I’m embarrassed by how little I know about the French Revolution. I mean, I thought I knew more than I did. I suppose one can never really know enough about an event as epochal as the French Revolution, but still, I started thinking about it preparing for this trip to Paris, and I realized my knowledge of the events of the Revolution and their meaning is fairly shallow. On the advice of one of you readers, I bought historian William Doyle’s “A Very Short Introduction to the French Revolution,” and read it on the plane.
And now I am really chagrined by how little I know about the French Revolution! By that I mean that in his brief but penetrating analysis, Doyle quotes someone saying that the French Revolution was the most important event in world history since the founding of Christianity. I wouldn’t have thought that was true until reading the Doyle book. Now I suspect it really is true.
It occurred to me when I finished the book that very few of us today, even conservatives, can conceive of a world before the French Revolution. I have generally disliked the revolution, chiefly for its bloodthirstiness and hatred of Christianity, but I did not realize the depth and breadth of the attack on the ancien regime. Nor did I fully appreciate how despicable the ancien regime was. (To be clear, Doyle does not take sides). You can’t separate the good achievements of the revolution from its terrors, but neither can you absolve the ancien regime of its cruelties and injustices, which could not have gone on forever. Still, Doyle brings home the shock of what happened, how it rocked all Europe violently in the 19th century, and how we still feel the aftershocks from that event today.
Banal observations, I know — but I hesitate to go further, based on so little information. I want to know more. I suppose the deepest impression Doyle’s book left on me was about the thoroughness of the revolution in setting parameters for modern political thought and action. And it made me thankful indeed to be heir to the English political tradition. The American Revolution hardly seems like much of a revolution at all by comparison. Thank God.