance that later thinkers would transmute into an idea of historical inevitability. Starting with Kant but proceeding in an unbroken line from Hegel to Marx, from Lenin and Trotsky to Mao Zedong, revolution became a kind of sacred duty undertaken by selfless men acting to fulfill the conditions of reason and freedom.

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