There’s an oldish “joke”, typically attributed to Mao Tse Tung (of all people), who, when asked about the significance of the French Revolution, responded, “It’s too early to tell.” Just so.
But, speaking of the which, it’s a bit hard today – for me anyway – not to be reminded of Dicken’s “Tale of Two Cities“. Set in the times surrounding the French Revolution, this well-known novel presents a vivid depiction of the moral (and associated political) upheaval that was occurring in the days of the “Age of Enlightenment” (or, in Thomas Paine’s version, “The Age of Reason“).
Of course, this is a period in history that offers among the richest opportunities for studying mankind’s continuing dialogue on the issues of human rights, of morality, of governance, and of religion. So, it is worth considering, especially today.
It was, truly, an explosive time, both in thought and action. It produced so many “great thinkers” that’s it’s virtually impossible to list them all. Notable examples might, however, include the likes of Burke, Smith, Hobbes, Locke, Franklin, Madison, Paine, Voltaire, and Rousseau.
So wide a field of academic interest and study is this period in our collective history that one can hardly do justice to it in a single book, let alone a simple article. A serviceable start, however, is to begin just as Dickens’ did, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. And that, perhaps, says it as well as any might.
Such reservations, in some great measure, may well reflect the manner in which the various philosophers of the day (and, ultimately, the various nations and people of the western world) processed one singularly important and central theme of the “great enlightenment debate”: From where do rights originate?
As it turns out, the answer to that question generally had quite a lot to do with the success or failure of the subsequent struggle for liberty. And, while many of those philosophers might have agreed on the existence of so-called “natural rights”, many were quite timid about attributing those rights to even a conceptually generic “Nature’s God”.
Talk about being on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, the struggle for liberty was being waged against the usurpation and/or abuse of God’s presumed authority over man, through either “the church” and/or the so-called “divine right of kings”. On the other hand, to deny God’s authority in the question at all would, necessarily, require the attribution of those “natural rights” to the intelligent and reasonable determination of mere mortals.
And, while (many of) our nation’s founders waged a reasonably successful campaign to preserve that generic “Nature’s God” in the equation, others strongly opposed those efforts, rather to ill effect in the French Revolution’s subsequent “Reign of Terror“. (Oddly enough, many continue to wonder just how a slavish devotion to intellectual reason – devoid of religious faith – could possibly produce such monstrous results, over and over again, continuing to suggest, of course, that it should be tried yet again, for surely, this time it will be different.)
Still others, perhaps, actually drove themselves insane in the process of trying to resolve the simplest of foundational propositions: To whom and/or to what purpose do we, individually, owe our allegiance? Alternatively, “what the heck are we really trying to accomplish here?” It seems, even an apparent willingness to earnestly seek “The Truth”, can have it’s pitfalls.
One such interesting example (that continues to fascinate me personally) is the strange, strange case of William Blake, a well-known English poet and painter of the Age of Enlightenment. Considered mad even by many at the time, Blake is often credited today for helping to found modern schools of thought and/or movements as wide-ranging as anarchism and “free love”.
This from a man who, it is said, on his deathbed (Ibid.) stated that “He was going to that Country he had all His life wished to see & expressed Himself Happy, hoping for Salvation through Jesus Christ.” Among the many, many idiosyncratic (and often heretical) views held by Blake was the notion that condemnation comes not from evil behavior or thought, necessarily, but, rather, a failure of imagination, which he might have defined as follows:
Men are admitted into Heaven not because they have governd their Passions or have No Passions but because they have Cultivated their Understandings. The Treasures of Heaven are not Negations of Passion but Realities of Intellect from which All the Passions Emanate in their Eternal Glory. (E564)
So, therein lies the rub. Even those that might recognize and earnestly seek to please “Nature’s God”, might well stray from a path that would contribute both to a civil society and, very possibly, their own sanity. The problem – in the here and now – begins in how we govern ourselves, not one another. Without the restraining influence of our morality, there is little hope that a civil society or, even, much of a useful life will be achieved.
Maybe, more to the point: “Bad men cannot make good citizens. It is when a people forget God that tyrants forge their chains.” – Patrick Henry
One might imagine that, given modern America’s desertion of God, Mao might well have said the same thing about our revolution. But, of course, if the New Jerusalem you are seeking to establish would glorify man, rather than God, don’t be surprised that all you’ve really built is yet another Babylon.