I should have seen this plaque before – after all, I’ve been visiting Bourges Cathedral at least once a year for decades.
Yet it was only the other day that I peeked into one of the chapels – and there it was, the plaque commemorating three senior clergymen martyred in 1794, during the Terror. They were beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1995, together with 97 other victims of revolutionary afflatus, all but one priests.
The plaque got me thinking about the four most pivotal revolutions in Europe: in England (began in 1642), America (1776), France (1789) and Russia (1917).
Different years, different countries, different revolutions really – but they all had something in common. Each one was at least partly inspired by hatred of apostolic religion, or, in the case of the latter two, of religious faith in general.
The English revolutionaries led by Cromwell were Calvinist sectarians. Their American and French counterparts were mostly deists, if not atheists. The Russians were atheists to a man.
That Cromwell’s men foamed at the mouth at the very mention of Roman Catholicism is par for the course. But one would think they’d have reasonable respect for Anglo-Catholicism, the dominant confession in England at the time. One would think wrong though – their Puritan hearts hated both apostolic confessions with almost equal fervour.
Most of the American Founding Fathers were deists at best, but they were concerned about America’s history, begun as it was by English Protestant dissenters. Hence they couldn’t express animus towards faith.
However, apostolic confessions, not just Catholicism but also Anglicanism, were fair game. The Founders detested them, which feelings were expressed in the First Amendment to the US Constitution adopted in 1791.
It coyly eschewed the phrase ‘separation of church and state’. Instead the First Amendment stated only that: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
But in his comments both before and after the ratification Jefferson was unequivocal: this amendment, he gloated, built “a wall of separation between Church and State”.
Implicitly, this was a dig at England, which Jefferson and most of his colleagues cordially loathed. They wanted to transplant onto the American soil the trees of the English Common Law, while severing their roots nourished by England’s Trinitarian faith.
Jefferson’s views on religion were greatly informed by Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration, preaching equanimity towards all creeds, except naturally Trinitarian Christianity.
Yet American revolutionaries didn’t cull priests en masse – they merely removed them from any influence on public affairs. Their French and Russian counterparts went the Americans one better.
The French exiled 30,000 priests and murdered hundreds more, including the three martyrs commemorated at Bourges. The Russians upped the ante: over 40,000 priests were murdered in all sorts of Satanic ways on Lenin’s watch (d. 1924), in the first few years of the Bolshevik regime, and before Stalin took over.
Any attempt to understand the reasons for such hatred, shared by revolutions that are otherwise so different, will lead us to a more general understanding of revolutions as such.
A revolution is distinct from a coup d’état in that it doesn’t just want to change a government. It seeks to change man. And man is an amalgam of the physical and metaphysical, of body and soul.
Any revolution worthy of the name is out to claim dominion over both, the physical landscape of governance, economics, social pecking order and what have you, but also the innermost essence of man, his whole outlook on life.
This too must undergo changes, some, as in England and America; considerable, as in France; total, as in Russia. And this is where any revolution finds itself in direct competition with the Church – this even if clergymen have no appreciable involvement in government.
And revolutionaries are less benevolent towards their competitors than, say, businessmen. The latter may be cutting a few economic throats during work hours, but afterward they’ll happily meet the possessors of those throats for a friendly drink. Revolutionaries are different. They are in the throes of an all-consuming passion, and they hate those who stand in the way.
To be fair, the four revolutions I mentioned didn’t reserve all their hatred for apostolic confessions. They had quite a bit left over for monarchs and aristocrats.
All four were dedicated to the elevation of the common man, who supposedly suffered great oppression at the hands of titled reprobates. That aspiration was but a fragment in their general commitment to changing human nature.
For, left to its own vices and devices, human nature will always arrange society along hierarchical lines. Those occupying the lower tiers of a social structure may have better or worse lives, but, in either case, their condition will never destroy the vertical structure, though it may replace one with another.
Christianity, with its founder stating that his kingdom is not of this world, encourages humility and discourages envy. For revolutionaries, on the other hand, humility doesn’t even come into consideration, while envy is their meat and drink.
That deadly sin is encouraged by revolutionaries because it paves their way to power. Since they act in the name of the common man, they have to whip up resentment against those seen as social superiors – that’s basic.
But there is a deeper reason for that stratagem. All four revolutions had to resort to violent tactics and fraudulent slogans to rally the masses. Yet the firebrands were also envious – of those whose claim to legitimacy was transcendent, and therefore organic, in origin.
All monarchies have such a claim. It may or may not be worded as divine right, but in any case it’s a reflection of the Christian understanding of power: it always comes from God.
That may be debatable, but Joseph de Maistre (d. 1821) settled the debate. He argued that traditional institutions, such as monarchy and aristocracy, go so far back that they disappear in the haze of time – we can’t trace them back to their historical origin. Therefore we might as well assume they come from God.
That’s what revolutions lack, this timeless quality. Hence they have to kill, or at least cheat, their way to power. Even the American Revolution is no different.
The colonists were invited to the Boston Tea Party, a violent protest against the duties on tea imposed by the English. Yet even with those duties, tea in America cost half of what it cost in the metropolis.
And the American slogan of no taxation without representation, borrowed, along with much other revolutionary effluvia, from Locke, was mendacious on several levels.
Philosophically, it wrongly claimed representation as the essential legitimising factor of taxation – yet most Englishmen weren’t represented either. That didn’t prevent them from paying taxes, which were higher than in America.
Moreover, implicit in that slogan was a promise of lower taxes, which didn’t quite work out. Immediately after the revolution the taxes skyrocketed – for the colonists to find out they hated them even with representation.
This explains why revolutionaries always look at the traditional, organic regimes they oust with outward hatred but secret envy. Those regimes didn’t have to base their legitimacy on phrasemaking.
It’s just a small stone plaque attached to the wall of a 13th century cathedral. Yet one look at it triggers all sorts of thoughts about, well, everything. One such thought is about revolutions, which hardly ever bring out the best in human nature.